Monday, December 23, 2013

Peak Everything by Richard Heinberg

MuseLetter #220 / September 2010 by Richard Heinberg
Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 120 KB)
This month’s Museletter is made up of two pieces and includes the preface to the new paperback edition of Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines which will be released in paperback this month (September) by New Society Publishers.

Peak Everything: Preface to the Paperback Edition

In titling this book “Peak Everything,” I was suggesting that humanity has achieved an unsustainable pinnacle of population size and consumption rates, and that the road ahead will be mostly downhill—at least for the next few decades, until our species has learned to live within Earth’s resource limits. I argued that the industrial expansion of the past century or two was mainly due to our accelerating use of the concentrated energies of cheap fossil fuels; and that as oil, coal, and natural gas cease to be cheap and abundant, economic growth will phase into contraction. I further pointed out that world oil production was at, or very nearly at its peak, and that the imminent decline in extraction rates will be decisive, because global transport is nearly all oil-dependent, and there is currently no adequate substitute for petroleum. Finally, I noted that the shift from growth to contraction will impact every aspect of human existence—financial systems, food systems, global trade—at both the macro and micro levels, threatening even our personal psychological coping mechanisms.
Nothing has happened in the past three years to change that outlook—but much has transpired to confirm it.
A good case can now be made that the year 2007, when this book originally appeared, was indeed the year, if not of “peak everything,” then at least of “peak many things.” Since then we have begun a scary descent from the giddy heights of consumption achieved in the early years of this century.
  • Worldwide economic activity began to decline in 2008 and does not appear set to return to 2007 levels any time soon.
  • Global energy consumption likewise achieved its zenith in the years 2005 through 2007; since then, consumption growth has been confined to the Asian economies and a few oil and gas exporting nations.
  • Personal income in the U.S. (excluding government benefits) is still far below total and per capita levels registered in 2007.
  • Worldwide shipping, a good index of global trade and manufacturing, peaked in 2007.
Of course it is simplistic to argue that everything has peaked (though Peak Everything makes for a better book title than “Some Things Peaking Now, Most Others Soon”). Perhaps the most glaring exception is human population, which continues to grow and is virtually certain to pass the seven billion mark within the next couple of years.
Here’s another non-peak: China’s economy is still growing rapidly, at the astonishing rate of 8 to 10 percent per year. That means it is more than doubling in size every ten years. Indeed, China consumes more than twice as much coal as it did a decade ago—the same with iron ore and oil. That nation now has four times as many highways as it did, and almost five times as many cars. How long this can go on is anyone’s guess. But surely not many more doublings in consumption rates can occur before China has used up its key resources.
For what it’s worth, my forecast is for China’s continuing boom to be very short-lived. As I argued in my recent book Blackout, there are hard limits to China’s coal supplies (the world as a whole will experience peak coal consumption within the next two decades, but China will get there sooner than most other countries because of its extraordinary consumption rate—currently three times that of the U.S.). Since China has no viable short-term alternatives to coal to fuel its industrial machine, by 2020 or so (and possibly much sooner) that country will have joined the rest of the world in a process of economic contraction that will continue until levels of consumption can be maintained by renewable resources harvested at sustainable rates.
World population growth may likewise continue for a shorter period than is commonly believed, if global food production and economic activity peak soon in response to declining energy availability.
In short, the world has changed in a fundamental way in the past three years, and the reverberations will continue for decades to come. Indeed, we have just seen the beginning of an overwhelming transformation of life as we’ve known it.
Let’s look at a few specific factors driving this transformation, starting with limits to world supplies of petroleum.
Oil Spike Triggers Economic Crisis
It is still unclear whether world oil extraction rates have reached their absolute maximum level. As of this writing, the record year for world crude oil production was 2005, and the record month was July 2008. The 2005 to 2008 leveling-off of extraction rates occurred in the context of steadily rising oil prices; indeed, in July 2008 oil prices spiked 50 percent higher than the previous inflation-adjusted record, set in the 1970s. As a result of that price spike, the global airline industry went into a tailspin and the auto industry crashed and burned.
The only serious argument that world oil production could theoretically continue to grow for more than a very few years is put forward by parties who explain away the evidence of declining discoveries, depleting oilfields, and stagnating total production by claiming that it is demand for oil that has peaked, not supply—a distinction that hinges on the fact that oil prices these days are so high as to discourage demand. But since high prices for a commodity are usually a sign of scarcity, the “peak demand” argument really amounts to a distinction without a difference.
