Living at the Edge of Risk

green field 12-3-12

I set aside some time recently to watch the Ken Burns documentary series, “The Dust Bowl,” which aired on PBS. The promotional text describing the series reads:

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the “Great Plow-Up,” followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s, nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

Typical of Ken Burns’ style as a documentary film maker, the series chronicles the experience of those in the southern plains region of the U.S. most directly affected by the combined impacts of an aggressive cultivation of the low-moisture, high-wind prairie ecosystem; a severe and prolonged period of drought; and the collapse in wheat prices associated with the Great Depression. Blending photographs, film clips, maps and interviews, the story is told from the perspective of those who survived the experience as children and teenagers, now in their elder years. The oral history is riveting as the tragedy of loved ones lost long ago surfaced tears as if the loss still seems very near. It was a narrative of courage and determination in the face of immense challenge, and yet a reflection of bewilderment as short-term, narrow self-interest overwhelmed reason and the well-being of all.

Now more than 80 years since the early days of the Dust Bowl, we face similar questions about the trade-offs between immediate economic interests and prolonged environmental impact. The challenges of the 1930s led to innovations in agriculture spurred by partnership of federal and state agencies, coupled with private enterprises that have avoided similar tragedies. Yet, even the Ogallala Aquifer, which serves as an underground source of irrigation for the southern plains, is gradually being depleted. Is it possible now to avoid future risk well in advance of a repeated tragedy or will we choose to live at the edge of risk?

Regardless of how or why the climate of the earth changes or global weather patterns shift, one thing is certain – in the end, the climate wins. Accordingly, mitigating the risks of climate change for the future would seem to make sense. The problem is we would have to agree we have a compelling interest in future generations.

For me sustainability is about “intergenerational equity.” This is a term we often use in the context of endowments at colleges and universities. Boards of trustees are charged with a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the endowment for an institution is both serving the needs of the present, and yet preserved for the needs of future generations. We spend a little now. That’s necessary and appropriate. But we also remain very conscious of our successors, including the trustees of the future.

As a nation we can point to the work of previous generations and see the benefits and risks we now derive from their legacies of investment. As I assess the work of today in anticipation of tomorrow, there are days when I feel incredibly grateful for the inheritance I have received and yet disappointed for some of the “investment” decisions of the past that placed us at greater risk now and in the future. I am also very conscious I am equally responsible. Now in my 50s I already have done much that will be passed on in the endowment I leave. I consume far too much and preserve far too little. I find it easy to think in short time horizons and have to force myself to be disciplined about embracing longer arcs of history. The tyranny of the urgent can be very destructive. Somehow I must protect that which matters most. This leads me to consider the decisions I face today as a citizen.

The majesty of the ocean and our inherent desire to see its expanse, hear its playful splash, smell its life-sustaining breeze, and feel the personal renewal we experience when we walk on its shore or sail its waves, masks its immense power. We would like to think we can command the waves to obey, but a hurricane is a reminder that when we live at the edge of risk we accept a responsibility to respect a power we do not control and the consequences we must own.

The rain is a fountain of blessing when it falls at the times we predict, in the places we have planned and in the amounts we need. We have tolerance for variability, but when the patterns reach levels too far above or below our thresholds we find living at the edge of risk comes at a price. The beautiful view of the valley gives way to the power of the rain to erode the hillside on which we perch. The dryness of the parched field is set ablaze by a careless act or a lightning strike.

The land is a sponge that absorbs what we set before it. It’s strong and will accept whatever we give it to hold. Yet as we seek to move the land and shape its waterways making it conform to our wishes, it simply gives back what we have placed in its care. It will faithfully return to us all we have given it.

The air is a net that captures what we send its way. We blow with ever increasing force a breath that is gradually less fragrant. It returns to us only what we give it, for its source of nourishment is the ocean, the seas and the vegetation of the land.

And so it has ever been. The climate has so much to give and demands so much from us. If we live in humility, embrace simplicity and give to the earth the respect it requires of us, we will pass on an endowment that will preserve many generations to come. That is, if we chose not to live at the edge of risk.

