Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: Earth 2100, a bleak but then hopeful look at our future

Earth 2100 is a rather television program presented by the American Broadcasting Company network on June 2, 2009. They showed what they called the worst case scenario of our future, rising oceans, fuel shortages, a warming climate, water shortages, the big cities of the south-west abandoned due to a lack of water, diseases, famine, a massive die-off of humanity, and on and on. It's told through the eyes of a baby born on June 2, 2009, and who lives until June 2100 (and beyond) to tell us how she lived through the catastrophe. But then they spent the last 10% of the show saying, well, we don't have to have this catastrophe, not if we do a few things. It's bleak but with a glimmer of hope.

The story is told by Lucy, the child born in 2009. She narrates the story of the coming century and perhaps the latter part of her story is being previewed for us today in earthquake-stricken Haiti. In Lucy's story the problems become so overwhelming that the U.S. government is unable to muster the resources to save New York City from flooding due to a storm and generally rising sea levels. The U.S. government may seem very strong today but faced with a strenuous enough series of disasters the resources of our country might be weakened enough to warrant the abandonment of New York City.

The reason I mentioned Haiti a couple sentences back is that today we are witnessing a country, devastated by an earthquake, the country itself was already very poor and lacking in national resources, and the earthquake devastated the Haitian government itself. The Haitian government was unable for a couple days to field its own people and resources to help with disaster recovery, instead the disaster recovery has been completely in the hands of the people on the streets, and in the hands of other countries who have been organizing a massive relief effort. Haiti's condition today demonstrates what could well happen to other countries as the problems we're facing become bigger and bigger.

In any case let's get back to the show.

One obvious question one should ponder is - just how real is the disaster scenarios they're presenting? Have they strung together a series of made-up disaster stories to alarm the audience and get a bunch of ratings? According to Executive Producer Michael Bicks, "this program was developed to show the worst-case scenario for human civilization. Again, we are not saying that these events will happen — rather, that if we fail to seriously address the complex problems of climate change, resource depletion and overpopulation, they are much more likely to happen." On their web site (see: 'Earth 2100': Is this the Final Century of Our Civilization?) they have a lot of extra documentation and footage explaining all the scenarios and background.

Unfortunately the versions on the ABC website are not embeddable, and fortunately youtube has them.

A bit of history they point to are several societies that collapsed, such as the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization and so forth. The show I reviewed last week (see Review: Life After People - Depicts the fragility of our modern society) covered some of the same ground. Just because our society seems invincible doesn't mean it will last forever. In Earth 2100 one of the talking experts claims that every advanced civilization thinks at the height of their power that it will live forever. But they've all failed. Perhaps ours will, too, fail. The history of strong empires has not been good, they've all failed. If past events are any indication of future results the American Empire too will fail.

The disasters ABC depicts in this show are:

  • Migrations of animals fleeing the warming of the climate
  • Fuel shortages due to Peak oil
  • Rising oceans and climate refugees due to Climate Change
  • Strange diseases
  • Food supply susceptible to disease because the monoculture agriculture practice makes for a theoretical disease/insect which targets the one plant species grown everywhere

The scenarios they paint seem largely based on the events currently happening. The picture they paint is pretty darn extreme but to be honest it's plausible the future could be even worse than they depict. Or better.

One interesting possibility is for our society to get serious about avoiding these problems, to deploy enough society changes to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and none of the disaster scenario events occur. Would those people in our future understand the catastrophe which was avoided? Or would they scoff at us for believing bugaboo scenarios that never happened?

Think that's silly? What's your opinion of the Y2K scare? The Y2K scenario was taken seriously enough by businesses that they spent a lot of money re-engineering their critical systems to remove Y2K vulnerabilities. In the mid-late 1990's there was a resurgence of hiring COBOL programmers for exactly this purpose, to rework old COBOL based computer systems to avoid known Y2K flaws in the software designs. There really were Y2K vulnerabilities and bugs in some software systems. Sure enough on December 1, 1999 at Midnight the world kept on ticking. Even though the overall Y2K scare was overhyped and blown out of proportion, there was enough reality behind it, there were real honest to goodness bugs in some computer systems, that the scenario was one which could have happened.

