Saturday, March 23, 2013

Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided?

Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size.

The Georgia Guidestones

Some, such as those of Egypt and China, have recovered from collapses at various stages; others, such as that of Easter Island or the Classic Maya, were apparently permanent. All those previous collapses were local or regional; elsewhere, other societies and civilizations persisted unaffected. Sometimes, as in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, new civilizations rose in succession. In many, if not most, cases, overexploitation of the environment was one proximate or an ultimate cause.

But today, for the first time, humanity's global civilization-the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded-is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as 'an act of suicide on a grand scale', facing what the UK's Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a 'perfect storm' of environmental problems. The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources, including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas; and resource wars. These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as 'the human predicament', and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps theforemost challenge confronting humanity.

The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens' aggregate consumption. How far the human population size now is above the planet's long-term carrying capacity is suggested (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis. It shows that to support today's population of seven billion sustainably (i.e. with business as usual, including current technologies and standards of living) would require roughly half an additional planet; to do so, if all citizens of Earth consumed resources at the US level would take four to five more Earths. Adding the projected 2.5 billion more people by 2050 would make the human assault on civilization's life-support systems disproportionately worse, because almost everywhere people face systems with nonlinear responses, in which environmental damage increases at a rate that becomes faster with each additional person. Of course, the claim is often made that humanity will expand Earth's carrying capacity dramatically with technological innovation, but it is widely recognized that technologies can both add and subtract from carrying capacity. The plough evidently first expanded it and now appears to be reducing it. Overall, careful analysis of the prospects does not provide much confidence that technology will save us or that gross domestic product can be disengaged from resource use.

2. Do current trends portend a collapse?

What is the likelihood of this set of interconnected predicaments leading to a global collapse in this century? There have been many definitions and much discussion of past 'collapses', but a future global collapse does not require a careful definition. It could be triggered by anything from a 'small' nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization, to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities. In either case, regardless of survivors or replacement societies, the world familiar to anyone reading this study and the well-being of the vast majority of people would disappear.

How likely is such a collapse to occur? No civilization can avoid collapse if it fails to feed its population. The world's success so far, and the prospective ability to feed future generations at least as well, has been under relatively intensive discussion for half a century. Agriculture made civilization possible, and over the last 80 years or so, an industrial agricultural revolution has created a technology-dependent global food system. That system, humanity's single biggest industry, has generated miracles of food production. But it has also created serious long-run vulnerabilities, especially in its dependence on stable climates, crop monocultures, industrially produced fertilizers and pesticides, petroleum, antibiotic feed supplements and rapid, efficient transportation. More

Advice given on the Georgia Guide Stones


  • Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  • Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  • Unite humanity with a living new language.
  • Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  • Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  • Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  • Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  • Balance personal rights with social duties.
  • Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  • Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

We Can Reforest the Earth by Lester R. Brown

Protecting the 10 billion acres of remaining forests on earth and replanting many of those already lost are both essential for restoring the earth’s health.

Since 2000, the earth’s forest cover has shrunk by 13 million acres each year, with annual losses of 32 million acres far exceeding the regrowth of 19 million acres. Restoring the earth’s tree and grass cover protects soil from erosion, reduces flooding, and sequesters carbon.

Global deforestation is concentrated in the developing world. Tropical deforestation in Asia is driven primarily by the fast-growing demand for timber and increasingly by the expansion of oil palm plantations for fuel. In Latin America, the fast-growing markets for soybeans and beef are together squeezing the Amazon. In Africa, the culprit is mostly fuelwood gathering and land clearing for agriculture.

In recent years, the shrinkage of forests in tropical regions has released 2.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually. Meanwhile, expanding forests in the temperate regions are absorbing close to 700 million tons of carbon. On balance, therefore, some 1.5 billion tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere each year from forest loss, roughly one fourth as much as from fossil fuel burning.

Fortunately, there is a vast unrealized potential in all countries to lessen the various demands that are shrinking the earth’s forest cover. In industrial nations, the greatest opportunity lies in reducing the amount of wood used to make paper. The goal is first to reduce paper use and then to recycle as much as possible. The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widely, but South Korea, which recycles an impressive 91 percent, stands out. If every country recycled as much of its paper as South Korea does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by more than one third.

In developing countries, the focus needs to be on reducing fuelwood use. Indeed, fuelwood accounts for just over half of all wood removed from the world’s forests. Some international aid agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Foundation, are sponsoring projects to increase fuelwood efficiency through the use of more efficient cookstoves. Over the longer term, pressure on forests can be reduced by replacing firewood with solar thermal cookers or even with electric hotplates powered with renewable energy.

One major challenge is to harvest forests responsibly. There are two basic approaches to timber harvesting. Clearcutting is environmentally devastating, leaving eroded soil and silted streams, rivers, and irrigation reservoirs in its wake. The alternative is to selectively cut only mature trees, leaving the forest largely intact. This ensures that forest productivity can be maintained in perpetuity.