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16 responses to “Living at the Edge of Risk”

  1. Art Downey says:

    Mark, No act of man either caused Sandy or could have prevented it. I agree with pollution reduction and recycling. However, to think that man’s conduct can cause the temperature cycle we are experiencing is to view only selective “science” and disregard the whole picture and the history of our planet.

    • Paul Weihe says:

      Art, what you say is literally true: humans cannot cause, or control, a specific storm. However…we are, in fact, changing the world with our actions. Some of those changes will make storms more likely and/or severe. It will also make the effects of storms more devastating. As an example, Sandy was most destructive because of the water rushing in from the Atlantic Ocean. As it turns out, scientists predicted what would happen:
      ( As we warm the climate (much data are available to demonstrate this), the ocean levels rise (we’re seeing it already).
      Art, the “picture and history of our planet” clearly indicate that humans are a force of nature. Have a look at Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” for a long historic perspective on environmental effects of humans.

      • Don Huffman says:

        You make some good points which unfortunately are not widely known by much of our society.
        I clearly remember the dust bowl days when, as elementary school students, we were often excused from school early to rush to our homes and to avoid being caught in the “duststorms” which were headed for our S.E. Kansas area. Even to a very young student we were taught that the dustbowl days were largely an evident result of man’s failure to consider the important impact of man on that particular environmental problem in that geographic area.
        We were told by our teachers and parents of the expoitation of the land during the prolonged drought, and we were aware of the changes recommended, including windbreaks, contour plowing, terracing, grassed waterways, etc.
        In perspective, F.D.R.’s insistence on changes and improvement of agricultural methods of farming were an important example of our recognizing that man is continually involved in environmental problems.
        Fortunately for F.D.R.’s political career and the Southern Plains area, the ending of the drought and the change to a more normal weather pattern coincided with the attention to efforts employed to improve agricultural methods in the area.
        Recently, in a trip to S.E. Kansas, my daughter asked me what the rows of trees were with softball-sized “round, green apple-like” fruits were. I was able to tell her that these were Osage Orange (hedge) trees widely planted as windbreaks during the “dustbowl days” and for several years to follow.
        So, there are still items which remind one of those terrible years.
        In reality man is indeed part of the world’s ecosystem, and our behavior regarding wise use of the environment is always and forever a component of every aspect of of this global ecosystem.

    • Robert Froelich says:

      Art, Why do you bring up Sandy? The discussion is about looking to the future and trying to work in the now to help further generations. It is about excepting the risk of living on the edge of potential disaster but living an individual life that does not use resources unwisely. It is about all of us realizing that we are on this rock in space and trying to have fun, but also trying to take care of it for our children and their future generations. The use of science can help provide answers and help provide a path through man’s destructive misuse of our planets resources. Surely our small and large companies and huge corporations can make money, provide investment vehicles and jobs without the immense waste and earth polluting byproducts.
      We all can go on and on about what is appropriate, but if we as individuals are not willing to think about what things we personally can do about helping to reduce waste and the “carbon footprints” we leave behind, what good are we doing for our future generations?
      Take a look at Gary Meyers response, below, as an example.

  2. Sandra wicks says:


    As one who lives on the Gulf Coast, hurricanes have been going on since time began. To use Hurricane Sandy as an example of climate change is using a normal natural phenomenon to make political book. It is easy and popular to champion the environment when true science is not there to back it up. How do you propose getting through a cold Iowa winter without fossils useless? Wind and solar technology is not there and is hugely expensive and not practical for most of the population.

    • Paul Weihe says:

      I replied to a similar concern about attribution of a specific event (like Sandy) to climate change (see my response to Art, above). I also point out that climate science suggests a bigger picture to consider.

      I don’t know what you consider “true science,” but climate change was predicted over a century ago (the heating of the atmosphere by CO2 was described by Svante August Arrhenius in 1896). The world’s leading scientists have demonstrated climate change dynamics (

      President Putnam didn’t say we shouldn’t use fossil fuels this winter; that’s a Straw Man argument. What he asks us to do, is to think about future generations, and the planet we give them. As a parent, it’s important to me to provide for my children. A healthy planet is one of the most important things we can bequeath, in my opinion.

