Planetary Boundary 1 – Biodiversity Loss

What is a “Planetary Boundary” and why is it important? Link to the introduction article on this topic. The “Planetary Boundaries” is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.

For the biodiversity support system, the choice was to measure this as the extinction rate:  How many species disappear every year? Specifically as “species lost per million of species per year“.
Looking into the fossil record, we can estimate the biodiversity loss over time, and look at what is a sustainable/recoverable extinction rate, leading back to the a stable equilibrium with new species forming.

The Earth always loses some species every year, and new ones are formed through cross-overs and mutations. However, when destruction outpaces species forming, we have a problem.

Santa Helena ear-wig. An example of a recently  extinct species.
Not all species that go extinct are cute like the Dodo.

For each Planetary Boundary, there is an indicator with four numerical values (in brackets the numbers for the biodiversity loss):

  1. pre-industrial value of the indicator (loss of 1 species/million species/year)
  2. current value (loss of > 100 species/million species/year)
  3. safe zone value (try to stay inside this value – marked in green in the figure) (10 species/million species/year)
  4. catastrophe value (if we pass this, we are doomed – marked in red in the figure) (100 species/million species/year)

The Five Extinctions in the past

Elizabeth Kolbert has written about the five prehistorical extinctions that we know, and what is going on today. Five times, during the time of advanced life on Earth, the planetary system has been put out of balance with enormous extinctions as a result.

The most famous one was when the large dinosaurs disappeared some 60 million years ago. Science suggests it was an immense asteroid impact in Yucatan, Mexico. Small mammals and birds survived, and we are one of the species who appeared in the aftermath. (Most species that have walked the face of the Earth, or swam in the Sea are extinct. Some in the five great extinctions, some in the dull periods in between. We humans will also go extinct. It typically takes a million years, and since we have been around for 100,000 years or so, we could have quite some time ahead.)

What is special this time is that it is not a volcano or an asteroid driving the extinction. The “natural disaster” is our civilization.
We are the Terminators. We humans drive species into extinction at the same rate as the Yucatan asteroid.

Terminator Actions

We kill our fellow Earth-species, one bite at a time.
A handful we really eat away at, like tigers, but most are collateral damage in the chemo-industrial agriculture. We cut the rich forests and plant corn. We strip the prairies, spray herbicides and plant soy.
We bulldoze the creeks and plant wheat.
Mainly as a feedstock for meat factories.

80% of all agricultural lands are used to produce animal feed. On average on the planet, we eat more than 40 kg meat per person per year. [1]
Most of the feed is produced with pesticides, in devastating monocultures. Most of the feed goes into confined concrete factories where thousands of animals lead a life of misery, until butchering and ending up in our Supermarkets. (Let’s leave the moral point of maltreating animals here. And we will come back to the effluent of meat factories in the installment of Planetary Boundaries of Eutrophication / nitrates and phosphates in the surface waters.)

Meat is a fantastic food product, but we kill ourselves and the planet in our barbaric pork-and-chicken-binge.

State of the Planet

We are losing biodiversity at a staggering rate, especially since the 1970’s and it is most likely completely unnecessary. In a small and intensely industry-agriculturalized country like The Netherlands, there is not much left. 85% of the “Mean Species Abundance” has been lost.

Mean Species Abundance – Netherlands is the green bottom curve… Source is the government agency for environmental monitoring http://www.pbl.nl

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories of species that we lose. Some disappear much faster than others… ref IUCN 2015.

 

In our travels in Asia we have seen bountiful forests razed and replaced with corn. Forests that have developed for tens of thousands of years, with amazing diversity. Now there are only small pockets left, like this forest in Khao Yai, Thailand:

Khao Yai national park, Thailand. Here they looked at 1 km2 of the forest and found 1200 species of trees! (In Sweden there are <30.)

 

Solutions

Well, it is not really possible to get any extinct species back. Those who are gone are gone, despite the sci-fi stories of the Jurassic Parc. And the endangered species have very few individuals left, so the genetic robustness is far from ideal. We need to limit the damage and allow species to recover and recombine into new combinations, as has always happened.

