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