Population

The gift of death – Monbiot

 


 

Pathological consumption has become so normalised we scarcely notice it

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2012

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map.

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale(1). Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production(2). We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility(3). Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

In 2007, the journalist Adam Welz records, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This year, so far, 585 have been shot(4). No one is entirely sure why. But one answer is that very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It’s grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialised nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption.

This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of junk. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask “spending on what?”. When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors.

Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it. “I always knit my gifts”, says a woman in a television ad for an electronics outlet. “Well you shouldn’t,” replies the narrator(5). An advertisement for Google’s latest tablet shows a father and son camping in the woods. Their enjoyment depends on the Nexus 7’s special features(6). The best things in life are free, but we’ve found a way of selling them to you.

The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth are diminished.

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Witness last week’s Moral Maze programme, in which most of the panel lined up to decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it, somehow, with authoritarianism(8). When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics.

Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.

www.monbiot.com

 

Talk about food – Empty Promise

Could scientists have got the impacts of climate change on food supply wildly wrong?
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th October 2012

I believe we might have made a mistake: a mistake whose consequences, if I am right, would be hard to overstate. I think the forecasts for world food production could be entirely wrong.

Food prices are rising again, partly because of the damage done to crops in the northern hemisphere by ferocious weather. In the US, Russia and Ukraine, grain crops were clobbered by remarkable droughts. In parts of northern Europe, such as the UK, they were were pummelled by endless rain.

Even so, this is not, as a report in the Guardian claimed last week, “one of the worst global harvests in years”(1). It’s one of the best. World grain production last year was the highest on record; this year’s crop is just 2.6% smaller(2). The problem is that, thanks to the combination of a rising population and the immoral diversion of so much grain into animal feed and biofuels(3), a new record must be set every year. Though 2012’s is the third biggest global harvest in history (after 2011 and 2008)(4), this is also a year of food deficit, in which we will consume some 28 million tonnes more grain than farmers produced(5). If 2013’s harvest does not establish a new world record, the poor are in serious trouble.

So the question of how climate change might alter food production could not be more significant. It is also extremely hard to resolve, and relies on such daunting instruments as “multinomial endogenous switching regression models”(6). The problem is that there are so many factors involved. Will extra rainfall be cancelled out by extra evaporation? Will the fertilising effect of carbon dioxide be more powerful than the heat damage it causes? To what extent will farmers be able to adapt? Will new varieties of crops keep up with the changing weather?

But, to put it very broadly, the consensus is that climate change will hurt farmers in the tropics and help farmers in temperate countries. A famous paper published in 2005 concluded that if we follow the most extreme trajectory for greenhouse gas production (the one we happen to be on at the moment), global warming would raise harvests in the rich nations by 3% by the 2080s, and reduce them in the poor nations by 7%(7). This gives an overall reduction in the world’s food supply (by comparison to what would have happened without manmade climate change) of 5%.

Papers published since then support this conclusion: they foresee hard times for farmers in Africa and South Asia(8,9,10), but a bonanza for farmers in the colder parts of the world(11,12,13), whose yields will rise just as developing countries become less able to feed themselves. Climate change is likely to be devastating for many of the world’s poor. If farmers in developing countries can’t compete, both their income and their food security will decline, and the number of permanently malnourished people could rise. The nations in which they live, much of whose growth was supposed to have come from food production, will have to import more of their food from abroad. But in terms of gross commodity flows the models do not predict an insuperable problem.

So here’s where the issue arises. The models used by most of these papers forecast the effects of changes in averaged conditions. They take no account of extreme weather events(14,15). Fair enough: they’re complicated enough already. But what if changes in the size of the global harvest are determined less by average conditions than by the extremes?

This is what happened in 2012. This is what seems likely to happen in subsequent years. Here’s why. A paper this year by the world’s leading climate scientist James Hansen shows that the frequency of extremely hot events (such as the droughts which hammered the US and Russia) has risen by a factor of around 50 by comparison to the decades before 1980(16). Forty years ago, extreme summer heat typically affected between 0.1 and 0.2% of the globe. Today it scorches some 10%. “We can project with a high degree of confidence,” the paper warns, “that the area covered by extremely hot anomalies will continue to increase during the next few decades and even greater extremes will occur.” Yet these extremes do not feature in the standard models predicting changes in crop production.