In the case of climate change and peak oil the science is very well understood. The danger is very real. The costs are immense if we ignore the danger and do nothing.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Major Antarctic glacier at risk of major collapse - is 'past its tipping point'

One of the risks from the warming climate is that the glaciers on Greenland and the Antarctic would melt enough to collapse into the ocean. The melting of sea ice like the Arctic doesn't itself contribute to sea level rise. But if ice that's on land (a glacier) drops into the ocean it will rise ocean levels. Rising ocean levels have already been observed around the world but if a significant chunk of glaciers were to drop into the ocean it's thought to rise ocean levels dramatically. Coastal regions such as the place where I'm writing this article (in Silicon Valley) stand to be swamped by rising oceans.

Pine Island glacier (PIG) is one of many at the fringes of the West Antarctic ice sheet. A new modeling study has identified this glacier as being past a "tipping point" that will cause a 50% collapse of its ice into the ocean within the next 100 years. 100 years? What's the worry? Sigh, humans with their short time span of thinking. It means our children will have to deal with dramatically rising ocean levels.

This "tipping point" is their estimate of the required conditions for the glacier to collapse into the ocean. These glaciers have been there for a long time and obviously conditions change from year to year without the glaciers collapsing. But some antarctic glaciers have collapsed suddenly indicating that other glaciers could also collapse suddenly. A group of scientists have identified a geological feature in the Antarctic that, combined with already rising sea levels, will cause a sudden collapse sometime in the not-so-distant future.

By raising sea levels, and therefore the grounding line, in their model, Katz's team were able to find the point of no return beyond which the glacier would be unable to recover. That's because the Antarctic sea bed has a small lip in it: it rises slowly up the continental shelf, then makes a slight dip before rising again to the shoreline. The researchers found that as long as the grounding line is on the outer rise of the sea bed, before the lip, small changes in climate lead to correspondingly small changes in the glacier's ice volume.

But as soon as the grounding line moves over the lip and starts to move down into the dip in the sea bed, the situation changes critically. "Once the grounding line passes the crest, a small change in the climate causes a rapid and irreversible loss of ice," says Katz.

According to their models this glacier passed the tipping point in 1996.. quite a while ago. It's already too late. The model also says a neighboring glacier has also passed its tipping point. The article on New Scientists closes with an admonishment that the model is a conservative one which ignores some important physics, and that the real rate of retreatment may be faster than the model suggests, which would mean glacier collapse a lot sooner than 100 years in the future.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Is Whole Foods Bad for the Planet? | Food | AlterNet

Question: Should customers of a brand/store/service expect the CEO of the company to believe as they do? Whole Foods certainly brands itself as providing food and other products geared to the eco-green-conscious people of the world. And it is a head scratcher that the Whole Foods CEO is a Corporatist global warming denier.

Certainly the stereotype around Whole Foods is tree hugging ecological sanity. But I find a strange schism between that stereotype and the reality I see while shopping at Whole Foods. When shopping I tend to ride an electric bicycle with trailer to haul the groceries (the trailer can carry four bags of groceries) and witness a whole heck of a lot of SUV's being driven to that Whole Foods. There's something strangely disconnecting between the Whole Foods stereotype and the actuality of those SUV's in the parking lot. Perhaps the truth of Whole Foods really is greenwashing that starts with the CEO and goes all the way to the shoppers.

The article has this to say: "In a recent New Yorker profile of Mackey, the Whole Foods chief argues that there is no scientific consensus regarding the causes of climate change. He lists Heaven and Earth: Global Warming--the Missing Science, a skeptical take on warming, as one of his recent favorite reads. He frets that the "hysteria about global warming" will cause the United States "to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty." He adds: "Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures.""

It goes on to describe his ideas as not only wrong but, uh, wacky. (?? Get it? Wacky? Mackey? groan)

To be sure Whole Foods does provide a lot of information about rainforest preservation, the carbon footprint of food, and other topics surely meant to warm the sustainability minded folk like myself.

An earlier article takes a slightly take on the question here. Whole Foods may have started out with great eco-consciousness but along the way to its current status as a big box store perhaps something was lost. Or maybe it was never there to start with.

Whole Foods today lives in the big box genre (the store I shop at is larger than the Walmart across the street). To get this big they swallowed up several smaller chains such as Wild Oats.

Being so large means Whole Foods has a huge purchasing impact on the organic foods industry. It means organic foods makers have to scale up production to the amount required to fill all Whole Foods stores. This raises questions over just how accurate the green-eco-conscious stereotype can be when the company is so big.

Or does it? Or is this a challenge to eco-green-conscious people who tend to decry against large corporations as automatically being evil? Perhaps this is a large corporation who truly is doing good and disproving the contention that all large corporations are evil.

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