Sunday, July 24, 2005

The slash-and-burn economy

A big-picture thought tumbled down from the dusty rafters of my mind this week. Must have been the time spent away from home, away from the computer, in a lovely peaceful place with a full schedule and new faces all around. Anyway, I recalled a conversation from several months ago, in a conference food line, where I put forth what I see as a fundamental challenge for humanity today: that our global economy is completely dependent on growth, yet our biosphere is fixed. The response startled me: "That's no problem. We've got enough geopolitical rifts that the economic system will always be getting reset." Or something to that effect.

Other times when I've mentioned the fixed biosphere problem, the most common response has been a vaguely worried, mostly blank look. Sometimes I get arguments about technological substitution, or whether the biosphere really is fixed. But this was the first time someone seemed to understand the points of my argument, but drew a different conclusion. Geopolitical rifts will keep the global economy in balance with the biosphere.

Sort of a world economic version of slash-and-burn agriculture?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Rising CO2: more food, less nourishment?

Climate change. It seems to be a standing joke, here in Arcola. Last year people got lots of laughs out of our chilly spring. This year it's the rain; so much for the dire predictions of drought, right?

I usually manage a weak smile in response. Wish I could come back with a witty one-line challenge, but I just feel tired, thinking of the hours and hours I have spent wading through "debates" about climate change, knowing there is no way I can respond in an hour, let alone a line. I've made a sort of hobby of listening to the criticisms of climate change science, and then digging deeper for answers that satisfy me. Truthfully, there have been many times when I have been excited by something suggesting that climate change won't be as bad as predicted. Unfortunately, I've always been disappointed. As far as I can see, it will be bad.

Some say that humans are adaptable, so we should just "adapt as required." What?? And leave many less-adaptable forms of life to disappear? If we're so adaptable, why don't we adapt our civilization to use less fossil fuel?

Yes, I feel strongly about this. But if you differ with me, I'm still happy to listen and discuss. It's a huge subject, with never-ending lively debate amongst the scientists themselves. Nobody knows exactly what will happen to the climate as CO2 levels rise. There's debate about how much CO2 levels will rise, and how fast, and how much of the increase is directly related to human activities.

One thing stands out for me amongst all this discussion: CO2 levels are rising fast. The Vostok ice core data shows no CO2 level above 300 ppmv (parts per million by volume) in over 400,000 years, that is, through the last four major cycles of glaciation and deglaciation. Current CO2 levels are around 360 ppmv, or 20% higher than the maximum level detected over that entire time span. Never mind climate. Who knows what other systems will be thrown out of balance by this change?

How about the food system? There are warning signs already, from researchers following up one of the favourite critiques of climate change science: that elevated CO2 will boost plant growth. Indeed it will, but as Glenn Scherer reports in Grist Magazine, studies are also showing that it will diminish nutrient levels in food.
A particularly disturbing study suggests that the mechanisms of CO2 nutrient depletion may already be causing a decline in the quality of our food supply. Josep Penuelas of the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications in Barcelona, Spain, compared historical plant samples grown at preindustrial levels of atmospheric CO2 with modern equivalents. He found that today's plants had the lowest levels of calcium, copper, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium, sulfur, and zinc than at any time in the last three centuries.
And ruminants will grow slower, because the nitrogen content of grasses will decline, making their microbe-assisted digestion less efficient. Another hit for our cattle industry, but so slow and subtle that we might not even notice.

Shadow of a Butterfly

I had the idea for this post over a week ago, and forgot about it, until a butterfly landed on our windowsill this morning.

It happened in the Peace Chapel at the International Peace Gardens, on the border between Manitoba and North Dakota. I was taking my time, reading the quotations gently, letting my husband and son move on ahead. I had been through the chapel twice before, and each time I had been overwhelmed. So many ideas, so long refined, so strongly, briefly spoken. They are carved in the limestone of the chapel walls, these quotations about peace, and life. Their timeless qualities are underscored by the stone and, here and there, by a fossil from ages before. The walls draw you as soon as you step into the chapel; their unusual backslope is part of the attraction, but mostly it is the light. Clerestory windows above the walls make them the brightest part of the small, simple space. I moved, like almost all visitors, along one wall, but this time I went slowly, drinking deeply of each quotation. I had no need to read them all.

Standing in front of Canada's Centennial Prayer, I became even more aware of the light, wavering and flickering as clouds passed above. In the midst of it was a form, fluttering softly.

The light faded behind a cloud, and to my staring eyes, the former brightness was replaced by illusions of darkness: square shadows where the window light had fallen for several moments before. I waited.

And the light came back, even brighter than before. To my delight, the fluttering form was still there in its midst: the shadow of a butterfly.

My husband came to me, writing "time to leave" with his movements. This time, I left the chapel with a clear mind. I have never been able to recall to mind any one of the inscriptions from those chapel walls, but it will be a long time before I forget that fluttering shadow of an unseen creature resting for a few moments on a window above.

Introducing Arcol-o-Gist

Arcola: my hometown.

  • effect: the central meaning or theme of a speech or literary work
  • kernel: the choicest or most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience; "the gist of the prosecutor's argument"; "the heart and soul of the Republican Party"; "the nub of the story"
  • But this blog will wander far afield. I can't look at the central themes of life in Arcola without noticing their dependence on the course of events in the wider world. Trends, trajectories.

    Sounds pompous, doesn't it? Well, feel free to comment.

    Sounds close to "archeologist," a title which definitely doesn't apply to me. (But I do love to dig things up, especially the really interesting ideas that get buried in old news.)

    I actually came up with the name by messing around with, among other things, "Arcola" and "ecologist." If there was ever any "-ogist" title that I could claim, "ecologist" would be the one. But I have too many interests, and hence too few credentials, to really measure up. Besides, I'm too many miles from a university library, and too many years from my general ecology training.

    And I'm happy here. I have a slightly different view of the world than I might have as a "real" ecologist.

    I hope you enjoy it.