The oil situation is dire enough that one might assume it would be dominating headlines daily. Yet in fact it garners little attention. That’s because the world’s ongoing and worsening oil crisis has been obscured by a more dramatic and obvious financial catastrophe. As we all know only too well, Wall Street banks—which had spent the past couple of decades giddily building themselves a quadrillion-dollar house of cards—went into a free-fall swoon in the latter half of 2008 (right after the oil price spike), only to be temporarily rescued with trillions of dollars of government bailouts and guarantees. It was a spine-tingling show—and would have amounted to months of fine entertainment, had it not been for the fact that millions of jobs, thousands of small businesses, and the economies of several sovereign nations also came tumbling down, and there just weren’t enough trillions available to rescue all of them (it obviously pays to be “too big to fail” and to have friends in high places).
The financial aspects of the crisis were so Byzantine, and the cast of players so opulently and impudently villainous, that it was easy to forget the simple truism that all money is, in the end, merely a claim on resources, energy, and labor. A financial system built on staggering amounts of debt and the anticipation of both unending economic growth and absurdly high returns on investments can only work if labor is always getting cheaper, and supplies of energy and resources are always growing—and even then occasional hiccups are to be expected.
But that set of conditions is so last century.
While the oil price run-up was hardly the sole cause of the ongoing world economic crisis, it has effectively imposed a limit to any possibility of “recovery”: as soon as economic activity advances, oil prices will again spike, causing yet another financial crunch.
Thus Peak Oil likely represents the first of the limits to growth that will turn a century of economic expansion into decades of contraction. But more constraints are lining up in the stage wings, ready to make their entrance.
Evidence of Peak Non-Renewable Resources
In the original edition of this book, increasing scarcity of non-energy minerals was barely mentioned. In the three years since, the subject has received increasing attention from researchers and journalists. One report, “Increasing Global Nonrenewable Natural Resource Scarcity,” by Chris Clugston (a former corporate executive), deserves a couple of quotes here. Clugston analyzed 57 non-renewable natural resources (NNRs) in terms of production levels and price. He begins his report by pointing out that
During the 20th century, global production levels associated with 56 of the 57 analyzed NNRs (98%) increased annually, while global price levels associated with 45 of the 57 analyzed NNRs (79%) decreased annually. Generally increasing global NNR production levels in conjunction with generally decreasing global NNR price levels indicate relative global NNR abundance during the 20th century. On the whole, global NNR supplies kept pace with ever-increasing global demand during the 20th century.
So far, so good. But that’s changing.
Generally slowing or declining global NNR production growth in conjunction with generally increasing global NNR prices indicate increasing NNR scarcity during the early years of the 21st century. . . . Annual global production levels increased during the 20th century, then decreased during the 21st century; while annual price levels decreased during the 20th century, then increased during the 21st century. . . .
Clugston’s conclusion: “We are not about to ‘run out’ of any NNR; we are about to run ‘critically short’ of many.”
The same message appeared in a prominent article in New Scientist magazine on May 23, 2007, “Earth’s Natural Wealth: An Audit.” Here’s a useful tidbit from that article:
Take the metal gallium, which along with indium is used to make indium gallium arsenide. This is the semiconducting material at the heart of a new generation of solar cells that promise to be up to twice as efficient as conventional designs. Reserves of both metals are disputed, but in a recent report René Kleijn, a chemist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, concludes that current reserves “would not allow a substantial contribution of these cells” to the future supply of solar electricity. He estimates gallium and indium will probably contribute to less than 1 per cent of all future solar cells—a limitation imposed purely by a lack of raw material. 
The specifics with regard to supplies of a host of nonrenewable resources can be examined easily with a few mouse clicks using the U.S. Minerals Databrowser, which features data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Resource Pyramid
When presented with evidence of depleting stores of fossil fuels and minerals, some still object: New technology will enable us to continue increasing the amount of energy available to us. And if we have enough energy, we can solve our other supply problems: We can desalinate ocean water, grow crops in multi-storey greenhouses, and breed limitless supplies of fish in captivity. We can capture mineral resources from very low-grade ores. We can even mine gold and uranium from ocean water. We can harvest minerals on other planets and ferry them back to Earth. With enough energy, anything is possible!
As an example of what can be done with technology, just consider what has happened in the natural gas industry in the past couple of years: horizontal drilling and “fracking” (fracturing dense gas-bearing rocks with water and chemicals) have expanded U.S. gas reserves and production rates, at a time when energy pessimists had been forecasting a supply collapse. This “unconventional” gas is more than making up for declines in conventional natural gas.
In fact, however, the natural gas situation offers an instructive example of what depletion looks like. Depletion of oil, gas, coal, and other nonrenewable resources is often wrongly portrayed as “running out,” as though it indicated the complete exhaustion of the substance. What we are really talking about are the inevitable consequences of the tendency of resource extractors to take the low-hanging fruit first, and to leave difficult, expensive, low-quality, and environmentally ruinous resources to be extracted later. Unconventional gas is more expensive to produce than conventional gas, and extracting it has worse environmental impacts (due to the need to inject a toxic brew of chemicals underground to break up the rock). The result: “fracking” technology may have enabled the industry to gain access to new sources of gas, but natural gas prices will have to rise significantly to make the business of producing this new gas profitable over the long run—and no one knows how long that “long run” is likely to be, given the rapid depletion rates of most unconventional gas wells.
