Eat meat, kill planet

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

I’ve always struggled with ethical arguments for vegetarianism*, but bio-economic arguments have a pragmatism that I find myself responding to. In a repeat of a riff that I’ve heard a few times in years previous, Ars Technica has an article discussing a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which suggests that livestock farming is very close to the point of being ecologically sustainable.

Given the source, some of you will no doubt dismiss the concern out of hand… but it’s interesting to note that, yet again, the blame is laid at the feet of the Western world in general, and the US in particular. A liberal-left conspiracy to take The Empire down a peg or two? Or perhaps just an inconvenient truth: there’s only so much planet to go round, after all, and whatever justifications you choose to use, there’s no denying that the West consumes a disproportionate amount of the resources available.

As of the year 2000, the livestock sector—meat, egg, and milk production—is estimated to have contributed 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and 63 percent of reactive nitrogen mobilization, and to have consumed 58 percent of net primary productivity. We are already coming dangerously close to the safe operating space in all three areas. If we continue eating animals at the same rate we do now, this model predicts that these figures will rise by 39, 21, and 36 percent, respectively, until the livestock sector uses most of, or exceeds, our safe operating spaces.

So, what to do?

Based on their results, the authors suggest that “reining in growth of this sector should be a policy priority.” They suggest a number of ways to accomplish this. One is to make livestock production more resource-efficient, which is feasible at the level of feed crop production and more cycling of animal manure in lieu of synthetic fertilizers. Another is to encourage people to eat more poultry and fish rather than beef to meet their dietary protein requirements.

Unfortunately, consumption of meat is currently at twice USDA-recommended levels. Americans have not yet cut down, even thought we know it’s better for our bodies and better for our wallets; it seems doubtful that we would therefore cut down just because it is better for the Earth.

AT points out that the grim storm-cloud on the horizon here is the prospect of increased demand for meat protein in developing nations… which echoes some of the more popular justifications for refusing to limit carbon emissions (“well, they’re not going to slow down, so why should we?”). I’m increasingly convinced that, thanks to the politicising of environmental issues, the only thing that’s going to force a behavioural change on a large scale is economics: we’ll all start eating less meat (and driving more efficient vehicles) when we can no longer afford – as individuals, and as communities – to maintain our current habits.

Whether those economic factors will kick in early enough to prevent the nasty side-effects of running up against resource limits (we’ve had oil wars already, food wars are starting to show, and water wars are a not-too-distant inevitability) remains to be seen. It’s an ugly gamble to have to make as a species, but I rather suspect we’ve left ourselves little other choice.

[ * And there’s my own selfishness, lest anyone think I’m putting myself on some pedestal of righteousness here; the underlying problem with working against the prospect of ecological catastrophe is that we’re all complicit in it, which leads to the inevitable fusillade of finger-pointing as we all try to find someone more at fault than ourselves. Here’s hoping for Doug Coupland’s promise of a species-wide sense of culpability; sooner we get it into our heads that we’re all in the same boat, the sooner we can start solving problems. ]


Doom du jour: world without oil

Paul Raven @ 05-07-2010

Just in case the Monday blues weren’t quite enough for you, Wired UK‘s Andy Hamilton has provided his latest “What Would Happen If…?” column on a topical subject: what if the world’s oil workers went on strike forever?

We are utterly dependant on oil. Back in 2000 [in the UK] we had petrol blockades that showed us a brief glimpse of what would happen if oil workers revolted — people started panic buying, shops emptied of food and had to ration, bike sales rose by 400 percent, buses limited themselves to a bank holiday timetable or stopped running completely, schools closed and road use began to decline. This all happened in just over one week. So what would happen if oil workers just walked out and never returned?

The same, but this time the government would enlist the help of the army to ration food. A trip to the supermarket would be a whole different experience with armed guards following you on the way in, and strip searching you on the way out. Despite rationing, food would still not last for long and within a month grass seed, dock leaves and even dog and cat would all be on the menu. Desperate city dwellers would be swapping houses, cars, gold teeth, sex and anything they could bargain with for food. The whole of the western world would decline into a savage, uncivilised mess.

Of course, a strike by the entire oil industry is incredibly unlikely to happen, even in the wake of current events… and there’d always be people willing to break the strike. (Imagining the oil companies hiring unskilled workers isn’t exactly a stretch; operational safety doesn’t appear to be a major concern in those outfits, at least not when compared to profits and shareholder dividends.)

But the underlying point is that we’re hideously dependent on that foul black gunk, and it’s a situation we need to remedy for any number of reasons. Even if environmentalism means nothing to you, and you think anthropogenic global warming is a conspiracy*, the scenario above indicates we’ve got a real addiction problem. Oil is one of the adhesives that holds the world we know together. If you can look at the news coming out of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and the Gulf of Mexico over the last few years and tell me that’s not a cause for concern, I’d like to get the contact details for your therapist.

