Saturday, March 28, 2015

Deforesting the Earth

Michael Williams’ book, Deforesting the Earth, describes humankind’s 10,000 year raid on the planet’s forest cover.  Readers are taken on a world tour of deforestation through the ages.  Ports of call include Greece, Rome, China, India, the Amazon, and others.  We discover the regional variations of forest mining, from the first frontier clearings to the lumber guzzling industrial societies.

The saga of the forest molesters begins in the Stone Age, on an embryonic scale.  Many imagine that all Native Americans lived in perfect harmony from the dawn of time.  Compared to the white colonists, they indeed lived far lighter, but many tribes altered their ecosystems over time via periodic burning, which prevented forest regeneration.  They left some footprints on the land.

In the Old World, the experiment in agriculture had been thrashing soils and forests for centuries.  But in America, many imagine that similar slash-and-burn techniques somehow caused no injuries.  Williams disagreed.  He described extensive deforestation and soil depletion in corn country.  Note that large-scale agriculture in the eastern U.S. was just 500 years old in 1492, and they lacked metal axes, plows, and draft animals.  In Mexico, where large-scale farming existed since 2000 B.C., there was abundant evidence of serious damage — bigger footprints.

Our dependence on wood makes Homo sapiens an unusual species.  Without the warmth provided by burning wood, our ancestors could have never left the tropics.  Deforestation was civilization’s shadow.  Until the temporary blip of fossil energy, wood was our oil.  Wood enabled the manufacture of metals, bricks, mortar, glass, and ceramics.  It enabled long-term survival in snow country.

The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas developed big bloody empires without plows, iron tools, or domesticated herd animals — but deforestation kept them on life support.  Gold, silver, diamonds, and iron were not necessary for becoming victorious conquerors, but the march to domination required food, water, and wood.

In medieval Europe, the new religion had driven a wedge between humans and nature.  Earth was created for us.  We were partners with God, and our job was to put the finishing touches on creation.  “A wild landscape not hallowed by prayer and asceticism was said to be in a state of original sin, but once it has become fertile and purposeful, it was transformed.”  So, the forests had to go, along with the savages and outlaws that lurked within them.

In theory, wood is renewable.  Societies with light footprints didn’t kill trees; they gathered dead wood instead.  For rising civilizations, on the other hand, wood was more like pure crystal meth.  When you had access to it, life was a fantastic amazing rush.  You built ships, cities, fortresses, temples, trade networks.  But when the wood was gone, you were a burned out, toothless, walking dead tweaker.

Wood addiction was a vicious cycle.  Deforestation led to expanded cropland and pasture, which led to growing population, which led to further deforestation, and so on.  Eventually, the Ponzi scheme encountered limits.  Endless growth is impossible.  Simple societies that saw their forest as sacred were helpless sitting ducks for loony societies possessed by an insatiable addiction to wood and wealth.  Why practice enlightened self-restraint when you can grow like crazy?

Forests are finite.  Perpetual deforestation is impossible, as they discovered on Easter Island.  Today, it’s growing at an exponential rate.  Listen to this: we’ve cleared more forest since 1950 than in all previous time, and the extermination continues.  Consumers encourage rainforest destruction by buying pet food, fast food burgers, soy-based products, foods containing palm oil, and so on.

Williams mentioned the winter of 1695, when the king of France sat at his dinner table, bundled in furs, his glass filled with frozen wine.  Before iron stoves, heating was extremely inefficient.  The metropolis of Paris was importing firewood from up to 200 kilometers away (124 miles).  In the winter of 1709, wood was scarce, and “people died like flies.”

At about this time, folks began seriously fooling around with coal, a nonrenewable source of energy.  Before long, coal became the new meth.  It threw open the doors to the Industrial Revolution, and a new vicious cycle of exponential growth and resource depletion.  Two hundred years later, we slipped into the petroleum nightmare, civilization went viral, and we are now skyrocketing toward bad juju oblivion.

Previously, I thought that the biggest impact of riding the downslope from Peak Energy was the transition to muscle-powered agriculture, a massive shift that we are entirely unprepared for.  But what about heating?  In 1695, when the king’s wine froze, the planet’s population was just 600 million.  Today, there is far less forest and far more people.  Today, almost half of humankind uses wood for heating and cooking, and they are burning twice as much as 20 years ago.  Imagine the day when wood is the only source of heat for Boston or Chicago, and the chainsaws, trucks, and trains are rusting in the snow.

Williams’ book is a grand banquet of information.  Readers get to spend many hours studying charts, graphs, and tables of statistics, observing reality through the mind of a geographer.  He described how, why, and when the long process of deforestation has proceeded, but paid little attention to the ecological impacts of forest clearing.  He advocated conservation, based on wise management.  The rate of cutting should not exceed the rate at which new wood grows.  Therefore, efforts to preserve old growth ecosystems were dumb, because mature trees grow slower than young ones.

Williams disliked critics of deforestation.  Those youngsters were feeble-minded alarmists who spewed exaggerated hysteria — obnoxious eco-fascists determined to make our lives miserable.  For him, deforestation was a necessary evil, “In fact, the clearing of the forest… over much of western and central Europe was one of the most dramatic changes made to human landscapes anywhere and can be regarded as one of the great achievements of the medieval age.”