Geologists and others who routinely deal with mineral ores and fossil fuels commonly speak of a “resource pyramid”: the capstone represents the easily and cheaply extracted portion of the resource; the next layer is the portion of the resource base that can be extracted with more difficulty and expense, and with worse environmental impacts; while the remaining bulk of the pyramid represents resources unlikely to be extracted under any realistic pricing scenario. The optimist may assume that the entire pyramid will eventually be usable, but this is simply not realistic. We have built a society on the basis of cheap energy and materials. At some point, as we move down the layers of the resource pyramid, rising commodity prices and increasing environmental cleanup costs (think Deepwater Horizon) will undercut both demand for resources and economic activity in general. As that happens, we see not just higher prices, but more volatile prices.
This is exactly what happened with the oil price spike of 2008. Many commentators who understand the essence of the Peak Oil dilemma have tended to assume that, as petroleum and other resources become scarcer, commodity prices will simply escalate in a linear fashion. What we saw instead was a rapid rise in prices (driven by rising demand and falling supply, and then exacerbated by speculation) precipitating an economic crash, followed by collapsing oil prices and curtailed investment in oil exploration—which, in due course, will provoke another rapid price rise. The cycle begins again. Each time the cycle churns, it will likely have an even more devastating economic impact.
The same will happen with natural gas as conventional gas grows scarce and the industry is forced to rely on quickly depleting and expensive-to-produce shale gas; and the same will happen with copper, uranium, indium, and rare-earth elements. Meanwhile, we will puzzle over the fact that the economy just doesn’t seem to work the way it once did. Instead of having plenty of energy with which to mine gold from seawater, we will find we don’t have enough cheap fuel to keep the airline industry aloft. Alternative non-fossil energy sources will come on line, but not quickly enough to keep up with the depletion of oil, coal, and gas. Prices of energy and raw materials will gyrate giddily, but the actual amounts consumed will be dropping. In general, labor costs will be falling and raw materials prices rising—the exact reverse of what occurred during the 20th century; but the adjustments will be anything but gradual.
It will take most folks a while to realize the simple fact that conventional economic growth is over. Done. Dead. Extinct.
The End of Growth—and What Comes After
The economic crash of 2008 is commonly perceived as another in a long series of recessions, from which a recovery will inevitably ensue. Recessions always end with recovery; of course this one will as well—or so we are told.
Yet now the situation is different. With oil production peaking, climate changing, and fresh water, soil, fish, and minerals depleting at alarming rates, the computer-based scenarios of the 1972 Limits to Growth study seem thoroughly and frighteningly confirmed. Decades of expansion fueled by consumption and debt are ending; the time has come to pay bills, tighten belts, and prepare for a future of economic downsizing.
Now and again we may see a year that boasts higher economic activity than the previous one. But we will probably never see aggregate activity higher than that in 2007. The Asian economies of China and India will be brief hold-outs from this general trend; but, as coal supplies in that part of the world tighten, even the “Asian tigers” will soon be forced to confront limits to growth.
Contemplating the end of growth—not as a theoretical possibility, but as a fait accompli, forced upon us by circumstances largely of our own making—is of course a bit depressing. The 20th century was one long expansionary surge interrupted by a couple of nasty World Wars and a Depression. At the beginning of that century world population stood at a little over 1.5 billion; by century’s end, it was 6 billion. In the industrialized West, per capita GDP grew from an average of $5000 to nearly $30,000 (in inflation-adjusted terms). We all came to believe that “progress” would go on like this more or less forever. We would build colonies on the Moon, other planets, maybe even in other solar systems; we would conquer disease and hunger—it was only a matter of time.
But while we were planning for utopia, we were in fact setting the stage for collapse. We were depleting our planet’s usable resources and altering the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. And we were building a global financial regime built on the expectation of perpetually expanding consumption and debt, a regime that could not function in a condition of stasis or contraction without generating billowing crises of default, insolvency, and foreclosure.
So, instead of being characterized by a continuation of the upward trajectory we have all grown accustomed to, the 21st century is destined to be one long downward glide punctuated by moments of financial, political, and geopolitical panic. And in retrospect, we’ll all probably eventually agree that our descent began in 2008.
We really have reached Peak Everything . . . but we’ve barely had a chance to enjoy the view; how brief was our moment at the apex! From here on, it’s going to be a bumpy downward roller-coaster ride.
What’s the Point?
Why bother to mention any of this? Is it just to wallow in cynicism? Clearly, the only useful purpose would be to somehow improve our collective prospects. Further economic growth may not be an option for global society, but that doesn’t necessarily signify the end of the world. Indeed, the range of possible futures arrayed ahead of us is still wide, encompassing everything from (at one end of the scale) graceful industrial decline leading to a mature, sustainable world community of re-localized cultures, to (at the other end) human extinction, or something very close to it.
