Monday, January 31, 2011

Report from 2050: Epilogue - Why This Century Is Special

And you thought the 20th century was rough

[Editor's note: For the past month, 13.7 Billion Years looked four decades into the future with Reports from 2050, a series of imagined future reports supported by current news, recent discoveries and scientific predictions.]

It is often said that the real beginning of the process now known as "anthropogenic climate change" was the Industrial Revolution. No longer were things done by human sweat and draft animals. Machines did the dirty work. And boy was it dirty.

Burning the decomposed remains of prehistoric animals and plants in the form of coal, petroleum and natural gas, we pumped out so much global-warming carbon dioxide that the planet's natural carbon cycle couldn't absorb it all. But back then, no one knew. Steam engines and internal combustion engines created the modern world -- and it was wonderful. Or was it?

With all that creation came the rather rapid destruction of the Earth's terrestrial environment and its atmosphere, making life difficult -- and in many cases, impossible -- for countless species whose habitats were destroyed by the advancement of the industrialized human civilization. And by increasing the planet's surface temperature through the emission of greenhouse gases, we have endangered our own habitat.

This past month, 13.7 Billion Years touched upon a host of predictions about the year 2050 -- from the extinction of a Peruvian tribe to the rise of the cyclist, from crop failures affecting the World Cup in Nepal to gardening on Mars -- but the one that really sticks out (and is related to the others) is the unchecked growth of the human population, which is expected to hit a staggering 9.3 billion in four decades. To put that number in perspective, there were less than 3 billion people on the planet in 1960. It's very simple math but a very scary proposition. The rate of human population growth is simply not sustainable.

But there is "one firm forecast that's important," as cosmologist and Royal Society president Martin Rees wrote in a 2009 article in The Guardian: "A widening gulf between what science enables us to do, and what applications it's prudent or ethical to pursue."

And there you have it, the crux of the modern human condition. Just because we can doesn't mean we should.

We can take all the fish out of the oceans, cut down all the rainforests, use plastic bags and drink bottled water. We can experiment on, wear and eat other species. We can use pesticides and antibacterial soap and products tested on animals. We can eat out of season by buying food that comes from thousands of miles away. We can drive big cars and live in big homes. But even a cursory assessment of the rational or moral basis for doing these things clearly shows that we really shouldn't be doing any of it. These behaviors are unnecessary. And all of them have grave consequences.

"Our sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out," Rees writes. "Any creatures who witness the sun's demise, here on Earth or far beyond, won't be human. They will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug. But even in this 'concertinaed' timeline -- extending millions of centuries into the future, as well as into the past -- this century is special. It's the first in our planet's history where one species -- ours -- has Earth's future in its hands, and could jeopardise not only itself, but life's immense potential."

Indeed, we are the first species to have changed the Earth's environment and atmosphere. That is no small feat. And as a result, the 21st century will likely see a tipping point, a culmination of centuries of human civilization. Without enough food to feed the human population, with rainforests cut down to make room for livestock, with higher surface temperatures and a rising sea from melting glaciers and polar ice caps, it is going to go from bad to worse in a very short period of time.

A 1999 Cornell University study found that without "democratically determined population-control practices and sound resource-management policies...12 billion miserable humans will suffer a difficult life on Earth by the year 2100."

Most of us won't be around for that. But make no mistake -- the decisions that we make today will most certainly affect those who will.

GET INVOLVED
  • Sign a World Wildlife Foundation petition establish Antarctica as an actual animal sanctuary by 2018
  • Sign the petition to adopt Article 31 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights giving all people the right to clean and accessible water
  • Learn more about transitioning to an animal- and Earth-friendly vegan diet
  • Monitor the growing devastation with Peter Russell's World Clock
  • Analyze and reduce your impact on the environment with the National Grid Floe
  • Sign a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) letter urging your senator to support the Stamp Act to support species conservation
  • Sign up to receive Pop X, a monthly newsletter from the Center for Biological Diversity that explores human overpopulation and overconsumption, the global species extinction crisis and how you can help
  • Volunteer to distribute Endangered Species Condoms from the Center for Biological Diversity
  • Download a free vegetarian starter kit from FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement)
  • Join the Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) Activist Network
  • Check out ESC's list of 10 things you can do to help imperiled wildlife survive climate change
  • Read Telegraph UK's Top 10 Most Endangered Species in the World List
  • Visit the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List to see which species are listed as endangered
  • Take these seven steps to help save the Amazon rainforest
  • Download the Pocket Eco-Friendly Fish Selector
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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Report from 2050: The Holocene Extinction