Therefore, the first step is to reduce the area of growing annual grains for animal feed and plant trees. We need to recreate habitat. Lebensraum. To achieve this, we need to reduce meat consumption, since that is the dominant areal user.
We can go back to the situation of 2001, when average meat consumption was 15% less, as a starting point. In no time, we can rebuild vast areas of refuge (300 million hectares!). If we go down even further to a more healthy diet, we also have plenty of space for lots of healthy vegetable gardens everywhere!

The second step is to stop using agricultural pesticides. Go organic. Last week an article in Science came out that showed that neonicotinoid insecticides are present in 75% of all honey that was sampled from all over the world. The “precision agriculture” with minimal impact is a myth. The pesticides break down slowly and spread through our waters and kill/weaken wherever they come.

My proposal is that we handle chemical industrial agriculture as an “Asbestos-problem”. We in society made a mistake in the 1960’s and we should solve it together. We need to put some tax money in a pot and help farmers to switch over, and strengthen the legal limits.

Toxic maize seeds, grown in the middle of our village Soest, in the Netherlands. The seeds are coated with “Mesurol” which kills earth worms and other soil life. It also makes birds sick so that they leave the seeds in the fields.

The third stage is to produce healthy food in a circular way. Agriculture in balance with ecology to strengthen the soils – a.k.a. agro-ecology. There are innovative farmers who build rich soils using animals, trees, bushes and grasses. They develop new ways to cycle nutrients, where our participation as eaters is just one step of the nutrient dance.
(We are also a kind of earth worms.)

What can I do?

  • Eat less meat. Buy organic meat. If you can from a farmer you trust.
  • Join a political party and drive policy for a transition to organic farming and creation of wildlife refuges.
  • Support local agro-ecology projects. Find an organic nut grower, or join an agro-ecology interest group.
  • Grow a garden. (Simplest starting micro-garden: Get some compost and get started right away. Put a handful of garlic cloves in the dirt, and you will have plenty of delicious garlic greens to eat as soon as spring comes.)
  • Plant some trees. Try a vegetable tree like the “lettuce tree“!
Xavier San Giorgi, designer and planter of Food Forests. Here we plant hazelnut trees in Houten, Netherlands. Read more on http://foodforestry-development.nl/
Birkenhof Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable garden in Soest. We are members of this organic garden. Delicious and eco-friendly. Try to find something like this in your neighbourhood.

 

 

 

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China is cracking

[ This is a post based on insights from a visit to China earlier this week. I love China, and it breaks my heart to see the poorly-addressed problems. Next week I will post a new item on the Planetary Boundaries.  ]

After two decades of fantastic economic development and hiding of problems, this part of the party is coming to an end. Salaries are dropping and inflation is soaring, leading to net-salary-decreases for those who have jobs, and disaster for those on the side. I visited China earlier this week, and my friends are worried about the future.

The single-party system rules with opaque power and the legal system is often a farce. In the last twenty or so years, people have accepted mis-management and mis-allocation of resources, as long as they have been on the winning team. Most people have had real salary increases of 3-6 percent per year as long as they can remember. Most young professionals earn more than their parents, and the promise was that this would go on forever.
Of course, smart people have been noticing that a lot of the “growth” has come from extreme sacrifices of ecology, justice, health and equality. Sooner or later, someone has to pick up the bill.

Empty, half-built housing block in Shanghai. It looks the same today as in 2012.

One of the most insightful analysts is Peter Navarro, and his excellent but strangely named book “The Coming China Wars” describe eight mega-problems that the Chinese government has chosen to hide instead of to solve. His prediction in 2006 was that the hidden problems of piracy, drugs, pollution, oil, Chinese imperialism, water supply, social unrest and demographics would lead to international conflicts and wars.
(I think it is useful to note that all European countries and the US also suffer from a similar affliction; ignoring structural problems around energy/oil, ecology and money printing. More about that another time. )

In the past decades, local province governments in China have been printing money to support “local businesses” like Geely Motors, Huawei etc, to grow and go global. Indirect subsidies have helped Chinese players to kill international competition in many areas. Local province governments have printed money for real estate development, driving the house market into the skies. During 2016 alone, the house prices increased with 27% in Shanghai [2]. Vegetables and other food items increased by 6%. This is great for those who own lots of property. [5]

One of many “ghost towns” in China, photo Tim Franco. Clearly not the best use of land, energy and natural resources.