If the mechanism proposed by another paper is correct, it is not just extremes of heat that are likely to rise(17). I’ve explained this before, but I think it’s worth repeating. The jet stream is a current of air travelling eastwards around the upper northern hemisphere. It separates the cold wet weather to the north from the warmer, drier weather to the south. Wobbling along this ribbon are huge meanders called Rossby waves. As the Arctic heats up, the meanders slow down and become steeper. The weather gets stuck.

Stuck weather is another way of saying extreme weather. If the jet stream is jammed to the north of where you are, the weather stays hot and dry, and the temperature builds up – and up. If it’s lodged to the south of you, the rain keeps falling, the ground becomes saturated and the rivers burst their banks. This summer the UK and the US seem to have found themselves on opposite sides of stuck meanders, and harvests in both countries were savaged by opposing extremes of weather.

This is where we stand with just 0.8 degrees of global warming and a 30% loss of summer sea ice. Picture a world with 2, 4 or 6 degrees of warming and a pole without ice, and you get some idea of what could be coming.

Farmers in the rich nations can adapt to a change in averaged conditions. It is hard to see how they can adapt to extreme events, especially if those events are different every year. Last winter, for example, I spent days drought-proofing my apple trees, as the previous spring had been so dry that – a few weeks after pollination – most of the fruit shrivelled up and died. This spring was so wet that the pollinators scarcely emerged at all: it was the unfertilised blossom that withered and died. I thanked my stars that I don’t make my living this way.

Perhaps there is no normal any more. Perhaps the smooth average warming trends the climate models predict – simultaneously terrifying and oddly reassuring – mask wild extremes for which no farmer can plan and to which no farmer can respond. Where does that leave a world which must either keep raising production or starve?

References:
1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/oct/10/un-rising-food-costs-weather
2. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/161602/icode/
3. http://www.monbiot.com/2007/11/06/an-agricultural-crime-against-humanity/
4. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/161602/icode/
5. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/161602/icode/
6. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2030220
7. Martin Parry, Cynthia Rosenzweig and Matthew Livermore, 2005. Climate change, global food supply and risk of hunger. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – B, vol 360, pp 2125–2138. doi:10.1098/rstb.2005.1751 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1569580/
8. Eg Jerry Knox, Tim Hess, Andre Daccache and Tim Wheeler, 2012. Climate change impacts on crop productivity in Africa and South Asia. Environmental Research Letters 7. 034032. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034032
9. Christoph Müller et al, 2012. Climate change risks for African agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1015078108
10. P. Krishnan et al, 2011. High temperature effects on rice growth, yield, and grain quality. Advances in Agronomy. Vol 111, pp87-205.
11. Jan Beck, 2012. Predicting climate change effects on agriculture from ecological niche modeling: who profits, who loses? Climatic Change – published online.
doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0481-x http://www.springerlink.com/content/p46301h961544077/
12. Tom Osborne, Gillian Rose and Tim Wheeler, 2012 (in press). Variation in the global-scale impacts of climate change on crop productivity due to climate model uncertainty and adaptation. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.agrformet.2012.07.006
13. Kyungsuk Cho et al, 2012. Winter wheat yields in the UK: uncertainties in
climate and management impacts. Climate Research. Vol. 54, pp49–68.
doi: 10.3354/cr01085
14. Eg Martin Parry, Cynthia Rosenzweig and Matthew Livermore, 2005 (as above) write: “The crop growth models embody a number of simplifications. For example, weeds, diseases and insect pests are assumed to be controlled, there are no problem soil conditions (e.g. high salinity or acidity) and there are no extreme weather events such as heavy storms.”
15. and Kyungsuk Cho et al, 2012 (as above) state: “We do not include effects caused
by negative soil conditions such as salinity, acidity and compaction, extreme weather events or pests and diseases, all of which are likely to be directly or indirectly affected by climate change and resulting changes in management practices.”
16. James Hansen, Makiko Satoa, Reto Ruedy, 2012. Perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/07/30/1205276109.full.pdf+html?with-ds=yes
17. Jennifer A. Francis and Stephen J. Vavrus, 2012. Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 39, L06801, doi:10.1029/2012GL051000.

Drought may threaten within decades

For the world’s growing population these are the most fearsome maps you will see.

