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What is Wealth?

When I was a small child, wealth meant the ability to buy different kinds of imported food. There were no cold stores then, only a single ice factory in town, so exotic food meant things like tinned preserves, Danish ham, Australian Cheddar, canned sardines and chocolates. These delicacies usually came as gifts from visitors and were saved for special occasions, treasured long after the guests had left.

As I grew older, found a job and struggled to become economically self-sufficient, wealth meant money in the bank. Money was saved to finance the luxury of travel, buy a car, savor the security of owning an apartment (or even that impossible dream, owning a house with a garden), to provide a cushion against unexpected job loss. All these hurdles were crossed and there was a steady job with enough money in the bank to survive for a year. Yet the insecurity remained.

Then came the unexpected day when confronted with the deep contentment of someone who had nothing but a small suitcase of possessions, the clothes on his back and confidence in his life skills. Using this person as an inspiration, I gave all my possessions away, keeping only a (t)rusty old car and a part-time job. The nagging insecurity vanished, leaving behind a surge of confidence that the universe would provide; that the intangibles of life were more important than possessions or money in the bank. Where did this faith come from? I don’t know. It was a deep, gut feeling that I trusted. For many people faith comes from religious belief, but in my case I had no strong adherence to any religion although I respected the universal truths of all religions.

Security is such an elusive thing. Ultimately it can be defined as a state of mind. But although this definition is largely true, it does break down at times. Try telling refugees fleeing from bullets and bombs that security is a mental attitude. “Whose mental attitude? Not ours,” they’d say. I believe that Gandhi’s appeal to the World War II allies to counter Hitler with non-violent resistance was ill-advised and would not have succeeded. Civil disobedience worked with the British Empire because, despite rampant colonial hypocrisy, they ultimately respected their own rule of law. Today we see this respect for the rule of law and human rights breaking down in many countries around the world.

Every age has its own definitions of wealth. In Biblical Old Testament times, wealth was measured in nomadic terms; cattle, goats, large families and many servants. This was traditionally also true among the Maasai, the Baktiari, and most other nomadic tribes. The Book of Proverbs defines wealth thus: the rich rule over the poor and the borrower is servant to the lender; i.e. neither a borrower nor a lender be. Modern day banking practices seem to have upended this rule and if you’re a big enough borrower, you might end up owning the bank.

Today, in the face of unprecedented anthropogenic climate change, true wealth needs to be redefined as the health of the planet. This basic fact is easy for billionaires and the world’s rich corporations to overlook. They think in terms of quarterly returns to shareholders, GNP, or other artificial indicators and forget that all wealth ultimately depends on two measures of health; planetary and personal. The planet is sending us enough warning signs. It’s time for all of us to stop counting money as a measure of success and concentrate on living healthy lives while improving the health of the planet.

Planetary health is the most important source for our well-being. Now more than ever.

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Are You Choking on Carbon? #MeToo

I recently read of efforts by a young Swiss duo, both engineers, whose company, Climeworks, sucks CO2 out of the air and carbonates water, injecting the water underground into basaltic rock. To its own surprise, Climeworks finds that the gas converts to solid carbonate forms underground in a couple of years. So is this a stable way to remove greenhouse gases from the air? There are other uses for captured CO2 of course but the quantities are minuscule compared to global emissions. So the pundits talk of capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it in underground caverns or pumping it under pressure into the depths of the ocean. Why isn’t there more talk among technologists of reducing emissions, instead of accepting emissions as a given and figuring out ways of converting them at great cost to benign forms?

A friend recently commented on efforts to remove atmospheric CO2 and store it underground. It’s like swallowing gas, he says. You know what happens when you have too much gas. You either fart or burp, or both. Accumulated internal gas is painful and you wouldn’t do it to yourself, so why do they want to do it to the earth? Do they know what will happen when the earth farts? So why don’t we plant trees instead?

Relative strengths of major greenhouse gases. Image courtesy IPCC

Planting trees is a solution. An average tree sucks up 25 kilos of carbon per year. Humans emit 30 to 40 gigatons of CO2 every year. Let’s say emissions are kept at 30 gigatons a year. Thirty billion tons. That’s… let’s see, forty trees take up one ton per year, so multiply 30 billion by 40… so you get 1,200 billion. That’s 1.2 trillion trees per year just to break even!

How many trees are there on earth already? I found a BBC report of a 2015 Yale University study that estimates the number of trees currently on earth at 3 trillion. That’s 3,000,000,000,000. Since atmospheric CO2 concentrations are going up steadily, the situation would be much worse without these 3 trillion trees. So we still have to suck up the additional 30 gigatons a year, or else reduce emissions. If we take 7 billion to be the global population, leaving aside the old, the infirm and the very young, that leaves around 3 billion people of tree planting age worldwide. In order for 3 billion people to plant 1.2 trillion trees per year, each one will have to plant 400 hundred trees per year.

Persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Image courtesy IPCC

Can (and would?) 3 billion people plant 1.2 trillion trees in a year? Of course not. But if even 10% of that number were to plant 10% of the target, we would be well on our way to doing what we need to do. Is this realistic? Quick answer: No. So is there a quick fix? Yes. Eat less meat. Depending on the type of feed, a cow produces 70 to 120 kg. of methane per year. Remember, methane as a greenhouse gas is 23 times more potent than CO2, so cutting down on meat is a quick way to reduce emissions. And it has the added benefit of freeing up pastureland for tree planting. So now we’re beginning to get a handle on things.

If we pump huge quantities of CO2 underground and undersea, the earth might fart (so to speak), with unintended consequences. But cows already fart on an ongoing daily basis, emitting considerable quantities of methane, so eating less meat is a relatively painless quick fix. And then there are lots of concomitant steps that are in the process of hesitantly being implemented, like switching to public transportation and electric cars. And, oh yes, the most environmental step the world is taking is the #MeToo movement! Let’s write that on our foreheads as a reminder to the world. Education and empowerment of women is the fastest way to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save our planet.

Climate Action Tracker

The Climate Action Tracker posts regular progress reports on how well various countries are doing to adhere to the Paris Agreements. It tracks emissions from 32 selected countries and the list of the good, the bad, and the ugly is quite surprising even to this seasoned watcher.

Only two countries are on track to fulfil the Paris goal, of limiting emissions to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees C; Gambia and Morocco.
The second best choice made in Paris was, if not 1.5 degrees, then at the least 2 degrees C. Just 5 of 32 countries meet this target. Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and Philippines. All of the remaining 25 countries fall into the category of emitters that will lead to a world of 3 degrees warming or more. See the original list here.

Of course this predicator of doom and gloom relies only on official government policies. The reality on the ground may be a bit different in many of the countries on the list. For example, despite their governments, a few cities, power companies and private individuals already find it cheaper to produce unsubsidised renewable energy, a trend that will speed up, just a cell phone sales did in developing country markets worldwide.

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The Politics of Inclusion

If one reads the newspapers in Europe these days, it’s easy to imagine a world going unbalanced. Political chaos in Britain; the shock of Trump’s rise to political prominence in the US; the continued slaughter in Syria; the failed coup in Turkey; honor killings of women in the Middle East and South Asia; young girls kidnapped in the hundreds by a sinister cultish organization in Nigeria with hate and abhorrence of non-religious learning as its primary motivation; China flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea…the list goes on. The underlying cause of each of these symptoms is one and the same, the quest for economic power. In itself harmless, economic power, the accumulation of wealth, is such a basic human instinct that it was unquestioned long before Adam Smith came along to make it intellectually respectable.

What we should question, however, is the tendency of modern societies to equate development with wealth, and economic poverty with under-development. There will be conflict in the world as long as wealth accumulation is equated with development. No one wants to be under-developed, so development currently means increased exploitation of the world’s resources. Ultimately, it is the scramble for the world’s resources that fuels all the conflicts and emigrations we observe today. Interestingly, many of those people, mostly politically right-wing, who rage against immigrants these days invoke a past society free of injustice and racially pure. They forget, or are unaware that, for a species that genetically differs from a chimpanzee by only 1.3% of its genes, talk of racial purity is an absurd notion, absurd to the point of imbecility.

The politics of inclusion that most people yearn for, but don’t know how to create, actually begins with us. The process of inclusion begins with us, one person at a time. Perhaps that is why the process is so daunting, since we have to change ourselves first, before we begin to find the politics of inclusion that the majority of the world seems to be longing for. Check out this link to hear what geneticist David Suzuki has to say about modern economic thought

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Seeds of Inequity

What could be more principled than companies that work to genetically modify seeds, breeding out negative traits and selecting a mix of desirable qualities that make them resistant to pests, hardy enough to withstand droughts or floods as desired? After all, farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years, patiently crossing varieties and developing superior strains of the world’s crops. Enter the profit motive. Still no harm done, we thought! Selfish interest is the lever used by civilizations to lift their peoples to prosperity, with the profit motive as the fulcrum on which this lever rests.

