All posts by gorancson

Technology and Humanity

Disappointed!

disappointed /dɪsəˈpɔɪntɪd/

adjective

sad or displeased because someone or something has failed to fulfil one’s hopes or expectations.”, Oxford Dictionary

This post is about disappointment, what I expect to be the dominant mood of the 2020s. I want to share my view of why this is the case, and look into what we can do about it.

Why are so many people disappointed?

… and why do I think more will be as time goes on?

There is a mismatch between the dominant story of our current culture and reality: “Everything is getting better, and with more technology we will all be better off.” vs. ecological destruction, economic disarray, social unrest.

The main cause for disappointment is too high expectations on what we “should” get, compared with the reality of the world that is currently cracking under the load of a reckless human-driven globalized machine. The second confounding cause is that the economic elites are using monetary policy and other tricks to concentrate wealth into their hands.

Over the globe, disappointment is today manifest in different forms, from Yellow Vests in France (protesting the abolition of wealth tax and increasing taxes on fuel) to the student strikes in Chile (protesting the increasing gap between the rich and the rest). Also the Youth climate movement Fridays-for-Future is driven by disappointment in how governments handle the climate crisis.
Disappointment is driven by both real problems and unrealistic expectations.

Real Problems

We live in a world which has some severe real problems:

  • Running out of easy to harvest natural resources and energy – e.g. end of oil, minerals [Meadows]
  • Too much load on the environment, best described by the Planetary Boundaries [Planetary Boundaries].
  • Human health deterioration – despite being richer than ever, we are getting sicker by the day. “Peak Health”, when human health on the planet was best, was probably 1990. [Hulsegge]
  • Economic trickery that shifts wealth from most people into the hands of very, very few. [Martenson]

Expectations

At the same time, the current globalized culture is infused in optimism. We have created inflated expectations of the future that is blinding us to the reality. Young people today are bombarded with advertisement and propaganda that tells them that they will enjoy a life of opportunity and luxury. Expensive cars are promoted as “intelligent” and international travel for vacation as bringing “unlimited peace”.

2020-01-12 20_11_36-2019 car advertisement - Google zoeken - Copy

Advertisement for an expensive car.
2020-01-09 21_13_40-63 Best Travel ads images _ Travel ads, Hotel ads, Ads
Fly away. To find “Unlimited Peace” in a country waging civil war…

But even without the expectation of luxury and material abundance, we live in a culture that is glorifying technology and stands on a story of “progress”. I grew up completely convinced that everything was getting better, and it was consistent with my observations in the 1990s. Democracy was on the rise, pollution in Western Europe was going down. Everyone was a winner. Or so I thought, until I saw the destruction that we cause in Asia, by moving most of the destructive industry there. As a kid, I witnessed how the Ruhrgebiet was transformed from a dark gray industrial landscape into a green park. However, only when I was 35, I saw the hellscape of Ningbo, and experienced the smog in Beijing.

Despite the earnest efforts of people like Hans Rosling and Bill Gates to explain how certain things improve, there are also lots of things that are moving in the wrong direction in the world today [Rosling]. Young people sense this probably better than us old guys. I guess that is why depression is on the rise among younger generations. The younger the cohort, the earlier we get depressed. [Ilardi]

How should I handle my disappointment?

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”, Reinhold Niebuhr

Of course I am disappointed. The world is not getting better every day, as I was told when I was at school. Even though I belong to a very small privileged elite who is collecting significant wealth from the destructive industrial system, I don’t support the wealth gap increase. I don’t want the biodiversity to get more and more impoverished. I don’t want multinational “food” companies to sell rubbish that makes people sick.

The ecological destruction that we are engaged in as a civilization is of course difficult to remedy as an individual, but each of us can make a difference. It is like democracy – even though one voice is small, there are ways to amplify one’s influence, e.g. by joining a political party or using your influence to build leverage.

The political idiocy of “Quantitative Easing” (printing money and handing it to the owning classes) that we allow central banks to pursue, is something that we need to resolve by political action.

In these global problems, each of us has to decide how much effort and courage to invest to pull the world in a “better” direction, and try to use the resources we have at our disposal to get maximum effect. My own actions are of course minuscule, but I hope that I effect some change by planting nut trees and by talking to people who work at the ECB and the central banks. (And by posting this kind of posts, to share my ideas and hopefully inspire someone else to also take action!)

