Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Food, Water, Weather and Other Interconnected Systems

In this era of ever-increasing specialization, few interdisciplinary studies attempt to correlate the apparently disparate but deeply interconnected fields of weather, food production, potable water, the global financial system, geopolitics, trade, disease and species extinction.

Astute reader Dan B. sums it up succinctly:
"The world has become so big that people become myopic. The big picture escapes them. The problem is that everything is inter-related. I've read several people who seem to have a good grasp of the world financial picture,,, but know nothing about weather.

In our hubris, we believe that we can keep mother nature at bay. How many financiers know that 44 countries are in drought? How many know how many countries are currently flooded? Does Barnanke know that the world production of cereals crops is negative? Does Poole know that the water supply is about gone in many countries?"

Dan sent in two interesting stories which highlight just how little we understand large-scale interconnected systems:

Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us

Forget warming - beware the new ice age

To Dr. Kukla, the fundamental issue here could not be more clear. For millions of years, the geologic record shows, Earth has experienced an ongoing cycle of ice ages, each typically lasting about 100,000 years, and each punctuated by briefer, warmer periods called interglacials, such as the one we are now in. This ongoing cycle closely matches cyclic variations in Earth's orbit around the sun.

"I feel we're on pretty solid ground in interpreting orbit around the sun as the primary driving force behind ice-age glaciation. The relationship is just too clear and consistent to allow reasonable doubt," Dr. Kukla said. "It's either that, or climate drives orbit, and that just doesn't make sense."

For a taste of other interrelated complexities, consider these diverse articles:

Future Farming: A Return to Roots? Large-scale agriculture would become more sustainable if major crop plants lived for years and built deep root systems (Scientific American)

The Physical Science behind Climate Change Why are climatologists so highly confident that human activities are dangerously warming the earth? (Scientific American)

An Earth Without People A new way to examine humanity's impact on the environment is to consider how the world would fare if all the people disappeared (Scientific American) Read this--fascinating!

How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor (Foreign Affairs)

The Great Leap Backward? China's Coming Environmental Crash

Summary: China's environmental woes are mounting, and the country is fast becoming one of the leading polluters in the world. The situation continues to deteriorate because even when Beijing sets ambitious targets to protect the environment, local officials generally ignore them, preferring to concentrate on further advancing economic growth. Really improving the environment in China will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms.
(Foreign Affairs)

The Gobi Desert, which now engulfs much of western and northern China, is spreading by about 1,900 square miles annually; some reports say that despite Beijing's aggressive reforestation efforts, one-quarter of the entire country is now desert. China's State Forestry Administration estimates that desertification has hurt some 400 million Chinese, turning tens of millions of them into environmental refugees, in search of new homes and jobs. Meanwhile, much of China's arable soil is contaminated, raising concerns about food safety. As much as ten percent of China's farmland is believed to be polluted, and every year 12 million tons of grain are contaminated with heavy metals absorbed from the soil.

Two-thirds of China's approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 of them suffer severe shortages. According to Ma Jun, a leading Chinese water expert, several cities near Beijing and Tianjin, in the northeastern region of the country, could run out of water in five to seven years.

In the spring of 2007, Beijing released its first national assessment report on climate change, predicting a 30 percent drop in precipitation in three of China's seven major river regions -- around the Huai, Liao, and Hai rivers -- and a 37 percent decline in the country's wheat, rice, and corn yields in the second half of the century. It also predicted that the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, which derive much of their water from glaciers in Tibet, would overflow as the glaciers melted and then dry up. And both Chinese and international scientists now warn that due to rising sea levels, Shanghai could be submerged by 2050.

Researchers in the United States are tracking dust, sulfur, soot, and trace metals as these travel across the Pacific from China. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that on some days, 25 percent of the particulates in the atmosphere in Los Angeles originated in China. Scientists have also traced rising levels of mercury deposits on U.S. soil back to coal-fired power plants and cement factories in China.

And thank you, frequent contributor Albert T. for this link: Food prices lead inflation sharply higher in China

Led by pork and other meats, consumer prices for food were up 15.4 percent in July from a year ago, pinching unskilled workers and other low-income city dwellers, to the alarm of top Chinese officials.

Floods in southern China have hurt crops in this region. Grain prices have been rising globally because more grain is being used for ethanol production and because increasingly affluent people in developing countries are buying more grain-fed livestock and poultry. Large numbers of pigs have been dying from diseases, driving up pork prices."

Lastly, I want to recommend a book I'm currently reading:

Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man . The paleontologist author looks at 400 million years of changing climate data and extinctions/die-offs, and concludes that humanity may well be setting up the conditions for its own extinction. Fun stuff indeed!