Williams was born in 1935, and grew up during the zenith of the British Empire, the petroleum blip, the high tech revolution, and the population explosion — an era of staggering chaos.  Yes, deforestation was a bummer, but it was a sacrifice required for our joyride to wonderland.  Like the worldview of the dominant culture in which he was raised, the book vibrates with cognitive dissonance.  Our advanced standard of living must be preserved, at any cost, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Reading the book with ecology-tinted glasses is most illuminating.  It describes a chain reaction of catastrophic mistakes, made with good intentions, spanning thousands of years — mistakes that continue to multiply at a head spinning rate.  We are given a detailed map of the path we took to disaster, including the wrong turns.  We can never comprehend genuine sustainability until we identify and understand the mistakes.  We must discover our history.

Immense imagination is needed to elevate our consciousness far above the reeking cesspool of pathological illusions.  There may come a day, after the storms, when we have a chance to start over again.  How could we do it differently — and wisely — next time around?  It’s time for good people with hearts and creative gifts to contemplate these issues.  It’s time for new lessons, stories, songs, and paintings.  It’s time to remember who we are, and come home.

Williams provided a vital clue.  “If sustainable societies existed, then they depended on very low population densities, abundance of land, and little or no involvement in a market economy, local or regional, all of which were rare.”  I agree.

P.S., I also recommend John Perlin’s book, A Forest Journey.

Williams, Michael, Deforesting the Earth — From Prehistory to Global Crisis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Limits to Growth

The Club of Rome was formed in 1968.  It included big shots and experts from 25 nations.  Social and environmental challenges had grown beyond the ability of individual countries to manage.  It was time to study the big issues, and develop strategies for dealing with them.  Their research began with the Project on the Predicament of Mankind.

In 1972, Limits to Growth was published, authored by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows.  (Here is a free PDF of the book.)  They developed a computer model that allowed them to tinker with variables like population, food, pollution, and resources, and create possible scenarios for the coming decades.  This allowed them to understand which variables were best for leveraging desired improvements. 

The book concluded that we were on a path to big trouble, but it was not too late to avert disaster.  World leaders did not leap to action, so 20 years later the second edition was published, Beyond the Limits.  It announced that humankind was beyond overshoot, and it was time to slow down.  Despite millions of copies sold, consumers kept consuming, and leaders kept snoozing.  In 2004, the third edition was published, Limits to Growth — The 30-Year Update, the subject of this review.

All three books present two very important ideas.  First, our planet is finite, so economic and population growth cannot continue forever.  There are limits to growth.  Nothing could be more obvious to anyone who has more than two brain cells, but our culture stubbornly refuses to accept this.  It is impossible to ever have enough.  We are hell-bent on perpetual growth, by any means necessary, at any cost.  Sorry, kids!  Even the most prestigious universities on Earth remain hotbeds of the perpetual growth cult, which is the equivalent of the flat Earth cult of centuries past.

Second, humans have moved beyond the limits.  We are currently on a path that cannot continue for more than a generation or two.  Sorry, kids!  Exponential population growth continues, and exponential growth in resource consumption is growing even faster.  Climate is becoming unstable.  Cropland is being destroyed.  Rivers and aquifers are being drained.  Forests are vanishing.  Fossil energy is finite.  And so on.  There are no silver bullet solutions, but there are countless ways to weaken the monster.

Naturally, the perpetual growth cult is yowling and screeching.  They denounce the Limits to Growth research, asserting that the “predictions of the future” were wildly inaccurate, and therefore all of their ideas are pure balderdash.  Of course, those who have actually read the book(s) know that the authors were careful to repeatedly remind readers that the various possible scenarios of the future were not predictions.

So, there are limits to growth, and we are beyond the limits — this begs the question: what next?  The hurricane of predicaments that comprise humankind’s war on the planet is enormously complex.  We have countless options, and the better ones include slowing down, consuming less, fewer kids.  With regard to what next, the book gets fuzzier.

The intended audience is not the billion hungry souls living on less than two dollars a day.  The authors are writing to the educated, wealthy elite — folks who will yowl and screech if anyone makes a move toward their air conditioner, refrigerator, or vehicle.  They cannot wrap their heads around the notion that life can be both pleasant and sustainable, because sustainability implies terrible sacrifice, an unbearable reduction of their precious high-status, high-waste standard of living.

Because this elite audience is jittery and spooked, the discussion becomes more acrobatic and dubious.  For example, “A global transition to a sustainable society is probably possible without reductions in either population or industrial output.”  Not all growth is bad.  Poor folks need some growth so they can escape from poverty, and discover the magic of family planning.

Of the ten scenarios presented in the book, only one results in a sustainable future, which is inhabited by eight billion happy humans.  This scenario includes the highest number of major changes.  In it, “the system brings itself down below its limits, avoids an uncontrolled collapse, maintains its standard of living, and holds itself very close to equilibrium.”

Our predicaments have been accumulating for centuries.  The Agricultural Revolution sharply disturbed our relationship with the family of life, and the Industrial Revolution greatly magnified these imbalances.  Consequently, it’s time for the Sustainability Revolution.  The book mentions three ways of contemplating sustainability.

Most well known is the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  It fails to point out the huge difference between wants and needs.  Needs are about the basic necessities for survival: food, clothing, and shelter.  Consumers often perceive needs as everything money can buy. 

Another approach is the Herman Daly Rules.  (1) Renewable resources such as fish, soil, and groundwater must be used no faster than the rate at which they regenerate.  (2) Nonrenewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels must be used no faster than renewable substitutes for them can be put into place.  (3) Pollution and wastes must be emitted no faster than natural systems can absorb them, recycle them, or render them harmless.

