If you woke up one morning only to discover that civilization has been on a roaring oil binge and in its catatonic consuming stupor had unceremoniously launched itself into the pit of despair, you’d want to know about that, right? It would be a leading news story on the front page of every prestigious newspaper like the NY Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times, etc., right? Yet, I couldn’t find a drop of ink that suggests that life as we know it has already ended and real estate on the North Pole will be available soon. But did you see the latest eye-popping candy on the front cover of Victoria’s Secret catalogue suggesting that if we “buy more we save more” printed on paper from a forest near you? No, you didn’t read the print, silly me.
Seriously, “Late summer 2007, an area of Arctic sea ice almost twice the size of Britain disappeared in a single week.” Overall, about 50% of the Arctic ice has thinned out over the last fifty industrial years as a result of fossil fuel driven economies. Last years shrinkage broke the record for ice melt and 2008 is on pace to obliterate that record.
No, let’s be casual, I mean its only a leading climatologist from Washington State University who recently proved that the tipping point has been breached, and, like it or not, the euphemism shop to till you drop, has the drop on an overly distracted civilization. And it’s not like the issue hasn’t been heating up since “Inconvenient Truth” aired world-wide and every other climatologist in the business not employed by Bush has alluded to the fact that carbon emissions trap heat, and well, hot planets melt ice. No ice, no Malibu, inland properties can speculate new coastlines and build piers or set-up post-industrial villas for the likes of Bush, Cheney and the Wall Street gang.
A recent airing of Exploration hosted by Michio Kaku featured world-renown environmentalist Lester Brown, whose recent release, Plan B, 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, details the folly of a fossil fuel-based industrial economy and its impact on climate, ecosystems, economy, food production, forest, and population. All of which seems rather important, in my view, to the quality of life. Hello Hillary, Hello Obama, Hello McCain? Is anybody home?
Now, if you’re wondering, who’s Lester Brown and why should I trust his data over the governments? Brown is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington D.C. and the World Watch Institute and has been tracking carbon emissions and global climate patterns for the past thirty years and has the ear, apparently, of most world leaders. Bush, whose personal climatologist exists in the mythical space between his ears, answers only to higher authorities unavailable to common folk.
Brown’s four overriding goals are to “stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s damaged ecosystems. Failure to reach any one of these goals will likely mean failure to reach the others as well.” Now there’s a days work. After setting the stage for massive climate change, Brown defines a way out. Albeit, not a family vacation but the notion of living within planetary means has a comforting ring to it. Don’t you think? Let’s consider some of his findings.
In a climate nutshell, for every one foot rise in sea level one hundred feet of land mass is swallowed by the sea due to the shallow slope of coast lines. When the Greenland ice sheet melts, and it is faster than expected, sea levels rise 23′. When the West Artic Ice sheet breaks up, sea levels rises another 16′ totaling 39′ of sea rise, a real boon to mapmakers. Most coastal cities worldwide will be under water displacing 600 million people — sea-rise refugees migrating inland — overwhelming inland infrastructures ill-prepared to house, feed, or employ them. Hurricane Katrina, disaster writ small, pales in comparison to the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage and hundreds of millions fleeing inland with little prospect for a life.
Aside from the loss of polar ice and Polar Bears migrating tentatively north to stay within the reaches of remaining ice flows, inland areas aren’t sitting too sweet either. Inland mountain glaciers are nature’s way of collecting, storing and slowly releasing water. They pack snow during the precipitation season and slowly release water flows during the off-season to maintain year round river systems critical to natural and industrial food systems. The glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas feed the major rivers of Asia including the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yellow, and Yangtze Rivers. When upper elevation temperatures warm, snow elevations are driven ever higher and snow begins melting sooner and faster.
Once year round rivers will be rendered seasonal without the glaciers to hold and slowly release stored water and floods will be wide spread throughout the region followed by droughts. These river valleys feed billions of Asians including India, Pakistan, and China who rely on year round flows to irrigate staples like wheat and rice. Wheat, rice, corn, sorghum, and barley represent more than 50% of the world’s food stores — all will be impacted.
Closer to home, Lassen, Shasta and the entire north/south Sierra snow-belt range that feeds the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Klamath, Stanislaus, Kings, Kern, Trinity, Feather, American, Tuolumne, Mokelumne, Merced, and the Owens River, will face similar problems affecting not only the bread basket regions that largely feed the nation but domestic water supplies for tens of millions as well.
The major dams of both the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project represent the most hydrologically altered and most complex systems on the planet. They serve as water supply and flood control mechanisms timing vast flows of runoff. That mechanism depends entirely on leaving reservoir capacity to absorb large pulses of water until the threat of flooding passes before filling up for storage. That mechanism will be shot to hell with less snow pack and earlier melting characteristics to negotiate. The resulting problem will be too much water too soon and not enough flood control damaging critical crops, property and livelihoods. Again, followed by its twin, drought.