Millions of species feared extinct -- global warming is primary culprit

[Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future with Reports from 2050, a series of imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

JANUARY 25, 2050 (Dublin) -- Over 45 years ago, in 2004, a study led by University of Leeds conservation biologist Chris Thomas predicted that global warming would doom millions of species to extinction by 2050. A collaboration between 18 scientists from around the world, the paper investigated 1,103 native species across six biodiverse-rich regions, including Europe, Mexico, Australia, Brazil and South America. It remains the largest study of its kind.

The researchers' worst-case scenario saw the extinction of a third of the world's species, while their best-case scenario wiped out 19 per cent. Though the numbers are still being tallied, scientists fear the worst. Most polar bears are gone. Adélie penguins have been declared extinct. Soon after rhino poaching reached an all-time high in 2010, they too, were completely wiped out. The bluefin tuna disappeared decades ago, a victim of human's taste for toro sushi and the failure to adopt an international fishing ban. Tigers have been wiped out due to the illegal trade in their body parts to supply the demand for traditional Chinese medicine. The list goes on.

In 2011, the New York Times noted that "the early effects of global warming and other climate changes have helped send the populations of many...species into a steep downward spiral, from which many experts say they will never recover."

A study the same year led by Ran Nathan, head of the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Science at Hebrew University, predicted that trees that need wind to disperse their seeds -- such as Aleppo pine, Syrian maple and Syrian ash -- will face extinction as they will be unable to spread at a rate that can deal with expected climate changes.

"It is important for those responsible for forest management in many parts of the world to understand that nature alone will not do the job," said Prof. Nathan. "Human action will be required to ensure in a controlled manner the minimization of unexpected detrimental byproducts, and that those trees which are very important for global ecological processes will not become extinct." Those trees, and many others, are now gone forever.

But while human activities like poaching, overfishing, aquaculture, mining, logging and the illegal trade in endangered species have all played major roles in the extinctions of species, the big killer has been anthropogenic global warming, fueled in large part by the livestock industry. The primary change in human behavior that may have prevented the ongoing species die-off was the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the world's industrial countries. But it never happened.

"Political gridlock both within nations and internationally, combined with ideological, economic and military wars, failing economies, terrorism and the human population explosion has sucked the energy of the human race into wasted lives, time and treasure," said Brigid Kildare of the Dublin-based Center for Extinction Studies. "And all species -- including Homo sapiens -- are paying the price of generations of gross inaction."

"For decades, mankind has had its foot pressed firmly on the gas pedal," Kildare said. "But what few cared about was the fact that the more we pushed that pedal, the more species were being pushed to their extinction."

The 21st century is facing a particularly intense period within the Holocene Extinction -- the massive extinction of species around the Earth that has been triggered by phenomena caused by human activity, such as the increase in global surface temperature from the emission of greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere.

"Climate change now represents at least as great a threat to the number of species surviving on Earth as habitat-destruction and modification," Prof. Thomas said.

"The scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis is mounting,” said Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group, in 2009. "The latest analysis of the IUCN Red List shows the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss will not be met. It's time for governments to start getting serious about saving species and make sure it’s high on their agendas for next year, as we’re rapidly running out of time."

Sadly, for the millions of species that have been lost over the last four decades, governments never got serious about biodiversity and as a result, not only has the world lost these species forever, the critical environmental services that they once provided to humanity are also gone.

In his paper "Environmental Services of Biodiversity," which was published in 1996 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Norman Myers of Oxford University noted that these services include "the regulation of climate and biogeochemical cycles, hydrological functions, soil protection, crop pollination, pest control, recreation and ecotourism," adding, "particularly important is the factor of ecosystem resilience, which appears to underpin many of the services."

"Forests are important in many ways to man," said Prof. Nathan, "including the supply of wood, the safeguarding of water quality, and the provision of recreation and tourism facilities."