It’s not hard to see what could lead to the latter outcome. If we are all still planning for expansion and it doesn’t ensue, many people will likely become furious and look for someone to blame. Politicians, seeking to avoid that blame and channel citizens’ anger for purposes of their own aggrandizement, will offer scapegoats. Some of those will be domestic, some foreign. Scapegoating of nations, religions, and ethnicities will lead to global violence. Meanwhile very little attention will go toward addressing the underlying problems of resource depletion and environmental degradation (the death of the oceans, collapsing agricultural production due to climate change and desertification, etc.)—problems that warfare will only exacerbate. Add nuclear weapons, stir vigorously, and voila: a recipe for utter and complete destruction.
It doesn’t have to end that way.
If we understand the nature of the limits we are confronting, it is still possible to back our way out of the population-resources cul de sac humanity has entered. In other words, if we plan for contraction, we are likely to do a much better job of transitioning to a sustainable level of population and consumption than if we are still planning for growth and are continually finding our plans frustrated.
The first thing we must do to plan successfully for contraction is to set achievable goals, using sensible indicators. We must cease aiming for increases in scale, amplitude, and speed with regard to nearly every material parameter of the economy. We must aim instead to increase society’s resilience—its ability to absorb shocks while continuing to function. That means re-localizing much economic activity. We must aim also to shore up basic support services, education, and cultural benefits, while de-emphasizing economic activity that entails non-essential consumption of resources.
Attainment of these goals will be greatly facilitated by the adoption of appropriate indicators. Currently, nearly all nations use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as their primary economic indicator. GDP represents the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, and a rising GDP is generally taken as a sign of progress. If GDP is set to decline relentlessly in a post-growth world, then we need a way to focus our collective attention on non-consumptive aspects of economic and civic life so as to motivate useful action in directions where progress is still possible.
Fortunately, alternative economic indicators are beginning to garner attention in cities and nations around the world. I discuss the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) on page 17 of the Introduction of this book, but it’s also important to mention Gross National Happiness (GNH). That term was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to signal his commitment to building an economy that would preserve Bhutan’s Buddhist culture as the nation opened trade with the West. Canadian health epidemiologist Michael Pennock helped design GNH, and has advocated the adoption of a “de-Bhutanized” version of it in his home city of Victoria, British Columbia. Recently, Seattle has also expressed interest in adopting GNH.
Med Jones, President of International Institute of Management, has elaborated on GNH, measuring socioeconomic development across seven areas, including the nation’s mental and emotional health:
1. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio, and income distribution;
2. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise, and traffic;
3. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses;
4. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline in number of psychotherapy patients;
5. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints, and lawsuits;
6. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, and crime rates; and
7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.
Contraction in population levels and consumption rates doesn’t sound like much fun, but a few decades of improvement in Gross National Happiness—potentially achievable at least in five or six of the above metrics—should be an attractive notion to most people.
The related idea that life can be better without fossil fuels is a core tenet of the Transition Town movement, which started in England in 2005 (I quote its founder, Rob Hopkins, on pages 135-136). Transition Initiatives are grassroots efforts to wean communities off dependence on oil and other carbon fuels by promoting local resilience (through development of things like local food systems and ride-share programs). Transitioners realize that it is probably futile to wait for elected officials to take the lead in planning for the great energy shift, given that very few politicians understand our predicament—and given also that, even if they did, the measures they would likely propose would be deeply unpopular unless the populace were educated about constraints on fossil-fueled growth. The genius of the movement lies in its engagement of the citizenry first. The Transition Initiatives appear to be taking off virally, with nearly 300 official sites around the world and over 70 in North America (as of mid-2010).
During the past two years, car sales in North America have declined while bicycle sales have soared; the number of young people taking up farming has increased for the first time in decades; and organic seed companies have had a tough time keeping up with mushrooming demand from home gardeners. These trends show that higher fuel prices and public awareness will indeed motivate behavior change. But we have a very long way to go before we, the people of the world, have broken our dependency on fossil fuels, scaled back our use of other resources, and sufficiently reduced our impact on natural systems. Meanwhile, public education and citizen-led efforts (like the Transition Initiatives) are essential now to build community resilience so as to absorb the economic and environmental shocks that at on their way, and to help us all adjust to life after growth.
The peak has happened. Get over it—and get to work.