The other lever I can pull is to adjust my expectations. I can tell myself that life is fine also if I turn the thermostat down and wear long johns instead of burning gas in the winter months. I can tell myself that another business trip to China to boost my ego is not worth it. I seek courage to sell our old car and live without one. I can choose to not go skiing and destroying yet another mountain ecosystem.

I am very inspired by people like David Holmgren, Chris McLeod, Wouter van Eck, Diana Wildschut and Patrik Andersson, who lead by example and show that life can be rich and fulfilling, without destroying the environment. They also generously share their experiences in writing and in dialogues. They help me to adjust my expectations to want what I get, instead of trying to get what I think I want… They inspired me to shift to part time work in the paid economy, and to use the freed up time to improve relationships, health and learn skills of resilience and ecology.

I think that the long term solution is to build a new global culture of “enough”, where we make peace with the ecological limits of our beautiful planet, and where we actively reduce wealth gaps. We can work together to build a world where we look at our real human needs and create structures and rituals that meet them [Rosenberg]. A world where we don’t accept advertisement that creates “wants” for consumption. A world where we don’t accept further concentration of wealth, but work for better sharing.

Conclusion

“The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”, Gandhi

Disappointment is a sane response to the current conundrum of ecological/ energy/economic/health crises inside a culture of “progress”. This will become even more visible in the coming decade, when several natural and social limits are stretching to a point of fracture.

I hope more people will recognize the reality behind the rupture and avoid the populists “simple” solutions to these challenging problems.

How do you handle your disappointment? What do you do to adjust your expectations and how do you decide on which change you want to work for?

What is triggering you most right now?

How can we build a culture of peace?

References

FootprintNetwork, 2012. Global footprint and earth biocapacity, http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/newsletter/bv/humanity_now_demanding_1.4_earths: s.n.
Hulsegge, G., 2016. Cardiovascular risk factors over the life course (PhD Thesis). Utrecht: http://cdn.gld.nl/data/uploads/2016/04/56fe349cec7ed_proefschrift_Gerben_Hulsegge.pdf.
Holmgren, D., 2018, Retrosuburbia – a downshifters guide to a resilient future, Hepburn Australia.
Ilardi, S., 2013. Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, http://tlc.ku.edu/: Kentucky University.
Martenson, C., 2011. The Crash Course – The Unsustainable Future of Our Economy, Energy, and Environment. New York: Wiley.
Meadows, D., Randers, J. & Meadows, D. L., 1972. Limits to Growth. New York: Signet, Penguin.
Ratcliff, A. Oxfam Global Wealth Report 2019, https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/billionaire-fortunes-grew-25-billion-day-last-year-poorest-saw-their-wealth-fall
Rees, W. E., Wackernagel, M. & Testemale, P., 1998. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
Rockström, J. et al., 2009. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society, p. 14(2): 32.
Rosenberg, M., 1999. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. 1st ed. Encinitas, CA, USA: Puddledancer Press.

Yellow vests and canalization of anger

There is always a lot of pain and frustration in the bottom 50% of all societies. During periods of systematic support to this group, as was in Europe and US during 1930-1990, the pain is tolerable. However, we are moving back into the inequality that was prevalent by early 1900 in Europe. At that time it was inheritance aristocracy, intermingled with monopolistic capitalists who were the 1%.
Today it is mainly owners of corporations and top-managers.
The symbol of the 1900 aristocracy was the cylinder tophat, the symbol of elite. Today it is an Audi Q7 or a Tesla.
Thomas Piketty wrote brilliantly about this in his classic “Capital in the 21st Century”, and his more recent research.

Return of inequality, even reported in the Economist! (https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2015/06/06/mind-the-gap)

The Yellow Vest/Gilet Jaune movement is a canalization of this frustration, through a specific narrative. Today, our society has this dominant mythology:

“Society improves through economic growth. More consumption (i.e. growth) solves all problems and improves the lives of everybody, especially those who work hard!”

