Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Climate Change and Drought in the U.S.

Over the past five years the entire southern half of the United States has had to deal with record droughts, though the circumstances have varied by region. The Southwest has experienced a nearly continuous dry spell. Texas went through one of its worst droughts on record in 2005 and 2006 only to be inundated this year; and the Southeast, which was drenched by a record hurricane season in 2005, is now experiencing an exceptional drought that has left many areas with only a few months of water supply on hand. All of these droughts are aggravated by the population growth that the sunbelt has experienced in recent decades.

Unlike the Southwest, which where a desert conditions have always required water planning, the Southeast now finds itself with dangerously low water supplies and no backup plan should the drought continue. Only Florida has passed a water plan. Atlanta's population has tripled since 1960; Georgia's water use increased by 30 percent between 1990 and 2000 alone--but its response to the worst drought on record has been surprisingly slow, typified by the plans at one outdoor theme park to build a 1.2 million gallon mountain of snow on a day when temperatures reached 81 degrees.

The American Southwest, more accustomed to dry conditions, has a better track record of water management; but this region finds changing weather patterns rendering their old assumptions obsolete.

The great dam and reservoir projects of the twentieth century gave the region a half century of surplus capacity, allowing agriculture to flourish and cities to expand. Now that surplus is gone--every drop is already allocated--and a persistent drought is threatening to deplete existing supplies. At the same time global warming is melting the mountain snow packs that provide a major source of fresh water.

Cities in the Southwest are now scrambling to find ways to conserve and reuse water supplies. The city of Aurora, Colorado has pioneered a method of installing wells downstream from their wastewater plants to retrieve the water, purify it and reuse it the first such closed loop in the U.S.

In the long run, however, there is little that can be done to support ever increasing populations in the U.S. South especially when one considers that the South lies astride the 30th parallel, where many of the Earth's deserts exist, due to air currents that rise at the equator and descend at the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Climate models project that these areas will get even dryer. What we are seeing now may be the leading edge of that trend. In any event, the rapid population growth of the sunbelt states is likely to hit a roadblock in the imminent future.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Localization: Some Success Stories

There are a number of important examples of economies going local, either out of necessity or desire. Most of these are in lesser developed countries but even in the U.S., quality local foods are making headway against the long distance food chains.

Perhaps the best known of these efforts was the adoption of urban agriculture in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union cut off most of that country's oil and food imports. As seen in the movie The Power of Community, Cuba turned to urban farming, cleaning up idle land in the cities to use as gardens. Helped by Australian permaculturists, who set up the Foundation for Nature and Humanity, urban gardening quickly spread to rooftops, patios and raised garden beds on parking lots. The loss of oil forced them to turn to bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers. Now Havana produces half of all the vegetables it consumes within the city limits, while other towns and cities produce all that they need. This produce is sold in newly allowed private markets that provide a thriving, year round business.

India has several examples of communal businesses that have spread across the country. Vanda Shiva describes an organization of women who make the Indian snack Lijjat Papad. Growing out of a small group of women in Gurgaum looking for a source of income, the organization now has 63 branches around the country, and 3 billion rupees in yearly sales. What is most remarkable is that the organization has no hierarchy or leadership, but rather considers itself a family and even a place of worship, built around the principles of common ownership, non-discrimination, voluntarism, autonomy, and ethical business practices.

Another self-organized business, the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, delivers 175,000 lunch boxes each day over 28 miles of public transportation. Raghunath Maharaj, its president, claims that, "No one in the association is an employee or employer, all are partners and all are co-owners." The delivery network consists of decentralized units of 15 to 25 individuals, which rely on a coding system that tells where each tiffin box was picked up, the originating and destination stations, and the address to which it is delivered. Once a month, the association holds a meeting to resolve disputes and problems.

In the U.S. the beginnings of a relocalization can be seen in the recent growth in the number of farmers markets, consumer supported agriculture, and in campaigns such as the "100 Mile Diet." While especially strong in California--the bay area alone has some 90 farmers markets--the growth of these markets is a nationwide phenomena. Nationwide, the number of markets has tripled in the last decade to nearly 4,500 with over a billion dollars in yearly sales.

The pressure of necessity has forces dramatic moves toward local, environmentally sustainable economies in some parts of the world. Even iU.S., where necessity is still a haunting future reality, a growing awareness of our limits is bringing the beginnings of a return to local economic organization.