What goes into the landfill of the dead?

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I was riveted by my first-ever start-to-finish viewing of Soylent Green today, and intrigued to find the name of Professor Frank R. Bowerman listed as the film's technical advisor.

The most recent glimpse of Prof. Bowerman I can find is a May, 1995 listing as an adjunct professor at University of Southern California's department of environmental engineering.

But the professor has a more true and enduring legacy in Irvine, CA's Frank R. Bowerman Landfill, a nest of violations and cease and desist orders over methane, erosion, and drainage control troubles.

I hope the professor lived into the era when people stopped laughing at the wildly inaccurate future guestimate in Soylent Green and began to appreciate the great artistry in which the entire cast and crew wrap the movie's now-universally known premise. Prof. Frank Bowerman, I suspect, was crucial to the achievement of one of America's great apocalyptic visions, so bow your head next time you throw out a bag of condoms and diapers.

And of course, if there are any landfill employees, USC students or alumni, environmental engineering buffs, or other Bowermaniacs out there, please share your memories in the comments book before you leave the service.

NEXT: And amazingly, not one of the previous 2,000 days has been the right day for this discussion either. Could you come back tomorrow?

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  1. I’d take the current global warming hysteria a bit more seriously if the authors of previous predictions of environmental doom fessed up about how wrong they were, and most importantly, why. Leading the parade of mea culpists should be Paul Ehrlich of Population Bomb fame.

    Hey Paul & Company: If you could explain why your supposedly irrefutable logic, predicting mass starvation, resource depletion, and exploding birth rates about now, has been refuted by reality, maybe we could actually get better at divining the future and preparing for it.

    Or are you just gonna hide out in your office at Stanford and hope the current generation overlooks what happened 30 years ago?

  2. I’d take the current global warming hysteria a bit more seriously if the authors of previous predictions of environmental doom fessed up about how wrong they were

    But they’re not all the same people. It’s one thing to refuse to take Ehrlich seriously because he made an ass of himself 30 years ago, but it’s another thing altogether to refuse to take, say, Stephen Hawking seriously because Paul Ehrlich made an ass of himself 30 years ago. Don’t dole out collective guilt.

  3. How low on the faculty totem pole do you need to be to get a landfill named after you? Can you imagine a Prof. Simon McPhearson Toxic Waste Dump or a Dr. Gary Hewson Biological Waste Incinerator?

  4. Hawking is brilliant physicist, but I’m not sure why I should accept his words concerning GW. His focus has been on cosmology, not GW, and the two subjects have nothing at all to do with each other.

  5. His focus has been on cosmology, not GW, and the two subjects have nothing at all to do with each other.

    This is too strong of a statement; there may be something in the theories of cosmology that may relate to GW.

  6. In the first edition of The Population Bomb, Ehrlich wrote: “The possibilities are infinite; the single course of events that will be realized is unguessable. We can, however, look at a few possibilities as an aid to our thinking, using a device known as a ‘scenario’. Scenarios are hypothetical sequences of events used as an aid in thinking about the future, especially in identifying possible decision points…Remember, these are just possibilities, not predictions.” (p. 72)

  7. This is too strong of a statement; there may be something in the theories of cosmology that may relate to GW.

    Certainly planetary cosmology, with a focus on Mars and Venus (on a date?) can tell us a lot about global warming. Someday…

  8. (That’s a quote from the Wikipedia page on Ehrlich.)

  9. Gawd, I hope not!

  10. Hawking is brilliant physicist, but I’m not sure why I should accept his words concerning GW.

    Yeah, his was just the first name I could think of. Point is, if Paul Ehrlich said something stupid 30 years ago, that’s worth holding against Paul Ehrlich (especially if he has not recanted), but not against those who have nothing to do with the man. So I’ll repeat: don’t dole out collective guilt.

  11. Sorry, Jennifer; I didn’t mean to imply that I disagreed with your point (which is correct).

  12. Tossing out global warming because some people believed in some crackpot ideas thirty years ago is ridiculous: science is always getting better, and most predictions sound stupid as a result.