The yellow vest movement has clearly identified the problem with the second part of the statement. The economic growth does not at all benefit everybody. The bottom 50% has got a lower or fixed purchase power since the 1990s, coupled with a steadily worsening health situation. When Macron removed the wealth tax last year and to add insult to injury also proclaimed to increase the fuel tax, that was the final drop. The protesters took to the street and chanted: “Macron demission” and “Trop de taxes“.

“Trop de taxes” – too much taxes

I see three problems with the narrative of the dominant mythology and the story of the Yellow Vests:

First of all, the cost of commuting to work is increasing with fuel tax, but that is possible to solve in different ways. The easiest way is to improve car fuel efficiency. The Yellow Vests should have attacked Renault headquarters for the malpractice of selling cars with terrible fuel efficiency. It is clearly possible to improve fuel efficiency with factor 10 if we want to, which would dramatically reduce the fuel cost for the people. (See e.g. Shell Ecomarathon) As an engineer I am ashamed of the terrible job we have done at improving the fuel efficiency of cars. We just added entertainment and comfort for three decades. (and I was part of this during my years working for the Delphi group)

Terrible development of fuel efficiency for 30 years, with a minor improvement at the end, thanks to the electric cars.

Secondly, the problem is not too much taxes, but that the wrong people carry the tax burden. Corporations and the wealthy pay less and less every year, shifting the burden to the bottom 75%.

Example from US – corporate profit tax is reducing dramatically. Same development in most of the World.

 

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the first part of the story is wrong. Economic growth is not necessary for society to improve. In the coming century, we will collectively be able to consume less resources than in the overflow bonanza of the last 100 years. We are running out of the same resources that have powered the phenomenal growth of comfort and luxury for the last century. This is not new, it was very well formulated in the landmark book “Limits to Growth” in 1973, but since 1980 all major politicians and industrial leaders have conveniently ignored this fact.

My suggestion is that we should follow the lead of George Monbiot and formulate a new narrative, that goes something like this:

“Corporations and the elite and the top 20% riches of the World population have squandered resources for the coming generations, and we need to stop this now. We (rich) must moderate our consumption. Now is the time to shift the tables. We will re-introduce fair taxation and change the society norms, including re-introducing restriction on rents. We will no longer be accept to be brainwashed by commercials every day.

We will eat locally grown vegetables and support each other, which will give us healthy and rich lives. We will live in smaller houses and use more bicycles. We will live great lives inside the planetary boundaries and enjoy the bounty of Nature together. Happily ever after.”

The yellow vests’ anger is well grounded, and I hope we can use the power of this anger to transform society into a better place for all of Nature, including us. One of the most inspiring examples I know is the “RetroSuburbia” movement, ignited by David Holmgren in Australia – I very much recommend to read his fantastic book on the topic! 

One of the downshifting families of the RetroSuburbia movement.What do you do to prepare for a low-impact future?

Factfulness and confirmation blindness

I just finished reading the blockbuster book by my hero Hans Rosling – “Factfulness”.
(If you have not been in awe of this phenomenal educator, check out his series of TED-talks, they are amazing!)

Beautiful book – easy read – however…

If you have read it, please let me know what you think. I am left with a strange feeling.

The main contribution

The one major contribution of the book is to further popularize “Dollar Street” and the four levels of human wealth/prosperity/development. This is a great tool to illustrate how life looks at different levels, and how many people are on each level.

World population in four levels of prosperity

(What Rosling forgets to mention is that the people on level 4 (where most of the blog readers are) is the major ecological destruction driver on this planet. If we all meet at level 3, we could all 7 billion people live rich lives sustainably. )

The prophet of progress

The core premise of the book is that the world is getting better in a number of measurable and surprising ways. Each of the 10 chapters shows one aspect of understanding data and distributions, which are quite illustrative. Throughout the book, there are numerous references to a survey that Rosling has conducted all over the world, where most people answer wrongly about the current state of the world.

I think this book has a deep ideological bias towards the “religion of progress”. It is a pamphlet to celebrate all improvements for civilization, especially in the last 200 years, while largely ignoring the price we pay for the advancements. This is deeply problematic for many reasons. It de-fangs the acute ecological problems that we face on a global scale, and lulls the readers into complacency.

