Exploring Environmental Despair

This is an "image" of space junk.
This is an “image” of space junk.
I’m taking a break from posting the Festschrift paper to do some reflection on the topic of how people perceive the environmental situation. It’s interesting to me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that humans have lots of problems to work on and yet some seem to be uniquely pessimistic about the environment (not violence, hunger or disease, bullying, war, etc.) Since I am now in a business that seeks to do away with all bad things, I feel that the gloomy cloud that has settled around our perception of humans and the environment could use some further exploration.

There was an interesting article in New Scientist this week here about changing to a more sustainable future… I hope you can see all of it without a subscription, but below is an excerpt andhereis the essay in Word.

Still, that doesn’t tell us how to get there from here. Again there’s no shortage of ideas. Ecologists, economists and politicians have proposed many initiatives to foster sustainability. Most repurpose tools we are familiar with – international agreements, laws and regulations, taxes and subsidies, plus new technologies. Others are more radical, advocating structural changes to key institutions such as banking and finance, corporations, land and resource ownership, and government. Many individuals, grass-roots groups such as the Transition Network, businesses such as Unilever, universities, cities such as Vancouver, and a few nations, including Iceland and Bhutan, are putting these ideas into practice.

Of course, most of us are not green crusaders. Yet we are already changing our lives, our work patterns and what we consume in ways that suggest the drive for sustainability may be pushing at an open door. For a start, we are driving less. The annual distance travelled by UK car and van drivers fell by 7 per cent between 1995 and 2012. Germany, Australia, Japan and even the US all report the same trend. Why is that? Cost is a factor: young people are learning to drive later, put off by the price. We are also driving less to see friends and making fewer trips to the shops and to work by car – the rise in urban living, social media, online shopping and digital homeworking are seeing to that.

Driving less, and walking and cycling more are seen as positive lifestyle choices these days and are increasingly a feature of city living. Dense urban populations make recycling and other resource use more efficient, too. That doesn’t mean a return to slums. If building materials can be produced sustainably and houses can be designed to be carbon-neutral, people can still live in ample and comfortable homes, says Mary Ritter, head of the European Union’s climate innovation centre Climate KIC.

Porritt believes that the biggest changes will come in response to large popular movements galvanised by droughts, floods, famines and other crises. “Suddenly there’s a shock to the system, and re-evaluation kicks in big time,” he says. Yet some changes just happen and we hardly notice, such as putting out the recycling or insulating our lofts.

One of the most important is that we are having fewer children. Today the average woman has 2.43 children, fewer than half as many as 40 years ago. There is big population growth still to come in some places, especially sub-Saharan Africa where there is less access to contraception. But after quadrupling in the 20th century, the world’s population, currently at 7 billion, is unlikely to rise by more than 50 per cent before settling down. So we can think about how we do sustainability with a stable population, rather than one that is continually growing.

Population is only one part of the equation, of course. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, points out that the amount of stuff people use and the resources needed to produce that stuff are the other issues we need to worry about. In the developed world, at least, there is growing evidence that we have reached “peak stuff”. Individuals and society have got richer, and the rate at which we use resources has levelled off. Homes and factories are becoming more energy and water efficient and much of our new technology is smaller and lighter, reducing the amount of materials required to make them. So in many ways, the developed world is already dematerialising. The challenge is breaking the historic link between prosperity and energy and resource use fast enough.

This week I happened to spend a great deal of time organizing my electronic entertainment so this article highlighted some things I noticed… I used to drive around and shop, now I don’t. If RS is closer and has price match with BB, I won’t be driving to BB. Shelves of CDs are now on a jump drive. Shelves of sheet music are also on a jump drive.

But there are a couple of assumptions I would argue with.. 1) “cities are better for the environment and people” and 2) “meat is always worse” for the environment. If indeed transportation becomes based on renewable energy sources, I guess we would be reducing it by living in cities because.. (?) And locally meat may be the only food able to be locally produced due to cold or dryness or both.

That evening I was listening to WNYC (the Jonathan Channel, my favorite radio program) and ran across this:

Turn away from factory farmed meat. Instead of trying to get everyone to become a vegetarian, which is an impossible goal, Martins focuses on improving our food system and getting rid of factory farms. “It’s better to construct an action-based result.” Martins said. “ I believe in creating a solution rather than creating a utopia that will probably never exist.”

It seems like many things are getting better due to people’s awareness and economic drivers. Note the question at the end of the essay is whether the link between prosperity and energy and resource use will be broken “fast enough”. We have moved from worry about the ultimate condition being bad to worrying about the speed at which we approach a positive outcome, isn’t that something to celebrate. It does leave the question “not fast enough” for whom or what?

2 thoughts on “Exploring Environmental Despair”

  1. The grand issue in food production is its distribution. “Factory farms” and “corporate ag” are mostly expressions of a dependable, consistent supply chain based on just in time delivery to a vast corporate grocery store design that is a one stop shopping supplier. No matter if the store is in an inner city high rise or a strip mall on the edge of town, it is supplied by a large food processing gatherer of individual farm output, which in turn is sent to a warehouse/distribution center, and then radiates from there to the individual stores.

