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Robert Anderson: Humanity’s Greatest Challenge

Humanity’s Greatest Challenge


By Robert Anderson

We are now close to crisis point. This is not a melodramatic statement intended to frighten or shock readers. It is merely an inescapable fact. The Global Climate Change crisis is a most urgent concern - or should be - for all political parties. The Nat's pay it lip service, but fully intend business as usual, while Helen Clark needs to act more decisively, but won't or can’t. The Green’s constantly hammer on the political door, but are generally granted only a minimum of attention. Still seen as the bearded-sandaled brigade, their remonstrations are often ignored or are patronised by allowing them titbits of ‘sustainability’ in policy decisions.

During Al Gore’s visit, several MPs attended his excellent film An Inconvenient Truth - but not Dr Cullen. He apparently feels that Al is merely feeling sour grapes at failing to gain the US Presidency. You could not watch this film and walk away unaffected by the impending consequences to human survival.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels

We should be working at war-time speed, but there seems to be a collective blindness. This blindness is severely hampered by the this-needs-serious-debate type groups. Such sceptics, almost invariably supported by the fossil fuel industry, are doing irreparable damage by delaying properly informed ‘serious’ debate and by discouraging effective political legislation and action. If ever there was a need for courageous politicians it is now.

There are over six billion people inhabiting Earth. The population has doubled since 1950 and continues to grow. Even putting aside the well-reported rises in CO2 levels, human impacts on the planet are now so dramatic as to be appalling by any standard. Try waiting in traffic in any New Zealand city any morning and visualise this occurring on an even bigger scale in Los Angeles, London, Singapore, Delhi, Calcutta – in fact any major city on Earth.

Trillions of tons of CO2 are being poured out daily into Earth’s atmosphere. In short, we are wrapping ourselves in a thick woolly blanket during the height of summer. What effects will this have? Heat is an insidious killer, especially in cities heavily populated by the poor and elderly. In fact, heat kills many more people than any other weather disaster. The European heat wave of August 2003 claimed 35,000 lives. In France alone, which suffered through two weeks of temperature readings as high as 40oC, nearly 15,000 people died.

Economic growth

As humans, we are dependent on natural ‘ecosystem’ services to a far greater degree than most people realise. With their business-as-usual stance, politicians hardly consider the enormously destructive effects of their policies. When they talk of ‘the economy’ and the need to protect it, they are talking only of the sum total of human consumptive activities. The ecological structure supporting this economy is forgotten and/or overlooked. Economic growth is seen as a good thing.

Recently, a Tauranga paper spoke of ‘smart growth’ in relation to the rapidly-growing City of Tauranga. There is no such thing as ‘smart’ growth. There is only growth. Anyone who understands the mathematics of exponential growth knows that the end result of perpetual growth is catastrophe. You simply cannot have perpetual growth when you are using finite resources. Highly recommended is the lecture by physicist, Professor Albert Bartlett.[i] In fact, it should be compulsory viewing for all town planners, MPs and parliamentary personnel.

Land or sea - flora and fauna

Because we have continued to ignore warning signs and scientific advice, an unprecedented biological collapse has begun world-wide. Only by extraordinary efforts could we curtail the acceleration of extinctions.

Only if biodiversity becomes a central concern of all our political systems and of our main economic activities, will we avoid squandering Earth’s biological inheritance. How long will it take to empty our oceans of life? As one writer correctly said, “Given the best technology, an unshakable belief in perpetual growth and a taste for seafood, about a century.”

Earth’s oceans have developed ‘dead zones’ - areas where nothing lives: no coral, no fish, nothing. Some extend for 160,000 square km. Dead zones are growing at an alarming rate due to such human activities as bottom trawling, and increasing concentrations of pollutants, e.g. farm fertilizers, sewage and industrial waste. Such abuses trigger massive blooms of phytoplankton, microscopic algae which consume all of the oxygen in the water and leave it unable to support any form of life. It is generally believed that most of the oxygen we breath comes from plants and forests. Wrong. The oceans produce over half of the planet’s oxygen and also absorb 50 percent of the CO2 humans release into the atmosphere, e.g. by burning fossil fuels for energy. In short, when the sea dies we die.