    “640K should be enough for anybody” comes to mind.

  13. First ever? Wow.
    I can’t remember when I saw Soylent Green.

  14. It was my understanding that such a future was an exaggeration should current (of the time period) trends continue. A scare tactic. It’s Hollywood for christ’s sake. Of course they weren’t completely serious.

    I can only present anecdotal evidence of my area at the time, but Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga river were very polluted. The river, famously, caught on fire, and the lake… well, I wouldn’t have recommended swimming or eating the fish. Smokestacks from the steel and aluminum mills, the automotive plants, and coal power generators were spewing black/brown smoke into the air like there was literally no tomorrow.

    Movies like “soylent green” helped convey a message of where we were going in a manner which was easy to understand for people, and were largely responsible for the movement to get industry to clean up their act.

    I really don’t want to contemplate how much worse the landscape may have become in industrial areas if it weren’t for EPA regulation, as offensive as “regulation” is to some of you kids.

  15. “I really don’t want to contemplate how much worse the landscape may have become in industrial areas if it weren’t for EPA regulation, as offensive as “regulation” is to some of you kids.”

    It’d probably look a lot like long-time libertarian paradise China.

  16. …long-time libertarian paradise China.

    Most brainless statement ever.

  17. …long-time libertarian paradise China.

    Most brainless statement ever.

  18. It’d probably look a lot like long-time libertarian paradise China.

    I imagine this is a throwaway joke, but of course this is a logical fallacy. China is highly regulated, China is polluted, therefore regulations don’t prevent pollution?

    A lot of silly environmental regulations are deservedly ridiculed on this site, but I have to agree with Chris that some controls were necessary. It’s important to recall that at the time many laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed, many in the opposition (including, of course, many economic libertarians)predicted they would destroy the American economy. I haven’t seen any of those folks acknowledge their error either.

  19. I want to know who took Soylent Green seriously when it came out.

  20. Watching TMC today, eh?

  21. shecky has a point–accusing Soylent Green of incorrectly predicting the future is kind of like getting down on Rod Serling because humans are not now ruled by apes.

    Really, even Ehrlich was just going through an “if current trends continue” exercise. We know now that (a) those population trends did not continue and (b) agricultural technology advances far outstripped the growth we had. But that alone doesn’t make him an idiot. You have to ask, based on the information we had at the time, how likely were those trends to continue, and if they did, how bad would the consequences be, and then determine what steps it makes sense to take.

    Of course, after that exercise you can still conclude he was an idiot for underestimating countervailing trends like the dropoff in birthrate in industrialized countries or for proposing overly-draconian or counterproductive solutions.

  22. Odd how many miss the libertarian point.

    It’s called the tragedy of the commons.

    Pollution tends to be greatest in places where property rights have not been secured.
    The streams in Scotland are among the cleanest and are privately owned…property owners are quite keen to keep their streams clean.

    An early example of an environmental lawsuit by an orchard owner against a railroad for soot damage to his trees was thrown out by the court saying that “we can’t alow private property rights to stand in the way of progress”.
    Translation: the railraod bought the court.

    The famous Love Canal disaster which everyone knows has been blamed on the Hooker Chemical company (even if you didn’t know its name) has been revealed in Reason’s distant pages to be the result of certain munincipal manueverings to secure the land and then punching utility connections through the clay dams that were containing the chemicals. Hooker didn’t want to sell the property, by was threatened with eminent domain, so buckled to the politicos demands.

    So you FIs who feels so secure in “popular wisdom”, get some learnin in yah.

  23. Really, even Ehrlich was just going through an “if current trends continue” exercise. We know now that (a) those population trends did not continue and (b) agricultural technology advances far outstripped the growth we had. But that alone doesn’t make him an idiot.

    Clever how he covered his ass, but he made other statements indicating his belief in the doom of his dark scenarios.

  24. “Pollution tends to be greatest in places where property rights have not been secured.”

    You know, like in Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, circa 1950.