The Daly Rules are clearer, and they imply backing away from industrial society and traditional agriculture, which is rational and daunting.  His second rule is perplexing.  It’s OK to use energy and minerals to make solar panels, but what would we need electricity for?  Rule two would seem to prohibit using energy and minerals to make computers or refrigerators, because they are not renewable, and they require the existence of a vast and unsustainable industrial society.  Readers are warned that a sustainable society “would be almost unimaginably different from the one in which most people now live.”

The authors favor a third approach to sustainability, the Ecological Footprint model, which compares the impact of human activities to the planet’s carrying capacity.  They calculated that humankind’s current footprint requires an area 1.2 times the Earth — we have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity by twenty percent, and this is unsustainable.  The footprint is defined as “the total area of productive land and water ecosystems required to produce the resources that the population consumes and assimilate the wastes that the population produces, wherever on Earth that land and water may be located.”  The footprint model is vague and imprecise.

The scenarios in the book are based on measurable variables, like cropland area, industrial output, energy reserves, population, and so on.  They do not include unknowns like war, floods, earthquakes, epidemics, and climate instability. 

A serious weakness in their computer model is the assumptions used to project crop yields.  Nine billion could be fed in 2100 if cropland area was not diminished, if food production doubled worldwide, if degraded land was restored, if erosion did not increase, if irrigation capacity did not diminish, and if there was adequate energy and fertilizer.  These assumptions are impossible to take seriously.  Agriculture is highly unsustainable already.

No book provides the solutions we wish for — a healthy future, with a high standard of living, quickly achieved via easy, painless changes.  Limits to Growth is a classic, and it takes a unique approach to describing our predicaments, and evaluating responses to them.  It’s nourishing brain food, easy to read, and a bit sugarcoated.

Meadows, Donella; Randers, Jorgen; and Meadows, Dennis, Limits to Growth — The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2004.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Baz Edmeades (“ed-meedz.”) grew up in South Africa.  His grandfather, Thomas F. Dreyer, was the paleontologist who discovered an unknown species, Homo helmei.  The new species was an immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens, and it lived 239,000 years ago — in Africa!  Europeans, the self-elected master race, naturally assumed that humankind emerged somewhere closer to London.  White folks were shocked to realize that they were Africans.

South Africa’s Kruger National Park is home to megafauna (large animals) that once inhabited vast regions of the world.  Sadly, poachers have been pushing a number of species close to extinction.  This drove Edmeades crazy.  It inspired him to begin research on a book that became Megafauna — First Victims of the Human-caused Extinction.

During the project, he became friends with Paul Martin, who strongly influenced his thinking.  Martin was the father of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, which asserted that overhunting was the sole cause for the megafauna extinctions in North and South America.  They occurred after humans crossed into the Americas from Siberia, 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Other scholars disagreed.  They blamed climate change, and its effects on vegetation.  But the extinct species had previously survived a number of big climate swings.  Still others blamed disease, a comet strike, or a combination of factors.  The issue is highly complex, and there is currently insufficient evidence to confirm a theory, unify the experts, and drive the controversy extinct.

On every continent except Antarctica, there were spasms of megafauna extinctions.  They occurred in different regions, at different times, not in synch with climate swings.  There is real evidence that humans were not innocent bystanders in these murder mysteries.  They likely played a primary role.

In Australia, some say that the species driven to extinction 50,000 years ago were victims of the newly arrived humans.  On the islands of New Zealand, Tasmania, Hawaii, Tonga, Madagascar, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, extinctions occurred at different times, following the appearance of humans.

Much earlier, Africa suffered a severe spasm of extinctions, long before Homo sapiens.  The continent was loaded with megafauna 1.8 million years ago, but many were gone by 1.4 million years ago.  There used to be nine species of big cats (three today), nine types of elephants (one today), four hippos (one today).  There were giant antelopes, giant hyenas, giant pigs, giant monkeys, and giant baboons, all gone.  

Some, including Edmeades, blame overhunting.  At the time, our ancestor Homo erectus had been busy, inventing a new and improved toolbox — knives, saws, axes, cleavers.  This was the Acheulian revolution.  They knew how to use fire, and they may have been the first to use the wooden spear.

In North America, when humans arrived, there were at least nine species of big cats, and seven species of elephants.  The biodiversity was incredible — beavers as big as bears, two-ton buffaloes, armadillos the size of VW Beetles.  Until 14,000 years ago, mammoth country ranged from Western Europe to Mexico.  Aurochs ranged from England to Korea, and south to India and North Africa.  Rhinos ranged from Europe to Sumatra.  Under downtown London are the remains of hippos, elephants, giant deer, aurochs, and lions, residents of the thriving rainforests of England. 

Prior to the spear, our ancestors had been similar to baboons and chimps, scavenging lunch from carnivore kills, and bludgeoning small critters like monkeys and lizards.  Over many thousands of years, evolution had gradually made us better hunters.  Changes to our bones and muscles improved our ability to accurately hurl projectiles, and kill from a distance.  Evolution also improved our long distance running skills.  Our ancestors were much slower than antelopes, but we could chase them for hours, until they collapsed from exhaustion.

Before the spear, we acquired new abilities very slowly, by evolving.  At the same time, other species were also busy evolving new abilities for countering our advances, and maintaining the balance.  With our transition to tool making, we began gaining new abilities by inventing them, a far quicker process.  Spears enabled our ancestors to subdue the man-eating predators who kept them from exploding in numbers.  This rubbished the laws of nature.  Imagine rabbits inventing tools that allowed them to overpower foxes.  With spears, we could also kill large game, acquire abundant meat, and feed more bambinos.