Forest plantations can reduce pressures on the earth’s remaining forests as long as they do not replace old-growth forest. As of 2010, the world had 652 million acres in planted forests, more than one third as much land as is planted in grain. Tree plantations produce mostly wood for paper mills or for wood reconstitution mills. Increasingly, reconstituted wood is substituted for natural wood as lumber and construction industries adapt to a shrinking supply of large logs from natural forests.

As tree farming expands, it is starting to shift geographically to the moist tropics, where yields are much higher. One hectare (2.47 acres) of forest plantation produces 4 cubic meters of wood per year in eastern Canada and 10 cubic meters in the southeastern United States. But in Brazil, newer plantations are getting close to 40 cubic meters. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization projects that as plantation area expands and yields rise, the harvest could more than triple between 2005 and 2030. It is entirely conceivable that plantations could one day satisfy most of the world’s demand for industrial wood, thus helping protect the world’s remaining natural forests.

Although banning deforestation may seem far-fetched, environmental damage has pushed Thailand, the Philippines, and China to implement partial or complete bans on logging. All three bans followed devastating floods and mudslides resulting from the loss of forest cover. In China, after suffering record losses from weeks of nonstop flooding in the Yangtze River basin in 1998, the government discovered that it simply did not make economic sense to continue deforesting. The flood control service of trees standing, they said, was three times as valuable as the timber from trees cut.

International environmental groups such as Greenpeace and WWF have negotiated agreements to halt deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and in parts of Canada’s boreal forests. Daniel Nepstad and colleagues reported in Science in 2009 on two recent developments that together may halt deforestation in the Amazon basin. One is Brazil’s Amazon deforestation reduction target that was announced in 2008, which prompted Norway to commit $1 billion if there is progress toward this goal. The second is a marketplace transition in the beef and soy industries to avoid Amazon deforesters in their supply chains.

Finally, we need a tree planting effort to both conserve soil and sequester carbon. To achieve these goals, billions of trees need to be planted on millions of acres of degraded lands that have lost their tree cover and on marginal croplands and pasturelands that are no longer productive.

Recognizing the central role of forests in modulating climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has examined the potential for tree planting and improved forest management to sequester CO2. Since every newly planted tree seedling in the tropics removes an average of 50 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere each year during its growth period of 20–50 years, compared with 13 kilograms of CO2 per year for a tree in the temperate regions, much of the afforestation and reforestation opportunity is found in tropical countries. More


Saving the world's forests: a technology revolution to curb illegal logging

On the first International Day of Forests, it emerges that remote sensing technology could soon put the fight against illegal logging into the hands of the people

Our future is inextricably linked to forests. The social and economic benefits they provide are essential to realising a sustainable century. A key litmus test of our commitment to this future is our response to a growing, global threat: illegal logging and the criminal timber trade.

Forests are vital source of biodiversity and livelihoods. More than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, including 60 million indigenous people who are wholly dependent on forests. They are also natural carbon storage systems and key allies in combating climate change. They are vast, nature-based water utilities assisting in the storage and release of freshwater to lakes and river networks.

While deforestation is slowing in some places – most notably Brazil – it still remains far too high. The loss of forests is responsible for up to 17% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, 50% more than that from ships, aviation and land transport combined.

Organised crime in global forests

There is increasing evidence that an important slice of these losses and emissions is linked to illegal logging and organised crime in key tropical countries of the Amazon basin, Congo basin and in south-east Asia.

Indeed, Green Carbon: Black Trade, a recent report by the UN environment programme and Interpol, estimates that illegal activity accounts for 50 to 90% of all logging in these key areas – a criminal trade worth $30-100bn annually worldwide.

Illegal operations, including bribes and even hacking of government databases, are also becoming more sophisticated. Loggers and dealers quickly shift between regions and countries to avoid local and international policing efforts, laundering wood by mixing it with legally cut timber, or passing off wood originating from wild forests as plantation timber.

With the increase in organised criminal activity related to forests, murder is also on the rise. The growing involvement of criminal cartels should be of grave concern for communities, companies, conservationists, and all forest stakeholders.

But there is also good news that may finally help crack down on the criminals and the theft of the natural resources, resources that often are the "GDP of the poor".

The UN environment programme's global environment outlook 5 noted a drop in deforestation rates – from more than 25,000 square kilometres to just over 5,000 per year – in the Brazilian Amazon, which comes in part as a result of more agile and determined enforcement. Meanwhile in Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has placed a moratorium on new forest clearings that has helped cut deforestation and illegal activities in the region.

Companies are also starting to respond. Most recently, Asia Pulp and Paper announced that it would no longer buy wood from natural forests.

Interpol and the UN environment programme, through the Grid Arendal centre in Norway, have also established a pilot project, called Law enforcement assistance to forests (Leaf), to develop an international system to combat organised crime.