  3. Gary Meyer says:

    A real US energy policy would reduce our future impact to climate change while stimulating the economy. USA manufactured solar panels on every house. Expensive at first, but the payback is real. Instead of paying power bills for the burning of coal, pay back the US government for the loan or subsidy that paid for the solar panels. Sure expensive at first, the two wars were not cheap, the bail-outs very costly, is the environment not more important? The earth will not tolerate much more build up of CO2. The oceans acting as a buffer are close to capacity, CO2 build up will rise exponentially from this point, along with climate change. The wars and bailouts were a choice, this is not. If done properly, US subsidized US manufactured solar panels would stimulate the economy. Providing for equipment manufacturing, solar panel manufacturing, solar panel installers, chemical manufacturing, salespersons, finance, etc., a whole industry would boom overnight, at the same time reducing drastically our carbon footprint. We could again be the leader. How paid? Everyone pays a power bill every month. It could cost individuals no more than what they currently pay, the government would have to step up initially, but the payback is real.

  4. Thank you for you post, Mark. I am glad that you are aware that 98% of climate scientists now believe that our use of fossil fuels is causing climate warming. Part of our dilemma of living comfortably and consequent struggle with the environment resides in our wanting mind. A poem by Holly Hughes:

    Mind Wanting More

    Only a beige slat of sun
    above the horizon, like a shade pulled
    not quite down. Otherwise,
    clouds. Sea rippled here and
    there. Birds reluctant to fly.
    The mind wants a shaft of sun to
    stir the grey porridge of clouds,
    an osprey to stitch sea to sky
    with its barred wings, some dramatic
    music: a symphony, perhaps
    a Chinese gong.

    But the mind always
    wants more than it has —
    one more bright day of sun,
    one more clear night in bed
    with the moon; one more hour
    to get the words right; one
    more chance for the heart in hiding
    to emerge from its thicket
    in dried grasses — as if this quiet day
    with its tentative light weren’t enough,
    as if joy weren’t strewn all around.

  5. Ross Vermeer '88 says:

    Yes, let’s do talk about ‘intergenerational equity’.

    That phrase can be taken in two senses. The first is financial, as Dr Putnam uses it here. He suggests we who are established in the world should pass on environmental equity to future generations. Whether ‘spending a little now’ to pretend to reduce the use of CO2 will do any good is another question, but I agree we should do what we can to avoid harm to the earth’s renewable resources.

    But my vision for ‘intergenerational equity’ is both broader, and much more practical. In addition to a world with clean air and water, and well-maintained ecosystems, I believe it’s our generation’s duty to bequeath to our children as much actual wealth – or, if you prefer, at least the chance to earn that wealth – as we can.

    But are we doing this? Far from it. Instead of maximizing the opportunities for its ordinary citizens to build up and bequeath wealth, the US federal government spends recklessly, and borrows money at demoralizing, debilitating rates – 1.3 trillion dollars of debt just this year, and trillions more, year after year, so far as the current administration’s ‘budget’ du jour can project into the misty future. Who will pay off this debt? Our children and grandchildren. They will pay, and pay, and pay – with interest – for our current indulgence.

    And on a more immediate scale, what about Central, and other colleges and universities? Instead of doing their best to launch graduates into their working lives free from financial encumbrance, they have raised their prices at unprecedented rates, saddling most of their graduates with debt. Who will be paying off this trillion-dollar debt? Those children and grandchildren, again. Student loan debt is so vast and unmanageable it’s becoming intergenerational, as some graduates now reach retirement with student debt still outstanding. Some ‘equity’!

    The second sense of the word ‘equity’ is to indicate fairness or equality of outcome. Having seen what we’re doing to young people by undermining their chances of financial security, how can we claim we’re granting them ‘equity’ in this more basic sense? There is no way an average Central graduate in 2013 has opportunities equal to those available to an average graduate 20 or 30 or years ago. We have failed here, too.

    Pieces like this essay have more to do with indulging emotions and diverting attention from real problems than with seriously addressing the legacy we leave our children. It’s mildly pleasurable, a la Young Werther, to wallow in vague sorrows over which we have little control.