And we are all complicit, even smug non-drivers like myself – sat surrounded as we are by the petroleum industry’s less-considered products, plastics. As with energy and fuel, though, there are ways we could make plastic without needing oil [via BoingBoing]; the way things stand at the moment, I hope someone finds a way to build a good profit margin on that real soon.

In the meantime, with the notable exceptions of Paolo Bacigalupi and Bruce Sterling, where’s all the post-oil near-future science fiction? Are people not writing it because they can’t make a good story from it, or is it just too grim to contemplate such a plausible future, even in the framework of fiction?

[ * As regards “the AGW conspiracy”, you’re welcome to believe whatever you like. But if you fancy leaving a response, do read the Futurismic comments policy first, please. ]


RecycleMatch seeks to match bulk waste with people who can use it

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2010

File under “business models I really wish I’d thought of first”: RecycleMatch seeks to match…

… waste streams and under valued resources with potential users of the resources, to help create new revenues and savings for the companies participating – while at the same time having a positive impact on the environment. Our goal is to create an industrial ecosystem in which the use of energy and materials are optimized, waste is minimized, and there is an economically viable role for every product of a manufacturing process.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? And what a great idea – an eBay for corporate by-products! [via MetaFilter]

One wonders how well it would be policed if it took off, though; if a system like this got big enough (think eBay at its peak), it could become a clandestine clearing channel for getting rid of waste that you’re not supposed to have produced in the first place, or acquiring waste that you intend to use for purposes rather less than environmentally-minded…


Living Earth Simulator: super-detailed simulation of environment, economies, societies, kitchen sinks

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2010

I badly wanted a copy of SimEarth when it was released, but the clunky old 8086 passed down to me by my father (who’d recently splashed out on a 386DX with math co-processor, no less) couldn’t run it.

I’m pretty positive that no machine I (or anyone else unattached to a well-funded research organisation) could afford will be able to run the Living Earth Simulator, either [via MetaFilter]:

In the past, supercomputers have been used mainly in physics or biology, or for difficult engineering problems such as the construction of new aircrafts. But now they are increasingly being used for social and economic analyses, even of the most fundamental human processes. At the CCSS, for example, Lars-Erik Cederman uses large-scale computer models to study the origin of international conflict, and is creating a large database documenting the geographic interdependencies of civil violence and wars in countries such as the former Yugoslavia or Iraq. In sociology, simulations at the CCSS have explored the conditions under which cooperation and solidarity can thrive in societies. They show that the crust of civilization is disturbingly vulnerable. These simulations reveal common patterns behind breakdowns of social order in events as diverse as the war in former Yugoslavia, lootings after earthquakes or other natural disasters, or the recent violent demonstrations in Greece.

[…]

Complementary to large-scale computer simulations, the FuturIcT project also aims to gather and organise data on social, economic and environmental processes on an unprecedented scale, especially by augmenting the results of field studies and laboratory experiments with the overwhelming flood of data now resulting from the world wide web or massive multi-player online worlds such as Second Life. Furthermore, the rapid emergence of vast networks of distributed sensors will make data available on an almost unimaginable scale for direct use in computer simulations. At the same time, an ethics committee and targeted research will ensure that these data will be explored in privacy-respecting ways and not misused. The goal is to identify statistical interdependencies when many people interact, but not to track or predict individual behaviour.

In plain English: these people want to build a simulation of the entire planet that takes into account almost every type of data we can shove into it, in the hope that we can use said data to foresee (and perhaps forestall) the next big disaster on the timeline – be it environmental, economic, biological (ZOMFG bird/pig flu!) or social. No idea if it’s feasible (though it doesn’t sound too ridiculous), but it’s surely ambitious, and more than a little bit awesome.

The rational part of me understands that such a simulation would consist of billions of complex calculations running through an array of supercomputer processors (or maybe networked desktop machines running something like the SETI@home software), and wouldn’t be very exciting to simply sit and watch. The less rational part of me that grew up watching James Bond movies really hopes that – somewhere – there’ll be a big interface screen with a spinning globe on it, with which I could spend the rest of my life fiddling around, cackling like some insane minor Moorcockean deity.

Of course, it’s always worth remembering that we could actually be living in an incredibly complex computer simulation already


Fungus could clean up polluting plastics

Paul Raven @ 14-05-2010

Nature’s got a way, brothers (and sisters)… not only could we start using fungus as a building material, but it looks like we could use the stuff to leech Bisphenol A – the nasty compound in polycarbonate plastics – from waste materials, keeping it out of the ecosystem at large.

Of course, there’s no telling what might happen to mycelia fed a continuous diet of toxic chemicals. Perhaps it’ll get hungry, and start eating plastics we’re not yet ready to throw away…


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