Redefining Security – it is no longer a military term. It is food, water and resources

I must be one of thousands of bloggers who keep writing about us humans and our very poor and blindsided tenure of this planet.

Lester Brown

Lester Brown

I have read about a new book written by Lester Brown about the travails of a rising population and diminishing resources. He calls his book ‘World on the Edge – How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse’. This link is to an interview with Brown who heads the Earth Policy Institute.

Jared Diamond talks about how societies choose to fail or survive in his book ‘Collapse’ published in 2005.

Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond

Diamond gave a TED Talk on why societies collapse in October 2008.

Diamond agrees with Arnold Toynbee that ‘civilizations die from suicide, not by murder’ when they fail to meet the challenges of their times.

Joseph Tainter wrote ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ in 1988. Ronald Wright wrote another called ‘A Short History of Progress’ in 2004.

There are talks and references all over the internet, published on websites, advertised in the print media. People talking their heads off about the actual reality of what is happening in and to our planet – as Sagan said – the only home we will ever know. And, of course, David Attenborough in his speech in 2011 to the RSA, is as passionate as the rest of us. He sees the impact we are having on nature in the direst way. It frightens me, not sure about you.

My Aussie mate Tim Flannery has been banging on as well. He has written many books ‘The Weathermakers’ and ‘The Future Eaters’ are both books that helped to focus me on reality. In fact there are so many knowledgeable and articulate people writing, talking and advising governments on the state of play; trying to cut through the power/wealth structure of government policy makers to ram the point home that there is not much time left before there will not be enough food, water or fuel – the commonly called ‘natural resources’ – to go round.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery

Think the Murray-Darling Basin with the Murrumbidgee River catchment that goes dry. Think the Nile trickle on reaching the Mediterranean. Or the Colarado’s low levels. Arable land becomes unusable when there is no irrigation water. Food production suffers, people die.

Brown makes four major points:

Firstly – cutting carbon emissions much more quickly than 2050. Failure to do so will destroy the ice sheet of Greenland or the Tibetan and Himalayan glaciers that feed the major rivers of Asia. No fresh water to drink, people die.

Secondly – stabilising population. Either we accelerate the shift to smaller families or spreading hunger will overtake countries and families, which is happening now and the mortality rate starts to rise again.

Thirdly – and allied to population stabilisation is the eradication of poverty which is possible now. These last two really reinforce each other and are imperative if we are to survive.

Fourthly – refurbish and replace the natural support systems; reforestation, soil conservation, water table stabilisation, protecting oceanic fisheries and grasslands.

Everyone who has thought about the imminent collapse of our societies could not help but agree with Green:

“This is important because we know that no civilization has ever survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems. Nor will ours.”


Western BMI and the culture of overconsumption

World population pie chart

World population pie chart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a fascinating thought! The BBC News Health report on 12th July (not a good day in Northern Ireland!) offered readers the opportunity to enter their weight, height, age, sex and nationality into a calculator to gauge their BMI and measure that against global averages using data from other countries.

All well and good; typical of the simplistic nature of these online things. However what caught my eye was that researchers are apparently saying that the increase in obesity could well have the same impact on global resources as an extra billion people. Well, wow! I hadn’t quite equated those two things. Now I am beginning to.

If the global population is about 7 billion and global obesity ratings equate to an increase of another billion on top of that, the projections for 8 billion actual people on the planet means we are near the 9 billion that is projected for 2030. Whoops!

Now that makes the whole scenario more interesting (from the perspective of the fly on the wall). I subscribe to Population Matters which is the new name for the old Optimum Population Trust that is a great resource for all things global and to do with population growth, density, ethnicity, health, planning and all the rest in this growing list. The list is so long it actually does seriously encompass everything we do. This quote from Attenborough is part of their header page.

“All environmental problems become harder – and ultimately impossible – with ever more people.”

Sir David Attenborough

It seems the awareness of the burgeoning global population with this little added fillip of observation by researchers appears to increase the delusionary aspect of human perceptive ability. People refuse to think that any problem related to any population be it human or not has anything to do with them.

It is almost like thinking that you are part of the human race until there appears to be a massive problem that is outside your own personal control and then you become the fly on the wall – an observer rather than a participant and a much safer place from which to declaim.