    Food is sold on a square inch of shelving process, an auction of sorts, to the vast array of processors and packagers. Stores run on a very small profit margin, one percent or two, and the profits are gained by how many times you turnover the inventory in a year. If you make 1%, and turn over the inventory 52 times a year, the income is interesting. Someone told me a new store does not pay for inventory. The suppliers fill the shelves for free. And it is their turnover that makes them money and the store money. It is a volume plus quality plus local needs deal.

    On the other hand, a farmers market approach is a good alternative to super markets for summer produce and local meats. But like the one acre plots the farms of Zimbabwe have been reduced to, you might feed the family with the acre, but you are not going to feed a quarter of Africa like Zimbabwe once did with the white corporate farms. Those small parcels are organic, and probably no longer irrigated as the capital and trust to have irrigation systems is no longer there or possible.

    My timber background tells me there is one mile of fence to surround 40 acres. 4 miles of fence to surround 640 acres. That pretty much explains the cost savings of large parcels in corporate ag. And then you have the critical mass of production needed to have efficiencies in processing food for storage and transportation. I do wonder if America could feed itself, ever, without a large scale ag production sector. When you have over 300 million souls to feed, can you do it, really, with the small ag model? I would think not.

    The issue of cattle on the public range is how to use the fuels produced naturally to reduce fire and produce a product of value. The free range cow raising a calf for the midwest feed lots to utilize the mass production of grains is an economy of scale. A well researched study of grazing will show that to NOT graze can produce results that are not acceptable in the great scheme of things. Fire, erosion, species invasions, degradation. And cattle are only there to become meat. A cow on the range is about as organic as they come, if there are no antibiotics used. On the other hand, organic dairy works well when the organic dairy has access to a non organic dairy in which to place a sick cow for healing and vet care. That cow has value, and produces non organic milk for that market after being healed. I have no idea of how to get through the piglet killing virus deal now impacting swine production. And there are now few sheep on the range due to environmental litigation and introduced predators. Or the single interest interaction of domestic sheep with bighorn sheep and the implied bacterial disease that is claimed to jump from domestic sheep to bighorns on the range. That will matter little. Wolves will take out the bighorns on their winter range and the problem is fast becoming moot. Wolves and cougars, protected, are taking out bighorns on winter range. No sheep means little brush is grazed, so the food for deer is not there and neither are the deer, so the large predators are now after elk (grass eaters), bighorns, and domestic livestock. No action goes without an opposite and equal reaction.

    This food deal is not simplistic. And feeding a world of soon to be 8 billion souls is not a simple task. Just keeping those folks in firewood, and heat is a problem. There is a lot of work ongoing to produce a third world stove that will lessen smoke as a health issue, provide a more efficient use of available fuel, and be produced cheaply and distributed widely. Cottage Grove, Oregon, has been the epicenter of that effort. I haven’t followed it of late, but they had some potentially good products being made there on a limited basis.

    AS for the USA, and our interest in being locavores, that can happen for the affluent. It takes a person with disposable money to support an educated, labor intensive farming effort. So the wealthy do well in this local deal, but the poor again get little from the celebrated efforts. Gleaning for food banks helps. Most industrial farms will allow that to some extent, like will it slow the cultivation process for the next crop? Gleaning is a fine way to utilize more of the crop grown, but it is labor intensive and involves effort and transportation and the ability to store the food. Whipping out the Oregon Trail Card is just a lot easier. The “food stamps” alternative. Food preparation takes effort. Time. It is a distraction from doing “fun” stuff. Or doing nothing. The affluent eat out or buy prepared foods that only need cooking, which is greatly catered to by the “New Natural Foods Organic” kind of stores. The poor would rather use a microwave. Rip off the packaging and heat. I shop for groceries. I see who buys what. And how it is paid for. The small local farm deal is not going to feed America. We are already too far down the easy street mentality for that. It would take a sea change in culture and customs, which I don’t think will happen in the current Nanny State atmosphere of entitlement and “rights.”

  2. I’m with John on the organic/localvore thing. The food chain needs to be efficient and has to take advantage of economies of scale at every possible point, or it won’t work in the long run. I remember one night going west on I-90 between St Regis and Coeur d’Alene in the wee hours. I had the highway to myself and was making book, and I was just thunderstruck by the number of trucks with green lights on the reefer trailers going east toward Montana from the distribution hubs in Washington state. Sure, the farmer’s markets are kind of fun, but it’s all frou frou in the end. And the organic stores? Tell me none of those reefers were destined to Organic Archie’s.
    We can never get away from energy. Energy does the work. I learned this pretty quickly having grown up in a house with power tools. The bigger and more powerful the power tool, the happier I tend to be. It’s amazing what one can do with 13 amps of worm-drive POWER that would be unadulterated misery with armstrong direct drive.
    Keep in mind that energy is usually required to convert raw materials to higher and better values (meaning profit and increased overall benefit/wealth in the end), like steel out of iron ore. Ideas into electrons for dissemination. Grass into protein, shipped to places without grass.
    The human path to being “sustainable” is through sustained invention and adaptation — not regression to foolish utopian fantasy.


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