However, the same development is on collision course with the reality of those who depend on a salary to live (i.e. most people). Typical white collar salaries for those who stayed in a job increased with 3%, but the new hires got much less. In total, overall white collar salaries dropped with 4% in the last 12 months [1].

House price increase in Shanghai – price increase compared to one year earlier. End of 2016 it was 30%! Illustration from GlobalPropertyGuide.com

 

This is in stark contrast to the previous years, when salaries have been increasing, almost on par with the price hikes in real estate. Now the trends are definitely diverging and many people lose faith in the system. The cracks cannot be hidden any longer.

Therefore, more and more people are protesting the legitimacy of the single-party state [3], even at the peril of their own work and safety. The worst crack downs are right now in the Xinjiang province, but protests are everywhere (but not every day).

Beijing city center protest, earlier this year. Photo from GlobalRiskIndex.com.

I hope that the next step from the government is to increase transparency to improve their legitimacy. If I could have a one-on-one session with President Xi, I would encourage him to strengthen the legal system and encourage independent media. Talk about the immense challenges that the country is facing and invite more people from all over the world to participate in developing solutions. I would urge him to develop agro-ecological solutions and promote frugal hedonism instead of consumerism. (I would encourage all world leaders to do the same, actually…)

Ecological food production from trees – this is the future! Here I taste the Chinese “spring fragrance tree”, also called “onion-tree”, at an agro-ecological test site.

However, the developments in China are rather in the reverse direction. During the last years, lots of semi-independent media have been shut down and international connections (VPNs) have been blocked [4]. This week, Xi Jinping even started to read an allegorical fairytale on the morning China State Radio, in an eerie echo of Chairman Mao.

Let’s do what we can to help our Chinese friends in these difficult times.

 

[1] White collar salary drop http://zhaopin.investorroom.com/2017-07-17-China-White-collar-Average-Salary-Declined-in-the-Second-Quarter-of-2017

[2] China house price history https://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Asia/China/Price-History

[3] Social Unrest in China http://globalriskinsights.com/2017/07/social-unrest-china-threat-regime-legitimacy-economy/

[4] Decline of Independent Journalism in China http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/the-decline-of-independent-journalism-in-china/

[5] Money printing creates ghost cities https://qz.com/98045/chinas-ghost-cities-epitomize-the-problem-with-printing-money-paul-krugman-style/

Planetary Boundaries – heading for a crash

Ten years ago, the Johan Rockström assembled the world’s leading researcher on biophysical systems to map out the Earth systems that are necessary for our civilization. One well known system that is fundamental to our way of life is the ozone layer. With a thinner ozone layer, radiation levels make life much less interesting, and at a certain point disastrous. The result was the concept of the Planetary Boundaries, which was published in the top scientific journal Nature in 2009.

I only got to know about this in 2014, and it has had a major impact on my world view, and guided much of my life since. It was shocking to learn that we threaten our civilization in numerous ways, of which climate change is only one, and that all indicators but one are getting worse every year. In this post, I will try to explain the concept and the conclusions I draw regarding my own life and some speculations for the future.

The Planetary Boundaries is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.
For each system, these indicators have four numerical values:

1. pre-industrial value of the indicator
2. current value
3. safe zone value (try to stay inside this value – marked in green in the figure below)
4. catastrophe value (if we pass this, we are doomed – marked in red in the figure)

For some systems, we do not yet have quantitative models, e.g. pesticide/toxic substance use (called “novel entities”) is so complex that we maybe never will have enough knowledge to know how much we can “safely” spray of every chemical. The un-quantified systems are marked with gray in the diagram below.

The most common illustration of the model is a pie-diagram, showing all eleven biophysical systems in one picture:

Updated levels of the “Planetary Boundaries”, Science 2015.