What can we glean in the way of a truly "Big Picture" from these and dozens of similarly thoughtful, well-documented articles? Let's start with a short list:

1. Globalization of industry and trade creates high densities of humans and animals and rapid delivery of goods, people, pollution--and diseases. If 25% of the particulates in Los Angeles are coming from China, will China eventually be held responsible for 25% of the costs of treating residents of Greater L.A. who contract (non-cigarette-caused) lung diseases?

We know that HIV lurked in small isolated pockets in Africa for decades before exploding (via tourism and travel--the first vector was an airline employee) into the world beyond.

We also know that avian influenza, a.k.a. "bird flu" is not dormant just because it has largely disappeared from the Western media. Though experts continue to argue about the relative likelihood of the disease mutating into a virus that could spread from human to human, the odds of such a mutation (which caused the 1918 global flu pandemic which killed tens of millions) rise with each human infection.

2. Desertification and changing weather patterns heighten the likelihood of global food shortages within the next 5 years. As the developing world's populations become as obese as their developed-world counterparts, it's hard to imagine a world in which there isn't enough grain for humans and their livestock, not to mention ethanol for fuel. But one look at the above graph should sober anyone who is confident grain surpluses can continue forever. One factoid making the rounds (unconfirmed by me) is that if every person in China eats one more grain-fed chicken a year, much of the grain crop of Canada would be needed to feed those 1.3 billion chickens.

3. Extreme weather events are clearly increasing in number around the world. Setting aside the causes--there are very likely more than one--let's consider the possibility that massive flooding in North Korea and Britain, deadly heat-waves in southern France, cyclone winds in central Europe, long droughts in Australia and elsewhere, etc. etc. are not necessarily linked but are nonetheless the results of the same causal factors. Is the recent rash of extreme weather merely random? That seems like quite a stretch of logic and probability.

4. Any activity which relies on cheap petroleum (large-scale agriculture, global tourism, fleet fishing, transportation and distribution of "biofuels", etc.) is at risk of complete disruption as oil production falls (i.e. Peak Oil). Agriculture and large-scale fishing as practiced in developed-nation settings is intensely energy-dependent: fertilizers, shipping, farm equipment, distribution--every stage requires cheap fuel to remain relatively inexpensive.

The more "ifs" you string together, the more likely disruptions may occur: if weather extremes continue to increase, if oil becomes expensive, if water shortages develop, and so on. Yes, each of these problems can be addressed technologically: tractors can operate on solar panel-supplied electricity, drip irrigation can lower water useage, etc. But each solution requires energy and money to implement. The market may well encourage such solutions--but that won't be enough to save the world's oceans.

5. The world's oceans reveal the failure of "market forces" to adjust in sustainable ways. Despite the decline of world fisheries, in some cases by 90%, fleets continue to scour what's left for tidbits of fish which various populations will pay high prices to consume. Once the adult fish populations are reduced and habitats spoiled (reefs dynamited, water polluted by sewage and pesticides, etc.), the fisheries are damaged to the point of slow (decades) recovery--or even "never," as in extinction.

The only case I know of where fisheries are controlled in a sustainable fashion is the U.S., which strictly regulates catches in certain fisheries. So much for "market forces;" it's "Big Government" which enables sustainable fisheries. "Market forces" are what is bringing you fish and shellfish from Asia which may or may not be laced with pesticides and heavy metals. Nobody knows, and buyer/consumer-generated "market mechanisms" are threadbare "nets" filled with gigantic loopholes. That "inspected" label is worth precisely nothing unless it's a USDA stamp--and even then, one has to wonder about the rigor of the testing.

You need more than an occasional inspector--you need an entirely different aquaculture and a mutli-layered legal system with regulations, consequences, rigorous inspections at several stages, etc. Anyone who thinks "the market" will create this infrastructure is in an ideologically fueled fantasy. The infrastructure requires more than Safeway can manage--it requires governmental-level commitments to public safety and regulations.

6. Very large-scale forces which are not visibly causal may be at work. For instance, population studies suggest that organisms whose populations explode to beyond their environment's "carrying capacity" eventually experience a die-off/severe decline in population. The exact causal agent could be starvation, conflict, or disease, or some combination of causes.

For human examples, we have the Mayan civilization, which suffered a rapid decline due to a number of interconnected factors. For more on the Maya, here is an excellent National Geographic article:

The Maya: Glory and Ruin.

Can this happen on a larger scale? Well, why not? All the conditions of Mayan decline scale very nicely.

A new documentary, The 11th Hour, has received some advance praise as a "big picture" overview of human-caused environmental degradation: 'The 11th Hour' focuses on possible solutions to environmental issues. A reader review would be most welcome.

Thank you, Paul K. ($25), for your unexpected and very generous donation to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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