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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
February 10, 1998

Good Environmental Book

Guide for Children

Facts, Not Fear A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment, by Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw, Regnery Publishing, Washington DC, 1996, 300 pp.

Finally we have a serious study that in straightforward and uncomplicated language compares the findings of leading researchers in such areas as population, natural resources, rain forests, wildlife, ozone depletion, acid rain, greenhouse warming, with assertions found in textbooks used for teaching. The only conclusion can be that textbooks are seriously misinforming young people about environmental issues.

As an illustration, one gloomy textbook forecast warns that "You may face mineral shortages in your lifetime" on the basis of numbers that some people have come up with for things like oil, tin, copper, aluminum. These are deduced from the hopelessly simplistic model that no economist would entertain, yet which is employed in the media all the time, of dividing annual consumption into "proven resources." In this way, some authors produce a figure of 23 years as the time before aluminum runs out.

This shows no understanding of what "proven reserves" means--or else a deliberate use of the figure incorrectly in order to mislead. Essentially, it refers to a known, quantified reserve that an industry has identified for supply of an expected demand at estimated prices for a certain period of time ahead, given current demand and the costs of prospecting and finding new sources. A family that uses an average of six eggs a day might keep a couple of dozen in the refrigerator, but obviously it would be silly to conclude that they'll never eat another egg after four days from now. The "proven reserve" is what it makes sense to keep on hand to give a comfortable margin on need, plus accommodate the unexpected visitor. It doesn't take account of the supermarket's ability to replenish the refrigerator and the output of the farms that supply the supermarket.

Taking the estimate of total aluminum recoverable by present methods and at today's prices yields a figure of 68,000 years. And going deeper into the Earth's crust and guessing at methods likely to come into use in future times points to something like 38 billion. Some people would doubtless say "Yes, but then what do you do?" My own guess is that long before then we'll be transmuting elements of any kind we want out of whatever is cheap and abundant on an industrial scale and tapping off the energy as a byproduct--pretty much in the way that collapsing stars do. Maybe we'll find a way of harnessing collapsing stars for the purpose. We may have to find a way to initiate the collapsing . . . but that's just an engineering detail.

All kinds of possibilities exist. But whatever turns out to be practicable, there's no excuse for telling children that they may have to fly in wooden airplanes.

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