Like the trend of population growth, the trend of techno innovation proceeded slowly for ages, until exploding in recent times.  Innovation allowed us to temporarily sneak around the checks and balances of evolution, and discover the painful consequences of violating the laws of nature in a giddy whirlwind of blissful ignorance.  We invented the ability to disrupt the balance of nature.

All wild animals live in the here and now, paying acute attention to the immediate vicinity.  None devote attention to the balance of nature, or to risks that may arise in the future.  If they get food, they eat; if not, they starve.  Amazingly, some tool-making societies eventually developed a sense of foresight.  They practiced enlightened self-restraint, which included taboos on overhunting and overbreeding — never-ending responsibilities.  Foresight was a slippery path, and some groups slid into domestication.  Unfortunately, societies that master self-restraint are helpless sitting ducks when discovered by civilization — a serious and perplexing predicament.

What really captured my attention while reading, was realizing the incredible abundance of huge, beautiful, powerful forms of life that once thrived on Earth.  It’s almost impossible to imagine how spectacularly alive and healthy this planet was in the days before the toolmakers.  Today, it feels like we’re living in desolate ghost towns, nothing but humans.  I can walk alone all night without fear of being eaten.  Our soundtrack is the rumbling, roaring, screeching noise of planet-eating machinery — not wolves, hyenas, elephants, elk — the wild music of a wild land.

And so, here we are.  We have unluckily inherited a treasure chest of predicaments, all getting worse.  Do you think we can somehow find a way to return to ecological harmony by continuing down the path of technology — solar panels, wind turbines, nanotechnology, space exploration, computer-driven cars?

Our closest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA, provide excellent examples of the benefits of living in compliance with the laws of nature.  They’ve lived in the same place for two million years without trashing it.  Humans who study the school of life can survive in tropical forests without tool making, but seven billion can’t.

Cultures die.  The culture of endless growth and insatiable consumption is moving into its twilight years, as resource limits draw the curtains closed.  A muscle-powered future will require a muscle-powered culture.  We could resurrect the unsustainable cultures of centuries past, and repeat their blunders.  Or, we could learn from their mistakes and try something different and better — like rejoining the family of life, and obeying the laws of nature.  Imagine that.  What can we do to move in that direction?

Anyway, Edmeades provides a long and fascinating discourse on megafauna extinctions.  Megafauna is an unfinished work in progress (as of February 2015).  The manuscript has not been copyedited, but the text is well written, easy for general readers to understand.  Edmeades’ deep knowledge of paleontology is obvious, but he lacks credentials in that field.  He’s a lawyer.  Publishers aren’t interested in paleontology books written by lawyers, so we can read it for free.

Edmeades, Baz, Megafauna — First Victims of the Human-caused Extinction, 2013,

In 2013, the Caustic Soda program produced a slightly-serious interview with Edmeades, a 75-minute podcast.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ten Billion

Stephen Emmott is a chief techno-wizard at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.  His brilliant young scientists are doing research in complex natural systems.  Their objective is to invent miracles.  They want to program ordinary cells to perform photosynthesis, so we can produce food from sunlight, without plows and seeds.  Agriculture can’t feed ten billion.  The goal is to delay the onrushing planetary emergency, and push aside annoying obstacles to perpetual growth.

Much of the public seems to be paying little attention to the emergency, if they are aware of it at all.  Biking around the university town where I live, I don’t sense a crisis of overpopulation.  I don’t sense that global carbon emissions have increased 400 percent in my lifetime.  The squirrels, opossums, ducks, and blue jays have not gone extinct.  Life seems normal.  Everything is OK.  Right?

A wealth of information can be found online, but many internet factoids are generated by slippery gangsters who accumulate riches by accelerating the planetary emergency.  You see their work hundreds of times every day.  Among their favorite tools are magical rubber stamps that imprint [SUSTAINABLE] with subliminal green ink — [SUSTAINABLE] soil mining, [SUSTAINABLE] forest mining, [SUSTAINABLE] fish mining, [SUSTAINABLE] growth, [SUSTAINABLE] development, and on and on.

Emmott’s clan of brilliant scientists is an oddity.  They do not have the rubber stamp.  They are not wearing choke chains that will be jerked if they express ideas that offend the mighty.  They will not lose their jobs if they conclude that we are in the midst of a planetary emergency.  When thinkers are free to learn without blinders and hobbles, they come to perceive reality as an intense whirlwind of out-of-control juju.  This can be a head-snapping experience.

Emmott realized that it would be good to share his disturbing discoveries with the world, to help others see.  Being present in reality, with eyes wide open, breaks the spell.  It provides vision, coherence, and empowerment unavailable to those who stumble in a fog of illusions.  So, in a burst of creative energy, he sat down and wrote Ten Billion, a most unusual book.

It’s 216 pages long, but it can be read in less than an hour.  There is more white space than text.  Some pages are home to five words.  In a normal book, the text might fill 25 pages.  Ten Billion resembles a PowerPoint presentation — an orderly stream of brief statements, decorated with attention-grabbing photos and charts.  He smelted down a mountain of raw data, reducing it to vital conclusions, the pure essence of his vision, and nothing else.

According to one review, readers have a love/hate relationship with the book.  Techies and scientists tend to be annoyed by bold statements unsupported by exhaustive explanations and scholarly citations.  Commoners are more likely to appreciate the simplicity.  It’s encouraging that the book is keeping the cash registers busy at Amazon — it’s attracting hungry minds.  For oddballs like myself, who have read several hundred books on the planetary emergency, Ten Billion is just basic information that every well-educated high school student should know by now.