    I wish, yet again, that this column would focus instead on real problems Central needs urgently to solve.

    • Jim Zaffiro says:


      In less than 20 years, blogs like this one will simply be stating the obvious. Today, however, Mark’s words represent a call living in alighment with our core values as an institution: for giving those grand-children a habitable planet. Tuition dollars will be the least of their worries:

      “Extreme weather is the new normal and poses a threat to the human race, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday, as he sought to revive deadlocked global climate change talks.” Barbara Lewis and Alister Doyle report for Reuters December 5, 2012.

      • Don Huffman says:

        Your comments are to the point and certainly consistent with any realistic sustainable environment for the future.
        Unfortunately, mny of the developed nations still show no support for most of the international attempts to establish progress on the global climate change. The attitude is often, “What has the future ever done for me?”
        This attitude is certainly common in the U.S. where accumulation of wealth without regard to environmental damage is still a common attitude of many people. And until and unless we agree that we do have a problem -that seems easily done- and agree that our current policies are disastrous, not only for developing nations, but for developed nations as well we’ll continue to damage the Earth’s atmosphere.
        There needs to be recognition that most of the developed nations have certainly contributed to environmental damage, and have used far more than their fair share of fossil fuels which disproportionally damage air quality, etc.
        Our competent scientists have known this for over a century, but have failed to convince those who place current profit above long term benefits of concern for the environment.
        Where and when can we address and solve this situation? Educated people should have an important role to play.
        Don Huffman

  6. Ross Vermeer '88 says:

    Thanks to Jim Zaffiro and Don Huffman for the responses to my post.

    I respect the obviously heart-felt intensity of your beliefs about climate change, but I disagree that it’s a problem we can do anything about. I think climate change certainly exists, but is likely due to natural causes rather than anthropogenic. And, given the results of the latest Doha round of climate change talks, it’s clear that ‘climate change’ has ceased to be a scientific question for which genuine hypotheses are posed and tested, and the truth sought. It’s now a political/ideological belief system in which the only topic seriously discussed is the size of the transfer payments climate change ‘sinners’ must make to preferred victim groups.

    For example, here’s a simple fact that seems to have been omitted from the Doha considerations: which huge industrialized country has recently reduced its CO2 emissions back to 1992 levels? The answer is none other than the USA. And how did we manage this? Mostly via increased use of clean natural gas obtained via fracking. But who at Doha wanted to talk about something practical that actually worked?

    And here’s another: which national meteorological service recently released data on global temperatures that show there has been no measurable warming in the past 16 years? That would be the Met, the national weather service in the UK, whose HADCRUT4 data set is considered the best global temperature record available.

    I will stop there, because I’m falling into the very trap I’ve pointed out, i.e. being distracted by this issue. For us in this forum, and for Central College and its administration, CO2 emissions are a sideshow.

    To what instead should attention be paid? To the economic and social problems CUI’s current and future students face, which are so acute, so appalling, so indicative of a country that has ceased even to think about its future, that I wonder if the will remains even to look at them honestly.

    Who cares if my 10-year-old daughter already owes a share of the USA’s national debt that exceeds 1 MILLION dollars, even before facing skyrocketing higher education costs? It’s more sensible, obviously, to ignore all that boring accounting, and to focus instead on carrying reusable water bottles and banning innocuous food trays, and thereby feeling much, much better — for today, at least.

    • Paul Weihe says:

      Hi Ross,

      I’m confused by your HADCRUT4 comment. When I refer to the report written by the researchers themselves (, I read “Trends in HadCRUT4 global average temperatures are 0.074°C per decade over 1901 to 2010 and 0.169°C per decade over 1979 to 2010.” Their Figure 11 shows the trend quite well, and you’ll note that the most recent trendline they plot is much steeper than the longer one, i.e., the rate of warming is increasing.

      Regarding the US CO2 emissions…some of that might be natural gas, but also the slowed economy? Alternative energy sources? Anyway, the fact is, the year in which humans added the most CO2 to the atmosphere was…2011. And we are projected to add an even larger amount in 2012:

      I’m glad you’re concerned about future economic and social problems. I respectfully point out, that climate change is expected to cause severe economic and social problems…and on a global scale.

