Climate Change

Australia’s first female Prime Minister

Photo from news.com.au

Thank goodness for live steaming TV on the internet. I’ve been glued to the Australian news all afternoon, waiting to see if Australia was going to get it’s first female Prime Minister. Sure enough, we did. Julia Gillard was sworn into office sometime after noon local time and is now attending her first question time in Parliament.

They don’t lie when they say things move fast in politics. I first got wind on Facebook this morning that something was up with the leadership of Australia. In less than twelve hours we have history in the making. A female Monarch, female Governor General and female Prime Minister. I certainly wasn’t expecting that in my lifetime.

After the excitement of today’s politics it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming weeks and months. It seems that Kevin Rudd lost the leadership because the Australian people weren’t happy with the way he handled his promises to tackle climate change and the mining ‘super tax’. Will Julia be able to turn it around in time for the next election due within six months?

Aussie politics just got interesting. I suppose I better enroll to vote.

The Perfect Storm: Six Trends Converging on Collapse

I have an uneasy feeling lately. Everywhere I look I see signs that all is not well. Of course, I’ve been seeing those signs for a couple of years, but things seem to be speeding up and now more and more people appear to be noticing. What interesting times we live in.

There are dark clouds gathering on the horizon. They are the clouds of six hugely troubling global trends, climate change being just one of the six. Individually, each of these trends is a potential civilization buster. Collectively, they are converging to form the perfect storm–a storm of such magnitude that it will dwarf anything that mankind has ever seen. If we are unsuccessful in our attempts to calm this storm, without a doubt it will destroy life as we know it on Planet Earth!

There is a popular saying that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” If we keep doing business in the same way as we have for the past century, each of these six trends will continue their steep rates of decline, collapsing the natural systems that form the foundation for our civilization and the lifeblood of the global economy. Perhaps the current Gulf oil spill is the wake up call that mankind needs to snap us out of our complacency, realize that we are soiling our nest and that continuation of “business as usual” will destroy the world as we know it? Time will tell whether we heed this warning, go back sleep once the oil spill is contained, or simply tire of the endless media coverage, numb ourselves, and set these critical issues to the side.

We already have the technology and the means to turn this dark tide, but we lack the commitment to make the hard choices and sweeping changes that are necessary for shifting the future of our world from its current course of collapse to a new course of sustainability.

The following six trends are converging to form the perfect storm for global destruction, each of which is a potential civilization buster in its own right, if left unchecked:

1. Climate Change

2. Peak Oil

3. Collapse of the World’s Oceans

4. Deforestation

5. The Global Food Crisis

6. Over Population

Read more from Matthew Stein

Photo by: Madeira

A Farm for the Future

I thought I was getting better, but alas I was fooled. I’m still down with this illness, which seems to have progressed to a rotten headache and deep lethargy. I can’t find the energy to write any posts so instead, here is a video I found today at the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

A Farm for the Future

This BBC show features Rebecca Hosking returning to her family farm in Devon. After the petrol price shocks of 2008, she confronts the challenge of reducing the farm’s dependence on oil in order to keep it running and viable in a future of increasingly scarce energy. She explores the history of British agriculture and considers what other British farms have done to wean themselves off fossil fuels.

Environment#3: Resource Limitations ~ Food

Photo by: Bern@t

For some background reading on related issues, try these articles first:

Environment#1: The Issue of Human Population Growth

Energy#1: What is Peak Oil

Environment#2: Resource Limitations~ Water

It’s time to start thinking about Food Security

When you think about the factors affecting food production (climate, water, arable land, fertiliser, energy) it’s easy to see how current trends in each of these areas should be making us feel a little nervous about our Food Security (or lack thereof).

Even more than other oil-driven sectors of the global economy, food production is showing signs of strain as it struggles to maintain productivity in the face of rising population, flattening oil production and the depletion of essential resources such as soil fertility and fresh water. According to figures compiled by the Earth Policy Institute, world grain consumption is starting to exceed global production. Global grain reserves have fallen to 57 days from a high of 130 days in 1986.

The production of an adequate food supply is directly dependent on ample fertile land, fresh water and energy. As the human population grows, the requirements for these resources also grow.

