Saturday, September 06, 2003

Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress & a Civilization in Trouble

This book, which is available in PDF format online, is a must read for anyone concerned with the future of the planet. Serious problems are here, now, and can only get worse without immediate intention. According to author, Lester R. Brown, we have created a bubble economy by using the earth’s resources faster than they can be replaced. We are cutting trees faster than they can regenerate, overgrazing rangelands and converting them into deserts, over pumping aquifers, and draining rivers. In 2002, a team of scientists concluded that humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. By 1999 our demands exceeded that capacity by 20 percent. We are satisfying our excessive demands by consuming the earth’s natural assets, in effect creating a global bubble economy.

Between 1950 and 2000, human population increased from 2.5 billion to 6.1 billion. World demand for grain tripled from 640 million tons to 1,855 million tons. Demand for water also tripled. As a result water tables are falling and wells are going dry. Rivers are being drained dry and lakes are disappearing.

China is showing the most severe consequences so far, but other countries have the same problems. In China 1.3 billion people and their 400 million cattle, sheep and goats are creating an ecological disaster. Huge flocks of sheep and goats in the northwest are stripping the land of its protective vegetation, creating a dust bowl on a scale not seen before. Northwestern China is on the verge of an ecological meltdown.

Strong winds in late winter and early spring remove tons of topsoil, creating huge dust storms that travel for miles. On April 12, 2002, South Korea was engulfed by a huge dust storm from China that left residents of Seoul literally gasping for breath—clinics were overrun with patients having difficulty breathing, schools were closed and airline flights canceled.

Water shortages are a second problem for China, although much of the world is not far behind. Because of overuse, the Colorado River, Yellow River, and Amu Daraya dry up before they reach the sea at least part of the year. The Nile, Indus and Ganges are reduced to a trickle. Scores of countries are over pumping their aquifers to meet soaring demand for water. Some of these aquifers do not get regenerated and will disappear completely.

The increasing use of irrigation was a major reason for the world’s growth of food production in the late twentieth century, but this irrigation is now drawing down the sources of water at an increasing rate and cannot be sustained. A survey in China reported that the average level of deep aquifers dropped nearly ten feet in 2000 alone. The deep aquifer under the North China Plain has been depleted. Around Beijing, farmers must drill wells nearly 1,000 feet deep to find fresh water.

Falling water tables are contributing to declines in China’s grain harvests. Their wheat crop has declined from 123 million tons in 1997 to 87 million tons in 2003. Rice production has fallen for five straight years from 140 million tons in 1997 to 121 million tons in 2003. So far China has covered the decline by drawing on its once vast stocks, but it can only do that for one or two more years before it has to start importing vast amounts of grain.

India and Pakistan are also experiencing falling water levels. Although they have kept up their grain production so far, inevitably they will suffer production declines as China has. In Iran, the combination of over pumping and a three-year drought have forced whole villages in eastern Iran to be abandoned as their wells go dry, creating a brand new kind of refugee—the water refugee. The cities of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province may become ghost towns in the next few decades as their aquifers are depleted.

At the same time, rising global temperatures also threaten to reduce crop yields. As the temperature rises above 34 degrees Celsius (94 degrees Fahrenheit), photosynthesis slows, dropping to zero for many crops when it reaches 37 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit.) The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a rule of thumb that each one degree Celsius rise above the optimum reduces grain yields by ten percent.

This years prolonged heat wave has devastated crops across Europe, leaving some countries facing their worst harvests since the end of the Second World War. The searing weather, especially in central and Eastern Europe, has forced countries that usually export food to import it for the first time in decades. Several, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, are experiencing rising food prices and the UN is warning this will have a severe impact on economies. In Ukraine, once known as the breadbasket of Russia, the wheat crop fell to 5m tons this year, a 75% decrease on normal years.

This is the future. The problems we are facing now can only get worse. It is hard to see how we avoid major catastrophes in coming years.


Post a Comment

<< Home