Saturday, January 25, 2014

The PETM and Today's Climate

I was recently reading a story in National Geographic about the PETM.  If you have never heard of this it is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.  If you think that carbon levels in the atmosphere are high now, how about levels about 5 times what they are today?  In the Paleocene, the average annual temperature of the earth was 68° F compared with 45° F today--then it went up to 77 by the Eocene.  There is no uncertainty about what caused these hot global temps, or the increase in the global was a massive release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere about 56 million years ago.  There is however speculation as to what was responsible for the "sudden" release of greenhouse gases. 

We are somewhere just above 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere right now, while just before this massive release of greenhouse gases there was already 1000 ppm in the atmosphere, thus the high average global temperature to start with. This is not all to say that the world has been through higher carbon levels so we have little to worry about with our piddly 400 ppm.  It is to say that carbon in the atmosphere has a direct effect on global temperatures.  There is a difference between the PETM and global warming today though.  The increase towards a spike of over 1500 ppm happened over thousands of years, while humans will likely quintuple carbon levels over the span of a mere century and a half through their burning of fossil fuel and the resulting cascade of natural carbon release that will be triggered as the Arctic melts.

Remarkably, there wasn't a massive extinction associated with the PETM, though there were massive changes and evolutions that happened during the era.  But nature was given time to evolve over thousands of years  Species were able to gradually move thousands of miles north or south to find more temperate climes. It's uncertain whether nature will be able to adapt in a mere couple hundred years this time around.  Natural systems will also have to contend with the fact that humans are using up nearly every last inch of the planet in their quest to meet the needs and luxuries of an ever-growing population.

Unless something is done soon about the amount of carbon we are releasing, we are headed for disaster. This is why I've come to Dancing Rabbit--to live this way and set an example of how humans can live with a much smaller footprint on the earth.  If everyone in the US (the country single handedly responsible for most of the carbon being released) really took seriously this issue of reducing their impact and made deep changes in their lifestyle, it might be possible to turn things around in time. Other countries are doing it on a governmental level, but here in the US our governments are largely impotent because they are dictated by the laws of capitalism.  Although I do use many products that were produced by fossil fuel, the amount of fossil fuel I use directly in my life is very minimal, and I can safely say that when I see documentaries about the coal industry destroying mountains in Appalachia and causing climate change, I have little complicity in those crimes.

When you set your mind to creating systems that are not dependent on things that do harm, you find or develop alternatives. We humans think we are so smart and unique, but we act like any other animal in being unable to control our basic animal instincts--consumption and reproduction.  When you give an animal abundant food, it will consume the food and increase its population in response.  Some humans have the capacity to adapt and survive through their unique ability to problem solve.  Others are driven only by their greed.  Right now it seems the greedy ones are winning out in directing the fate of humanity and the planet. If we are to survive as a species and preserve the diversity of life on earth, we need the problem solvers to take the upper hand.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Crashing the Economy for Climate Change

It's interesting that people who speak against action on climate change base their rationale on the impact doing something about climate change will have on the economy, yet the US economy crashed in 2008 in ways that were far more devastating than any carbon reducing actions would have been. Our economy crashed not because we took action to stop climate change, but because there were a bunch of greedy bankers getting rich in the absence of regulations, leading to the loss of trillions from our economy.  Poof! Trillions gone in the course of a year or so. If we had instead spent these trillions on action to prevent climate change, we probably could have made our economy nearly carbon neutral.  Instead, these trillions of dollars vaporized or ended up in the hands of the super rich while the greater part of the population suffered. Not an investment in the future, but a loss we all are still feeling the effects of now, so many years later.
I wonder why it's so easy to say we can't take action to stop something that will clearly devastate our society, not to mention our economy, in the near future, yet we don't bat an eye at the fact that our economy crashed because of the greed of a bunch of rich people. And what's worse is that we are allowing the same system responsible for the crash to rebuild itself so that it can do the same thing in a couple decades—provided climate change hasn't done it already by then. Why not just take the chance of doing something about climate change and risk the economic collapse?  At least then the money will have been spent for some good, and not just for the benefit of a bunch of economic leeches on society.

This just in: The US has spent $3 TRILLION on the war and reconstruction in Iraq.  We have plenty of resources to destroy a country, kill hundreds of thousands of people, and rebuild it again, leaving it in worse shape than it was before, but we don't have money for dealing with climate change.  We could have probably just handed over the $3 TRILLION to the fossil fuel industry to convert them all to alternative energy industries and been done with it.  Of course, then they would have just walked off with it like the contractors in Iraq.  But really, you don't think we could have completely changed our economy around to be carbon neutral with $3 TRILLION?  Thanks politicians!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

When Science Media Abandon Science

Imagine a future where no farmer in the world can grow a crop without paying exorbitant royalties to a multinational corporation. Discover magazine doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong with that future. Like other science media that seem to embrace genetic engineering as “real scientific breakthrough” and view those opposing it as scientific neanderthals, Discover is in fact ignoring the facts and the science around this technology.