But because of the sheer number of humans -- and the bad decisions that those humans have made for so long -- the world's ecosystems have become quite threadbare. As a result, man will have to struggle to exist without the millions of species that have helped him survive for hundreds of thousands of years. Indeed, with regard to Mother Earth, mankind has been far from kind.

Adlai Stevenson once said, "Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species." That may be so, but more to the point -- could the reverse also be true?

GET INVOLVED
  • Sign a World Wildlife Foundation petition establish Antarctica as an actual animal sanctuary by 2018
  • Sign a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) letter urging your senator to support the Stamp Act to support species conservation
  • Sign up to receive Pop X, a monthly newsletter from the Center for Biological Diversity that explores human overpopulation and overconsumption, the global species extinction crisis and how you can help
  • Volunteer to distribute Endangered Species Condoms from the Center for Biological Diversity
  • Join the Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) Activist Network
  • Check out ESC's list of 10 things you can do to help imperiled wildlife survive climate change
  • Read Telegraph UK's Top 10 Most Endangered Species in the World List
  • Visit the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List to see which species are listed as endangered
  • Protect an acre of rainforest through Conservation International
  • Take these seven steps to help save the Amazon rainforest
  • Monitor the growing devastation with Peter Russell's World Clock
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image: The dodo, a bird of Mauritius, became extinct during the mid-late seventeenth century after humans destroyed the forests where the birds made their homes and introduced mammals that ate their eggs. (credit: anonymous artwork c. 1880; remake of 1626 painting by Roelant Savery; Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Report from 2050: Water - Fluid of Life, Victim of Our Indifference

Water and wisdom have rarely mixed. Too bad

[Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future, presenting imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

JANUARY 24, 2050 (Cicely, Alaska) -- "Water is the only drink for a wise man," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 book Walden.

As he penned his famous text in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, the American transcendentalist could hardly have guessed that the precious fluid would be in such scarce supply as it is today.

Climate change, desertification, overpopulation and extreme weather events have put the world into a water crisis of extreme proportions. According to Mongabay, 75% of today's human population does not have access to enough fresh water. And now, water security has joined climate change and the food crisis as the greatest challenges facing mankind in the 21st century -- all issues stemming from human overpopulation.

"Drinking water supplies, agriculture, energy production and generation, mining and industry all require large quantities of water," wrote Mike Hightower and Suzanne Pierce, water experts at Sandia National Laboratories, in 2008 in the journal Nature. "In the future, these sectors will be competing for increasingly limited freshwater resources, making water supply availability a major economic driver in the 21st century."

In some places, the landscape is so dry that when rainfall does occur, the ground cannot retain it. "The most important change is in the increasing drying out of the landscape as drier periods get longer and are followed by bursts of intense rainfall which the dry soil cannot absorb," Professor Michal Marek, head of the EU-funded CzechGlobe climate change research project told IPS News. "This has a very significant effect on underground water supplies."

A 2010 University of Arizona study found that for every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 C) of warming in the future, the Colorado River flow would decrease between two and eight percent. Seven western states in the U.S. and two states in northwestern Mexico -- including major cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque -- depend on water from the Colorado. Since the report was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the population of Colorado has doubled to 10 million, and as a result, water use has also doubled.

But water problems are not limited to the United States. The water requirement in Kabul, Afghanistan has grown six times since 2010. The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute has reported
that some of the country's rivers have dried up completely. Pakistan and India continue a decades-long border war over water rights in the Indus River Basin.

But all this should not be surprising. At a 2010 Future Directions International (FDI) Global Food and Water Research Crisis Programme roundtable, David Molden, the Deputy Director-General for Research at the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI), said that increased demand for water in 2050 would be a result not just from individual use due to population growth in general, but from an increase in the demand for milk, meat and other agricultural goods that require large amounts of water to produce.

At the roundtable, FDI Associate and water expert Dr. Munir A. Hanjra said, "We simply don’t know how humans, technology and markets will respond to the kind of challenges that we face around the globe." For the past four decades, that question has remained unanswered. Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine, correctly predicted today's annual water shortfall -- some 6,000 cubic kilometres, about the size of six Nile Rivers.

