The Crisis of the Anthropocene: Part 2

Continued from The Crisis of the Anthropocene: Part 1.

by Dr. Sherman Lewis, Professor Emeritus Political Science, California State University East Bay

Cheap fossils

Peak oil refers to the gradual increase in the cost of extracting fossil fuels causing higher prices, decreasing demand, and declining production. As peak oil is reached, the volume of extraction declines. Peak oil was reached years ago in the US. In 2010 the International Energy Association announced that peak oil may have occurred internationally in 2006. The price of gasoline has been erratically ratcheting up. Conventional petroleum is probably less available at the same time that rapidly growing economies demand more oil. Most Americans are likely to continue to buy gas as if there were no tomorrow and blame politics, oil companies, and speculators for a problem inherent in the earth’s crust. The timing of the ratchet is unpredictable. Crudeoilpeak.info/global-peak has excellent data on the past, but less certain projections for the future.

Credit: theresilientearth.com

Unfortunately, the benefit peak oil might provide to reduce global warming is being more than offset by other fossils, which seem well short of any peak. Higher oil prices so far only serve to stimulate more extraction of oil from risky deep ocean platforms, coal, dirty oil from shale and sand, and natural gas from fracking, which pollutes huge volumes of clean water. Fossil fuels are still in under-priced over-abundance and consumption is even increasing. The earth’s crust appears sufficiently generous in fossils to assure the demise of the climate that supported human development. However great for the money economy, it is not sustainable in the whole economy.

Under-pricing reduces the viability of non-fossil alternatives—solar wind, photovoltaic and thermal energy, energy efficiency, conservation, non-auto modes, and efficient land use.

Water

Humans appropriate more than half the world’s fresh water. Ancient aquifers in the world’s bread baskets, including the Ogallala in the Great Plains, are being drained. California has diverted so much water from the Bay Delta system that its historic ecology has collapsed. The salmon, steelhead, and striped bass are mostly gone, leaving the tiny Delta Smelt as the remaining indicator species. Water shortages are increasing. A federal court recently ordered water released into the Klamath River to prevent fish kills, at the expense of farmers who wanted the water. The San Joaquin Valley has sunk many feet in some places due to over-pumping of ground water.

In December 2012, the Interior Department said by mid-century the Colorado River will not support demand from the seven states it supplies, including California. The main reason is expected population growth in the region from 40 million to as many as 76 million people. “Phoenix continues to grow at one of the highest rates in the country,” said Jerry Karnas, population and sustainability director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “There is no discussion about what the future Phoenix is going to do when the Colorado River is done.”

As rains diminish and the climate dries in some areas, increased pumping from falling aquifers becomes more expensive due to the cost of electricity, itself dependent on water supplies and fossils. As diets improve, demand for food higher up the food chain requires more water. Only 2 percent of major U.S. rivers run unimpeded to the sea. California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has been entirely re-engineered. The last time the Colorado River reached the Sea of Cortez was in 1998. The Nile, Indus and Ganges rivers have been reduced to a trickle. (See chellaney.net for information on the most pertinent international water issue.)

Credit: thelivingocean.net

 

Pollution

Pollution of water, air, and land comes from burning fossils, hazardous chemicals, excess nutrients, and solid waste. Small amounts of a chemical can devastate amphibians and bees. Residues from 100 million tons of synthetic chemical compounds produced each year commonly appear in polar bear tissues, whale blubber, and human breast milk and umbilical cords. Nitrogen can be a fertilizer; the excess is a problem. Human activity surpasses nature as a source of nitrogen emissions, altering the planet’s nitrogen cycle.

Radioactivity has been an evolutionary background reality and a minor pollutant since the Strontium 90 scares of the 1950s, but is now looming much larger as radioactivity from the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi Reactor melt-down drifts across the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast of North America. Radioactivity has proven deadly from the earliest research to the bombing of two Japanese cities. In theory and most practice radioactivity is one of the most strictly regulated pollutants, but the difficulty of failsafe nuclear energy and the possibility of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism are still there.