Enter the technology revolution

A final piece to the puzzle may be emerging: rapid, online alerts that deforestation is taking place, particularly in remote locations. Until now, by the time satellite images of deforestation can be viewed, the criminals are often far away. Cattle are already grazing amidst stumps, the illegal oil palm plantation has been established and a company's financial support for ecosystem services – now degraded and lost – may already have been paid. The most recent forest maps of Indonesia, produced from Landsat satellite data, took three years from the time the data was taken to being posted online. This is not unusual since it typically takes around three to five years to produce a national forest cover map.

All this is on the verge of changing with help from an innovative partnership convened by the World Resources Institute, with partners including the UN environment programme and businesses and NGOs from around the world.

Global Forest Watch 2.0, which will be launched later this year, will take advantage of remote sensing technology to show high-resolution, near real-time deforestation maps on a user-friendly platform. The system will provide global deforestation alerts to identify illegal logging and deforestation hotspots, drawing on a combination satellite and crowd-sourced data, including from local communities. More


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hackschooling Makes Me Happy

When 13 year-old Logan LaPlante grows up, he wants to be happy and healthy. He discusses how hacking his education is helping him achieve this goal.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

The drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys

Ron Finley plants vegetable gardens in South Central LA -- in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs. Why? For fun, for defiance, for beauty and to offer some alternative to fast food in a community where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys."

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Opposition crops up to GMO foods in Hawaii

Lihue, Hawaii - Famous the world over as a tropical vacation spot, the Hawaiian Islands are less well-known as ground zero in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMO), the open-air testing of pesticide-resistant crops and the ethics of patenting genetically engineered (GE) plant life.

Hawaii is home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of GMO research fields by five of the largest biotechnology and chemical companies: Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer and BASF.

These transnational corporations prefer Hawaii for growing and testing GE crops because of its abundant sunshine, rainfall and year-round growing climate. GMO opponents say the companies also enjoy Hawaii’s isolation, largely removed from the public eye.

Yet these companies, which have been in Hawaii for decades, are now facing increasing opposition from residents concerned about GMOs, the health and environmental impacts of pesticides and what they see as a lack of oversight and transparency.

When the Hawaii state legislature convened this January, on its schedule were a dozen bills seeking to regulate, limit or ban the sale and import of GMOs. This month, two of the bills were approved by committee, an important step towards becoming law.

Labelling dispute

Hawaii's House Bill 174 calls for labelling imported genetically engineered fresh produce. If passed, Hawaii would be the first US state to require labelling of GMO foods.

Unlike Japan, China, Russia, the European Union and dozens of other countries, the US does not require GMO foods to be labelled. Opponents of labelling include Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a trade association representing biotech companies. She says the burden of labelling should be on foods that do not include GMOs.

Scott McFarland, government and public affairs leader with Dow AgroSciences in Hawaii, says his company "actually has no position on food labelling”. He characterises Dow’s work in Hawaii as “parent seed expansion”, developing commercial seeds to be exported outside the US.

Shiva's visit

Hawaii's fight over GMO foods has garnered worldwide attention. Last month internationally renowned environmentalist and philosopher Dr Vandana Shiva travelled from New Delhi to Hawaii to speak to anti-GMO activists, community groups and lawmakers who are increasingly concerned about the role of GMOs in the US' 50th state. "I think your island is truth-speaking to the world that GMOs are an extension of pesticides, not a substitute or alternative to it,” she told an audience on the island of Kauai.

Shiva is best known for her opposition to GMO crops, globalisation, the privatisation of land and water and what she describes as a "war against the earth.”

The 1993 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize") and founder of Navdanya, a programme dedicated to protecting traditional crops through seed banking, Shiva was invited to the islands by Hawaii SEED, a coalition of grassroots groups promoting alternatives to GE farming.

"[Hawaii] has become like a nerve centre for the expansion of destruction,” Shiva said. "GMOs are not a safe alternative to poisons, they are pushed by a poison industry to increase the sale of both the poisons and simultaneously monopolise the seed."

Evoking the 1984 Bhopal, India disaster when a chemical leak from a Union Carbide plant (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical) killed and injured tens of thousands, Shiva - who was trained as a physicist - embarked on a connect-the-dots tour of how she says yesterday's war chemicals manufacturers reinvented themselves as the agrochemical industry, before mutating into the biotech industry.

"War and agriculture came together when the chemicals that were produced for warfare lost their market - and the industry organised itself to sell those chemicals as agrochemicals,” Shiva said. As gene splicing techniques advanced, she said corporations saw GE crops as a means to claim creative and inventive rights, patent seeds and collect royalties.

Joining Shiva were community activist Walter Ritte and public interest lawyer Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

In the 1970s Ritte was at the centre of direct action against the US military which, at the time, was using the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe as a bombing range. Eventually the movement was successful in ending weapons testing on the island. Today Ritte focuses his activism on stopping GMO farming.

Kimbrell told the audience that genetic engineering at its essence violates nature's most fundamental codes. "They're treating animals and seed as though they're machines and using machine value on the life forms. That's why we call it genetic engineering.”

Citing a Union of Concerned Scientists 2009 report entitled Failure to Yield, Kimbrell spoke of what he called "GMO myths” and said that, at a minimum, GMOs should be labelled. More