It would seem to be actually impossible to pound the necessary information and its implications into the thick heads that constitute humanity. Even the better educated ones of us living in developed countries with magnificent lifestyles (comparatively speaking) have little if any sense of responsibility to our species’ genetic survival.

It is fair to say that we are in the middle of an extinction period but we seem unable to appreciate any stretch of time longer than our life spans. Except if it is history – then we lift the palette and a brush and colour the historical canvas with our biases. So that’s not much good for a real view either.

I know that I do it and I am no different from anyone else. I taught history to students from the middle east in the 1970s and their view of their history was so removed and insular from my view of their history that it brought me up short. It was an eye opening experience to understand how different we all are while being all the same.

Anyway enough of that. The bare facts are:

  1. We need to curtail our breeding not least because medical technology is advancing at such a rate that we are not longer replacing ourselves but increasing our number insupportably.
  1. We need to stop consuming as much as we do in the privileged and wealthy areas of the world. This means a deliberately enforced austerity so that our consumption of food and associated problems do not constitute a greater consumption (also unsustainable) of available medical and health services.

We seem blithely unaware of our seriously unfortunate fellows in truly awful places with little or no food, health, medical aid, water, electricity and suffering from heaps of diseases.

Being white, middle class and having an income (wherever it may come from) is just terrific for maybe the next 30 to 50 years (if that long). It can’t last.

Time we all saw a sliver of reality amongst the neon.

The Water Wars – when not if

Well, well. It has come much earlier than I thought it would.

We have been talking about the imminent water wars for a couple of years now in my household and beyond. Coming from drought-flood-drought Australia, I have always been super aware of water usage and even set up water collection tanks on my urban property because the town’s reticulated supply often ran low and I like gardens. Having also lived on rural properties, water storage is essential for stock, gardens and household use anyway, so I was always used to it.

Urban water tanks under eaves of my old house

Garden water tanks in my old house

Understandably then, here in Scotland, I am horrified by what I see as the profligate waste of water. Often I am told that in Scotland there is so much water that it doesn’t matter and I can just relax.

Grumpily I retort that when the water wars start, expect Scottish Water to sell the excess to the highest bidder. I tend to think globally these days not nationally.

Today’s headline in The Independent reads Scotland offers to sell its water.

England is starting to suffer droughts and climate change consequences and hasn’t the same storage capacity that hilly Scotland has. Scottish Water started to offer water to England in March.

It would be expensive and a logistical nightmare and the offer may not be ‘commercially viable’ at this stage. There will come a time when the cost won’t be a consideration. Without water, we can’t live. It really is that simple.

Oil tankers may end up refitted as water tankers and ply the seas delivering Scottish water to places that need it. It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. It is also probable that residential houses will be required to store and conserve their water use. Someone told me he finds it obscene that drinking water from a tap is used to water gardens. Good point.

All ratios of fresh to salt water on this planet are approximations however the figures seem to hover around 2.1% locked in icecaps, 97% as salty oceans and the difference found in groundwater, freshwater lakes, rivers and streams. Not much in the atmosphere.

English: Graph of the locations of water on Earth

English: Graph of the locations of water on Earth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water cycle

Water cycle Other language versions: Català Czech español Finnish Greek Japanese Norwegian (bokmål) Portugese Romanian עברית Diné bizaad (Navajo) and no text and guess water vapor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Moreover, people seem to have difficulty comprehending the simple fact that the amount of water is stable. No more is being made.

The water cycle is a closed system and how we manage it is becoming extremely important. Put simply, water demand is growing while water supply, due to contamination and pollution, is decreasing.

Water travelling to the sea takes all manner of salts with it. This goes some way to polluting the sea water, the effects of which we can see and measure.

Ancient groundwater is being used in countries like Australia at a faster rate than it can be replenished. And, global population keeps increasing, so does land being used to feed us. To speed the agricultural cycles, we are using more fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides – all the excess from these uses is contaminating and polluting the run off to the sea. Then we have nutrient problems in the sea with its effect on all sea life.

So I can’t just be complacent because I now reside in Scotland. The variability of availability of water for human use is an increasing problem and one we will all have to face eventually.


Happy 50th WWF & please pass the elephants

Ah! The beautiful Panda

Spring is in the air and it is the 50th anniversary of the founding of WWF. An organisation that has overseen a lot of humane treatment to wildlife and is lauded by the likes of David Attenborough who has brought so much footage of wildlife in all its beauty and danger to all of us. So, yes, heartfelt good wishes for the 50th anniversary of the founding of WWF.