For example, “We currently have no known means of being able to feed ten billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system.”  Indeed, experts expect food productivity to decline in the coming decades, “possibly very sharply.”  Why?  Reserves of phosphate, a mineral nutrient essential for agriculture, are no longer plentiful.  Desertification and urban sprawl are reducing cropland area.  Soils are being depleted, or eroding away.  Weeds, diseases, and insects continue to develop resistance to our latest chemicals.  Farmers are draining rivers and emptying underground aquifers.

To feed ten billion people, many of whom want more meat, food production must double.  Keeping a growing mob on life support will require far more water, energy, and cropland.  Kiss the tropical forests goodbye.  Kiss countless wild species goodbye.  Adding more people will also increase carbon emissions and accelerate climate change.

Don’t worry about Peak Energy.  Instead, worry that we’ll continue extracting and burning what we’ve already discovered.  Worry that we’ll discover even more, and burn that, too.  Worry about climate change.  A 2°C rise in the global climate would be catastrophic.  New research suggests that a rise of 4 degrees is likely, and 6 degrees is possible.  As the Arctic heats up, large amounts of methane are being released in thousands of plumes.  “This could be very big trouble on a very big scale.”

Even if miracles provided us with abundant clean energy, eliminated climate change, and inspired us to consume far, far less, we’re still doomed if population growth continues.  It is helpful to educate more women, and provide family planning services, but it is still very common for women have more than two children, often many more.  “The worst thing we can continue to do — globally — is have children at the current rate.”

Anyway, after a quick tour of our primary challenges, Emmott finally reveals two options for addressing them, (1) technological innovation, and (2) radical behavior change.  He warns that expecting techno-miracles requires “a staggering leap into fantasy.”  Science is unlikely to rescue us.  But radical behavior change requires a radical reduction in consumption, radically different governments, and a radically different economy.  The bottom line is on the last page.  “We urgently need to do — and I mean actually do — something radical to avert global catastrophe.  But I don’t think we will.  I think we’re fucked.”

For years, publishers have required eco-books to offer some light at the end of the tunnel.  “We only have 30 years to prevent disaster.”  Then, it was 20 years.  Then, it was 10 years.  Write letters to your legislators!  Change your light bulbs!  Let’s mobilize the nation, as we did during World War II, to sharply reduce consumption!  Those books failed to make enough people care.  The house was not on fire, yet.

If you spent months studying 500 channels of TV, you would not be blown off your couch by a fire hose of messages describing the planetary emergency.  “We’re not getting the information we need.  The scale and nature of the problem is simply not being communicated to us.”  A healthy dose of truth might encourage us to reflect upon how we live, and what we value, but that would slow economic growth.

A primary objective of our education system is to prepare the next generation for careers in [SUSTAINABLE] development, so they can live like there’s no tomorrow.  To expose innocent youth to full strength reality would plunge them into deep despair, reducing them to walking dead zombies, we claim.  Actually, despair is a normal, healthy, and rational response to today’s reality.  It’s not a terminal illness, it’s an opening of the heart that revives us as we recover from soul loss.  How can we interact intelligently with reality if we don’t comprehend reality?

There is no silver bullet cure for the planetary emergency.  There is no undo button.  But living mindfully, present in reality, is healing and empowering.  Our species did not evolve to be recreational shoppers.  We weren’t meant to spend our lives mindlessly hoarding frivolous status trinkets.  There’s no future in that.  It’s not even fun.  There are other paths.

Emmott, Stephen, Ten Billion, Vintage Books, New York, 2013.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Too Hot to Touch

Modern society provides a long menu of predicaments to inspire our nightmares.  For a number of years, climate change has been hogging the spotlight.  It’s time to have more nightmares about radiation.  Folks think that if we simply quit building new reactors, the nuclear boo-boo will go away, and we can forget about it — wrong!  William and Rosemarie Alley have shed much light on the subject with their book, Too Hot to Touch.  It reveals a deeply embarrassing chapter that has been omitted from the glorious epic of technology and progress.

Nuclear weapons were invented during World War II.  Nagasaki and Hiroshima were turned into ashtrays, but the enormous unintended consequences of half-baked genius have dwarfed the destruction of two cities.  We continue to create stuff that will remain extremely toxic for millions of years, and none of it is stored in secure permanent facilities, where it will cause no harm.

The war was followed by an arms race.  A hundred new bombs were detonated at the Nevada Test Range between 1951 and 1962.  Nuke tests became a tourist attraction.  Families sat in folding chairs at open-air spectator sites to see the amazing mushroom clouds.  A few minutes after the blast, they were sprinkled with fine dust.  Several decades later, the region became “the thyroid cancer capital of the world.”

Lunatics became giddy with nuclear mania.  Some wanted to blast a new canal across Panama.  Others dreamed of a coast-to-coast waterway across the U.S.  Others wanted to nuke Gibraltar, and turn the Mediterranean into a freshwater sea.  In the Soviet Union, 120 bombs were used for earthmoving projects.

In 1954, construction began on the first U.S. nuclear power reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.  At that time, nuclear waste was not seen to be especially dangerous.  Robert Oppenheimer, at the Atomic Energy Commission, referred to the issue of radioactive waste as “unimportant.”  Experts were possessed by a stupefying blind faith in scientific magic — there is a brilliant solution for everything!

They contemplated a variety of schemes for making high-level waste disappear.  Some recommended shooting it into space, or burying it in sea floor clay beds.  The Soviets disposed it via deep well injection, in a liquid form that may not sit still for millions of years.  The U.S., U.K., France, and the U.S.S.R. have dumped a lot of waste in the oceans.  The Irish have caught contaminated lobsters and fish.

