Tag Archives: resources

Eat meat, kill planet

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. ]

There’s platinum in them there spacerocks

Still wondering what the business model might be for commercial space operations, beyond sight-seeing tourist flights, inflatable hotels and space-truckin’ logistics missions on behalf of beleagured nation-state space programs? Well, where there’s rare resources, there’s money to be made… and asteroids are eminently reachable with current technologies, as well as full of rare element goodies that we have little of here on Earth.

Last one to write a FiftyFortyniners-in-space novella is a rotten egg! (Note for Ben Bova and others: previously published works are not eligible.)

Recycling the Pacific Trash Vortex into an island

I don’t know whether or not Kay Kenyon heard about this before writing her Shine anthology story “Castoff World”, but if not, the similarities are uncanny. A Dutch firm of architects have proposed a project to turn the Pacific Trash Vortex into a habitable (and indeed arable) sea-worthy island, simply by recycling in situ all the plasticky crap that’s already there [via SlashDot]:

The Pacific Ocean trash dump is twice the size of Texas, or the size of Spain combined with France.  The Pacific Vortex as it is sometimes called, is made up of four million tons of Plastic.  Cleaning it up is going to cost a lot of money and require a great deal of either scooping up the plastic and shipping it back to shore, or some sort of onsite recycling for building something like Recycled Island.

One of the three major aims of the project is to clean up the floating trash by recycling it on site.  Two, the project would create new land for sustainable habitation complete with its own food sources and energy sources.  Lastly, Recycled Island is to be a sea worthy island.

[…]

Further aspects of the island would be: the creation of “fertile ground” from compost toilets.  The island would also be non-polluting, using natural resources.  Recycled Island would be 10,000 Km2 or the size of Hawaii’s main island.  It would be self-sustaining and not dependant on other countries.  The urban housing would be designed for future climate refugees. These are very lofty goals but if carried out, Recycled Island would turn the trash into a money making enterprise rather than an economic sink hole.

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything. Compare and contrast to The Raft from Snow Crash: with the latter, refugees want to invade, assimilate themselves; on the other hand, a self-sufficient pirate island will attract away your own malcontents, weaken your authority.

Recycled Island is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting. But then, that might mean invading a moving country populated entirely by people displaced by climate change… so I wouldn’t plan for your invasion being a cakewalk if they’ve decided they want to stay.

The new face of globalisation: outsourced childbearing and international water shipments

Globalisation is a highly politicised word, but I’m increasingly thinking of it as a phenomenon rather than a project (the same way I think about postmodernism, as it happens). In a nutshell, globalisation is the trend toward global movement of things: people, ideas, jobs, money, resources. It’s an economic phenomenon, sure, but it’s increasingly social as well – not social as in “social media” (though thet’s a part of it), but as in the ongoing corrosion of geography erasing a lot of old ideas about who we do business with, what we consider to be business, and why we do it.

Take outsourcing. It’s an established idea to take a job like coding PHP and giving it to someone in a poorer country so you (theoretically, at least) get the same results for less expenditure, but what about a “job” like carrying your baby to term [via MetaFilter]?

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates — usually lower middleclass housewives — money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or — some claim — educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

And how about natural resources? We’re used to the idea of scarce commodities being shipped around at scary prices, but as populations (and their footprints) increase, some resources that we think of as givens become valuable enough to justify the overheads of stuffing them in a tanker and floating them across the globe. Water, for instance [also via MetaFilter]:

Sitka, a small town located on Baranof Island off Alaska’s southeast coast, will sell the water to Alaska Resource Management for one penny per gallon. S2C and True Alaska Bottling, which has a contract for the rights to export 2.9 billion gallons (10.9 billion liters) per year from Sitka’s Blue Lake Reservoir, formed Alaska Resource Management LLC to facilitate bulk exportation.

The city will earn $US26 million per year if ARM exports its entire allocation, and more than $US90 million annually if the city can export its maximum water right of 9 billion gallons. That amount of water is enough to meet the annual domestic needs of a city of 500,000 using 50 gallons per person per day.