The Decline of Fertile Cropland

During the past 40 years nearly one-third of the world’s cropland (1.5 billion hectares) has been abandoned because of soil erosion and degradation. ~ Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy, Pimentel and Giampietro

At present, fertile cropland is being lost at an alarming rate. More and more of the world’s cropland has been abandoned because agricultural practices, overgrazing and deforestation have caused the land to become unproductive. This is a long term problem because it takes 500 years to form 25 mm of soil under agricultural conditions. Most replacement of eroded agricultural land is now coming from marginal and forest land.

World cropland per capita has been steadily declining and is now less than 0.23 ha per capita; and down to as little as 0.08 ha in China, the world’s most populous country. To enjoy a diverse diet similar to that of the U.S. and Europe, 0.5 ha per capita of cropland is required. With more of the world desirous of a western diet, it’s obvious that more pressure will be applied to the arable land that remains.

In addition to losses from erosion and other environmental impacts, cropland is also being converted to non-farm uses. This doesn’t just apply to developing nations. One only has to look at the housing developments here in Southern California to witness how much productive cropland is being lost to construction. The number of vehicles in the world also continues to grow, claiming even more cropland for roads, highways, and parking lots. China has recently overtaken the U.S. as the largest vehicle market in the world. If the Chinese market were to keep growing to an ownership rate of one car for every two people, the country would then have a fleet of 650 million motor vehicles, compared with only 35 million today. Since at least 0.4 hectares of land has to be paved for every 20 vehicles added to the fleet, this would require paving nearly 13.3 million hectares of land — an area equal to half the rice fields in China.

The shortage of productive cropland combined with decreasing land productivity is, in part, the cause of current food shortages and associated human malnutrition. When combined with other factors such as political unrest, economic insecurity, and unequal food distribution patterns food shortages are likely to become worse in the future.

Water shortages = Food shortages

Of all the environmental trends that are shrinking the world’s food supplies, the most immediate is water shortages. In a world where 70 percent of all water use is for irrigation, this is not a small issue.

The drilling of millions of irrigation wells has pushed water withdrawal in many countries beyond recharge rates from rainfall, leading to groundwater mining. As a result, water tables are now falling in countries that contain half the world’s people, including the big three grain producers — China, India, and the United States. ~Spiegal Online International

Fossil aquifers which are being use more and more for agricultural irrigation, are not replenishable. When they reach depletion in more arid regions, such as southwestern United States or the Middle East, it can mean the end of agriculture altogether.

In China, the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces over half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. Overpumping has led to the drilling of the region’s non-replenishable deep aquifer, which is dropping at a rate of nearly three meters per year. A World Bank report predicted “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance. As water tables fall and irrigation wells go dry, China may soon be importing massive quantities of grain in addition to the soybean imports which now account for nearly 70% of the country’s consumption.

The progressive worldwide depletion of aquifers is making further expansion of food production more difficult. After nearly doubling from 139 million hectares in 1961 to 276 million hectares in 2002, the world’s irrigated area abruptly stopped growing. It seems peak water has arrived.

Source

Industrialized Agriculture relies on Nitrogen-based Fertilisers

Nitrogen-based fertilisers enabled the ‘Green Revolution’ that boosted global food production in the last century, but that benefit came at a cost which we are now going to pay for.

Fossil fuels are needed for the continued production of fertilisers. As those fossil fuels become more expensive or harder-to-obtain, the ready availability of fertilisers is likely to be affected.

Natural gas is a key feedstock (up to 90 percent of the total costs) in the manufacturing of nitrogen fertilizer for which there is no practical substitute… Nitrogen fertilizer prices tend to increase when gas prices increase. ~US GAO report: “Natural Gas: Domestic Nitrogen Fertilizer Production Depends on Natural Gas Availability and Prices”

Between 1950 and 1990, the world’s farmers raised grain yield per hectare by more than two percent a year, exceeding the growth of population. Since then, yield growth has slowed such that the demand from a growing population is rapidly converging with the available food supply.

Source

Expensive Energy = Expensive Food

Here we are, supposedly recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and oil is still trading at more than $80 a barrel. If and when a true recovery gets under way, that price is likely to rise even more, as I discussed in last week’s post on The Economy and Oil. This issue is critical, because our industrialised agricultural system is so reliant on cheap oil for harvesting, processing and transporting food vast distances to the store shelves.