There are a number of radioactive elements and isotopes.  All of them are unstable and become less dangerous over time, degrading at varying rates of speed.  Most forms of uranium are mildly radioactive.  The atoms that are heavier than natural uranium are manmade, and some remain dangerous for millions of years.  Some are water soluble and highly mobile.  Some are picked up by plants and animals, and are biomagnified as they move up the food chain.

Experts eventually realized that high-level radioactive wastes were nastier than expected.  They had to be stored underground, in geologic repositories that would remain stable for a million years.  Serious research began at an old salt mine in Kansas.  Then, a plutonium plant in Colorado burned, and high-level waste was shipped to Idaho, where cardboard boxes of it were dumped into open trenches.  The media reported the story, and the nation soon realized that nutjobs were in charge of handling terrifically toxic dreck.  This detonated high-level fear.  Kansas promptly nuked the proposed repository.

The next hot prospect was Yucca Mountain, on the edge of the Nevada Test Site.  The government invested $10 billion on 25 years of research.  The objective was to prove that the site would be safe for a million years.  No place on Earth would be a perfect site.  Dr. Alley believed that Yucca Mountain was close enough to ideal.  (He spent years on the project, working for the U.S. Geological Survey.)

The core problem was that there were no politically suitable sites in the entire U.S., because every state would fiercely oppose a repository within their borders.  The public had a reasonable fear of high-level waste.  They also had a reasonable lack of trust in anything the government told them, after years of lies and deceptions.  Nevada was no exception.  The government’s nuclear testing had already turned much of the state into a radioactive wasteland.

Obama was elected in 2008.  Steven Chu was his Secretary of Energy.  In March 2009, Chu announced, “Yucca Mountain was not an option.”  He presented no explanations or alternatives.  Why did Chu kill the project?  “Virtually all observers attributed the decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada.  Nevada was a swing state in the election, and Obama had pledged to kill Yucca Mountain, if elected.”

So today, “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries.  More are on the way.  Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.”  As of 2012, American taxpayers were responsible for storing a growing collection of high-level waste — 70,000 tons of spent fuel, and 20,000 canisters of military waste.  It’s being stored at 121 sites in 39 states.  In 15 other nations, 60 nuclear reactors are being built.

Industrial civilization is doing a fabulous job of trashing the planet’s atmosphere, forests, soils, oceans, aquifers, and biodiversity.  This is simply business as usual, and most of humankind is staring at their cell phones.  The future doesn’t matter — with the exception of nuclear waste repositories.  Almost no study has been devoted to the risks of doing nothing, and letting the crap remain where it is forever.  The Alleys steer around this red-hot issue, leaving readers to conjure worst-case nightmares.

Let’s take a side trip to Google.  The average U.S. reactor is 32 years old.  Reactors are licensed for 40 years.  When a license is not renewed, the reactor must be decommissioned, a process that often takes 60 years.  First, the reactor is turned off, and the fuel rods removed.  Then, wait 50 years.  This allows the radiation levels in the facility to cool off, making it much safer for the remaining work to proceed.  The buildings and contaminated soils are removed, and the site is restored to a harmless field.

Fuel rods have a working life of about six years.  Then, the spent fuel, which is still highly radioactive, is moved to cooling pools, where it must remain for at least five years.  Then, ideally, it is stored in dry casks.  If the pumps for the cooling pool quit, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air.  If the uranium pellets in the rods are exposed to air, they melt, and begin releasing radioactive gasses. 

The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.  Cleanup efforts at Chernobyl are hampered by the Ukraine’s wheezing economy.  Around Chernobyl, citizens were permanently evacuated from a Zone of Alienation, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

In the U.S., the planned geologic repository did not materialize by the promised date, and no site has been approved, so spent fuel is piling up at reactor sites.  The Alleys note that some U.S. pools have been loaded with four times more rods than they were designed for, which increases potential risks.  Moving the rods to safer dry casks would cost billions of dollars.

Are we feeling lucky?  What will the world look like in 50 years?  Will effective geologic repositories be built in time?  Fifty years from now, will we have the oil, heavy equipment, transportation systems, functional governments, work crews, and wisdom to safely decommission the existing 440 reactors, plus the new ones being planned?  Will all of the reactors safely avoid disasters resulting from earthquakes, volcanoes, plane crashes, warfare, equipment failures, human errors, and sabotage?

If we cared about the generations to come, and if we were rational, what would a sane plan look like?  Today, orbiting spacecraft passing in the night can clearly see the city lights below.  My grandparents, and all of their ancestors, were born in homes without electricity.  They managed to survive without light bulbs, TVs, cell phones, or the internet.  They were good people who had satisfying lives.  The lights cannot stay on forever.

Alley, William M. and Alley, Rosemarie, Too Hot to Touch, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2013.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Who Will Feed China?

Lester Brown is an environmental analyst, and founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and the Earth Policy Institute.  His grand plan was to observe global trends, and produce objective information.  Brown’s many books and reports have provided rational advice for the world’s irrational policymakers.  He has not sold his soul to corporate interests.

In 1994, Brown wrote an essay, Who Will Feed China?  It triggered an explosive response.  Chinese leaders angrily denounced him.  But behind the scenes, they realized that their nation was vulnerable, because they had not perceived the big picture clearly.  Brown expanded his essay into a book with the same title, published in 1995.  It became a classic.  Reading it 20 years later is eerie, because many of his warnings now sound like the daily news.