    So, uncle sam, how do you reconcile your statement with the dramatic improvement in air and water quality in this country that have occured at over exactly the same period that we have adopted environmental regulations that you consider to be corrosive to property rights?

    And if you mutter the old chestnut about causation and correlation without coming up with a plausible mechanism, I’m going to shave a vulgar word into your cat.

  25. Jennifer writes: “But they’re not all the same people…etc.” Of course. I know that. But intellectual movements, and the political movements they spawn, are collective in nature, and have their effect on the culture as a whole. So when a prominent leader like Ehrlich speaks, he is in fact speaking for the movement in the eyes of the public, and if he really values the goals of his movement (as opposed to the fame of being a guru), he will publicly correct himself if his ideas are proven wrong. Did the credibility of Bush and the neocons suffer across the board from the subsequent lack of WMDs in Iraq? Don’t you think that, if the neocons want to regain some credibility, a few of them should explain what went wrong? I do. The same applies to the environmental movement.

    Jon H quotes a single passage out of the Population Bomb wherein Ehrlich disavows the message of the entire rest of his book, by claiming the book is just a collection of “scenarios” that are “mere possibilities.” Yet at the time (and I was there), his book was taken as much more than that by both the public and policy makers, and Ehrlich didn’t put much effort into reminding people that his ideas were being presented as merely possible scenarios. His lectures and appearances on public fora like the Tonight Show, which had a definite end-of-days aura surrounding them, were highly promotional and effective in growing the environmental movement, and the disclaimer was mentioned only in the fine print, if at all. So no, I don’t think the single disclaimer absolves him at all, it was just a intellectual CYA to give him an out if and when his predictions were proven to be wrong. Which they have been.

    Mindful of the Inquisition, Galileo asserted that his “Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems” was just a work of fiction, and that the ideas presented therein were merely a convenient framework in which to calculate the motions of the planets. Do you think he really thought this, or do you think the ideas he so passionately promoted, described what he really thought about the world?

    Environmental issues like global warming are very important, and we need to make sure we make good policy in their regard. I feel I was, as a Randroid might say, “slipped a philosophical mickey” by Ehrlich and his ilk, and I am not likely to let myself be taken in again. The present state of the debate about global warming has precisely the same flavor as that surrounding the ‘population explosion’ and ‘limits to growth’ ideas 30 years ago, and the intellectual heirs of the people who were wrong in important ways then are the ones making similar points today about global warming.

    I would very much like to see the leaders of the environmental movement address their past mistakes in an honest way, so that I and others like me can have confidence in what they’re advocating now.

  26. So, uncle sam, how do you reconcile your statement with the dramatic improvement in air and water quality in this country that have occured at over exactly the same period that we have adopted environmental regulations that you consider to be corrosive to property rights?

    You refuse to get it. In the absence of property rights, people then turn to gov’t regulation to address the problems. Tell me who owned the polluted rivers, who owns the air around your home? Why weren’t governments suing industrial polluters? Hmm?

    A lot of the water pollution was municipal as well. Still is in many places. Another major polluter has been the military. Fort Ord is a superfund site.
    And a lot of air pollution is a result of government construction of thousands of miles of roads (leading also the the demise of railroads requiring gov’t subsidy to keep them going)
    Then too, there was the policy of many urban planners of separating residential area from industry and business resulting in a lot of commuting pollution. It goes on and on.

    Can’t you all use a little creative thinking now and then. We get tired of having to explain all the fucking details over and over to people who seem to be constitutionally unable to comprehend any of this.

    When property rights are widespread and consistently enforced, liability is more than sufficient to halt pollution

  27. With all the talk about Soylent Green lately no one has mentioned that it wasn’t written by the Vast Environmentalist Conspiracy or even Frank Bowerman. It was adapted from a novel by middling science fiction writer Harry Harrison called “Make Room! Make Room!”

    Harrison lived his childhood in Manhattan during the Depression and life among the crowded tenements clearly made an impression on him. The novel is, as I recall, set in Manhattan and its focus is a murder investigation in a city whose population continues to grow. Logan’s Run appeared about the same time and in THAT novel, overpopulation was solved by euthanizing everyone over twenty-one, which made a lot of sense to me when I was a teenager.