10 kcalories of exosomatic energy are spent in the U.S. food system per calorie of food eaten by the consumer. Put another way, the (US) food system consumes ten times more energy than it provides to society in food energy. ~The Tightening Conflict: Population, Energy Use, and the Ecology of Agriculture”

Oil is a finite, natural resource and we are fast approaching the end of cheap oil. When oil is more expensive, food is more expensive too.

Source

Climate Change

Whether you believe in human-caused climate change or not, it’s clear to most people that something is up with the weather. Many agricultural regions around the world are experiencing stronger heat waves, more drought or more extreme rainfall. It’s starting to affect the harvests we are relying on to keep us all fed. Droughts aren’t good for crops, but neither are record wet spells. Extremely wet conditions in the U.S. Midwest last fall delayed harvests to the point that some 30 per cent of North Dakota’s corn remained in the fields by the time a Christmas blizzard put an end to harvest time completely.

Agriculture as it exists today was shaped by a climate system that has remained remarkably stable over farming’s 11,000-year history. Since crops were developed to maximize yields in this long-standing climate regime, climate change means agriculture will be increasingly out of sync with its natural environment.

Population Growth and Food Scarcity

And finally there’s still population growth to consider.

World food production must increase by 70 percent by 2050, to nourish a human population then likely to be 9.1 billion ~UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

It appears that crop yields are moving closer to the inherent limits of the Earth. This limit establishes the upper bounds of the earth’s human carrying capacity. The question is not whether the world grain harvest will continue to expand, but will it expand fast enough to keep pace with rapidly growing demand? If we continue down the current path it is not likely to do so, which means that food supplies will tighten further. There is a real risk that we could soon face civilization-threatening food shortages.

Geo-Political issues

It’s easy to dismiss this issue as something that will only affect poor nations, but we now live in a truly global world. There are many ways that food scarcity can become very political and start impacting our lives in ways we never imagined. Since that’s a huge topic in its own right, I might leave that topic to another week.

This post is part of my World-Changing Wednesday series. Tune in each Wednesday to read my thoughts on an issue which I think will have a huge impact on how we live our lives in the years to come.

International Day of Climate Action – Oct 24

Join me at <a href=

Food and Farm (from 350.org)

Food shortages and climate impacts

There is a growing movement around the world centered around the way food is grown and distributed. In many places, access to food is still a severe problem, and food costs are rising. Overall, the aggregate global price of food has doubled in real terms over the past eight years, while in many places, the workers with the lowest incomes are seeing those incomes fall. As if this weren’t enough, climate change impacts weather patterns, leading to increased rainfall in some places, and decreased rainfall in others. The African continent is especially harmed, and as drought impacts growing regions, farming and grazing for cattle and other animals compromises yet more peoples’ access to food.

Locally produced food as a solution

The concept of “food miles” and the carbon footprint of food is becoming more widely known. The basic concept is: as we have increasingly globalized our food supply, we use more petroleum flying food all over the world. Locally produced food doesn’t bring this problem, and it also provides many additional benefits. So what is local food, and why is it so great? Instead of going to the supermarket and buying food that comes from another country, your money helps support your local community, where it stays within the local tax base, and provides local jobs. All while helping to stop climate change.

Livestock

Factory farms require huge carbon inputs and produce huge carbon outputs in the form of methane. It takes more than a calorie of fuel to produce every calorie we eat and, in industrial meat production, the ratio of calories-in to calories-out can be as high as 58:1. Eating livestock from your local community lessens this problem, but it still has a higher carbon output than a vegetarian diet.

Industrial agriculture

Growing commodity food on an industrial scale requires huge carbon inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers. Many fertilizers are petroleum-based. Small- and mid-scale diversified farms are actually carbon-negative: they store carbon in the soil.

Production of Corn-based ethanol

To quote food justice advocate Raj Patel, “It should hardly be surprising that the decision to burn rather than eat a large share of the US corn harvest would push up food prices. Estimates of the impact on global food prices vary from a high of 30 per cent to a low of around 5 per cent.” While it’s impossible to single out one cause for the global food crisis, taking corn out of the food supply and into the fuel supply had a very quick impact on global hunger. People rioted in protest in many countries, especially in India. While this issue is quite complicated, and this is a simplification, one key take-away is that climate solutions that rely on agriculture are not cut-and-dry fixes to the problem, and they bring with them consequences just like any other alternative.

