Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Future Has Arrived

via Wikipedia

Would you like to know what your world is going to look like by, say, 2030? A little peek at the wonderful things we’ll be using? Lives we’ll be living? Did vat-grown meat ever become a thing? Are more of us vegetarian? How did that whole Trump presidency work out?
Getting a look is easier than you think. All we have to do is look at Puerto Rico today. Today Puerto Rico is a land of sunshine, environmental devastation, and the threat of starvation.
This year has seen three major global warming-intensified storms hit in the Caribbean and southern US in a row. One, Irma, was rated a Category 5 only because there is nothing higher than C5. This is pretty much exactly in line with NASA, NOAA, and international modelling of the effects of a warming planet. The ocean has been soaking up amazing amounts of both carbon and heat over the last couple of decades. Now, when a depression forms over the ocean, there is much more energy available for it to soak up. And the more energy it gets from a warmer ocean, the bigger the eventual storm.
On the West Coast of North America, this will play out in two ways; the warming ocean will also create larger storms, and the warmer air will pick up more water. As little as 1/2 of one percent more moisture in the air can lead to an increase of fifty millimetres or more (2”+) of rain. With the logging of the last century, this will mean more mudslides, silting of rivers, damage to spawning grounds, and impacts on municipal water supplies.
On the US’ south and East coasts, storms, particularly hurricanes, will be larger, more damaging, and bring more flooding with larger storm surges. Maria, the hurricane that has wiped our about 80% of Puerto Rico’s crops and up to 80% of some neighbourhoods, is the third storm to hit US territory. This too is in line with the models. And it is this sequentiality that is the problem.
In Houston TX, some places recieved over a metre of rain in 24 hours. As the centre of the US petrochemical industry, Houston has claimed the lion’s share of US aid. Florida recieved much of the rest. Puerto Rico, not being a state but rather a protectorate, is coming a poor third. It doesn’t hurt that both Texas and Florida voted heavily for the current president.
This is one year. What will it be like when we’ve had a decade or more of these disasters. Drought and wildfire in the Midwest, or wildfire or floods on California. In Canada, the prairies are overdue for a drought, a wildfire almost took out Ft. McMurray last summer, and the interior of BC has been devastated by one this summer. Insurance against natural disasters is becoming harder to get, and insurance companies are losing their collective minds.
So here’s the thing about Puerto Rico: 80% of their food crops have been destroyed. The protectorate is poor. And, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, in order to survive famine, you have to be able to either buy food in the market, or move to where you can buy or grow food. And the US has been exploiting the fact that if you just provide food aid, you destroy the local markets, making the population dependent on provided food. It’s actually better to slowly substitute money for food aid, in order to build the market back up.
So what are the odds that the current US government will provide a guaranteed annual income to the residents of Puerto Rico? Because it will take years for PR to recover (if ever—there are more storms coming). Or Puerto Rico becomes a state of refugees, moving en masse to the continental United States. And how do you think that’s going to go over in the present political environment in the US?
That’s your future too. There will be a storm. Or another natural disaster. And the country will be overextended, so disaster relief will be limited or non-existant. So you either try and rebuild where you are, or become an internal refugee.
Murphy’s Law dictates that when the disaster hits, it will destroy the most important stuff; transportation corridors, the electrical grid, food. Just like Puerto Rico. And that it will happen at the worst time. The 1% think they can get out of this—it’s why Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. It’s why they’re buying bunkers in New Zealand. And it won’t help.
We cannot keep going the way we are. That route means we’re reduced to a hundred thousand humans, or so. Worst case, we turn the planet into Venus for a couple of million years. As Michael Crichton said in Jurassic Park: “I don’t fear for the future of life on Earth. [...] I fear for the future of human life on Earth.” We have to downshift in a radical way. Converting to sustainable power doesn’t mean we get to keep this life of insane consumerism. Sustainable power means that we live a medieval life in some comfort. If we start yesterday, we might be able to keep the losses to a few billion humans.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Hot Road Ahead