Examples of problems with the book

The “knowledge survey” that is used throughout the book has a number of flaws, in my opinion. The multiple-choice-questions are of course simple to analyze, but have a strong bias to show the message that Rosling wants to show.

First of all the position-bias:
The correct choice in all the questions is the “best” of the three alternatives. Any and all mistakes are subsequently interpreted as “people have a bleak view of the world”. Imagine if the survey was repeated with the correct answer as the “worst” alternative – and how we could interpret the results as “people have a too rosy view of the world”.

Example question with “position bias”. The “best” answer is the correct one.

Secondly, some questions could have slightly changed wording which would remove the “improvement” message. E.g. “number of people” or “proportion of the population” in abject poverty. If we choose to measure the number of people suffering, there has been no improvement. However, Rosling chose to ask about the proportion of the population which has decreased, and touts this as an improvement. Is that really better or maybe worse? For the 700 million or so in deep poverty, I don’t think it helps to know that there is another billion middle class people in the world.

Thirdly, the specifics of the questions are sometimes slightly misleading. The only ecological question is about the “endangerness status” of three picture-perfect mammals : Giant Panda, Tiger and Black Rhino whose populations seem to stabilize. However, if he had chosen to ask about Pyrenean Ibex, Yangze dolphin and Hawaiian crow, the correct answer is that they all went extinct since 1996. The general decline of wildlife is real, but the specific animals of his questions are exceptional, unique successes of conservation. Therefore only experts would know the answer to the question, while a well informed audience would follow the general trend and answer this question ‘wrongly’.

Other perspectives on a factful worldview

There are lots of improvements for humanity in the last centuries, mainly thanks to the enormous energy input that comes from fossil fuels. This has allowed billions of people to survive and prosper. The energy surplus has enabled a billion or so to work on other things than food production, which is great for development of music, Internet and vaccines.

However, at the same time, we have been growing populations in maddening numbers, encouraged by the Catholic Church, Mao Zedong and the Stalin era medals for “Hero Mothers”.  We are increasing consumption of huge cars, long flights and enormous houses, encouraged by economists and advertisement, to drive “economic growth”. In the process, we are destroying ecology at an mind-boggling rate and we are depleting the stores of easily accessible fossil carbon resources. The future will look very different from the past.

The optimistic “humanity is always improving”-story therefore rings false in my ears.

Necessary facts to complement the story

I am sad that Rosling did not include the scientific model “Planetary Boundaries” (Rockstrom et al., 2009) in his book. It would convincingly show that we are reducing the natural wealth every year. Our ecological destruction is undermining our ability to have a civilization in the future.

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

It is a pity that Rosling chose to exclude the model of “ecological footprint” (W. Rees, 1996) from this factful book. Since 1975, humanity uses more resources than are replenished each year, effectively leaving a poorer planet behind to the next generation.
Those are important aspects of the status of the world, if we have the ambition to live with more factfulness.

I see the book of Rosling as part of a larger story of vocal cheerleaders of the religion of endless growth including Johan Norberg and Steven Pinker. I am not sure if this chorus is a part of wilful deception or a well-meant feel-good message?

What do you think?
Why is there such a need for shouting that “everything is fine” when it obviously is not?

I want to focus on sustainable economic contraction and reducing ecological destruction. How can we encourage modesty and cooperation?

Planetary Boundary 3 – Erosion

On a planetary scale we lose soil fertility, and this is a threat to our civilization.

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.

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

The third planetary boundary that our civilization has crossed into the catastrophe zone is Erosion, also known as “Land Use Change”. When forests are cut down and plowed to plant corn, the organic matter in the soil – the soil carbons – gas out as CO2 or is washed away with rains and wind, and finally disappear. The effect is that soils can hold less water and the consequence is flooding and slow desertification. We have lost incredible 133 billion tons organic matter in the agricultural soils since the dawn of agriculture. And there is not much left… (This kind of agriculture is therefore a kind of mining.)

Indicator

The indicator chosen is how much of the total ice-free land mass of the planet that is converted to farming (in %)

1. Pre-industrial value: <1 %
2. Current value:   13%
3. Safe zone boundary:  5%
4. Catastrophe boundary:  15%

We are therefore approaching the catastrophe zone for this biophysical system, and with the current speed of cutting forests, we will reach the catastrophe limit around 2050.