Strains of wheat

Strains of wheat

The world has generally accepted the truth of this principle ever since Adam Smith pointed it out in his seminal work, first published in 1776. Except for a relatively brief interlude when some nations experimented with communism and socialism in a failed search for social justice and equity, the world has broadly accepted Smith’s premise that wealth creation is a good thing and ought to be encouraged by enlightened governments that simply move out of the way and allow entrepreneurs to do their stuff. By and large, this is what seems to have happened in the case of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Basically, some large corporations have copyrighted and distributed their seeds (sounds fair enough; respect for intellectual property rights sets the basis for innovation and prosperity). The problem is, these corporations have also made the rules about what happens to the seed generations that follow. They have decreed, and governments have accepted, that farmers may not retain a proportion of seeds from their crop for planting the subsequent season, but have to buy the seeds from the corporations again.

As Lizzie Wade points out in her Science article “How Syrians saved an Ancient Seedbank from Civil War”

…Maize, for example, was created by ancient Mesoamericans by painstakingly breeding more and more appetizing teosinte, a stubby grass with tiny, tough kernels that has so little in common with modern maize that archaeologists dismissed it as a possible wild ancestor until genetic tests revealed the surprising truth. The problem in the short run is that conventional breeding can be s…l…o…w. Teosinte was domesticated in central Mexico between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, but farmers only managed to create a variety that tasted good a mere millennium ago 

They can plant and reap, but they can't sow again without buying seed...

They can plant and reap, but they can’t sow again without buying seed…

As S. Grant points out in his article “10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods are Already Causing,”  once they plant GM crops, farmers can no longer legally harvest their own seeds and are in danger of entering an era of perpetual bondage. Thus serfdom re-enters the world in the 21st century, this time clothed in the language of high-tech and carrying the false promise of freedom from hunger. Lawmakers are all too often ignorant and dazzled by technology, so they fail to realise the problems with GM crops are more to do with social and juridical issues rather than with the technology itself.

“In India, seeds are taken as a symbol of God’s blessing. They keep it, they store it, they know what is good seed and bad seed.” “Control oil and you control nations. Control food, and you control people.”

The above two memorable quotes are from a must-see 9-minute video about Natabar Sarangi, a village farmer who distributes free seeds to poor farmers out of the deep conviction that the thousands of varieties of seeds bred and developed over centuries should not be lost. In the process, he helps many of them to modest prosperity.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.

Earth’s Carrying Capacity

A chance remark by an acquaintance about the world running out of food led me to revisit a paper written in 1979 by Prof. Cesare Marchetti, an iconoclastic physicist and materials scientist who likes to think outside the box. The title of his paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal “Energy” is “10 to the power of 12: a check on earth’s carrying capacity.”  The full text of this paper is available here:

http://www.cesaremarchetti.org/archive/scan/MARCHETTI-076.pdf

A second writer on this topic, this time in a book called “How Many People can the Earth Support, (WW Norton, 1995)” is Joel Cohen, a mathematical biologist. Check this link for a summary of the book.

http://employees.oneonta.edu/allenth/Class-Readings-Password/how%20many%20people%20can%20the%20earth-%20cohen.pdf

Even if the contents of Marchetti’s paper are seen as a thought experiment using back-of-the-envelope calculations, it still is a remarkable viewpoint that is worth remembering when faced with everyday accounts of the seemingly intractable flood of problems facing humanity: land degradation, overpopulation, the coming water crisis, climate change, environmental refugees, desertification, deforestation, sea level rise, ice melts at the polar caps, stratospheric ozone loss, excessive ground level ozone formation through traffic pollution and so on. The list of problems is seemingly endless, and reading a newspaper seems to involve ingesting a daily diet of hopelessness. In contrast, here are the concluding sentences from Cesare Marchetti’s and Joel Cohen’s papers respectively below.

Marchetti: It seems that the problems of growth are basically of cultural character. The Judeo-Christian axiom that the earth is given to man to be dominated, very material to western aggressive and destructive attitudes, may progressively be substituted by the Buddhist axiom that the earth is given to man to be contemplated; thanks to an enlightened use of technology.

Joel Cohen: More than ever before, the land that supported people became a partly human creation. For humans now, the notion of a static, passive equilibrium is inappropriate, useless. So is the notion of a static “human carrying capacity” imposed by the natural world on a passive human species. There is no choice but to try to control the direction, speed, risks, duration and purposes of our falling forward.

The conclusions I draw from these two very different studies are the same:

  1. there is no shortage of potential threats to human existence (always has been)
  2. there is no shortage of solutions
  3. there is plenty of work to do, so no danger of long-term unemployment
  4. subtle shifts in the public perception of problems can have tremendous long-term implications (the speed with which such shifts can occur is only the truly new element in global dynamics).