Bioengineering is not usually thought of as a pollutant, but at the micro-scale of DNA it could be considered to be one, much like an invasive species in a habitat. So far, research and industry safeguards have prevented acute problems, but secrecy about Genetically Modified Organisms, lack of consumer choice, and industry assurances motivated in part by profit-seeking do not inspire confidence. Wind-blown GMO seeds have already contaminated some organic crops. We are still learning the most basic things about DNA, let alone how it can safely be manipulated.

California has eight of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the country and 725 metric tons of solid waste are washing up on our coast each year.

Higher, higher still Credit: InternationalComparisons.org

Credit: InternationalComparisons.org

Land

Humans have converted more than 40 percent of the earth’s land, usually the most biologically productive land, to cities and farms. Urbanization often destroys prime farmland. Roads and structures fragment the habitat of much of the rest. The increasing need for food and decreasing yields due to climate change, salinization, soil erosion, soil depletion, and conversion to other uses have led to converting more marginal, unfarmed land to crops. Farms and logging are big sources of deforestation and also causes greenhouse gases and loss of sequestration of atmospheric carbon.

Oceans

A third of world fisheries are exhausted or degraded. Forty percent of coral reefs and a third of mangroves have been destroyed or degraded. Most species of the great predator fish are in decline. Ocean acidification, a product of fossil fuel burning, is dissolving calcifying plankton at the base of the food chain. Coral reefs are disappearing as warming, over-fishing, and pollutants cause massive bleaching, i.e., the ejection by the coral of the algae it needs to grow. Less life in the oceans reduces sequestration of carbon. A garbage gyre at least twice the size of Texas swirls in the Pacific Ocean. “We can’t just continue dumping nitrogen into the ocean at the same rate and expect everything to be fine,” Santa Clara University’s Marvier said.

Auto-dependency

The world is rapidly increasing the number and use of cars, while other, healthier, modes of transportation, especially walking, are shrinking in proportion. Underpricing of fossil fuel drives land use dispersion, resulting in a suburban system which makes other modes uneconomic and unavailable. Californians own 32 million registered vehicles for 29 million people aged 16 and older.

Misconceptions

The problem is not consumption as understood by economists, but rather the over-consumption of some things due to their under-pricing which fails to consider full economic cost and allows externalization of costs, degrading the whole economy: “problem consumption.” The whole economy includes values of obvious economic worth that are not reflected in prices. We cannot conceive a sustainable economy because it is too complex, but we can have policies which push us towards one, with sustainable consumption replacing the unsustainable over time, and an improving status of women reducing population growth.

There is no “birth dearth,” at least, not yet. World fertility rates have fallen from 4.9 births per woman in the 1960s to the current 2.6, still too high. The rate in about half the world—Japan, Western Europe, China, Vietnam, Brazil, Iran, Thailand, and other emerging economies—is below the 2.1 births per woman needed for zero growth. The United States, the world’s third-largest country behind China and India, and the only rich country still growing, nevertheless recently saw its birth rate fall to 1.9.

The improvement in the status of women has driven birth rates down through education, economic opportunity, legal protections, family planning, and, to a small extent, therapeutic abortion. Across cultures, women choose to provide a better life for fewer children.

The revolution, however, is incomplete because high economic costs are still imposed on most women who choose to have children. Historically, the duties of child-rearing have been assumed by women, but, with improved status and given a choice, women reduce the burden. Once a developed country chooses to tax itself to ease the cost, women, if need be, are ready, willing, and able to have more children, because few things in life are more fulfilling.

While the population gets older, the ratio of dependent seniors on younger workers does not tell us what we need to know. The ratio is less relevant, possibly irrelevant, because health is increasing faster than age, and many older people want to work at work they choose. Also, if there are tax penalties, like loss of retirement income if one works, people will work less for money and more at other things. I retired to avoid tax penalties and to work voluntarily on sustainability analysis and advocacy. My wife retired and is almost fulltime at granddaughter care so that our kids can work for money. Rebalancing incentives for having children and for older working can solve problems, if they occur.

Major source: Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle Washington correspondent, SF Chronicle, Sept. 3, 2013.

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