James Burke's Horror Story


(Wherein Burke Conducts a Post-Mortem on the Earth)

After the Warming

Excerpted from June 1997 issue
James Burke produced a series of one-hour TV shows about the history of science. Connections was, by and large, an excellent program, marred only by the last of the sequence, which was a pathetic diatribe against modern civilization, and especially against the economy that drives it.

Connections 2 was a set of half-hour programs somewhat along the lines of Connections, but with a shotgun approach. The half-hour format reminded me of a girl in high school who suddenly discovered that she had just typed several pages singly spaced, when they should have been doubly spaced. To remedy the situation, she grabbed her eraser and proceeded to erase every other line. Connections 2 was thus interesting only if you took the time and had the knowledge to fill in the holes.

The overall theme of both series was that science and technology advance in fits and starts, often relying on seemingly unrelated advances made elsewhere. There is simply no way that one can predict how a given advance might manifest itself decades or centuries into the future.

Having conveyed that message, Burke makes bleak predictions about our future. He brings us a blatant propaganda piece, After the Warming, where he decides to explain how mankind is ruining the earth through the greenhouse effect. This show on The Learning Channel is a sort of fantasy, wherein he plays James Burke doing a Connections program in the year 2050. It is an apocalyptic prophecy of the near future disguised as a retrospective look at humanity and the earth.

The story begins with a history of how man's activities have been controlled by the weather. About 50,000 years ago, in the middle of a deep ice age, the sea level was down 300 feet. Man simply walked from Asia to Alaska and to Australia.

By 300 years BC the climate in the Mideast was warm and moist. By 450 AD the temperature dropped; the magnificent, hidden village of Petra in the Mideast ran out of water. Five hundred years later, the temperature rose; in 986, 14 Viking ships took settlers to Greenland. By 1408, the earth had cooled so much that the remaining families ran out of food, because the grazing was so poor. [Burke, in his retrospective, comments at this point that in 2020 we stopped eating beef to prevent deforestation.]

By 1750 the temperature rose so much that England had lots of corn, and that freed many people to seek work in factories, for they were no longer needed on the farm.

There are many desert scenes in After the Warming, and we are repeatedly assured that global warming causes the earth to dry up. But hadn't Burke just given us many examples of past global warmings when the earth actually became moister? Hadn't Burke just told us several times then when the earth cooled off the land dried up? So how did the rules change?

Burke gives us a flash of a graph that didn't warrant his own attention. In nicely drawn colorful lines he shows the temperature and the CO2 concentration for the last 160,000 years. He waves at the graph and says “See how they go up and down together?” Had he taken the time to look at his own graph, he might have discovered that for most major events _ warming or cooling _ the warming or cooling took place before the CO2 concentration underwent its change.[1]

  1. The not-so-colorful graph in The Energy Advocate Feb. 1997), is suggestive of this sequence.
Burke provides a nice description of how oceanographers think the Gulf Stream works. As the stream moves up into the north Atlantic, evaporation removes a lot of water, thereby increasing the salinity of the water. This salty water is now more dense than average, so it sinks. Then it travels, deep in the ocean, back to the south, around Cape Horn. It wends its way east, then north along the Asian coast past Japan, up to Alaska. Somewhere in there it rises to the surface and travels south along the west coast of the US as the Humboldt current, and finally snakes its way around Cape Horn and back out into the Atlantic. (There's more to it than that: the densest water is cold, only a few degrees above freezing.)

After the last deep ice age, (about 10,720 years ago) an enormous lake (Lake Agassiz) remaining from melting glaciers in central Canada burst through, and dumped an enormous quantity of water through the St. Lawrence River and out into the north Atlantic. This fresh water diluted the Gulf Stream and literally stopped it, because the diluted water was not dense enough to sink. All of this took place in a short period of some 70 years. The effect was to chill the northern regions considerably; in fact, the event was discovered only because seeds of some Canadian flowers that favor extreme cold were found in abundance in the Antarctic ice formed at the time. It was well after the ice age was supposed to be over.