After recently reading an article on GMOs in the magazine it was obvious to me how delicately the author danced around the science on GMO crops, cherry-picking the information he wanted to convey and doing his best to paint European anti-GMO activists as science deniers. Like most media I see supporting biotechnology, there is a concerted effort to misdirect the argument towards the scientific and away from the political. In fact, they try hard to make the point that the political is trumping the scientific. But sometimes the political is more important than the scientific because there are real issues at stake.

Discover says that “As transgenic crops have spread around the world without the apocalyptic consequences activists initially foretold, objections to the technology have shifted away from science.” In other words they couldn't stop GMOs with a scientific argument, so now they are resorting to simple politics. But why this would happen is never fully explained or justified. That maybe these activists are different from the ones who initially brought up the health and safety concerns about GMOs (a very real statistical possibility) is never explored. Maybe this issue has always been part of the case against transgenic crops, or maybe early activists could not have envisioned the greater designs of biotech companies (control of the world's food systems) when they began their fight against GM crops with real fears about the unknown.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Capitalism: Free Market Myths

I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast a while back and they had a Harvard economist on talking about how cities are so much more sustainable than any other means of organizing people.  I have many things to say about cities, but I'll start out with a critique of his economics theories.  I have a hard time listening to hardcore market economists and their optimism about the potential of the free market given the world of examples of how it has utterly failed us, the biggest being that we are racing towards a great wall of eco-doom, and still not even taking a glance ahead. 

At one point, this economist criticized public school systems in cities, which are easy targets for critics. As market economists are wont to do, he proposed that the free market could do much better. He gave the example of restaurants to describe the flaws in how public school systems are set up. He said you wouldn't want the government to set up one restaurant and require all the people to eat there because it would taste bad and there would be no incentive to make the food better. So why would you want to set up an educational system like that? He said restaurants have to compete in the marketplace, so they have to do better than the one down the block or they will go out of business.

I was a little amazed that somehow he could draw a connection between these two very different economic sectors. For one thing, one is a luxury market that meets a finite need, the other is a program that continues throughout your childhood and teaches you information that prepares you to function better in society as an adult. You buy dinner and you get something that lasts you one meal. You aren't buying food service for the rest of your life. You aren't buying a nourishment plan that provides the most healthful food for you on a continuous basis. That kind of long term health strategy would compare better to an educational system.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Meat: A Benign Extravagance

As a follow up to the previous essay I wrote on livestock I have some new statistics of note to mention that come from the book Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie, which I have finally been able to get a copy of.   I feel like the title of the book is misleading because it doesn't seem to be endorsing meat or a meat diet at all.  I think maybe the title was chosen to provoke.  In the end Fairlie seems to say that we will have to dramatically reduce the animal products in our diet to make it more sustainable, but it does advocate keeping livestock as a part of a sustainable food system.

Of major note in the book are the estimates of land use required for production of different food products. There is a lot of information Simon Fairlie gives to support that a straight comparison of meat to vegetables or grain is not as simple as propaganda would lead us to believe. Taking into account that livestock can be grazed directly on pasture (that may not be suitable for grain or vegetable crops) instead of being fed grain or hay, the impact of meat production on human land use for food production in an ideal production system could be far less than the 10:1 ratio often given by vegetarians and vegans as the reason not to eat meat. Grain-fed beef is the least efficient meat in terms of land use, fitting the 10:1 ratio commonly stated as the ratio of land required for amount of food value offered for all meat. Taking into account the ability of pigs to live entirely off food waste and by-products (and the fact that they do in many parts of the world), the potential ratio for pork production is comparable or even lower than that for most vegetable and grain crops. Food waste cannot, in the same way, be fed directly to grain or vegetable crops to produce more food. Statistics are given in the book that estimate that were it legal in the UK to feed food waste to hogs, the waste would be able to supply pork amounting to one sixth of the country's entire meat consumption. Another interesting point is that meat is a more nutritious form of food, so the straight ratio of weight or volume of food cannot be compared directly, a fact most anti-meat advocates ignore. In other words, one must eat more grain and legumes to supply as much nutrients as offered by a comparable amount of meat (of course this varies depending on the meat and type of grain or legume).
Heritage Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs foraging in an apple orchard
Another enlightening statistic is the amount of land required for production of vegetable oils, which is about the same as that required for beef in terms of m2 per kilo produced. The amount of land required for butter production is half what is required for vegetable oil and lard is possibly even lower, since pork takes a third of the land to produce that beef does.