  28. Enviros always mention the Cuyahoga River fire without mentioning when it happened. Guess.

  29. One would get the impression from progressives/liberals that pollution is a product of free markets and greedy corporation.
    The USSR had LOTS of pollution without free markets or greedgy corporations.

    So what is the proper socio/economic environment for a clean environment?

  30. With all the talk about Soylent Green lately no one has mentioned that it wasn’t written by the Vast Environmentalist Conspiracy or even Frank Bowerman. It was adapted from a novel by middling science fiction writer Harry Harrison called “Make Room! Make Room!”

    I remember it, too, and as I recall there was no people-eating at all. Instead, it ended with a big jab at the pope for denouncing contraception!

  31. shecky has a point–accusing Soylent Green of incorrectly predicting the future is kind of like getting down on Rod Serling because humans are not now ruled by apes.

    Pierre Boulle predicted a world where apes evolved from men. Serling and Michael Wilson adapted his book. But I agree with your point: It’s stupid to judge a work of science fiction on how accurate its guesses were. The key (for me anyway) is to make something entertaining and dramatic out of ideas. Overpopulation was the ripped-from-today’s-headlines hook that made Soylent Green a salable property in 1973, but I was impressed by its overall vision of just total disgust and horror at modernity. I had never before seen key scenes in the movie, like the wraparound movie they show you in the suicide center-a real dickian scene that starts out as winking irony but becomes actually horrifying as they start to play it straight. In the Heston triumvirate of dystopian scifi, I’d say this one edges out Omega Man for second place, though Omega Man may be a little more directly entertaining.

  32. uncle sam,

    I’m well aware of the tragedy of the commons. The tough issue, of course, is that there are some areas where even the most robust private property rights break down. Air quality is a big one–how do I sue a hundred million car owners for poisoning my air? Sometimes we do need a little government to cover those situations (as little as possible, natch).

    I’m not real clear on why the identity of the polluter (corporation, municipality, military, whatever) has to do with whether government action is required to stop it.

    uncle sam, I’m not sure who these “progressives/liberals” are you’re talking to, but I’d say if any of them have a brain in their heads they realize that as a result of the very tragedy of the commons connundrum you cite, basically anybody who has a lot to gain by polluting and is not commensurately hurt by said pollution is likely to become a polluter.

    Totalitarian states are, in fact, particulary susceptible because their governments are not accountable to the citizens who are most affected by the pollution.

    I’m not sure why you think government suing industrial polluters is a superior model to government regulating them. Could you explain?

  33. uncle sam,

    I don’t think I was clear enough in my post about Ehrlich. I agree, he fully believed that the doomsday scenario he wrote about was likely to come to pass. He looked at trends in population growth and food supply expansion. He concluded that those trends were likely to continue into the foreseeable future. He was wrong.

    The correct thing to do in any situation like that is to determine (a) how likely is the doomsday scenario to come to pass and (b) if it does come to pass, how severe are the consequences. Based on your answers, you then determine if you should take action, and what your actions should be.

    Ehrlich believed that the probability of population continuing to outpace food supply was high, and if that happened the consequences would be devastating. Therefore he proposed certain responses. Based on the information available, this was a debateable but not outlandish conclusion. It’s silly to say the guy was wildly off the mark simply because things turned out differently.

    By the same token, it may be that the global warming argument is totally wrong, that trends will change. But based on the information we have, that does currently seem unlikely. And the potential consequences of doing nothing seem awfully high. But it’s all about balancing risks.

  34. James, is Make Roome! Make Room! good? For reasons even I don’t understand, I’ve been on a kick to read non-legendary science fiction writers of yore, but my enthusiasm is waning after reading a clutch of Jerry Sohl books. Will Harry Harrison do it for me?