Confessional: All my flying makes me a bad human

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Photo By: Gilbert R.

On Sunday I returned from yet another trip away. I swear I’ve been away from home at least once per month this year and I’m feeling burned out from it all.

To set the scene, my job requires me to attend quite a number of meetings throughout the year. Nearly all of them are on the other side of the country and a few are even international. The only way I can get to these meetings is to fly….. and I feel as guilty as h&*# about it. I know flying is one of the worst things we can do for the environment and I feel like this one aspect of my life undoes all the good work I do in other areas.

For many of us who are trying to live a more sustainable life, one of the most difficult realisations comes when we begin to understand that as long as industrialised civilisation exists, there is very little impact each individual can make. Sure, I could quit my job and go and live a subsistence lifestyle in the woods, but someone else will simply take my place at all these meetings. That someone else might make no attempt to minimise their impact while travelling, while at least I am conscious of my impact and attempt to reduce it where possible by:

  • Buying carbon offsets when available
  • Taking a direct flight if not prohibitively expensive
  • Minimising the amount of waste I produce on the aircraft and in airports (have you seen the amount of trash produced every flight!)
  • Taking a train where possible

Unfortunately I think that until we can scale the entire system down to a much smaller level, business as usual will continue. While flights around the continent and the world remain cheap and plentiful, people will continue to travel. Of course we all have a choice to reduce our “non-essential” travel, but until something big forces equally big changes, the system as we know it will limp along for as long as possible.

My view is that flying will simply have to become more expensive – be it through ever higher fuel costs, taxation or as a result of emissions trading. Only by becoming more expensive will ticket prices start to better reflect flying’s environmental impact and therefore drive down demand. Business will be forced to reconsider how much flying is really necessary.

Don’t get me wrong, while we’ve had them I’ve enjoyed cheap flights as much as the next person. However I willingly concede that there are things in this world that do not reflect their true cost…flying is one of them. The era of cheap flights must end.

World Food Day ’09- Achieving Food Security in Times of Crisis

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Photo by: Bernat

“In the next 50 years we will need to produce as much food as has been consumed over our entire human history. That means in the working life of my children, more grain than ever produced since the Egyptians, more fish than eaten to date, more milk than from all the cows that have ever been milked on every frosty morning humankind has ever known.”

~Megan Clark – head of Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, (CSIRO).

Since 1981, World Food Day has adopted a different theme each year in order to highlight areas needed for action and provide a common focus. This year’s theme is:  

Achieving Food Security in Times of Crisis.

At a time when the global economic crisis dominates the news, the world needs to be reminded that not everyone works in offices and factories. The crisis is stalking the small-scale farms and rural areas of the world, where 70 percent of the world’s hungry live and work.

With an estimated increase of 105 million hungry people in 2009, there are now 1.02 billion malnourished people in the world, meaning that almost one sixth of all humanity is suffering from hunger.

~ Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

I’m not sure how aware most people are when it comes to food security, mostly because people in wealthy nations see food as trivial, something that is available on supermarket shelves in large quantities and resupplied on a regular basis. Unlike previous generations, most of us are no longer participants in the production of our own food. We are relying on an increasingly industrialised model of food production which leaves us with little redundancy if anything should go wrong. Personally, I can see many areas in which things could go wrong, particularly when you consider environmental degradation (water, topsoil) and increasing energy prices (oil, natural gas).

I intend to dedicate a World-Changing Wednesday post to food in the near future, but I couldn’t let World Food Day pass without mention.

World-Changing Wednesdays

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Photo by: Norma Desmond

Since I started this blog I’ve really been focusing on what we’ve been doing to live a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle. I have mentioned Voluntary Simplicity and given some broad reasons about why we are changing our life, but today I really want to jump right in and outline some of the big issues I see impacting us in the not too distant future.

In short, I think the world as we know it is coming to an end. I’m not talking the Apocalypse, but I am talking about the way of life enjoyed by the majority of people in the Western World. We simply can not keep living the way we do without coming up against some very finite limits. Each week, I’m going to start addressing one topic which sometimes keeps me awake at night. Because it’s a catchy phrase I’m going to call this series ‘World-Changing Wednesday’s, however I don’t want people to think I’m a complete doomer. I am in fact a very optimistic person, I just choose to see the world as it is and adapt to reality rather than living in fantasy land. I hope you tune in on Wednesday’s to learn a little more about some of the most important issues which will affect us during our lifetime. To quote Dr Chris Martenson, “I believe the next twenty years will be completely unlike the last twenty”.