The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades, according to a new study by National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist Aiguo Dai. The detailed analysis concludes that warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.

coming droughts

Hunger Games and cars before people

The rich world is causing the famines it claims to be preventing, by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th August 2012

I don’t blame Mo Farah, Pele and Haile Gebrselassie, who lined up, all hugs and smiles, outside Downing Street for a photocall at the prime minister’s hunger summit. Perhaps they were unaware of the way in which they were being used to promote his corporate and paternalistic approach to overseas aid. Perhaps they were also unaware of the crime against humanity over which he presides. Perhaps Cameron himself is unaware of it.

You should by now have heard about the famine developing in the Sahel region of West Africa. Poor harvests and high food prices threaten the lives of some 18 million people. The global price of food is likely to rise still further, as a result of low crop yields in the United States, caused by the worst drought in 50 years. World cereal prices, in response to this disaster, climbed 17% last month.

We have been cautious about attributing such events to climate change: perhaps too cautious. A new paper by James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, shows that there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers. Between 1951 and 1980 these events affected between 0.1 and 0.2% of the world’s land surface each year. Now, on average, they affect 10%. Hansen explains that “the odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small”. Both the droughts in the Sahel and the US crop failures are likely to be the result of climate change.

But this is not the only sense in which the rich world’s use of fuel is causing the poor to starve. In the United Kingdom, in the rest of the European Union and in the United States, governments have chosen to deploy a cure as bad as the disease. Despite overwhelming evidence of the harm their policy is causing, none of them will change course.

Biofuels are the means by which governments in the rich world avoid hard choices. Rather than raise fuel economy standards as far as technology allows, rather than promoting a shift from driving to public transport, walking and cycling, rather than insisting on better town planning to reduce the need to travel, they have chosen to exchange our wild overconsumption of petroleum for the wild overconsumption of fuel made from crops. No one has to drive less or make a better car: everything remains the same except the source of fuel. The result is a competition between the world’s richest and poorest consumers, a contest between overconsumption and survival. There was never any doubt about which side would win.

I’ve been banging on about this since 2004, and everything I warned of then has happened. The US and the European Union have both set targets and created generous financial incentives for the use of biofuels. The results have been a disaster for people and the planet.

Already, 40% of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars. The proportion will rise this year as a result of the smaller harvest. Though the market for biodiesel is largely confined to the European Union, it has already captured seven per cent of the world’s output of vegetable oil. The European Commission admits that its target (10% of transport fuels by 2020) will raise world cereal prices by between 3 and 6%. Oxfam estimates that with every 1% increase in the price of food, another 16 million people go hungry.

By 2021, the OECD says, 14% of the world’s maize and other coarse grains, 16% of its vegetable oil and 34% of its sugarcane will be used to make people in the gas guzzling nations feel better about themselves. The demand for biofuel will be met, it reports, partly through an increase in production; partly through a “reduction in human consumption.” The poor will starve so that the rich can drive.

The rich world’s demand for biofuels is already causing a global land grab. ActionAid estimates that European companies have now seized five million hectares of farmland – an area the size of Denmark – in developing countries for industrial biofuel production. Small farmers, growing food for themselves and local markets, have been thrown off their land and destituted. Tropical forests, savannahs and grasslands have been cleared to plant what the industry still calls “green fuels”.

When the impacts of land clearance and the use of nitrogen fertilisers are taken into account, biofuels produce more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do. The UK, which claims that half the biofuel sold here meets its sustainability criteria, solves this problem by excluding the greenhouse gas emissions caused by changes in land use. Its sustainability criteria are, as a result, worthless.

Even second generation biofuels, made from crop wastes or wood, are an environmental disaster, either extending the cultivated area or removing the straw and stovers which protect the soil from erosion and keep carbon and nutrients in the ground. The combination of first and second generation biofuels – encouraging farmers to plough up grasslands and to leave the soil bare – and hot summers could create the perfect conditions for a new dust bowl.

Our government knows all this. One of its own studies shows that if the European Union stopped producing biofuels, the amount of vegetable oils it exported to world markets would rise by 20% and the amount of wheat by 33%, reducing world prices.

Preparing for the prime minister’s hunger summit on Sunday, the international development department argued that, with a rising population, “the food production system will need to be radically overhauled, not just to produce more food but to produce it sustainably and fairly to ensure that the poorest people have the access to food that they need.” But another government department – transport – boasts on its website that, thanks to its policies, drivers in this country have now used 4.4 billion litres of biofuel. Of this 30% was produced from recycled cooking oil. The rest consists of 3 billion litres of refined energy snatched from the mouths of the people that David Cameron claims to be helping.