The BBC has a TV programme called The Big Question aired on Sundays. Yesterday, the programme broadcast a segment on whether endangered animals need legislated rights. Wildlife is protected under international law but does not have ‘rights’ legislation. This particular Big Question was posed in part to signify the half century of existence of the WWF.

The working introduction from the presenter seemed to be that the pandas are dying, leatherbacks are being eaten and big cats are being hunted/poached, all to extinction.  Elephants are being hunted and killed by big game hunters and poachers alike, so the story goes. These instances are obviously only highlighted against a huge backdrop of current extinctions and habitat destruction.

Lovely thing

Don’t get me wrong, I am a very squishy person when it comes to animals. I can’t help it. They get to me – I hate seeing a big cat catch its dinner – the dinner plate is filled with big, soft brown eyes that – as Attenborough says – make me feel protective. It’s a natural human response. And I love cats too, big and wild and little and domesticated.

It doesn’t make me want to go and kill all the big cats so that all the baby deer and antelope can play. I am able to see and understand the concept of food chains and, critically, where we as humans sit on this chain.

Elegance personified

What it doesn’t make me do is bleed all over a TV production floor and say things like ‘animal rights are essential to protect the ecosystem on which we all depend.’ I mean how ill-thought out is this statement? Let me tell you.

I am prepared to state without fear of contradiction that if we as humans controlled our appetites to breed, to rapaciously grab all available and not so available land and over consume available resources, no animal would need rights or protection and we all would, indeed, be able to depend on our ecosystem(s). Normal extinction and evolution imperatives would operate on life, including us. At the moment, we are propelling ourselves inexorably toward our own extinction without waiting for evolution to work its unconscious manipulation on our species. Not so bright of us really. And every other species will make this journey with us because of our behaviour.

Why is it that people seem to wilfully ignore that Homo sapiens is part of this species’ endangering? The bleeding hearts seem to think that the cute panda doesn’t need to learn (in an evolutionary sense) to eat anything else to survive except its own brand of bamboo. Well, in all probability, the panda won’t have the requisite evolutionary time to adapt to any other food source. Man’s increasing need to reallocate the diminishing bamboo forests for his own use means that humans are destroying the panda’s habitat. So the panda dies out but guess what? Homo sapiens doesn’t, well, not yet.

I know that hunting licences are issued at a cost of tens of thousands of which ever currency. I know that some of that licence fee goes to wildlife care, ranger wages and poacher detainment. Okay, that is attempting to save endangered animals. It can’t be done without money. Not in the big world of human kind.

‘Not sustainable in the long run’ cried someone in the audience and she is right, at least in a sense. No attempt to save endangered species is sustainable while ever humans encroach on wildlife habitat. Homo sapiens will continue to do that until he annihilates himself or severely, yea, punitively limits, curtails or otherwise licences his own population growth.

A woman objected to the use of ‘Wildlife Management Plan’ proposed by an audience participant who had hunted elephants. She said that ‘we are all in this together’. Well, I suppose I agree with her but I want to know what’s wrong with a ‘Management Plan’ for Homo sapiens as well as for elephants.

Numbers are on the rise

We are too tender and precious to apply conscious management to our own breeding and our present global plight is the result of such non management. Something is skewed in the way we seem to view ourselves as distinct from other animals. I hope it isn’t unthinking genetic obeisance or supreme arrogance – could it be religious precepts?

The single common thread running through this whole debate about endangered species and their right to continue to exist is the proliferation of our species and the effect we are having (cumulatively) on our global habitat. This is a finite planet and we seem to be chewing it and everything on it up at a most alarming rate.

The debate devolves into words, words and more words producing the longest talk fest ever (with the possible exception of the climate change debate). These debates should include the realisation that at the heart of species’ existence or extinction is the burgeoning and largely uncontrolled growth of one intelligent, rapacious and ruthless species, Homo sapiens.


Can this planet sustain the number of people our population is heading for? Almost certainly not, but rarely do we hear calls to reduce our numbers. 2011 Edinburgh Medal recipient Carl Djerassi, co-inventor of the contraceptive pill, Sara Parkin, founding director of Forum for the Future and Aubrey Manning, zoologist and broadcaster, discuss the thorny issues of religion, contraception, economics and women’s right to choose, as they take on the population taboo. Chaired by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is chock-a-block full of all sorts of events and one of them was the above described event. I am glad we went.