Effect

Erosion as a killer of civilization is a well documented companion throughout human history, usually accompanied with the spread of the plow.

Plowed grain culture of barley and wheat was developed in Egypt, on the fertile Nile flood plains, which got seasonal replenishment of fertility. That is in principle a sustainable system that could continue throughout the millennia.

However, as soon as the plow as used on other soils, where there was no replenishment, the soils would slowly lose fertility. With oxen-drawn plows, this was a slow process. We have mechanized with diesel-drawn megaplows, and increased the destruction of soil life by application of pesticides. What earlier took a century can now be accomplished in a decade!

Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon – home of the hanging gardens in those days. Now semi-desert. Photo BBC World.

 

Dunhuang, Gansu, China, was a very prosperous city on the Silk Road. 1500 years ago, it was the capital of the Western Liang country, and had more inhabitants than Rome. Actually more than any city in Europe. Now surrounded by desert.

 

Mechanism

The soil is turned upside down by the plow, which makes organic matter break down faster. This is advantageous for the farmer, since it kills weeds and makes plant-available compost.

Modern tilling. Image wikipedia.

However, there are three problematic effects:

1. Soil organisms die and release CO2: The disadvantage is that soil organisms like mycorhiza fungi also die when exposed to the UV rays of sunlight and gas off as CO2. The soil also loses the sponginess called “tilth”.

2. When the tilth is lost, and the mycorhiza fungi die, the soil organic matter is no longer held into the soil, but can wash away with rain drops that have direct access  due to the turned-over soil. This is why the Yellow River in China is yellow – the tilled Löss-plains release the fine organic matter and clay particles, which clog the river downstream.

You can see an example in this aerial photo of the city of Passau, where two rivers come together:

Passau, where the left river comes from an agricultural area, the right river from the forests. Image Wikipedia.

3.  Compaction blocking water flow:
There is compaction in the soil just beneath the reach of the plow, which blocks water percolation.

Compaction as a consequence of plowing (left). Image from Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.

Solutions

There are ways to grow food without killing the soil. The best way is to use trees and other perennial plants, and avoid pesticide applications.

Here is a beautiful video of a project that was done in Deng Xiaoping’s China in the 1990’s, Green Gold by John D. Liu.

Here is an amazing book by the American researcher J. Russel Smith, who proposed “Tree Crops” already in 1929!

Sweet chestnuts are an amazing tree crop. Healthy and delicious!

What can I do?

  • Eat more from trees! Nuts, fruit and vegetables from trees help rebuild soils and stabilize the land. Choose walnuts instead of bacon, avocado instead of yoghurt. Chestnuts instead of potatoes.
  • Eat less meat. Buy organic grass fed meat. If you can from a farmer you know.
  • Join a political party and push for a transition to organic no-till farming. No-till means keeping the plow out of the ground.
  • Plant a fruit-tree in your yard, in your park or on a nearby schoolyard.
  • Get the book “The Carbon Farming Solution” by Eric Toensmeier with plenty of exciting tree crops!
Get your own copy of this excellent book at Chelseagreen,com or your favourite bookstore.

 

Planetary Boundary 2 – Eutrophication – Nitrates and Phosphates

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.

The second planetary boundary that our civilization has crossed into the catastrophe zone is Eutrophication, by polluting surface waters with nitrates and phosphates. The nitrates and phosphates come from fertilizers in agriculture, mainly from chemical-industrial agriculture (non-organic practices).

Indicators

The indicators chosen are:
Nitrates – how much synthetic fertilizer nitrates do we make per year (Haber-Bosch process) from nitrogen in the air – million tons/year.
Phosphates – how much phosphorus is rinsed out into the sea from human activities – million tons/year.

1. Pre-industrial value: Nitrates 0 million tons/year, Phosphates -1 million tons/year
2. Current value: Nitrates 121 million tons/year, Phosphates 15.8 million tons/year
3. Safe zone boundary: Nitrates 69 million tons/year, Phosphates 6.9 million tons/year
4. Catastrophe boundary: Nitrates 91 million tons/year, Phosphates 12.5 million tons/year

We are therefore deep into the catastrophe zone for both nitrates and phosphates. We need to cut these geochemical flows in half on a global scale, as soon as possible.