 

Positive example – Ozone layer

Let’s look at the positive example of the ozone layer.
This global system is measured in an obscure metric called “global average of ozone concentration in Dobson Units” and the pre-industrial value was 290 DU. The safe zone is when we reduce the ozone concentration a little bit, but not below 276 DU.
Today we are on 285 DU, so we are in a safe zone, and it is slowly improving. (read more on NASA’s page on this).

Predicted recovery of the ozone layer. Image NASA.

The ozone depletion problem was caused by certain molecules (chlorinated organic compounds) that leaked into the atmosphere, mainly freons in cooling agents and spray-can gases. Fortunately, this was identified on time, and we got together to fix the root cause. The 1987 Montreal protocol banning the use of these chemicals was a huge success and 197 countries worked together to solve the problem. Civilization survived.

The ozone layer story is interesting from many perspectives.
First of all, it shows that it is difficult to address slow systems with large storage/stock.
We are 30 years later, and it is only now starting to improve. The first 20 years after the agreement, the ozone layer was still depleting, due to all the chlorine that was already emitted to the atmosphere. (It will likely take until 2075, almost one hundred years after the Montreal Protocol until the ozone layer is back on pre-industrial levels.)

Another interesting point is that it was a minor part of the economy (cooling agents) that was threatening our civilization in a way that was identified almost by mistake (by Paul Crutzen, who later got the Nobel Prize for his work on atmospheric chemistry).
It was therefore relatively cheap to switch this part of the economy to an alternative technology. That is in stark contrast to the conundrum of fossil fuels as a base for our energy production.

 

The chilling story: Biodiversity loss, phosphate and nitrate eutrophication, erosion, climate change

Five of the biophysical systems have already passed the safe boundary, and they have done it during my lifetime. Three of those are already in the catastrophe area. If we continue like this we know that civilization is toast. The only thing we don’t know is exactly when.

Peculiar and worrying is that the top three catastrophic failure areas are not much discussed in the media:

  • Biodiversity loss
  • Nitrate eutrophication – nutrient overload in surface waters
  • Posphate eutrophication – nutrient overload in surface waters

The other two systems that are on the way to become lethal are:

  • Climate change
  • Erosion (‘Land Use Change’)

Out of these, only climate change is discussed in the daily news.

I will come back to each of these five systems in future posts, to detail out a bit more about what it means and what I think we should do about it.

What do I care? Après nous le deluge?

I really want to leave a better world behind, or at least as good as I came into it. It is my main moral imperative – I pick up my own trash and I don’t destroy for future generations.

However, now I realize that this is not really the case.

I found the terminator and he is me. The way I live, is wrecking the planet in so many ways. I am a driver of biodiversity loss, of eutrophication and climate change. I only realized this when I already had lived 40 years in a grossly destructive lifestyle with intercontinental travels and a Volkswagen diesel car.
It hurts every time I start the engine.

Most of the biophysical systems were in okay shape when I was born, but have been deteriorating ever since. Most are getting worse every year. Still we don’t talk much about this.

I didn’t even know. I lived in the bliss of ignorance.

How come I did not see it?

I am not sure why I did not realize this before.
I guess that part of it is the brainwash of our culture; encouraging consumption as self-expression and the blind faith in technology and growth. (More about the technofanatsy religion of my youth in another post…)

Another reason is that we have moved the problem out of sight. Here in Western Europe, many environmental indicators have improved in the last thirty years. The Ruhr Gebiet is clean and green, compared to the grayish smokestacks of my youth. The polluting factories that produce all our stuffs have moved to Asia.
Our of sight, out of mind…

A third factor is that only a fringe of society is talking about these problems, while the main stream is focused on jobs, cars, growth and this year’s budget deficit. Even though I briefly was a member of Greenpeace, I never really understood the magnitude and urgency of the problem. Technology would fix it, right? Just around the corner is a breakthrough that will make everything perfect…

Slow awakening

I am slowly facing my own consumerist addiction. (“My name is Göran and I have a problem.”)

More and more I can look at my own behaviour and acknowledge the destructive habits I have. Slowly I learn to make other choices, even though I still have a long way to go.