Nice idea, at least on paper… but it makes the erroneous assumption that one can just keep taking [x] amount of water from an area, swap it for money and not experience any problems. A friend of mine who works in water treatment and reclamation here in the UK is at pains to point out to anyone who’ll listen that water is shaping up to be the new oil: essential to everyone’s survival, increasingly scarce and expensive, and the sort of thing that people will go to war over…. not only in developing nations, but right here in the privileged West, too.

When I’m having an optimistic day, I find myself thinking that increasing awareness of the finite limits of resources (human labour and skills and time very much included) will gradually push us toward a closer form of global unity: a recognition that we’re all in the same boat, and that the boat only has so much in the way of provisions, and that between us we can sail it pretty much anywhere. Of course, that won’t happen unless we work together to overcome geopolitical and economic barriers… which is why on my less optimistic days the boat metaphor tends to end with a hull full of corpses.

Small-g globalisation isn’t a bad thing; as borders become permeable, it’s an inevitability, like a thermodynamics of things. But the project of Big-G Globalisation is a different thing entirely: it’s a crude, rough-handed and successful attempt to profiteer from restricting and manipulating that ineluctable movement of things, performed by those who already have sufficiently rarified levels of power to influence the flow. The phenomenon of globalisation should be encouraged, supported and monitored; I believe it’s essential to the long-term survival of humans as a species. The project of globalisation needs to be exposed, deconstructed and shut down; it’s an ethical black hole baited with conspicuous consumption and confirmation bias, and it’s killing millions for the benefit of hundreds.

*steps off of soapbox*

This is sure to end well: Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral resources

Looks like my cynicism gland gets an early boost this week, as the New York Times reports that the US government has discovered Afghanistan holds an estimated US$1 trillion in previously untapped mineral deposits [via MetaFilter].

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Looks like I’m reading from the same page as Charlie Stross:

Note the presence of lithium in that list. It’s a vital raw material for high-capacity rechargable batteries, used in everything from mobile phones to hybrid or electrically-powered automobiles — and there’s a growing worldwide shortage of the stuff. There’s no intrinsic shortage of lithium, but high grade mineral sources are hard to find — it’s mostly bound up in other mineral deposits, in very low concentrations. Half the known exploitable reserves are in Bolivia (at least, before this new discovery).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the inductive jump from oil:old burning-stuff-to-keep-warm economy to lithium:new post-carbon alternative energy economy. And by applying the PNAC’s equation of control over energy reserves with maintenance of competitive advantage (by applying the choke collar to rivals), it’s fairly likely that, coming at this time, the discovery of Lots of Lithium in Afghanistan will be used to reinforce western support for an increasingly unpopular war of occupation.

Charlie expresses his hope that he’s being overly cynical; it’s a hope I share, but not one I’d like to put money on. But here’s Thomas Barnett with a slightly different take on the situation:

Before anybody gets the idea that somehow the West is the winner here, understand that we’re not the big draw on most of these minerals–that would be Asia and China in particular. What no one should expect is that the discovery suddenly makes it imperative that NATO do whatever it takes to stay and win and somehow control the mineral outcomes, because–again–that’s now how it works in most Gap situations like Africa.  We can talk all we want about China not “dominating” the situation, but their demand will drive the process either directly or indirectly.  There is no one in the world of mining that’s looking to make an enemy out of China over this, and one way or another, most of this stuff ends up going East–not West.

[…]

Here’s the simplest reality test I can offer you:  if we’re just at the initial discovery phase now, we’re talking upwards of a decade before there will be mature mines.  Fast-forward a decade in your mind and try to imagine the US having a bigger presence in Afghanistan than China.  I myself cannot.

Start with that realization and move backward, because exploring any other pathway will likely expose you to a whole lotta hype.

A rather more optimistic viewpoint than my own (and, to judge by the content of my Twitter feed, a lot of other people’s). We’ll just have to wait and see… which will certainly be an easier experience for us Westerners than for the poor Afghanis. Better make some more adjustments to that perpetually mutating narrative, eh?