Community Economic Laboratories (CELs)

As America adjusts to the New Reality of tight credit, chronically less-affordable energy, high unemployment rates, rising levels of homelessness, and steeply declining tax revenues, new strategies will be needed to help swelling ranks of low-income people adjust and adapt. National policies designed to ease credit, lower mortgage rates, or provide basic financial assistance (including extended unemployment benefits) may help over the short term, but over the longer term many needs will be better met locally by largely volunteer-driven non-profit organizations, co-ops, and hybrid public-private agencies and programs.
One strategy worth exploring is the seeding of a loosely coordinated national network of locally-based Community Economic Laboratories (CELs).
The term “laboratory” is suggested because the sorts of efforts and enterprises that will best serve communities under rapidly evolving economic circumstances may not be apparent or even knowable at the outset—we will have to experiment. However, it is by no means essential or even important that the entities envisioned adopt this suggested title. Some communities may prefer slightly different names for political reasons: a Local Enterprise Laboratory, for example, might fare better in red states.
In any case, the mission of each CEL would be to increase personal and community resilience.
While for most citizens goods and services have traditionally been delivered by way of market relationships based on jobs and commercial interactions between individuals and for-profit businesses, even in good times some individuals occasionally (others chronically) require special assistance, which is usually provided by non-profit service agencies or government programs. In especially hard times—such as the nation has begun experiencing—large numbers of individuals and families lose jobs and incomes, and therefore access to the goods and services that the market economy formerly provided them. At the same time, tax-starved governments are hard pressed to step in to make services available to rapidly expanding rolls of unemployed. At such a time, it could be helpful to explore new and innovative ways of fostering self-sufficiency through the coordination of a variety of cooperative, non-profit, market-based, and government-led ventures that spring from, and are adapted to, unique local conditions.
The basic notion is simple: the CEL would be a local multi-function center that helps people impacted by hard times. It would do this by offering a variety of services, as well as opportunities for self-improvement, learning, enterprise incubation, and community involvement. Some possible examples:
  • A food co-op
  • A soup kitchen
  • A commercial food-processing, food-preserving, and food-storage center available at low cost (or on labor-barter basis) to small-scale local growers
  • A community garden with individual beds available for seasonal rental, as well as communal beds growing produce for the soup kitchen
  • A health center offering free or inexpensive wellness classes in nutrition, cooking, and yoga
  • A free (and/or barter) health clinic
  • Counseling and mental health services
  • A tool library
  • A work center that connects people who have currently unused skills with needs in the community—work can be compensated monetarily or through barter
  • A legal clinic
  • A recycling/re-use center that turns waste into resources of various kinds—including compost and scrap—and into re-manufactured or re-usable products
  • A credit union offering low-interest or even no-interest loans (on the model of the JAK bank in Sweden)
  • A co-op incubator
  • A local-currency headquarters and clearinghouse
  • A local-transport enterprise incubator, possibly including car-share, ride-share, and bicycle co-ops as well as a public transit hub
  • A shelter clearinghouse connecting available housing with people who need a roof—including rentals and opportunities for legal organized squatting in foreclosed properties, as well as various forms of space sharing
  • A community education center offering free or low-cost classes in skills useful for getting by in the new economy—including gardening, health maintenance, making do with less, energy conservation, weather-stripping, etc.
While it is not essential that a CEL have a single physical location within the community, there would be an obvious advantage to its occupying an accessible, prominent place: Individuals and families who have recently become jobless or homeless may be disoriented, less mobile, and unable otherwise to access a variety of geographically scattered services and opportunity centers. Commercial space in the downtown areas of many cities is already abundantly available due to the recession; if a CEL were able to obtain use of an iconic vacant building formerly housing a bank or department store, such physical presence would lend architectural validity to the efforts of community members to come together in providing for their neighbors. Other possibilities include an abandoned indoor shopping mall or empty big-box store.
Like a shopping mall, the CEL would be most successful if “anchored” by two or three substantial enterprises—of which a food co-op and/or soup kitchen, community service organization, credit union, or transport co-op is likely to be one. Smaller spaces could be rented, or offered for in-kind contributions of labor or services, to non-profit organizations and nascent co-ops of various sorts.
The project as a whole would need to be spearheaded by a local non-profit organization, co-op, or service agency of some kind. Community Action Partnerships (CAPs) are ideally placed to do this, but other local organizations could partner or take the lead. Uniform national “branding” of CELs will be much less important than each community’s sense of ownership of its unique, successful co-laboratory. Nevertheless, a national network could help quickly disseminate best practices, success stories, challenges, and other relevant information.
Existing models or partial models should be identified as an initial step, followed by the fostering of one or more pilot projects.