A fantastic realization is surfacing; that it is possible to live a good life in balance with Nature. The myth of stuff is not true. I meet more and more inspiring people working in tune with the soil, producing healthy food in regenerative systems.  Fantastic pioneers like Wouter van Eck, who is living off a beautiful agroecological system in Groesbeek (a.k.a. Voedselbos Ketelbroek).
Even in Sweden, there is a growing movement of back-to-the-landers like David Jonstad. And in our town Soest, Joop and Corrine Wantenaar use their diverse smallholding to improve the health of their land. They improve the state of the planetary boundaries, by working in tune with ecology.

Inspiration to take the next step, and the next one after that.

Wouter van Eck on his “Food Forest”, with guest John D. Liu, 2016.
Farmer Joop in our town, the first (and until today the only) organic farmer here.

 

 

Klarien Klingen and Janneke Steenmans, inspiring young Dutch agroecological farmers.

The worlds biggest swindle?

Today I walked by the ECB building in Frankfurt-am-Main.
Behind the glass facade, something remarkable is going on.
They are printing money like crazy. 2 billion euro every day.
Not paper money (usually used by criminals), but real shiny electronic euros.

ECB main office in Frankfurt-am-Main (foto http://www.EurActive.com)

Corporations across Europe get to borrow this money at a below-inflation interest rate, and can purchase other companies and make all kinds of “investments” and show great profits. No wonder the stock markets are going well, and a small group of people get very rich.

I do not get to borrow money on these terms. Do you?

Therefore, this scheme gives a very large advantage to a very small group of people.

Why do we let this happen?

To put things into perspective, this scheme has been going on since May 2015, almost 30 months x 60 billion euro = 1800 billion euro.
This is as much money as existed in the euro scheme before they started with this “QE” program. (And twice as many euros as there were in 2006.)
The euro has doubled in numbers, but the underlying economy is essentially the same.
Therefore, in my simple logic, a euro is only worth half as much now compared to two years ago.
(We only see it in the domains where the richest compete – luxury apartments, fine cars, stocks, art is exploding.)

Eurosystem balance sheet. Corporate loans are the top part (purple). This graph does not include all of 2017. Today the purple part alone is 2400 billion euro. (graph from ecb.eu)

Imagine that we are a group of people in a village, each of which owns one gold coin.  We can barter in our town and after some time, we know how much stuff is worth. Suddenly one of the persons has as many gold coins as all the others together. He could then proceed to buy everything in the village, or the prices will go up to prevent this from happening.

My guess is that the corporations will use the money to buy all assets they can (shares, land, bonds), which drives up the price for everybody, and a small group of individuals will get super rich. Slowlythe prices will go up for all kinds of assets in due time. On the time-scale of pensions, half the value is now gone.

That is, if they stop the printing and just let the outstanding loans roll over indefinitely. However, there is no sign even for that. Last week Mario Draghi was telling the press that “the market needs support” and the printing continues at full speed.

Reduction of value during 30 years, we can do it in 30 months! (photo https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_currency)

It is eerily similar to the devaluation of the Roman silver dinars during the fall of the empire. Emperors put year-on-year more tin in the coins, until the coins were just silver coated lumps after thirty years. But in a time of enterprise server stacks – we can do it in a matter of months.

Do I miss something here?

Why do we let this happen?

Culture and Conflicts Training

Conflict management based on values and norms is one of my passions. In the last few years, I have had the privilege to lead training workshops at some of the Masters programmes at Chalmers University of Technology. Last week, I was back at Chalmers, working with students from the whole world, talking about assumptions, values and norms, see presentation attached to this post.

In most places where I have worked in the past, the limiting factor for success has been communication skills and ability to identify and handle conflicts. These are topics that most Engineers are afraid to talk about, especially when we come to feelings, needs and personal values. Fortunately, there are initiatives to include this in the curriculum, and these workshops are an example of that.

IMG_8465
Students playing the “Barnga” card game to illustrate norm conflicts. Anger and confusion and finally laughter are part of the mix.
IMG_8467
Another group, in the middle of the resolution of the “Barnga” card game.