  35. when a prominent leader like Ehrlich speaks, he is in fact speaking for the movement in the eyes of the public, and if he really values the goals of his movement (as opposed to the fame of being a guru), he will publicly correct himself if his ideas are proven wrong. Did the credibility of Bush and the neocons suffer across the board from the subsequent lack of WMDs in Iraq? Don’t you think that, if the neocons want to regain some credibility, a few of them should explain what went wrong?

    But there is a huge difference you are overlooking, between “a large group of people who all share a certain view of the future” and “a large group of people who worked together to create a war.”

  36. I want to know who took Soylent Green seriously when it came out.

    It was my buddy Paige with his Ma Bell Public Enemy Number One bumper sticker. These days he’s singing a different tune that goes something like this: I USED to be liberal.

    I’m fuzzy on the movie (except the punch line) but I don’t think I particularly cared for it.

  37. The Ehrlich/Rifken years did not consist of a variety of opinions on the subject. It was news fodder on a near daily basis and had the effect, as Global Warming does now, of being a death cloud hanging over every aspect of life. Anyone who questioned the mantra was dismissed as a Neanerthal Reactionary throwback.

  38. “…middling science fiction writer Harry Harrison …”

    I hope the Stainless Steel Rat shows up and kicks your ass.

  39. Ehrlich believed

    Ehrlich’s problem is that his viewpoint was that of a biologist. He projected the statistical behavior of animal populations into the human world. He also appeared to have no clue as to the real reasons so much of the world was plagued with poverty and starvation. He should have studied some economics.

  40. Obviously, this is a very complex issue, and in spirit I basically agree with you, uncle sam. However, I have a hard time seeing how me personally suing, say, General Motors is an adequate solution to the pollution of my personal air. I think the reasons are obvious and will not belabor them.

    I agree that, ideally, each element of the political structure should be staffed with people who act according to their own interests. I also agree that giving the government this sort of power is not the greatest thing in the world. But I think this is one of those areas where governmental regulation is necessary. I am certainly willing to be convinced though.

  41. He projected the statistical behavior of animal populations into the human world.

    Well, that is frequently a very good way to understand human behavior. I can’t fault him for that. But you are right that his understanding of economics wasn’t his strong point.

  42. However, I have a hard time seeing how me personally suing, say, General Motors is an adequate solution to the pollution of my personal air.

    The problem is somewhat akin to unscambling an egg. We can’t go way back and change the course of the world, be we need to recognize that many of the problems people look to government to solve generally have some roots in past government actions. The government gets credit for abolishing slavery, but outside the memories of most people, it also sanctioned and subsidized that institution as well.

  43. Well, that is frequently a very good way to understand human behavior.

    A starting point maybe, and primates are more relevant, but he seemed to view humans same as, say, deer with regard to food. But deer never grew wheat or corn, nor do most other animals. Maybe ants in some particulars, but ants are not social in the sense that higher animals are.

  44. Jennifer: There are many differences between the neocons and enviros in the issues that concern them. I did not bring these differences up because they are not germane to the point I was making, which was about intellectual integrity as it effects credibility, which is important to maintain no matter what issue you are trying to advance, be it war and peace or environmental policy.

    Uncle Sam: I agree with you about Ehrlich’s worldview, and its effect on his outlook for the world situation. He is a biologist, and so sees the world from that viewpoint. While humans are biological creatures, we also have another layer imposed on top of that biology, an intellectual/cultural layer, which other species to not have. If there are understandable reasons why humanity’s individual and collective behavior, and therefore its effect on the biosphere, does not follow the predictions of biologists, perhaps it is because biologists are not taking this aspect of our nature into account when making their predictions. And, it isn’t just Ehrlich who has been wrong, these kinds of predictions have been missing the mark since Malthus. Perhaps a few biologists, who want to include H. sapiens in their models, might consider studying a bit of…oh, say…..economics.

    Naaaaahhhh……never happen.

  45. I’ve often wondered what dvd I’d watch when the bombs start falling, never really considered Soylent Green. Interesting choice Tim. I really think I’d probably go for something I’d seen a hundred times like Star Wars or Blade Runner….

