What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Global Warming

In my blog last week, ‘30,000 Generations’, I wrote about a vision I cherish for long-term human survival, a vision which present global society seems, implicitly, not to have. Of course human could survive if only a few thousand people survived a future crisis, and there have been bottlenecks in the Homo sapiens population before, but I’m sure most people would like to imagine a future where humanity survived without major disruptions.

Today I’m going to write about the most obvious issue that has the potential to affect human survival, anthropogenic global warming.

This is the increase in global temperatures caused by the recent increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide is the result of human activities (‘anthropogenic global warming’) . The temperature anomaly due to this from about the 1970s onwards is already approaching 1°C and will continue to increase in the short-term even if CO2 emissions are curtailed. Already many scientist are predicting that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s higher estimates of temperature rise (with upper ranges over 3°C) are more likely than lower ones.

Any temperature rise is bad news and the higher the temperature rise the worse the news is.

I don’t propose to dignify global warming denialism with much of mention in this post. Clearly the science has been settled for about 15 years and the only thing more definite in this area than the fact of anthropogenic global warming is the refusal of governments across the world to do anything about curbing emissions. This has been one of the most depressing aspects of life in that period: the clear perception of a problem, the almost complete lack of a response to this problem.

What I want to do in this post is to discuss a couple commonly-heard arguments against a far-reaching policy response to anthropogenic global warming.

The first is ‘the climate has always changed in the past’. True, but whenever it does it causes species to go extinct. Homo sapiens survived an increase in temperature of more than 10°C at the end of the last ice age, but in that time there were only a few tens of thousand of us, we had the entire world at our disposal and we were very mobile. Also, and obviously, the temperature increase was from a global temperature much lower than present, to something like present levels, not from recent average temperatures higher again.

We should also note that we don’t know what the cost was of this adaption process, the archaeological record for the period is so sparse that it couldn’t tell us, for example, if 90% of humans perished.

A better example of what a change in temperature can do is the beginning of the Little Ice Age in Europe. This is a period which began to have its strongest effects in the early C16. The earlier part of mediaeval times in Europe had seen the Mediaeval Warm Period (strongest 950-1250 CE), a period much beloved of denialists because they can argue it was both global and warmer than the present (in fact it was neither). After some centuries of fluctuating weather the Little Ice Age began with a drop of a couple of degrees. Within a century and a half Europe had seen the Reformation and a series of famines, epidemics, and wars (including the 30 Years War) which reduced the European population by a third.

The second is ‘we can adapt’. Again this may be true, but what we need to ask is what form will this adaptation take? will it be a smooth ride with little disruption, or a series of agonising catastrophes with humanity surviving in a few small pockets?

The problem is that global agriculture is not sustainable in its present form even without global warming. Pre-modern agriculture is many parts of the world was not on the European model of continuous cropping of permanently cleared land, but was ‘swidden’, or shifting cultivation, where land was cleared, cultivated until its fertility dropped, then abandoned to natural vegetation again. The traditional northern European model of soils of high fertility, carefully maintained with organic inputs (manure, composting) is not one that necessarily suits soils in other parts of the world which are of lower fertility, and where and heat and high rainfall can leach nutrients quickly.

The area of the world under cultivation and grazing has increase five-fold since the C18 and there is very little further land suitable for cultivation available.

Modern agriculture globally, especially since the ‘green revolution’, is crucially dependent on high levels of inputs, fertilisers and pesticides, and on mechanisation. The productivity of much of the agricultural land of the world would be rapidly be degraded without these inputs, and even with them, cannot be sustained in the long-term. All these inputs are dependent on the petrochemical industry, and this industry is precisely the one which is responsible for the levels of CO2 emissions. Oil is running out. Furthermore, absurd acreages of the world’s cultivated land are also being diverted to crop production for ethanol to replace fossil fuels when the correct course of action should be to develop electric-powered transport as soon as possible. Finally, soils around the world are losing carbon to the atmosphere as a result of unsustainable cultivation.

When we add in global warming we have a further problem: we don’t know how much the temperature will rise by, in what timeframe, and we don’t know for certain what effects a temperature rise will have in particular places. As it is agriculture is being asked to enter a period of change of unknown duration and effects with the other problems listed above remaining unresolved.

In some areas warmer temperatures may be a good thing, I imagine farmers are looking forward to growing wheat further north in Scotland and Scandinavia, for example, but elsewhere it may not be easy to migrate agriculture. Everywhere around the world there will be less available water after global warming. Even in areas where rainfall increases this may not necessarily be a good thing, as higher rainfall can erode soils more quickly.