No answers were forthcoming – as usual. The topic itself has been of interest to thinking people since at least Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population that was published in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed ‘misery and vice’.

This is Darfur repeated throughout the world

I first started reading about the impact of global population growth in 1970 in a book called The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler. I have watched this exponential population growth with increasing horror ever since. It is virtually impossible to discuss or otherwise politicise such debate as is necessary if we are not to become the shortest lived species on this planet.

I think all of us would agree that as a species we are disunited individually and nationally, politically and economically. The only thing we do as a species imperative and with gay abandon is reproduce like rabbits.

Yep. Thats us.

Aubrey Manning mentioned that death control has worked extremely well over the past 50 or so years but birth control still has to come to the party. He is absolutely correct. The tracking of global population figures since I have been alive attests this. As David Attenborough said within his address to the Royal Society in March this year:

 Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion. Over twice as many – and every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools and roads and airfields. A little of that space might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had to themselves.

 The impact of these extra millions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically occupy. Their industries have changed the chemical constituency of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all – the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.

Logic alone should tell us that the resources and habitable land available to us and all other species (people in their arrogance seem to forget that we only share this sphere not own it outright and to the detriment of everything else) is limited on a finite planet. But developing countries have every right to tell us post industrial nations to pull out heads in if we try to curtail their development by preaching to them whilst we enjoy the over-ripe fruits of our own development.

There is no more water now than there ever was but it gets used with such profligacy that anyone looking at us from afar could be forgiven for thinking that water was being manufactured at an ever faster rate of knots.

Desertification is rampant and rising sea levels encroach more and more on (at this stage) small Pacific islands. The Boxing Day tsunami showed us what would happen to The Maldives and other low lying atolls and shores that Kubla Khan wouldn’t even have dreamt of building on.

Carteret Islands abandoned to rising seas in 2009

Carl Djerassi  peppered his address with figures for abortions both legal and illegal at about 1 million per 24 hour period worldwide. Of course Djerassi was a co-founder of the oral contraceptive pill for women in the 1950s. He hasn’t got an answer either, but he was combative about what he sees as wishy washy talk fests that don’t address the large and looming problem that is likely to have devastating effect around 2050.

Sara Parkin is the founder of Forum for the Future. Her concern is with women’s reproductive health and education. She talked about sustainable population growth. I actually do not think there is any such concept in reality. It sounds good but doesn’t take into account the nature of our species.

We all want more. Maybe not children if you live in poverty and watch at least half of your live births die within a few years. But we always seem to want more for ourselves – more food, clothing, space to live, accoutrements for pleasure and lifestyle. That just isn’t sustainable at the levels we desire. We can’t (or won’t) afford to feed our current refugees let alone try to feed a growing population.

Most of these kids wont make it - 2011

So what to do? Question time after the talk included one from a woman who postulated punitive measures like increased taxation and decreased support availability for families birthing more than two children. It is one of my ideas as well. Djerassi pooh poohed it as virtually useless in a global sense since only developed post-industrial countries could implement such measures. Of course, he is right.

I have mentioned before that Australia’s worst Treasurer (in recent times), Peter Costello, implemented a scheme whereby he gave Australian women a one-off payment of $A5,000 to have a third child ‘for the country’; talk about wilful irresponsibility! He later resigned though not because of that!

Djerassi pointed out that, although Italy has a below replacement population growth, the contraceptive measure in that supposedly most Roman Catholic of countries is by far condom use. The contraceptive pill accounts for only 5% of Italian contraceptive measures. Until recently the most common contraceptive measure in Soviet Russia was multiple abortions!

The problem is still an unmentionable – the elephant in the room. It seems to me we are unlikely to see the end of this century in any sort of good evolutionary shape. We shall be sliding off this rather nice planet that will keep whizzing around in this rather nice galaxy without us.

These are some essentials in this race against time and space:

Contraception of all sorts, including free, safe abortion is essential.

Education of women everywhere in family planning and taking control of their reproductive functions is essential.

The removal of religious and political interference in human reproduction is essential.

Are we up for it? Somehow I don’t think so. Only in our increasingly nightmarish dreams.