  46. Make Room! Make Room! was written in 1966, contemporary with Paul VI’s Humana Vitae, IMS, hence the pope-bashing.

    harryharrison.com reprints snippets from these reviews:

    Analog, May 1967, p.159. Review by P. Schuyler Miller.
    “The jacket calls this ‘a realistic novel of life in 1999’… and so it is. If you expect the stereotypes of the over-population story, they’re not here. The book is extrapolation that the author means to be taken seriously, and he appends a page and a half of collateral reading in the hope that you will do so … If your friends complain that science fiction is daydream literature for escapists, give them this one.”

    The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction #189, February 1967, p.29. Review by Judith Merril.
    “Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!… is a good fast-paced colourful book, offering a somewhat fresh approach to the over-population theme. I found Harrison’s premises rather shaky, but the reasoning and plotting built on them very solid; the end did not quite sustain my interest, but the central part of the book was strong enough to make me entirely forget my quibbles with the underlying hypothesis. The writing and characterisation are back to Harrison’s usual standard (back from last year’s disastrous Plague From Space). Good reading.”

    Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, by David Pringle, Xanadu, 1985.
    “It is a simple story, lacking in sensationalism or heroics, and narrated in a dignified fashion with much careful – and moving – detail. It is not a mystery novel, for the reader knows the identity of the killer from the first, but it uses the crime story format in order to build up a picture of a city in a long-drawn-out crisis … Even if 1999 in New York turns out to be nothing like Harrison’s imaginings, this will remain a truthful novel.”
    (boldface is mine – kevrob)

    SF writers often base a story on a calculated exagerration of a trend in modern life to a suitably dramatic conclusion. If I wrote a polemic worked out in that fashion and managed to predict the future exactly, I’d think, “Damn! They ignored the message of my book! The fools, the damned blind fools!” (That sounds best if read in Chuck Heston’s voice, of course.) Actual scientists ought to know better. Trends tend to peak and flatten out, or at least advance more slowly.

    As for economics informing biology, and vice versa, has anyone else read Michael Rothschild’s Bionomics?

    Kevin

  47. My favourite Harrison actually isn’t any of his sci-fi, but the alternate history series The Hammer and the Cross; definitely worth a look. (Although you can’t go wrong with the Stainless Steel Rat, of course…)

  48. they are not germane to the point I was making, which was about intellectual integrity as it effects credibility, which is important to maintain no matter what issue you are trying to advance, be it war and peace or environmental policy.

    Yes, but what I’m saying is “Ehrlich’s lack of credibility should not reflect upon those who have nothing to do with him.”

    If I’m out walking and see a completely dead river with no plants or fish living in it, and then walk upstream to find a factory dumping all sorts of toxic glop into said river, I’m probably going to say “Dumping this poison into this river is a very bad thing.” If Ehrlich later learns about the river, he will agree with me.

    And according to some of the logic I see demonstrated here, many others will then say “Ah-ha! Since Ehrlich agrees with Jennifer about the river, and Ehrlich is wrong about things, this proves Jennifer is wrong about it being bad to dump poison in the river.”

  49. I’ll go you one better, Jennifer. The key fallacy here seems to be the idea that everybody who has ever said anything might be going wrong with the environment are part of the same camp.

    So the logic is like, “Ayn Rand said things 50 years ago that were totally wrong. Ayn Rand was a libertarian. Jennifer is also a libertarian. Therefore I won’t listen to anything Jennifer says until she apologizes for Ayn Rand’s mistakes and explains how Ayn Rand could have been so wrong.”

  50. Ayn Rand wasn’t a libertarian.
    Jennifer is often wrong.
    Therefore, Ayn Rand was never wrong.

  51. I’ve read Harry Harrison’s “Make Room, Make Room” and Neal Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”. Both books extrapolate their present into a dystopian future and are an interesting read, but I would pick Harrison’s book over “Snowcrash”. It’s probably a generational thing, since my son absolutely loved “Snowcrash”, but I thought “Make Room, Make Room” was better written and had a more realistic plot, after you accepted the author’s assertions about the future.

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