There are quite a few issues I’m going to discuss and instead of jumping around all over the place, I intend to approach my discussion in three specific areas:

Economy

Firstly, at a high level I’m going to talk about how money comes into existence and outline the fundamentals of the major Western economies. I promise not to make it boring, but having a good understanding of the basis for our way of life is critical to understanding some of the other problems we are starting to see such as recession, increased debt, failure to save, housing bubbles, disappearing retirement benefits, unemployment etc etc. I’m also going to touch on the increasing wealth gap and demographic issues and how this will affect our lives in the years to come.

Economy#1: How Money is Created

Economy#2: Is a housing bubble looming in Australia?

Economy#3: How the Credit Crisis Happened

Economy#4: The Debt Trap (Our Economic System is not Sustainable)

Energy

Energy is the source of all economic activity in our current civilisation. Cheap energy is absolutely fundamental to our current way of living. Continued growth based on ever increasing levels of cheap energy is not possible and when growth can no longer occur, the whole system will be forever changed. I’m going to spend some time discussing Peak Oil and then look as some of the ramifications of reduced energy on our way of living.

Energy#1: What is Peak Oil?

Energy#2: The Economy and Oil (The Long Decline)

Environment

I know climate change gets all the headlines these days but there are so many more environmental issues that need to be discussed. I’ll talk about exponential population growth and how that relates to resource depletion, including food, water and clean air. I also want to touch on pollutions and toxins and how they might affect us and those we love.

Environment#1: The Issue of Human Population Growth

Environment#2: Resource Limitations ~ Water

Environment#3: Resource Limitations ~ Food

All three of these broader issues (The Three E’s) are closely related and stresses in one area will begin to impact the other two. Over the next few months, I hope to show that there is a Perfect Storm brewing. There are a massive set of challenges converging within a short window of time. Any one of these events will be difficult to deal with, but we are starting to see that they will all start impacting us within  the short space of a couple of decades. Given that no real discussion or planning is yet happening at the national and global levels, these will be interesting times indeed. We are going to be living through one of the defining times of human history and it’s going to be one heck of a ride.

Please tune in next Wednesday for the first in the series, and if you have any recommendations for other topics I should discuss, please leave me a comment.

Home

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Brendan and I watch a lot of documentaries, but last night we watched what I consider to be the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Home takes viewers on a ride around an Earth put in dire peril by its most adaptable life form, humanity.

The shot-from-above cinematography is simply stunning. French photographer Yann Arthus-Betrand has managed to turn the most dismally wasted landscapes into abstractions of color and form. One of the disturbing discoveries of “Home” is that there is beauty to be found even in environmental devastation, if you film it from far enough away. As a photographer I found the entire movie one of the most visually beautiful productions I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is second to none.

Anyone who appreciates beautiful and stirring music will also love the soundtrack. It’s extremely emotive. The script is exceptionally well written and powerful. It is narrated by Glenn Close.

Home2

A review from Change.org

Hopping quickly over the first four billion of the Earth’s Arcadian human-free early years, we arrive at the latter 200,000. Humans hunt and gather, discover agriculture, build cities, burn fossil fuels for energy, fill dismally dusty feedlots with corn-fattened beef cattle, over-consume resources, shatter the food chain with pesticides. They waste their minds on television, isolate themselves in suburbia, create sterile monuments to modernity, overfish the oceans, desertify the plains, deplete fresh water supplies, promote a wrongheaded “western model of development,” use up most of the oil, and refuse to own up to any of it.

And that’s just the first hour.

By the time we arrive at film’s end, where the narration exhorts us that “it’s too late to be a pessimist,” we’ve also depleted the soil, chopped down tropical forests for palm oil plantations, triggered the Sixth Great Extinction of animals and plants in the Earth’s history, hoarded wealth, built crowded megacities, left most of the swelling human population of six billion plus in poverty and environmental injustice, and tipped the climate’s delicate balance toward runaway global warming.

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Throughout the movie I had goosebumps and by the end I had tears in my eyes. Not just from the message but from the beautiful way it is portrayed. This movie is simply a masterpiece. Please set aside a quiet hour or two to watch it. You will not regret it.