The two main wheat growing areas of the world, the Great Plains of the US and Canada, and the steppes of Ukraine and Southern Russia, are bound on the north by the taiga, a band of infertile acid soils presently covered in pine trees. This vegetation will migrate north with global warming, but it is difficult to see how extensive wheat growing is expected to migrate to an area of infertile soils covered in dead pine trees without some sort of hiatus, and without massive inputs of fertilisers and fuels to power machinery, at time when, as we have mentioned, these are set to become much more expensive and possibly unavailable.

Presently the world population is 6.9 billion, set to rise to 9 billion mid-century. It will be difficult for agriculture to continue to feed a growing population in the face of its own unsustainability (‘peak soil’ as some have called it), peak oil and climate change.

I have reasonable confidence we can adapt to climate change, what I don’t have confidence in is our ability to perpetuate out current global politics arrangements, including population, intact into the future.

Next week, more on population.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

30,000 Generations

I think blogs need to have a ‘vision-thing’, so you can see where the author stands and in what context they are writing. Here is mine.

At this point in time many urgent questions are being raised about humanity’s use, or abuse, of the environment. Many people are concerned about global warming, the biodiversity crisis and human population levels, but others argue perhaps that nothing can be done, or nothing should done, because such efforts would alter present political and economic arrangements, or damage present prosperity.

This is how I see it. As a species, humanity, Homo sapiens, arose some time before 100,000 years ago in Africa. It’s about 2066 generations (a generation being defined as 30 years) from when humans left Africa (around 60,000 BCE). So I see a chain of ancestors stretching back from me to an ancestor in Africa, 2066 of them, a lot of people. Each of those people is a link in the chain that leads to the present generation. Each had a ‘residence on earth’ as the poet Pablo Neruda put (Residencia En La Tierra, the title of a poetry collection), and each then gave a life or lives to the next generation.

Each of these 2066 generations lived in the world and survived. My own ancestors in north-western Europe would have seen Mammoths and Woolly Rhinos, and, if they were unlucky, Cave Lions and Cave Bears. They would have hunted deer and fought with wolves, gathered shellfish by the sea and fished. They may have have camped on what is now the bed of the North Sea and walked across into Britain from Europe. 466 generations ago agriculture was invented in the Near East and my ancestors, when this innovation arrived in the British Isles, would then have been farmers, herding cattle and sheep, or looking to the weather and the soil and plants. It is only 10 generations since the Industrial Revolution, when my ancestors became town-dwellers, though still with an eye to nature in some ways.

Looking at it like this, we see how current concerns are shallow in comparison with the depth of human history. We may treasure the innovations and comforts that modern society brings us, but we are older than this, much older.  Not only that but our languages and cultures vanish into the past, my ancestors a few generations back didn’t speak English, but Welsh or Cornish, and before that who knows what vanished languages. We are not naturally capitalists, do not naturally belong to this or that nationality, or culture or religion. We are not naturally anything, except human.

Looking forward, I see a chain of descendants stretching out. We are told that we should expect mammal species to survive for a million years*. Earlier hominid species did: Homo erectus did, Homo habilis did, even Neanderthals, whom we mock, lasted 600,000 years (six times longer than we have survived so far). If humanity is to survive a million years this would be over 30,000 generations still to go, an almost unimaginable number.

What do we know about these descendants? We know that, as with out ancestors, a few generations out from us languages, culture, religions will change, what is familiar to us will not survive, and new familiarities will take their place. The only thing we know is that these people will be human and the link they share with us is the link to the earth, the relationship expressed by the Greeks Orphics when they described a human as ‘a child of the earth and starry skies’. We want, we should want, these generations to succeed us, that we are not the generation where humanity fails its duty to its descendants. We cannot imagine how these people will live, but if they are to live and pass on their life from generation to generation we know that they will have the human kinship with the natural world that has always been with us, and will only fail if we become extinct as a species. We should also desire that our descendants’ residence on earth is not impoverished compared to those of our ancestors, or even ours. We should not wish that all they have to live with are rats and cockroaches on rubbish heaps, and all they see are poisoned soils under darkened skies. They deserve the glory and splendour of the world that our ancestors knew, which we know in some measure, and which it is within our power to grant our descendants.

In this perspective ‘environmentalism’ is not some middle-class lifestyle choice, but an observation that humanity has flourished in its history in low numbers in a high bio-diversity world. It is only in the present that humanity’s survival has become problematic, at precisely the point we began living in high numbers in low-biodiversity settings.

I see the way ahead, our duty to the 30,000 generations, as clear and unequivocal, and this blog will argue the assumptions above in more detail in subsequent posts.

*Robert M May, ‘The Dimensions of Life on Earth’, pp 30-45 in Nature and human society: the quest for a sustainable world : proceedings of the 1997 Forum on Biodiversity, Ed Peter H. Raven, National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Biology, 2000.