  7. Ross Vermeer '88 says:

    Thanks for the reply, Paul.

    Yes, the Met’s own report emphasizes a recent warming trend — which is perfectly legitimate, so long as you start, like they do, measuring from 1979, which was at the end of a notably cold spell (does anyone else remember those brutal winters in the mid-to-late 70s?). I was referring to the last 16 years only as showing little or no trend. I found the analysis of the Met’s report from Prof. Judith Curry, a climate scientist from Georgia Tech, persuasive (you can see her summary discussion and comments here:

    The question is whether recent temperature changes are the result of natural variation, or are indeed an anthropogenically-induced novelty. If the latter, then those who believe this need to prove sooner or later that global temperature trends actually correspond to the climate modeling that the whole enterprise is based upon. That modeling calls for more or less continuous temperature increase, which has not been the case for the past 16 years, nor was it the case during much of the 20th century, even as CO2 emissions rose steadily.

    The simple truth may be that there is no ‘normal’ temperature. The earth was likely warmer in the Holocene and Roman periods than it is now, and it was likely just as warm or warmer in the Medieval warm period, too. Even in more recent times, temperatures dropped in the late 19th century, rose rapidly in the first part of the 20th century, then fell until the 70s, then started rising again — and now are steady. So is this recent period just a pause in a broader warming trend? Is it the ‘new normal’? Or do we face potential cooling (a much more dangerous prospect than warming)?

    The science related to climate change certainly isn’t settled if such broad questions remain.

    I am happy to admit I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I’d be much happier if more people, especially scientists and politicians, shared my epistemological caution.

    What I do know is that 16 trillion dollars is a sum so vast even the USA may find it impossible to pay back, that a million-dollar debt is a burden no responsible adult places on a child, and that there is no good reason the cost of a liberal arts education should rise at a rate six times the rate of inflation.

    • Don Huffman says:

      There is indeed a problem to fully explain the evidence for global warming, but it is hardly worthwhile to simply refer to one of a few areas of the world to hope to reach a valid conclusion. Yes, there are areas for which global warming does not seem to have been occurring in the past 25 years ago; but on the otherhand the evidence from melting of the glaciers at both polar areas, reduction of meltwater into the rivers of China and other Asian areas, and rising tidal areas in many parts of the world do seem to indicate global warming is indeed underway. I think there is nothing wrong with the science involved in study of global warming, but it is certainly not a simple process, and the final answers may be far from immediate understanding. Science cannot always give definitive answers based on limited measurements and effects.
      On the otherhand, fossil fuels when burned do release gases to the atmosphere and there is little doubt but that man’s use of fossil fuels is related to the effects of global warming of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, our developed nations have influenced more than their share of these effects, and it is significant that those countries who have used fossil fuels in their economic development have contributed more than their fair share of atmospheric effects on global warming.
      I do share your concern about our nation’s economic problems as well as the rising costs of higher education. For us to load debts for coming generations of citizens, and especially for children seeking sound education in the future is simply not acceptable, and is not justified regardless of one’s political or epistemological orientation.

  8. Alyce Verduin Werkema says:

    I often read the words of the President whom I have not met but with whom I identify. Art and Don are people I have known. Art, are you of the same VanderLugt, Nanes, Beardsley, Huffman Central that expanded my thought? I was challenged by the deeply-grounded theology of a God who spoke to and for the poor, the goodness of the earth, of the common good of the nation, and evidence-based science.

    I too was a depression, high plains baby whose desperate family struggled with the drought and bank failures and blowing soil. My father all his life was grateful to our government for noticing our plight and hiring him to a WPA project building a beautiful little park so we could avoid starving and freezing.

    I was present in Seattle the night Bill McKibben began his bus tour deliver the message of climate change and our responsibility to greatly reduce the burning of fossil fuel. Unlike the visible clouds of the Dust Bowl, the carbon dioxide isn’t visible, but it is real.

    As a responsible adult I do what I can making Whatcom County Smart Trips, walking, bicycling, busing, and carpooling. And speaking and writing letters to reasonable people of good will.