Most people don’t fully understand the relationship between our food supply and somewhat predictable snowfall and rainfall in both quantity and frequency and how a major disruption in either can bring down a vulnerable centralized mega agribusiness specializing in monocultured food systems such as the one the global community depends on.
According to Brown, food system disruptions stress a state’s ability to govern as evidenced by modern genocides in sub-Saharan Africa. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse argues that the centerpiece of all previous civilization collapses has been an undermined food supply. Brown argues the link between poverty and population growth noting that “rapid population growth begets poverty and poverty begets rapid population growth.” Brown notes that states either break this trend or are broken by it. Developing countries that have access to food, clean water, shelter, jobs, and personal security experience dramatically reduced family sizes: from seven children to three per family. No small wonder.
China, at nearly 1.5 billion, has surpassed the U.S. in consumption of basic resources and presents a challenge so improbable, that one doesn’t no where to end let alone begin. Knocking on Beijing’s front door is a desert that’s gaining the size of West Virginia each year. China has more livestock than the U.S. has humans and by 2030 is expected to be on pace with Americans income level. Translating income into consumption paints a picture of 1.1 billion cars, more than all the world’s cars. By 2030, they will consume 98 million barrels of oil a day which is more than the world’s current consumption. Brown articulates that an auto-centered, throwaway economy doesn’t work for the U.S. It won’t work for China nor for India which is on pace to surpass China’s population.
The growing aggregate of unresolved problems ultimately send marginal states towards failure and weakens more stable states. The number of failing or failed states is on the rise and Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Chad are among the top twenty with the balance in sub-Saharan Africa, Malaysian Peninsula, and South West Asia. States fail when they can no longer feed, employ, and protect their populations so evident in today’s failed states of Iraq and Afghanistan. Failed states like endangered species have a tipping point. At that critical point when enough states fail, civilization fails.
What’s the good news? Brown’s data contends that a massive, war-time-speed production of 1.5 million wind turbines with integrating transmission lines be built and installed throughout the Midwest. Coupled with plug-in hybrids, this will reduce carbon emissions by 80%. Texas is cutting a path to develop 23,000 mega watts of wind turbine capacity. Brown notes that the U.S. currently builds 65 million cars per year and that this project is doable and needs to be completed by 2020 to have any chance of arresting warming trends into the future. As well, Brown’s plan bans deforestation coupled with a broad tree planting project with the goal of planting billions of trees balancing carbon sequestration.
Brown’s analysis connects the dots between water shortages and food production as it relates to energy consumption. Most local governments don’t consider water for food production in their analysis of water capacity and demand. Apparently, local governments sleep well on two to seven days of local food supply in supermarkets without concern for either predicted spiraling food prices or a breakdown in the food systems resulting from water shortages.
This point cannot be overstressed. Most people don’t realize how much water they consume in their daily diets. At a minimum, 500 gallons per person per day and a red-meat rich diet with highly processed foods can climb to 1,400 gallons per person per day. That would stretch local water budgets unimaginably. Brown and every other researcher in the field all stress replacing monopolized agribusiness with locally grown food systems.
Eating local and shifting to a plant based diet lower on the food chain reduces energy consumption by a factor of four. Equally, trading your SUV for a Prius reduces energy consumption by a factor of four. Shifting to a plant based diet represents the same savings as shifting from a SUV to a Prius — saving energy, saving water, and saving land.
Taking a break from writing this article, I went to Ardella’s in Willits, CA for breakfast. There, I sat next to a pleasant, mature, intelligent man named Irving who had just finished breakfast. In the course of chatting, he shared that global warming was a hoax and a ploy to give governments more reason to throttle our rights and liberties. That environmentalists are responsible for perpetuating the warming myth and stand in the way of real progress. Progress? Stampeding civilization over the edge? I can only guess at what progress he referred. When I inquired as to his sources, he couldn’t name one and brushed it off with they don’t write, indeed.
Although I wondered why the government was being so stubborn about embracing the global warming myth to propel its rights-robbing agenda — noting they’re doing quite well with the terrorism game. I wondered more about what forces shape this view. It apparently has nothing to do with intelligence just a cultural predisposition well-marinated in the industrial revolution.
Let’s say Irving is right that all these environmentalist and climatologist import Mendocino Gold and are so stoned they wouldn’t notice a melting ice cube in their Margaritas, they’re supporting hedonistic lifestyles with meaty books and lecture tours. What I see in Lester Brown’s plan to save civilization is a lot of jobs, oodles of jobs and an economy that thrives on sun, wind, and local economies — a boon to humankind and nature alike.
Brown’s saving civilization options are based in restructuring the economy through education, ending poverty, efficiency, renewable technology, reducing population trends, and banning deforestation with a massive multi-billion tree planting campaign. His book, Plan B, 3.0 can be purchased for as little as $12 or can be downloaded or read on the internet for free — yes, no charge. Lester Brown isn’t a very good hedonist, apparently. Read it — I did.