Before they industrialized, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were already densely populated.  Then, the growth of industry gobbled up a lot of cropland, which reduced food production, and forced all three to become dependent on imported grain.  In 1994, Japan imported 72 percent of its grain, South Korea 66 percent, and Taiwan 76 percent.

Brown saw that China was on a similar trajectory.  Cropland was limited, and it was rapidly being lost to sprawl, industry, and highways.  They were likely to lose half of their cropland by 2030.  They were also likely to add another 500 million people by 2030.  As incomes rose, people were eager to enjoy a richer diet, including more meat and beer.  This required even more cropland per person.

Freshwater for agriculture was also limited, and much of it was being diverted to growing cities and factories.  About 300 cities were already short of water.  China’s capitol, Beijing, was among 100 cities with severe water shortages.  Demand for water was sure to rise.  Only a few Chinese had indoor plumbing, and everyone wanted it.

Many farmers were forced to drill wells and pump irrigation water from aquifers, often at rates in excess of natural recharge — water mining.  As enormous amounts of water were removed underground, subsidence occurs.  The ground surface sinks, filling the void below, making it impossible for the aquifer to recharge in the future.  In northern China, subsidence affects a region the size of Hungary.  Irrigated fields produce the most food, but water mining will eventually force a reduction in irrigation.  Some regions may be forced to stop growing rice, a water-guzzling crop, and replace it with less productive millet or sorghum.

Grain productivity (yield per hectare) annually grew an average of 7.1 percent between 1977 and 1984.  The annual increase was less than 2 percent between 1984 and 1990, and just 0.7 percent between 1990 and 1994.  There were great hopes for biotechnology, but 20 years of efforts led to no significant increase in grain yields.  Meanwhile, the Yellow River moved 1.6 billion tons of topsoil to the ocean every year.

Now, assemble the pieces.  Population was likely to grow from 1.2 billion in 1995 to 1.66 billion in 2045.  Per capita grain consumption was growing, likely to increase 33 percent by 2030.  Cropland area was likely to decrease 50 percent by 2030.  Water for irrigation was limited, and certain to diminish.  Annual grain harvests may have been close to, or beyond, their historic peak.  The effects of climate change cannot be predicted, but might be severe.  In 1995, the notion of Peak Oil had not yet spread beyond the lunatic fringe, and Brown didn’t mention it, but at some point, it will make modern agriculture impossible.

Demand for grain was rising at a rate that would sharply exceed China’s harvests.  If their economy remained strong, they would have the money to import food.  But, would the food they need be available on the world market?  Following a century of catastrophic population growth, many nations were dependent on imported food.

As world population continued to grow, the ability to further increase food production was wheezing.  World grain stocks fell from 465 million tons in 1987, to 298 million tons in 1994.  At some point, surging demand for grain would exceed the surpluses of the exporters.  This would drive up the price of food.

Brown selected ten large developing nations where population growth remained extreme, and projected how much food they would need to import by 2030.  “By 2030, these countries — assuming no improvement in diet — will need to import 190 million tons of grain.  This is six times the amount they import today and nearly equal to total world grain exports in 1994.”

We were moving into an era of food instability.  “For the first time, an environmental event — the collision of expanding human demand with some of the earth’s natural limits — will have an economic impact that affects the entire world.”  Annual economic growth for the world was falling.  The global economy grew 5.2 percent in the ’60s, 3.4 percent in the ’70s, 2.9 percent in the ’80s, and 1.4 percent in 1990-94.  Slower growth, plus rising food prices, plus falling incomes, sets the stage for trouble.  “It could lead to political unrest and a swelling flow of hungry migrants across national borders.”

Agriculture was running out of steam.  The wizards of industrial civilization insisted that perpetual growth was possible, because our miraculous technology could overcome all challenges.  They were wrong.  Brown concludes, “The bottom line is that achieving a humane balance between food and people is now more in the hands of family planners than farmers.”  When Brown wrote, there were 5.6 billion of us.  Irrational policymakers disregarded the urgent need for family planning.  And so, today, at 7.2 billion, the world is a far more unstable place, with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Twenty years before Brown’s book, China realized that population growth was a problem.  They were adding 13 million every year, and emigration was not a real option.  Their one-child policy was launched in 1979, and the transition was bumpy.  The birthrate fell from 2.7 percent in 1970 to 1.1 percent in 1994.  It succeeded in preventing much misery, but it didn’t stop growth.  Brown praised them for actually taking action, forcing the present generation to sacrifice for the benefit of future generations — a concept unimaginable to Americans.

Brown, Lester R., Who Will Feed China?, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

Here are recent follow-up reports from the Earth Policy Institute:

Can the World Feed China?  Lester R. Brown, February 25, 2014

Peak Water: What Happens When the Wells Go Dry?  Lester R. Brown, July 09, 2013

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mao’s War Against Nature

When I was young, I discovered pictures from China, where the streets were filled with people riding bicycles.  I was overwhelmed by this display of human intelligence.  Had they learned from our mistakes and taken a higher path, or had their culture taught them to respect life?  I was living in Kalamazoo, where the streets were a nightmare, jammed with impatient nutjobs in speeding wheelchairs.  The air was thick with methylene chloride, and the river was a PCB cesspool.  If only our leaders were Chinese… sigh!  Like I said, I was young.

In 1949, Mao Zedong led a revolution that overthrew the Chinese government.  The victors created the People’s Republic of China, a communist state.  China had suffered from a long era of exploitation by foreign powers.  Mao was eager to create a prosperous industrial utopia as rapidly as possible, by any means necessary.