That is such an interesting phenomenon, Burke found several uses for it. First, if global warming were to occur, the Gulf Stream would be driven harder, and would heat the Arctic. Later, Arctic precipitation phenomenon would cause the Gulf Stream to stop, but somehow that doesn't result in cooling of the Arctic.

If the Gulf Stream were to provide a rapid express for delivering tropical heat to the Arctic, then the temperature difference between the tropics and the poles would be diminished. Storms, which are violent when there is a clash between warm and cold air masses, would be less frequent and less violent. But Burke's random-physics model has it both ways: more uniform temperatures and more violent storms (but less rainfall, of course). In fact, and beyond to the wildest ravings of global warmers, Burke has the tropics warming by 10 §F, and the polar regions warming by 25 §F by the year 2100. The 15 §F reduction of the temperature difference could only lead to calmer air, but Burke isn't going to let a little physics ruin a good horror story.

Civilization Stinks

Karl Marx would be proud of Burke's economic theory. Man's greed causes raw materials to flow from the Third World to the advanced nations; fossil usage causes global warming; one nuclear battle occurs; there are graveyards for the millions of people kept from migrating to the advanced nations.

If Burke's economics and physics are bad, consider his chemistry: “_ if you include China, where they intended to give everybody a CFC-making fridge by the year 2000.” [emphasis added] Besides cursing to the Chinese for wanting to preserve food, Burke must now be telling us where the contraband CFCs are coming from: refrigerators make CFCs!

How Burke Saves Civilization

In his fantasy, Burke manages to survive his imagined horrors to become the narrator of his tale. It takes no less than the Planetary Management Authority (PMA) with powers that only Stalin could love. An upper limit on carbon burning is established. The US would use up its allocation before long, but may buy “carbon credits” from Chad or Angola in exchange for advanced technology that will enable third-world countries to “leapfrog past fossil fuel use” into a solar future. Of course, the advanced countries, from whence all this wisdom comes, somehow don't use this wonderful technology to save their civilization.

UP with the PMA! Energy Taxes! Slap massive charges onto anybody driving into the city! Mandatory family planning! Use energy taxes to pay for mass (that is, bulk) transit!

“By 2002, the world had decided to go all out for renewable energy. _ The media campaign had worked.”

And what is the energy source used in the advanced civilization of 2050? Is Burke making a case for nuclear power here, on the grounds that it emits no “greenhouse gases?”

No! By his invention, “In 2008 a series of major accidents in nuclear power stations around the world brought the decision that nuclear phase-out was probably a good idea.” Quite apart from the minuscule likelihood of this occurrence, wouldn't that somehow be preferable to Burke's previously discussed scenario in which people die off by the millions? And assuming, as Burke does, that global warming is a horrible event brought on by burning fossil fuels, wouldn't nuclear power be just a tad bit better? Don't worry. The Planetary Management Authority has the answers.

Hydroelectricity is ruled out because major rivers ran dry in Burke's fantasy in which higher temperatures cause more evaporation but less precipitation.

What then? “By far the most promising was solar.” Windmills! Millions of square miles of farmland devoted to growing crops to burn! Photovoltaics! Dung! He trots out the usual list of piddle-power sources favored by the clueless.

Burke's fantasy gets rid of cattle, who produce methane (a greenhouse gas) and CO2 (a greenhouse gas), yet uses cow dung as a major energy source. He has society double the price of energy “to reflect its true social cost.” He sermonizes about increased efficiency (as if that were a new idea). He has people use bulk transit systems (as if the present non-usage were due to pure obstinacy).

Burke The Reformer moves people out of big cities and into small towns. Never mind that it is much more efficient to have people packed into cities where they can be heated and air-conditioned in bulk, and where food can be delivered more or less centrally. Never mind that transportation requirements are less when the average distance between people is smaller in cities than in the wide-open spaces. Never mind that people use more land when they live in single-family dwellings than when they live in tall apartment buildings. Burke gets people out of cities and saves the world.

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Excerpted from June 1997 The Energy Advocate
Copyright © The Energy Advocate 1997. All rights reserved