"Worldwatch Institute warned that with nearly seven billion people now in the world, and an increase of up to 40 percent expected by 2050, governments still need to take urgent action," according to a 2011 AFP article. Unfortunately for the majority of people living today, no urgent action was taken.

"Considering the rate of human population growth, individuals, governments and businesses should have changed their behavior long ago," said Dr. Mari Ner of the Rio de Janeiro-based Institute of Hydrologic Studies. "Continued water waste, the destruction of arable land, urbanization and an increasing reliance on water-intensive agriculture have all combined with the effects of climate change to result in the water crisis that we are now experiencing and will continue to experience for the foreseeable future."

"Water doesn't come from outer space," said Dr. Neri. "Earth has a finite amount. We cannot be cavalier with its usage."

Thoreau, like the other American transcendentalists, believed in an ideal spiritual state that favored intuition over physical or empirical concerns. But he wasn't lacking for fresh water. Today, his spiritual explorations in self-reliance might be seen as a bit of a luxury. After all, who can achieve an ideal state without enough water?

"In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival," noted American biologist Rachel Carson, "water...has become the victim of his indifference."

[Part of the series "Reports from 2050."]

GET INVOLVED
  • Sign the petition to adopt Article 31 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights giving all people the right to clean and accessible water
  • Find out 100 ways to save water
  • Sign an Earthjustice petition urging the U.S. Congress to pass the Clean Water Protection Act
  • Support Water.org and help bring clean drinking water and the dignity of a toilet to people in need around the world
  • Download a PDF of the draft resolution to the Human Right to Water and Sanitation
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  • Sign the Food & Water Watch "Take Back the Tap" pledge to choose tap over bottled water whenever possible, fill a reusable bottle with tap water and support policies that promote clean, affordable tap water for all
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image: noqontrol

Friday, January 21, 2011

Report from 2050: Gardening on Mars

The first locally-sourced meal on Mars has been served -- plans for colonization on target

Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future, presenting imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

JANUARY 21, 2050 (RBO Press Office) -- Astronauts at the Free People of Earth Mars Station -- also known as "Red Base One" (RBO) -- celebrated the fruits of their "green thumb" labor yesterday when they sat down for the first meal made completely with vegetables grown in the Martian greenhouse.

"I would like to take this historic moment to thank all the astronauts and scientists of all the space agencies of the 21st century who have made the Martian greenhouse a great success," said Free People of Earth (FPE) president Willow Smith, at a press conference at Kid Cudi's Citadel, which will dock next week with the FPE Space Station for Jay-Z's 15th annual Roc-Tha-Planetz Tour.

"It was absolutely delicious and nutritious," said astroecologist Gaius Baltar, who arrived at RBO last month. "I was born and raised on a farm outside of the town of Cuffle's Breath Wash, so to be a part of the inaugural 100% locavore Martian dinner was a huge thrill that reminded me of how amazing food tastes when it's grown right in your own backyard."

The success of the Martian greenhouse is based on the groundbreaking HydroTropi research done four decades ago, in 2010, by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The HydroTropi study (short for "Hydrotropism and Auxin-Inducible Gene Expression in Roots Grown Under Microgravity Conditions") showed astroecologists how to control directional root growth through hydrotropism stimulus. On Earth, roots grow up and down, but in microgravity situations, roots grow sideways.

"Martian fare will be 100% vegan," said FPE Secretary of Ethical Consumption Natalie Portman, who presided over the dinner on Mars. "Part of my reason for being vegan is because it practices respect and love for life all through the day, so three times a day, you make a decision to eat food from things that have not been killed or abused," Secretary Portman told the guests at the dinner's opening ceremony.

"And part of the reason that planet Earth is in such a bad state today is because of the meat industry, which has not only inhumanely slaughtered billions upon billions of sentient animals who can feel pain, but has also destroyed the atmosphere through greenhouse gas emissions and decimated the rainforests -- and the species that used to live in those ecosystems -- through land conversion for livestock feed lots," said Secretary Portman. "For life as we know it to survive -- and when I say 'life,' I mean all living things -- the human diet must be vegan. The alternative is simply not sustainable, both technically and morally."

In 2010, the United Nations told the world to eat less meat. But carnivorism still increased over the past 40 years as the human population exploded to the current and unsustainable 9.3 billion.