Dying for a drink

Despite watching our neighbour, Australia, suffer prolonged droughts, and her farmers being told, That’s it mate, I think ya may as well call it a day and walk off the farm, the penny is still reluctant to drop. Australia is the driest continent on Earth. Only after the recent extensive forest fires did Prime Minister, John Howard, do a complete turn about and decide perhaps there is something in this Global Climate Change idea, after all. Up to this time, he chose to be a climate-change sceptic, more for political reasons than scientific ones.

Australia’s water shortages have reached crisis point in many states. The process of desertification and increasing salinity is also having dire consequences for her farmers. It is reported that Adelaide’s water from the River Murray will be undrinkable due to salinity by 2050. Rising water tables caused by excessive irrigation are drawing salt to the surface. Similar irrigation processes continue in New Zealand. Enormous quantities of water are sucked from the Canterbury Plains to feed dairy herds that supply milk to be turned into milk powder for export. Recovery of the water tables may be possible, but only if the irrigation practices stop for a few decades. Already, water shortages for Canterbury farmers is recognised as at crisis point.

Many believe that the war on Iraq was designed to control Earth’s second largest oil producer. Many are also convinced that, due to increasing populations and rapid industrialisation, similar wars will be fought to claim ownership of water. Perth and Sydney have major water shortages. In January of 2004, Israel signed a series of “arms-for-water” agreements with Turkey.[ii] Turkey’s Grand Anatolia Project of reservoirs and dams along the Tigris-Euphrates system is causing anger in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. Confrontation will occur in India where disputes are simmering with Bangladesh and Pakistan over the Ganges system.[iii]

Kyoto and consequences

As at December 2006, 169 nations have ratified the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: the US and Australia have so far refrained.

While New Zealand has nothing to be proud of as far as CO2 and agricultural gas production goes, the US is the greatest threat to climate change. Unfortunately, President Bush has made it his policy to twist the science and remain friendly with his fossil fuel supporters. Over 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a report asserting that the Bush Administration has systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment. It said that the Administration misrepresented scientific consensus on global warming and censored reports on climate change. This kind of behaviour endangers the rest of the world.

Free trade and ‘Peak Oil’

It is imperative that New Zealand lead by example - as we have on so many occasions - to stem gas emissions and move towards a self-reliant and sustainable community. The drive for free trade deals with China, the US and other countries is manifestly absurd when it is acknowledged that Earth’s oil supplies are peaking. Post–peak, oil supplies will diminish and become more expensive. Already, the Saudi fields are producing less oil.

Any one needing a reminder of the futility of so-called ‘free trade’ deals, needs only do a little research on the Internet to see their senselessness. Two simple examples will suffice:

  • Annually, the US imports 41,209 tonnes of coffee and exports 42,277 tonnes; and imports 365,350 tonnes of potatoes and exports 324,479 tonnes.[iv]

  • Britain exports 1145 tonnes of chocolate biscuits to Germany each year and Germany exports 1728 tonnes back to Britain.

And so this ridiculous waste of energy and resources continues throughout the world under the guise of ‘free’ trade. Shipping and trucking vast quantities of identical goods in this way -

  • has severe adverse environmental impacts

  • will exacerbate climate change and

  • wastes precious oil reserves.

Likewise, the fact that New Zealand imports 40 percent of its meat products is ludicrous when we can produce them at home. For example, why import Australian pork, which may be produced using a genetically engineered growth hormone not approved in New Zealand, when many of our pig farmers have been forced out of business by economic constraints? We have lost New Zealand’s carpet, clothing and other industries to overseas producers, including the loss of those jobs. The goods may be cheap on the shelf, but what cost to this country, its people and to the environment?

In short, a global economy built on vested interest and blind to its fossil fuel dependency, simply cannot survive in its current form. Globalisation will be dead in the water. And, before we hear the MPs signature cry, that exports generate the enormous sums of money required to gain our liberty, we should recall those famous lines written by Dr Leo Rebello,[v] "The money required to provide adequate food, water, education, health and housing for everyone in the world has been estimated at $17 billion a year. It’s a huge sum of money . . . about as much as the world spends on arms every two weeks."