In 1972, Richard Nixon visited Mao and reestablished relations between the U.S. and China.  Judith Shapiro was among the first Americans allowed to work there.  She taught English.  The outside world knew little about Red China, but Shapiro soon learned that the Maoist era had been a turbulent freak show.  She described this period in her book, Mao’s War Against Nature.

Every environmental history book is a horror story, describing how clever humans survived by using technology and aggression to devour nonrenewable resources, deplete renewable resources, ravage ecosystems, and leave the bills for their children.  Shapiro’s book stands out, because it examines an era of unbelievable ecocide.  Maoist China repeated the classic mistakes of other civilizations, but in fast forward mode.

Mao’s high-speed modernization project was called the Great Leap Forward (1958-60).  He wanted to produce more steel than Great Britain within 15 years.  Peasants rapidly constructed several million primitive backyard furnaces.  A hundred million people worked day and night melting tools, pots, and scrap into blobs of useless metal.  Most of the furnaces were wood-fired, and deforestation was widespread.  In those days, the peasants still believed the dream — that their heroic efforts would bring a new era with powerful tractors and railroads.  They worked enthusiastically.

At the same time, there was a huge drive to increase grain production via bone-headed strategies.  They were told that if they planted ten times as many seeds in a field, the yield would be ten times higher.  Sadly, the densely grown plants rotted.  But local leaders were deeply engaged in a competition to report astonishing gains in grain production, and their claims were far in excess of reality. 

Because it would have been impossible to store all the grain reported, folks were ordered to make steel.  The 1958 crop largely rotted in the fields, while the steel-making peasants consumed their grain reserves.  In 1959, drought arrived, and the Great Famine began.  Between 35 and 50 million died by 1961 — the biggest manmade famine in history.

The war on nature had another front, the Four Pests — rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes.  Sparrows were an enemy of the people because they ate too much grain.  Schoolchildren ran around the countryside, destroying their nests and smashing their eggs.  They banged pots whenever a sparrow landed.  Before long, there were far fewer sparrows, and far more of the insects they used to eat.  Farmers soon realized that sparrows were great allies.  The birds were removed from the pest list, and replaced by bedbugs.

A core component of the Mao era was disregard for expertise.  Mao hated intellectuals, scientists, and anyone else who questioned his fantasies.  “Mao and his followers all too often fell into the trap of believing that because they declared something possible or true, it would be so.”  Time-proven ideas were annoying superstitions that obstructed the fast lane to utopia.  Knowledgeable people who voiced doubts about stupid ideas were promoted to exciting new careers in breaking rocks, exterminating forests, or worse.

When the president of Beijing University warned about the danger of rapid population growth, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities.  Overpopulation could only be a problem in evil capitalist societies — never in a socialist paradise.  China was already overpopulated in 1949, and it grew with spooky speed.  Mao refused to believe the census numbers.  In 1958, family planning programs were ended, and not resumed until 1971.  Mao died in 1976, and in 1979, the one-child policy was implemented.

When a respected engineering professor at Qinghua University warned that the planned Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River was stupid, and would promptly fill with silt, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities.  The dam was built, and the reservoir filled with silt two years later, flooding a nearby town.  Mao rushed to build thousands of dams, of which 2,976 had collapsed by 1980.  Many were built with soil alone, by untrained peasants.  Floods caused by two dam failures in 1975 killed an estimated 230,000 people.

Rubber was a strategic resource, and Mao did not want to rely on imports from capitalists.  During the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of educated urban youths from bad families (i.e., intellectuals, rightists, capitalists) were shipped to the virgin rainforests north of Laos.  This region was too far north for rubber, but the experts understood it was dangerous to protest.  So, ancient forest was cleared, and planted with rubber.  Much of it died during the winter of 1974-75.  They replanted, and the trees died again.  They replanted a third time, with the same result.

Looking at this era from the outside, it’s easy to see the foolishness.  The only news the peasants got came from government sources — propaganda.  The culture had a long tradition of obedience to superiors.  Free speech and dissent were not cool.  “Political campaigns so distorted human relationships that family members were driven to denounce and beat each other, neighbors spied on neighbors, schoolchildren drove teachers to suicide, and the world was turned upside down for countless millions.”

As I read, I couldn’t help but contemplate how foolish our own culture would appear to intelligent outsiders.  How much of our news stream is truthful?  What stories are missing?  Why do we disregard the warnings of climate scientists?  How can a “well-educated” population remain so ecologically illiterate?  It’s 2015, the polar bears are dying, and the streets of Kalamazoo are still jammed with speeding wheelchairs.  Why?

The Chinese were manipulated to pursue an ideology, and the program resulted in enormous environmental harm.  It seems like consumer societies are manipulated via advertising and peer pressure to cause enormous harm via lifelong competition for status.  We must continually acquire more impressive homes, cars, televisions, and on and on.  A couple years ago, it was awesomely trendy to wear clothing printed with skull motifs.  The following year, the skulls vanished, and the trend robots rushed to fill their wardrobes with the latest new fashions.

Anyway, Shapiro’s book is stunning.  Mao is dead, and so is his ideology.  The new game is the high speed pursuit of personal wealth.  She mentions a few signs of hope, but it seems clear that the post-Mao era is causing far more environmental harm.  The population is still growing.  The pollution is horrendous.  In every nation, the war on nature is winning.  What would intelligent people do?

Shapiro, Judith, Mao’s War Against Nature, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2001.