Secretary Portman's speech received a standing ovation by the dinner's attendees, who included Ambassador Sandra Oh, Ambassador Zooey Deschanel and Captain Lilliolani (“Lani”) Paula Lum Watson, the daughter of Captain Paul Watson, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2030 for his work defending whales as the founder of Sea Shepherd. The dinner menu featured Seitan and Mushroom Stroganoff, Rosemary New Potatoes, Broccoli with Kasha and Black Bean Sauce and Fettucine Alfonso.

"The only thing missing was a big glass of Martian Nebbiolo," Dr. Baltar quipped, referring to the Italian wine grape variety that he brought to Mars last month. Dr. Baltar is leading a group of scientists working on the RBO Viniculture Program, which hopes to produce the first batch Martian wine and brandy in 2053.

This year, the meat industry officially broke through the Earth's "safe limit," according to a new report released by the Brussels-based Institute of Planetary Change (IPC). "The increase in livestock production to feed the Earth's humans has officially pushed the levels of greenhouse gas emissions, biomass consumption and nitrogen emissions into the red zone," said IPC director Ty Thorn.

"Earth has been our home for the hundreds of thousands of years," said President Smith. "But it will not last. We have used it and abused it and now it can no longer support us."

President Smith has been a longtime advocate of the Human Population Control Solution, also known as POCOSO, developed by the Center for Biological Diversity. According to a Cornell University study, "12 billion miserable humans will suffer a difficult life on Earth by the year 2100." The colonization of Mars will begin in earnest by 2065.

"Mars is our future," President Smith said. "But as we look forward, we must be very careful not to make the same mistakes that have led to the extinction of millions of species, the suffering of so many people and other sentient Earthlings and the destruction of so much of what made our Big Blue Marble so special. After all, as American philosopher George Santayana rightly said, 'Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'"

[Part of the series "Reports from 2050."]

GET INVOLVED
  • Learn more about transitioning to an animal- and Earth-friendly vegan diet
  • Monitor the growing devastation with Peter Russell's World Clock
  • Analyze and reduce your impact on the environment with the National Grid Floe
  • Read a list of famous vegetarians
  • Sign Pamela Anderson's pledge to explore vegetarianism for 30 days
  • Download a free vegetarian starter kit from FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement)
  • Check out Meatout
  • Read about the HBO documentary "Death on a Factory Farm"
  • Read the Yale College Vegetarian Society's "Top 10 Reasons to Become Vegetarian"
  • Purchase Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals
  • See the 4-year-old McDonald's cheeseburger and fries
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  • Join the Great World Wide Star Count
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  • Sign a petition to add the option for US taxpayers to contribute to NASA on the IRS 1040 tax form
  • Sign a Climate Protection Action Fund letter demanding that the Senate pass comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation
  • Download the Greenpeace "Less Is More" Toolkit to get simple tips to reduce your carbon footprint
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image: garden on Mars (source: Obama Foodorama)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Report from 2050: Nepal Crop Failure Challenges World Cup

Teamwork is the theme as FIFA and the U.N. help host nation through food crisis

Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future, presenting imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

JANUARY 20, 2050 (Zurich) -- "The games must go on," said FIFA director Romeo Beckham at a press conference here yesterday about the status of this year's World Cup, which will be held in June in Kathmandu, Nepal. "But at the same time, FIFA is committed to working with the United Nations, World Cup team countries and the people of Nepal to help our host nation survive a humanitarian crisis."

Preparations for the world's most famous soccer event have been impacted by Nepal's crop failure, which has affected the vast majority of the nation's 46 million inhabitants. FIFA officials are also concerned with feeding the more than 3 million people who are expected to attend the games. But out of the crisis, the kind of teamwork that is common among championship-winning soccer teams has helped to create new partnerships and innovative solutions.

"We are working with the United Nations World Food Programme to import supplies from China to ensure that all World Cup-associated restaurants, cafeterias, food carts and caterers have what they need," Beckham said. FIFA, the U.N. and the Nepalese government have also collaborated on a job training program to train hundreds of unemployed local farmers to be temporary food workers during the World Cup.