Effect

The effect of fertilizers in surface waters (rivers, lakes, shallow sea bays) is an increase of algae, which die off and fall to the bottom in great volumes. The composting of these algae consumes all the oxygen in the water and the bottom areas die off. The most famous one is along the coast of Louisiana, USA, and the size of the death zone is as big as New Jersey (half of The Netherlands) – 11,000 km2. There are now >400 documented dead zones in the world and the number and intensity is growing every year.

 

“Dead zones” in the world oceans 2013 (nasa.gov). This is driven by chemical-industrial agriculture.

When the lakes and oceans die, not only fish and whales die off, but also the oxygenation of the air we breathe goes away.

The “dead zone” outside Louisiana. 11,000 km2 of dead ocean.

 

Algal bloom in Lake Eire, the first step in creating a fully dead zone. (http://www.miseagrant.umich.edu/lessons/lessons/by-broad-concept/physical-science/dead-zones/)

Who shat in my water?

The largest source of phosphates and nitrates in surface waters is agricultural “run off”, and on the second place is untreated human domestic sewage. (Therefore, I focus today on the agricultural sources, and I will come back to the humanure problem/solution in another post.)

Synthetic fertilizers in chemical-industrial agriculture is driving the nutrient overload wherever grains are grown. Most of the maize/corn and soy beans in the world are fed to pigs, chicken and cattle, who concentrate these nutrients in their manure.

The manure ends up both in the ground water (especially nitrates), which is the leading source of groundwater contamination, but also in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Most of the nutrients in the oceans thus come from factory meat production.

Global use of synthetic fertilizers. We need to come back to below the level of 1980. (Source UN FAO / Our World in Data.)

In Netherlands, where I live, the situation is peculiar. The meat-and-dairy sector imports animal feed containing 100,000 ton phosphates per year, which is twice as much as the agricultural fields can take. Therefore this excess manure is an important local problem, as well as contributing to the global eutrophication.

Where do the nitrates and phosphates come from?

Nitrates are magicked from thin air. Norsk Hydro/Yara is the biggest global player who uses fossil methane gas to drive the chemical process of converting nitrogen (N2) gas from the atmosphere into ammonia (NH3). The process was invented by Fritz Haber 100 years ago and has been used with ever increasing volumes. (Synthetic nitrates are therefore a problem for CO2 emissions, fossil fuel depletion and eutrophication!)

In classic (organic) agriculture, leguminous plants like clover do this job. Every third year or so, the fields were in fallow, planted with clovers, lupines and other nitrogen fixing plants. (really plants in symbiosis with nitrogen fixing bacteria). This reduces the run-off immensely and is really part of the solution. However, the temptation to use synthetic fertilizers in strong – synthetic fertilizers increase the speed of production.

Phosphates comes almost exclusively from mined rock phosphates. Morocco, China and USA are the leading producers of phosphates, with 70% of the world production. The rocks often contains other elements like cadmium, which leads to pollution at the source, and sometimes to poisoning in the field.

Solutions

Since the largest chunk of nitrates and phosphates come as run-off from chemical-industrial farming, this is where we need to change. First of all we can drastically reduce the area in production by eating less meat.

Secondly, we should as a society stop (or dramatically reduce) using synthetic fertilizers. If we cut it to half, we are back in the safe zone of this planetary boundary.

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. This has positive effects on other life support systems like biodiversity and the climate system. There is a whole new branch of agriculture called “Carbon Farming”, which produces food and at the same time captures CO2 into the soil and plants. Another advantage of these perennial systems is that they capture nutrient runoff so that it does not end up in the oceans!

 What can I do?

  • Eat less meat. Buy organic meat. If you can from a farmer you know.
  • Join a political party and push for a transition to organic farming.
  • Support local agro-ecology projects. Find an organic nut grower, or join an agro-ecology interest group.
  • Grow a garden or plant a fruit-tree in your yard.
  • Get the book “The Carbon Farming Solution” by Eric Toensmeier
Get your own copy of this excellent book at Chelseagreen,com or your favourite bookstore.

 

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.

 

 

 

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/