A couple of lights on the Horizon

While banning incandescent light bulbs and riding our bicycles to work is admirable we also need leadership from ministers. More to the point, we need tough statesmen and women who are willing to make massive and wrenching changes in order to avoid this impending crisis. The definition of a crisis is a situation that, if ignored, becomes terminal. And, if you side with Professor Jim Lovelock of Gaia fame, it’s too late already. His solution is to adopt nuclear energy. Unlike Dr Lovelock I abhor orthodox nuclear power, however, the use of the thorium reactor is rapidly proving a beacon on the horizon of despair. Unlike the conventional reactors, the thorium reactor has many advantages. Just a few being:

  • There is no danger of a melt-down like the Chernobyl reactor

  • It produces minimal radioactive waste –a third of conventional reactors.

  • It can burn Plutonium waste from traditional nuclear reactors with additional energy output

  • It cannot be used for the production of weapon grade materials

  • The energy contained in one kilogram of Thorium equals that of four thousand tons coal

  • The global Thorium reserves could cover the world’s energy needs for millennia

Norway has an estimated 180 000 tons of Thorium which, based on the current price of oil, is equivalent to 250 thousand billion US$. Australia also has enormous amounts of thorium.

After 15 years of research an Auckland physicist has made a remarkable discovery –one which may turn the tide of Global Warming. Apparently after heat treatment the naturally occurring mineral Zeolite can absorb large volumes of CO2. It also appears that the gas can be broken back into it’s constituent elements oxygen and carbon –both far more valuable than the original CO2. Let us hope his research is supported and, unlike another famous New Zealand scientist had to manage with “ceiling wax and string.”

Cuba and how to turn it around

Apart from encouraging innovations we need to look very carefully at how to turn New Zealand around, to make it sustainable and strongly self-reliant. This is not impossible. Cuba did it and so can we.

Cuba was unique in that it experienced rapid oil depletion when its oil supply was cut by 50 percent in less than a year. It was unique in changing from an industrially based society to an agrarian society. It built an agrarian culture, focusing on building human resources rather than physical ones, and emphasizing biotechnology (not genetic engineering). Its per capita energy usage is now 1/15 of the US. In 1992, Cuba even wrote the resolutions passed by the Rio Earth Summit into its constitution. By 1996, by-laws in Havana allowed only organic methods of food production. Cuba now produces ample food for its population's needs. In short, Cuba represents E F Schumacher’s “intermediate technology.”

Cubans have free medical care, a lower infant mortality rate than its neighbour, the US, and the same life span as US citizens. Cubans have more doctors per capita than the US and put much more emphasis on prevention. Doctors generally live in the neighbourhood they serve. Whereas US doctors earn 5-8 times the average wage, Cuban doctors earn 2-3 times the average wage. They see medicine as a vocation, not a business. I am not suggesting that Cuba is a utopia. They still have many problems but at least they were not defeated by the American bully over oil and now provide food for all their people.

These remarkable achievements serve as guideposts towards healthier, more environmentally friendly and self-reliant farming at a time when Peak Oil problems will force the developed world into self-reliance. The major stumbling block is that we must start now.

As Peak Oil and Global Climate Change effects become a reality, they puts serious implications into perspective. The biggest problem will not be that our SUV or BMW might go hungry, it is that we and our children may go hungry. We need to remind ourselves of that prophetic statement made by an Indian Cree Chief:

Only after the last tree has been cut down.

Only after the last river has been poisoned.

Only after the last fish has been caught.

Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

Recommended reading:

Exploding the Myth of Cheap Oil, Dr Robert Anderson (roberta@clear.net.nz)

Power Down, Richard Heinberg

Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan, (reveals how politicians, big oil and coal, the media, and even activists have fuelled the climate crisis - and how we might still avert disaster).

References:

[i] Bartlett A., Arithmetic, Population and Energy. www.oilcrash.com

[ii] Wasilewski M., US News and World Report, The future of Earth 2004

[iii] ibid

[iv] International Society for Ecology and Culture www.isec.org.uk

[v] Director of the Natural Health Centre, in Mumbai and President of the Indian Council of Natural Medicine and Research, New Internationalist.

*************

Robert Anderson
Union of Concerned Scientists
www.ucsusa.org


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