World Cup team countries are also pitching in. When the German team arrives in Kathmandu next month for training, they will bring with them a team of scientists from Bonn's Institute of Crop Science and Resource Conservation (INRES) who will work with Nepal's farmers on developing new irrigation techniques. The Brazilian team will arrive with a team of scientists from Brazil's Rice and Bean Research Center who will experiment with a new low-water, high-yield hybrid rice in Nepal's Terai region.

In 2011, IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), reported that "Nepal needs to improve irrigation management to achieve higher agricultural productivity and overcome 'dismal' water and crop shortages," noting a WFP report that found that "the 600,000 people living in the far and mid-west regions at the base of the Himalayan mountains...have the most problems growing and accessing enough food to survive."

"Until the 1970s, Nepal was as a food exporting nation, but in the past decade it has become a net food importing country, producing less than 2.5 tons of grain per hectare annually, according to the Ministry of Agriculture."

Water shortages, global warming, drought, land degradation and overpopulation have all contributed to the crop failure. Nepal is one of dozens of countries fighting the global food crisis.

Hailing the international level of teamwork in preparing for the World Cup in the face of Nepal's crop failure, Beckham noted the power of sports in bringing people together and recited a quote by the American soccer player Mia Hamm (the women's FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002): "I am a member of a team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion."

[Part of the series "Reports from 2050."]

GET INVOLVED
  • Connect with FIFA World Cup Nepal 2050 on Facebook
  • Sign an ActionAid petition telling President Obama to lead the world in the fight against hunger
  • Join actor Jeremy Irons and add your name to the 1BillionHungry.org petition urging the United Nations and the world's governments to make eradicating hunger their top priority
  • Skip a meal to help Oxfam combat world hunger
  • Learn more about transitioning to an animal- and earth-friendly vegan diet
  • Monitor the growing devastation with Peter Russell's World Clock
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image: FIFA World Cup 2050, Nepal's Bid Facebook

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Report from 2050: Livestock Production Breaks Safe Threshold

Rainforests and thousands of species wiped out as human demand for animal flesh finally exceeds Earth's limits

[Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future, presenting imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

JANUARY 19, 2050 (Brussels) -- Four decades ago, in 2010, a study concluded that the projected global demand for meat, poultry, eggs and dairy could be responsible for 70 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, reaching a level considered to be a safe threshold for the planet.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by Nathan Pelletier with Peter Tyedmers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They said that livestock could generate an even greater proportion of the sustainable threshold for other environmental indicators.

The researchers looked at current and future projections of levels of greenhouse gas emissions, biomass consumption and nitrogen emissions, and compared them to estimates of the Earth's safe limits.

"We're not suggesting that everyone in the world become vegan or vegetarian," said Pelletier, in a DiscoveryNews article. "We really stress the importance of policies aimed at production and consumption over time by changing not just how much we eat, but what we eat and how frequently we eat it."

Today, that "safe limit" has finally been breached, according to a new report released by the Brussels-based Institute of Planetary Change (IPC). "The increase in livestock production to feed the Earth's 9.3 billion humans has officially pushed the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and biomass consumption into the red zone," said IPC director Ty Thorn.

"With most rainforests destroyed to support livestock farming, there is simply no sink big enough to contain even a fraction of today's man-made carbon emissions," said Thorn. "The loss of untold numbers of species, while devastating, is currently the least of our problems. There are just too many mouths to feed, and the global food crisis is going to grow." Thorn is leading an international team of scientists to develop projections of when we will hit the Earth Sustainability Threshold (EST), what he calls the "final point of no return."

"We are in essence eating the world's tropical rainforests and savannas," said University of Minnesota ecology professor David Tilman, in a 2010 DailyClimate.org article. But, he adds, "There is no reason for even one more acre of rainforest to be cut. If we farmed them properly, the lands that have already been cleared could fully meet global food demand for at least the next 50 years," he said.

"Too bad no one listened to the warnings of scientists in the early part of the century," Thorn said. "Now it's only going get worse. We must prepare for the great human die-off."

[Part of the series "Reports from 2050."]