Some of those to whom the government is now extending its “nutrition interventions” may have been starved by its own policies. In this and other ways, David Cameron, with the unwitting support of various sporting heroes, is offering charity, not justice. And that is no basis for liberating the poor.

World in Serious Trouble on Food Front

In the early spring of 2012, U.S. farmers were on their way to planting some 96 million acres in corn, the most in 75 years. A warm early spring got the crop off to a great start. Analysts were predicting the largest corn harvest on record.

The United States is the leading producer and exporter of corn, the world’s feedgrain. At home, corn accounts for four-fifths of the U.S. grain harvest. Internationally, the U.S. corn crop exceeds China’s rice and wheat harvests combined. Among the big three grains ˆ corn, wheat, and rice ˆ corn is now the leader, with production well above that of wheat and nearly double that of rice.

For the whole of this important article, click here

Interactive map of C02 emissions per capita

Fascinating, invaluable

Full interactive map may be found here.

Myth of Perpetual Growth is Killing Us All.

Everything you think you know about economics … is wrong. Dead wrong. And until economics acknowledge this, the discipline is on a self-destruct path.

Why? The science of economics is not science. Yes, it looks scientific with all the fancy math algorithms and computer models that economists use, but all that’s just window dressing to make the economist look scientific and rational.

They’re not. Their conclusions are pre-ordained, fabricated, based on their biases, personal ideologies and whatever their employer wants to prove to manipulate consumers, voters or investors to buy what they’re selling.

Because all economics is based on the absurd Myth of Perpetual Growth. Yes, all theories and business plans based on growth are mythological.

Economists are master illusionists who rely on a set of fictions, fantasies and forecasts that emanate from a core magical mantra of Perpetual Growth that goes untested year after year.

And yet it’s used to manipulate the public into a set of policies and decisions that are leading the American and the world economy down a path of unsustainable globalization and GDP growth assumptions that will self-destruct the planet.

Click here for another version of Schumacker’s “Small is Beautiful”.

Have we reached the tipping point?

Today is a pivotal point in human history. We are now living in the Anthropocene: humans are the main driver of planetary change. We’re pushing global temperatures, land and water use beyond anything our species has experienced before. We’re polluting the biosphere, acidifying the oceans, and reducing biodiversity. At the same time, our global population will grow from seven billion to nine billion by 2050, and all will need food, water and clean air.

As if to illustrate the point further, last month Arctic monitors showed the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has passed 400 parts per million (before the Industrial Age, carbon dioxide levels were 275 ppm). New data shows the rate of climate change could be even faster than thought.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, 22 scientists warned last week we are approaching a planetary tipping point, beyond which environmental changes will be rapid and unpredictable. Basing their alarming conclusion on studies of ecological markers from species extinction rates (currently 1,000 times the usual rate, and comparable to those experienced during the demise of the dinosaurs) to changes in land use (more than 40% of land is dominated by humans and we affect a further 40%), these scientists fear we will enter a new, unknown state, and one which threatens us all.

Click here for more.

Rush to buy up Africa

Almost 5% of Africa‘s agricultural land has been bought or leased by investors since 2000, according to an international coalition of researchers and NGOs that has released the world’s largest public database of international land deals.

The database, launched on Thursday, lifts the lid on a decade of secretive deals struck by governments, investors and speculators seeking large tracts of fertile land in developing countries around the world.

The past five years have seen a flood of reports of investors snapping up land at rock-bottom prices in some of the world’s poorest countries. But, despite growing concern about the local impacts of so-called “land grabs”, the lack of reliable data has made it difficult to pin down the real extent and nature of the global rush for land.

Read full report in the Guardian here.

Rising Sea Level Threat to Coastal US

About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.

If the pace of the rise accelerates as much as expected, researchers found, coastal flooding at levels that were once exceedingly rare could become an every-few-years occurrence by the middle of this century.

By far the most vulnerable state is Florida, the new analysis found, with roughly half of the nation’s at-risk population living near the coast on the porous, low-lying limestone shelf that constitutes much of that state. But Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey are also particularly vulnerable, researchers found, and virtually the entire American coastline is at some degree of risk.

full article click here.