I often use the “Barnga” card game as an experience exercise to feel inside how norm conflicts play out. It is a brilliantly designed game by Thiagi, and you can get a copy on Amazon here.

The MSc programs are much more international now compared to when I went to Chalmers University in the last century, which is really a big advantage for the students who realize the value of this. The international students generally have more work experience and often in multiple countries. It is a gold mine of experiences that the rest of the group can learn from.

Here is the presentation material that I used in the workshop:

Workshop Values and International Collaboration – 2017-08-29 – version 1.1

If you are interested in more anecdotes about culture and conflicts, check out my book “Deliver”.

The Seductive Power of Secrets

In one of my first meetings when I was setting up my department in China I had a revealing experience – a glimpse of the political power play that underlies office operations here.
We were three colleagues around the table, H, department head of another department inside the R&D center, S., one of my engineers, and me. One of the topics was an analysis activity that H.s team would start doing. Some of my colleagues in Europe had been doing that for some time and I had some documents describing the process. I said that I would email the documents after the meeting.

Image

Our secret (photo by Amanda Smith)

After the meeting S. comes to me and says carefully: “Don’t send the files.”
Seeing my surprise, he continues; “It is better for us if we keep this secret. Information that only we have makes us stronger. Their department started before we started, so they have some advantage. Our department will have more foreigners, so that is our advantage. Share only a little bit at a time.”

Being Swedish and brought up in a religious faith in transparency and sharing, I almost exploded, but managed to count to ten before responding.
-“Well S. – thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Please always do. However, this time I decided to do it differently.” Then I told him why I thought it wise to share the material and also to keep my promise. Later we could outsource some of the less interesting jobs to that team because we trained them.

I am convinced that collaboration has more “upside” than “downside” – more advantages than disadvantages. On the long run, you gain more by sharing than by hiding. It is possible everywhere to build a culture of trust to enable openness and teamwork. However, in China, most of the education system is built on competition and there is no advantage of help anyone else ever. I guess that explains why it is unusual and unfamiliar to share.

 

Three years later, S. is a champion of sharing. He has had the opportunity to feel the strength of teamwork. He has experienced the benefits of being open and has transformed into a role model for the junior engineers in the team. Of course there is always some politicking and positioning in any office, but I have never seen it so clear as in China. It has helped me to be more aware of the games played elsewhere, so I smell it easier these days. And now I know that it is possible to push it aside and search for sustainable synergies.

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My wise brother Hugo says that hiding information is a left-over thinking from the “Stuff-society” of scarcity. If I give you one of my things, I have less and you have more. It is a zero-sum game. Classic win-lose thinking.

Today, we live in the information/knowledge/idea society. If I give you one some knowledge, I still have the same as I had, but you have more. There is a net gain for us as a system. Sharing is neutral-win, with a large chance of reciprocity, that next time you will share back, to a win-neutral situation. All together this is win-win.

Brexit – the people have spoken. And that is good.

I believe in democracy. Democracy (as in representative parlaments and direct-vote referenda) is a slow but resilient way to balance interests in society. The key success factor of the system is transparency, so that consequences are visible and understandable afterwards.

Therefore, whenever a stupid decision is taken, and the consequences lead to worse conditions for enough people, there is always a possibility for people to change their minds and vote for something else.

One example is people usually get fed up with a certain party in power, and after a few terms decide to ask someone else to run the show. [example of US presidents, who alternate parties every 8-12 years since 1945 ].

In democratic societies today, we have a challenge when it comes to the quality of the feedback. The truth is often less exciting than gossip and rumors. Powerful interests push their own stories to move the popular opinion. There are less and less journalists and more and more lobbyists.
We need publicly funded institutions who can deliver unbiased and understandable information for the general public and especially for schools.

Let’s work together to improve the information quality and understandability. We need people like Hans Rosling, who can transform difficult datasets into enjoyable and understandable infographics. In Holland, where I now live, there is e.g. an excellent “Compendium for the Environment”.

Let’s see what the British citizens vote next time around. If the EU exists by then. Otherwise, let’s build something better.

(Remember that the British citizens voted to join the EU in 1975.)