GET INVOLVED
  • Learn more about transitioning to an animal- and earth-friendly vegan diet
  • Monitor the growing devastation with Peter Russell's World Clock
  • Analyze and reduce your impact on the environment with the National Grid Floe
  • Read a list of famous vegetarians
  • Sign Pamela Anderson's pledge to explore vegetarianism for 30 days
  • Download a free vegetarian starter kit from FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement)
  • Check out Meatout
  • Read about the HBO documentary "Death on a Factory Farm"
  • Read the Yale College Vegetarian Society's "Top 10 Reasons to Become Vegetarian"
  • Purchase Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals
  • See the 4-year-old McDonald's cheeseburger and fries
  • Follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter
RELATED POSTS
image: PETA

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Report from 2050: The Sino-American Green Divide

For the past four decades, China has held the title of "World's Greenest Nation." America is also very green -- with envy

[Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future, presenting imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

JANUARY 18, 2050 (New York) -- In 2009, UK army chief General Sir David Richard told The Times that the war in Afghanistan could last 40 more years. Sadly, he was right, and the fight has been paid for in copious amounts of blood and treasure.

For the past half century, America has spent its once vast wealth on the never-ending conflict, while China -- its main economic rival -- has invested mightily in green technologies both domestically and abroad, with a particular emphasis on investments in Africa. Once famous for its rampant pollution, China has been the world's greenest country since 2009 and has exported its advances in green technology to the developing world.

Along with the Afghanistan money pit, America's hopelessly partisan politics has also hampered any potentially transformative legislation that substantially invests in sustainable development or renewable energy. "While China is already boasting 'All aboard!' on a network of sleek passenger trains that zip 200 mph and beyond between major urban centers, the United States is still fussing about where to install a single high-speed rail line for a proposed California project," wrote Elizabeth McGowan in a 2011 article on SolveClimateNews.com.

"That’s just a snapshot of how this country continues to lag behind its Asian competitor on the clean technology front." McGowan wondered, "Can America ever catch up?" Fast forward forty years, and what Asian Sustainable Development Forum director Fan Li recently dubbed the "Sino-American green divide" is now bigger than ever.

"Americans have gotten used to big cars, big houses, big meals, big everything," Li wrote in an email. "The Chinese never went through that phase. They witnessed the fall of a bloated and dysfunctional American empire distracted by far-flung wars, and when their own middle class grew, they avoided that pitfall. They shunned military conflict. They saved their money. And when they spent it abroad, they invested in the future. Chinese companies don't do 'big.' They do 'smart.' China will likely never have to bail out the private sector like America did with the banks and the carmakers during the Great Recession."

"China...has set ambitious targets for wind, biomass and solar energy and, for the first time, took the top spot within the G-20 and globally for overall clean energy finance and investment," according to the 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report "Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?"

Noting that "the United States slipped to second place," the Pew report stated, "There are reasons to be concerned about America’s competitive position in the clean energy marketplace," adding that, "In all, 10 G-20 members devoted a greater percentage of gross domestic product to clean energy than the United States in 2009."

In 2011, ClimateProgress.org reported that in 2010 China installed about 16,000 megawatts of wind power, compared to only 5,000 in the United States. According to a report by American Superconductor Corporation, a maker of wind machine parts, China was "on a pace to surpass the United States by the end 2010 to become the world's largest wind market, with an installed wind capacity exceeding 40,000 MW."

By early 2011, China surpassed the United States in wind power, and has maintained its position as the world's wind energy leader for the past four decades, with the United States and Germany at second and third place, respectively.

In January 2011, the New York Times reported that Evergreen Solar, America's third largest maker of solar panels, laid off 800 workers, closed up shop and moved its business to China. Thus began America's slide in the solar energy market.

Where does the United States go from here? Considering the nation's sluggish investment in high-speed rails, the sky-high costs of air travel and the relative weakness of the newly-minted Amero currency, it will probably take a long time to get to wherever "there" is. And if the nation ever does bridge the growing "Sino-American green divide," it should probably bring along a Chinese-English dictionary.

[Part of the series "Reports from 2050."]

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image: The aze-mame (Japanese for "dike-bean") method of sustainable farming involves growing soybean on the dike of paddy field together with rice and is used in China, Japan and the Philippines. The protein-rich beans are used as a human food source, while the plant's nitrogen-rich leaves and stalks are used in the rice paddies as fertilizer. (credit: autan, Flickr Creative Commons)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Report from 2050: The Rise of the Cyclist

Automobiles lose steam as bicycles become the world's fastest growing mode of personal transportation

[Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future, presenting imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race." ~H.G. Wells

JANUARY 17, 2050 (San Diego) -- Four decades ago, in 2010, the San Diego Association of Governments introduced the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, California's first RTP to reach the board of directors approval stage while trying to comply with state-mandated pollution reduction goals. It included $2.58 billion to create a system of expanded and interconnected bike paths to serve commuter and recreational cyclists.