We're in deep deep trouble when it comes to our food system. Even without the population growth expected over the rest of the century, we're facing tremendous stresses on our ability to produce and distribute food.  Currently, there's an ideological war over just how food should be produced (do we double down on the industrial model or do we force transition into all-organic production?), a battle that really is pretty much moot.
There will be no choice between organic/industrial. Ultimately, b y the end of the century, industrial agriculture will be ended. The only question is, will it end soon enough to make a difference?
Agriculture, as currently constituted, is, from farm to fork, one of the primary drivers of climate change—even more so than transportation. The production and use of fertilizers produce massive amounts of GHGs (Green House Gasses). The growing demand for cheap beef in particular, and all meat in general, is killing us in multiple ways. Not the least of these is the tremendous amounts of methane ruminants release.
CO2  levels are over 400 ppm and rising, even though the only safe level we know is being under 350ppm. Global temperature is up a degree, and while we keep talking about keeping the rise under two degrees, that's just a number picked out of the air, and the belief that we can deal with a two degree rise is really based on nothing but hope.
The truth of the matter is, even post-COP21 (the 2015 climate discussion in Paris), we're not going to make it. Global warming is going to continue, tipping points will be passed, the current climate-related death rate will continue to rise, and civilization will fall. Our ideological commitment to capitalism has lead to the end of days for democracy and the rise of fascism (don't believe me? Just look at the election of Trump in the US, and the 30 percent support for the Harper Conservatives in our last election).  Money has bought itself political power and enabled the one percent to own just over half the world's wealth. And the one percent have no love for democracy.
Naomi Klein has pointed out the it's all connected. For those who consider themselves progressives, those who consider themselves committed to democracy, those who are social activists, all the causes, all the marches, all the work, it all points to one thing: the need to stop global warming. Everything needs to change. But the problem is, everything needs to change.
There's this assumption that if we manage a transition from fossil fuel to renewables, we won't have to change anything about the way we live. The same inequalities can still exist, the crazed consumerism, the suburbs and cities, everything can continue tripping merrily along. Especially the consumption that requires the output of two and a half Earths to sustain, and maintains the status of both the one percent and Western consumerist society.
That's simply not so. Even with 100 percent renewable power, this can't continue. Particularly industrial agriculture. But there's too much money (and more importantly, too much control) at stake for that ship to turn. We are facing radical changes in how we produce food. Yet we're not even talking about these changes at COP21. Monsanto (and other corporations like ADM, China Agri-Industry Holdings, BASF, Agrium,  own too much (including governments)) to allow change to happen. And that means the coming floods, droughts, and other climate disruption will cause death. A lot of death.
Over at Grain, they're tracking corporations and countries investing in “under-utilized” land around the world (though primarily in Africa), trying to position themselves to advantage in the coming crisis. Massive tracts of land being acquired, emptied of the people who currently live there, and converted into industrial farms. China, worried about the emptying of the countryside and progressive desertification in the north, is one of the big players in land-grabbing. The goal is to grow mega-tonnage of food and ship it back to the home country.  Under the industrial ag model, this translates to shipping African topsoil to China, leaving behind a country as degraded as China itself.
The last time this was attempted was during the Second World War by Germany and Japan. As Lizzie Collingham writes in her new book The Taste of War:
One of the most powerful aspects of making food the central focus of an investigation into the Second World War is that the agrarian policy of the Nazi regime is revealed as one of the driving forces behind some of the worst atrocities committed during the conflict. The experience of the First World War had taught the National Socialist leadership that an adequate food supply was crucial to the maintenance of military and civilian morale. Food shortages among the soldiers on the front and the civilians at home had pushed a deeply demoralized Germany toward capitulation in 1918. It was both fear of a repeat of the disastrous decline in civilian morale and a powerful sense of the German people's superior entitlement to food which made the National Socialists determined that the German population would not go hungry during this war. Instead, others would have to go without food. (pp. 4-5)
There's no reason to think that modern Fascism will be any different from the 20th century version. The National Socialists identified groups as “useless eaters,” planned out how to empty the countryside of countries they invaded in order to put their own farmers in place (farmers who understood “scientific farming” and how to “properly” exploit the land), and how to divert grain shipments to their own troops, leaving civilian populations to starve.
By contrast, when in 2007-8, the world faced a possible grain shortage, what did we do? Did we do anything to try and ensure equitable distribution? No, not really. Russia shut down wheat exports to ensure their own people had enough. India stopped rice exports for the same reason. And neither country brought in rationing or any other method to ensure that all their people had access to food. They just maintained the status quo. The poor were left to face dramatically increased food prices on their own. And in the Middle East, the price of bread brought the revolutions of the “Arab Spring.”
The same business as usual approach is being followed in North America with the current food price inflation; welfare rates are held steady or decreased, Saskatchewan  farmland is sold to foreign corporations while small farms suffer and food is shipped overseas, and even the middle class feels the pinch. Profits rise, nutrition falls, and everywhere food banks and soup kitchen proliferate, letting governments off the hook by downloading the response to those of us who care, but also have no way to impact the policies that are behind the desperation.
This bids fair to get worse as the climate changes. The destruction of California's agriculture is almost complete—and as soon as they get the last of the water out of the ground it will be finished. As will agriculture depending on the Ogallala aquifer. The American mid-west and the Canadian prairies face tighter cycles of longer droughts.
And it's all connected. Food, income inequality, the worldwide water crisis, homelessness, the decline of democracy and the rise of fascism, terrorism, the migrant crisis. Global warming rides  over them all, sending forth the four horsemen across the globe.
On my worst days, we do nothing, hit the tipping point,and I see my children dying slowly in a nightmarish apocalypse.  On a good day? We make real efforts at changing our lifestyle, we hit the tipping point because we've already taken too damn long to come to grips with the problem, and my children die slowly in a nightmarish apocalypse.