I'll give you four mars for one venus

Worldwide, irrigation guzzles about 70 percent of the freshwater people use. To grow food for expanding human populations, people divert rivers, drain inland seas, and extract fossil groundwater collected over thousands of years, often at unsustainable rates. Worse, current agricultural practices often waste as much water as they use: about half the water that flows through conventional irrigation systems never actually reaches a crop plant. A lesser--though still formidable--amount of water is siphoned off to slake the thirst of cities and industry, and when you add it all together, it's clear that people are using more than their fair share. The Mekong still manages to reach the sea. But at least ten other major rivers, including the Colorado, Ganges, Jordan, Nile, Rio Grande, and Yellow, now regularly run dry before they reach their outlets. – Sold down the river, Eleanor Sterling and Merry Camhi, Natural History, Nov. 2007

Via Crooked Timber, LI read this article in Nature’s commentary section by Gwyn Prins & Steve Rayner. It is well worth reading, even if the neo-liberal tone is somewhat grating.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Prins and Rayner article:

“The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments' concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change. The impending United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Bali in December — to decide international policy after 2012 — needs to radically rethink climate policy.”

‘Adaptation’ is the key word. Prins and Rayner are much too optimistic about adaptation as something the 'market' does supremely well. However, LI agrees with Prins and Rayner’s analysis of Kyoto, and in general the systematic problem that is posed by global warming – systematic in the sense that every economic module developed since 1800 is dependent on a manufacturing and resource extracting system that feeds inexorably into the interconnected problems of the massive increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and the complex of changes that unfold on the earth’s surface as the effects of the increase ramify.

Climate change is not amenable to an elegant solution because it is not a discrete problem. It is better understood as a symptom of a particular development path and its globally interlaced supply-system of fossil energy. Together they form a complex nexus of mutually reinforcing, intertwined patterns of human behaviour, physical materials and the resulting technology. It is impossible to change such complex systems in desired ways by focusing on just one thing.

Social scientists understand how path-dependent systems arise4; but no one has yet determined how to deliberately unlock them. When change does occur it is usually initiated by quite unexpected factors. When single-shot solutions such as Kyoto are attempted, they often produce quite unintended, often negative consequences. The many loopholes that have enabled profiteers to make money from the Clean Development Mechanism, without materially affecting emissions, are examples5. Therefore, there can be no silver bullet — in this case the top-down creation of a global carbon market — to bring about the desired end.”

I’d even embrace their self-interested suggestion about government financing of green R and D. I’d embrace it for the reasons they suggest, - because I think this is the only thing that will work short of catastrophe – and because of its one pleasant positive externality. Shifting the large scale bribery now given to that mesh of engineers, consultants and investors in the petro-chemical and military industries to bribing approximately the same sector, except to produce another kind of output, would positively inflect our politics. The neandrathal basement warrior group would simply have to change the objects of their psycho aggression without having to lose the vocabulary, to which they are addicted. Mass bribery of the well to do is, realistically, the only way to bring about change in the short term. In the long term, there’s always biblical denunciation and revolution and sniffing glue. (I must admit, I find it funny when the authors of articles in august journals of science solemnly advocate, after rationally viewing all the options, that more money be given to the authors of the article).

Here is where the article runs into trouble:

“For the best part of a decade, discussion of adaptation was regarded by most participants in climate policy-making as tantamount to betrayal. Even though it was widely recognized by the end of the 1980s that the existing stock of atmospheric greenhouse gases was likely to lead to some inevitable warming, the policy community suppressed discussion of adaptation out of fear that it would blunt the arguments for greenhouse-gas mitigation.”

The two problems with this is: one, it isn’t true; and two, it doesn’t reckon with the scope of the problem. Here’s one entrance into the scope of the problem: via John Gertner’s The West is Drying Up article, the projection is for the population of the Western states – the Rockie Mountain States, the Southwest, and the Pacific States – to grow by one hundred million more people. At the same time, the projection is for less rainfall, and a melt of the ice pack that could go from a quarter to three quarters. So tell me how these people are going to adapt to having no water? Prins and Rayner are great believers in the market, and believe that it we must contour the market to ‘adapt’ to this situation. But it is easy to predict that the market will make the situation worse – that it will spread drought by mining for water in distant places that it can carry to the West, thus creating unparalleled environmental havoc and, most likely, simply expanding the problem. Adaptation here could mean keeping current laws in place and making people pay the full price for their water in the West, which would mean that in fifty years, a cup of coffee would cost about fifty dollars. That, it is true, might encourage migration from the West. But I am not sure this is the kind of adaptation Prins and Rayner want to sell.
In Sterling and Camhi’s article, they concentrate on the species depletion that is coming with the maximum use of our water resources for drinking, growing crops, polluting, making electricity, etc., etc. Only 1 percent of the world’s water is really available for human use. That use, over the next fifty years, is surely going to lead to the human world – a world in which other, non-human chosen species have simply died off.

“As a result, even as the human population of the globe has doubled, many species that depend on freshwater ecosystems have suffered steep declines. The list would bring tears to a conservationist's eyes: in the past three decades, a fifth of the world's water birds, a third of freshwater mammals, a third of amphibians, and more than half of freshwater turtles and crocodiles have become either threatened, endangered, or extinct. Freshwater fishes represent a quarter of the world's living vertebrate species, and yet more than a third are threatened or endangered. The ecology of freshwater systems may be irreversibly damaged if we humans don't improve the way we treat them.”

The irony of the fully human world is that it will become rapidly unliveable for humans. The collision between less fresh water, expanding population, and the development along industrial lines of less developed economies is probably today’s most overlooked problem – forget flooding Florida – and it is hard to see at the moment any place from which it can be averted.

The problem with thinking that the market can solve these problems is – well, Sterling and Camhi put it pretty well here:

“Their rich biodiversity aside, freshwater systems bestow untold--and underappreciated--benefits on people. Indeed, they are the very foundation of our lives and economies. The value of all the services freshwater ecosystems provide worldwide, such as drinking water, irrigation for agriculture, and climate regulation, has been estimated at $70 billion per year--a figure that assumes, rather delusionally, that one could purchase the services elsewhere if they became unavailable in nature.”

There’s no market in planets.


Anonymous said…
Just follow T. Boone Pickens and the right of capture.
roger said…
Now that's a Texas response!
But if our intergalactic footprint is going to be made by Texas oilmen, isn't that a good reason for us all to cut our throats?