Considering that the United States accounts for half of the total global emission of automobile carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas, the move towards human-powered transport has been a necessary one.

"The bicycle is a curious vehicle," Australian prime minister John Howard once said. "Its passenger is its engine." That curiosity is precisely what makes it healthy not only for the planet, but also for the rider. According to the American Heart Association, one pound equals 3,500 calories, and countless of them have been successfully burned off through bike riding (which many kinesiologists will agree is easier on your joints than running or speed-walking).

Also in 2010, Bicycling.com released "America's Best Bike Cities," a list of the 50 most two-wheel-friendly cities in the nation. The top 10 in descending order were Chicago, Tucson, New York, Madison, San Francisco, Eugene (Oregon), Seattle, Boulder, Portland (Oregon) and Minneapolis.

"In cities the number of street lanes dedicated to public vehicles and bicycles would increase and more people would choose to walk or ride a bike to work," predicted the 2005 report "Energy to 2050: Scenarios for a Sustainable Future" by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. "In many cities the trend towards increased urban sprawl would start to be reversed, and city planning would encourage more compact city development patterns."

Indeed, over the past four decades, the growth of urban sprawl has slowed down to a crawl as people have accumulated in cities. Some suburbs have emptied out. San Diego's population has doubled in the past four decades, to 2.6 million. California's population is approaching 60 million, adding nearly 23 million people in the last 50 years. The majority of them are in the mega-cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco. And a lot of them are riding bikes.

In addition to the rise of bike riding, public transportation has become central to urban life. Some mega-cities like New York have banned automobiles altogether. "The car system's resource appropriation is a black hole," according to BanTheCar.com. "It consumes an enormous amount of energy, labour and material in space monopolisation, collision remediation, the doughnut effect [and] inflated infrastructure costs."

High-end, super-efficient bicycles have eclipsed automobiles (even hybrid ones) as the latest status symbols. Apartments have remained relatively small in cities, while new houses continue to be downsized in the name of efficiency and carbon footprint reduction. In these compact spaces, bicycles make sense.

"As recently as 1965, world production of cars and bikes was essentially the same, with each at nearly 20 million, but as of 2003 bike production had climbed to over 100 million per year compared with 42 million cars," according to the statistics website Worldometers.


Many cities have adopted public transit systems for urban cyclists, such as the one introduced at the beginning of the century by the Colorado-based firm Bicycle Transit Systems (BTS), which features an enclosed airflow enhanced system to make cycling 90% more efficient than riding outdoors. In 2010, Transport for London (TFL) announced a 70% increase in bike ridership over the same period during the previous year thanks to the city's "Cycle Superhighways." That translates to less carbon dioxide emissions -- and better health for cycling Londoners.

But the rise of bicycles is not just a Western world trend. In Africa, sustainable and inexpensive bamboo bikes are now available across the continent. And four of the top five producers of bicycles are Asian -- China, India, Taiwan and Japan. Along with the European Union, these nations constitute 87% of global production, according to Worldometers, which also notes that in 2004, China alone had around 58% of the world market. It is nearly impossible to calculate, but there are billions of bicycles in the world. And it is probably safe to say that around half of them are in China.

"The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man," wrote British author Iris Murdoch in her 1965 novel The Red and the Green. "Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart."

Today, this pure-hearted, two-wheeled, human-powered vehicle is helping the Earth -- and Earthlings -- breathe an unpolluted sigh of relief.

[Part of the series "Reports from 2050."]

GET INVOLVED
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  • Monitor the growing devastation with Peter Russell's World Clock
  • Analyze and reduce your impact on the environment with the National Grid Floe
  • Add your voice to the WE Campaign to affect bold action on climate change
  • Follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter
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image: poster for Motocycles Comiot, 1899 (credit: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen 1859-1923, Wikimedia Commons)