In analysis and comparison of different food systems the vegan organic permaculture system is the most efficient in terms of land use and sustainability, using nearly half the land of the livestock permaculture system. They both end up using an equal amount of arable land, but the livestock system uses additional marginal land that would not be suitable for crops.  And whereas the vegan system uses a tractor and biofuel, the livestock system uses draft animals for farm power.  These systems are more efficient than either organic vegan or an organic system with livestock (which is the least efficient), which are not integrated systems set up to recycle all waste and maximize sustainability. Though less efficient than other systems, the organic livestock system is still more sustainable than the chemical vegan or livestock systems. Conventional agriculture is able to feed about twice as many people on a comparable amount of land, but given that it isn't sustainable in the long term, it should not be considered a viable option. Fairlie refers to the Global Opponents of Organic Farming (GOOFs), who advocate the conventional route over the organic, claiming organic agriculture won't be able to feed the ever-growing human population because it uses too much land.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Road to Serfdom

If you haven't heard of it, The Road to Serfdom is an essay by economist Friedrich A. Hayek and it was first published in 1944. It is Hayek's warning against the potential of centrally planned economies to be easily taken over by dictators and oligarchies.  Hayek felt that the free market could do a much better job in shaping society for the best than any government.  He is often thought of as a sort of nemesis of the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose theories were based in using government to influence and direct the economy. It's been a long road for me to understanding how this essay has been used by the Right as propaganda to influence public opinion about the Obama administration's handling of the economic crisis of recent years.

A couple years ago, I heard an irate teenager in the diner of the conservative bible belt town where I live “educating” a few elderly women about what was being perpetrated by the Obama administration. I listened in with astonishment as the boy told these women, who had been alive since before WWII, about how the world worked. He said that Obama was a socialist and that socialism was one step away from dictatorship. The elderly women listened politely, but though they were probably conservative too, seemed to look with knowing pity on the kid. They probably weren't as politically minded as he was, but a lifetime of experience had made them wise enough to be skeptical. I didn't understand where the kid's logic was coming from, but he sounded like someone who had just been made aware of some great “truth” by an idol, and by the ignorance of the kid's claims, I figured it had to have been a conservative pundit, likely someone like Glenn Beck.

Months later I was listening to a Planet Money podcast where Hayek was compared to Keynes in light of the battle going on in Washington about how to best go about solving the country's economic problems. They mentioned The Road to Serfdom, so wanting to better understand the views of Hayek, I looked up the essay and read it. What I was immediately struck by was how dated it was. It was obviously written at the height of the Nazi regime and would have served well as anti-Nazi propaganda, but was likely meant to be something different. Democratic countries with leanings towards socialist policies,in other words, countries that had government control of certain sectors of the economy, were compared and likened to the Nazi regime. He predicted that these governments were only steps away from authoritarian regimes like the Nazis. The reason the essay seems dated to me is that history has shown his predictions to be wrong.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Keeping livestock for a more sustainable food system

Have you ever traveled through the farm fields of the Midwest and wondered why there is nothing but corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see? I'm sure it's not a question many Americans ask themselves because, by and large, we've lost our ability and our need to make connections between our food and the earth it comes from. All those fields of corn and soybeans are part of the huge portion of the United States that's devoted to producing the meat and dairy products that dominate our diet.

But not all Americans eat so much meat and dairy. Many vegans and vegetarians are opposed to the eating of animal products for environmental and/or animal rights reasons. From the perspective of the animal rights activist, animal production is inhumane, while to the environmentalist it is an inefficient use of land. Eating lower on the food chain is thought to have much less impact on the planet because, given the amount of plant matter required to feed animals, it would be more efficient to eat the plants ourselves.

It's easy to see how anyone could come up with many arguments as to why in the 21st century the industrial production of meat and other animal products could be considered cruel and unsustainable. It's estimated that livestock worldwide account for 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass, a number that clearly illustrates our impact on life on the planet. Vast acreage is devoted to growing grain to feed livestock that are raised in inhumane conditions in factory farms and feedlots, all to provide a meat-based diet for those in affluent countries. As well, a UN report found that livestock are currently responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Those consuming meat and animal products have little awareness of the lack of sustainability of and cruelty inherent to their food system.

Unfortunately, in arguments against animal agriculture often no distinction is made between the production of animals in factory farms and the more humane, small-scale keeping of livestock that has been the human norm for thousands of years. It is true that a vegetarian diet can require less land for a given population size, however, in terms of sustainability, there is evidence to support that making use of livestock in our food production system will be more sustainable over the long term. Livestock were raised sustainably for thousands of years before modern times, so it's obvious that livestock are not the problem; the number of them and the practices we use to raise them today are the problem. In the coming decades we will all have to find alternatives to fossil fuel if we are to survive. By doing away with livestock production we would be tossing out one of humanity's simplest and most valuable alternatives to fossil fuel and a vital means of lessening our impact on the planet.