How much is left - a dynamic view

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Vandana Shiva On Resisting GMOs: "Saving Seeds Is a Political Act"

Why the fight for biodiversity is about protecting life itself.

(taken from YES magazine)
Vandana Shiva photo by Paul Dunn
Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine.
Trained in physics and philosophy, Vandana Shiva is renowned for her activism against GMOs, globalization, and patents on seeds and traditional foods. She co-founded Navdanya, which promotes seed saving and organic farming and has more than 70,000 farmer-members.

Sarah van Gelder: The seed has been a major part of your work. Could you
say a little about what a seed is at its essence?
Vandana Shiva: The seed in its essence is all of the past evolution of the Earth,
the evolution of human history, and the potential for future evolution. The
seed is the embodiment of culture because culture shaped the seed with careful selection—women picked the best, diversified. So from one grass you get 200,000 rices.
That is a convergence of human intelligence and nature’s intelligence. It is the ultimate expression of life, and in our language, it means “that from which life arises on its own, forever and ever and ever.” van Gelder: So what is it worth?
Shiva: It’s priceless. There is no price to seed, which is why the commodification of seed is such an outrage. Every culture that I’ve come across believes that destroying seed is the ultimate sin. Communities have starved to death rather than eat the seed grain.
van Gelder: The prevailing worldview separates humans from the natural world, and it has had terrible effects. How are people healing this separation, and how are seeds part of that work?
Shiva: No matter what problem you look at, every ecological problem comes from this illusion that we are separate from nature.
I believe overcoming the separation is a longing much deeper than the
recent rise of ecological awareness. The healing is coming from reclaiming
our oneness with the web of life, with the universe itself.
Some people do it through meditation and yoga, but a lot more are doing
it by just planting a seed and growing a garden. In planting a seed you are one
with the cycles and regenerative capacity of life. We hear the same thing again
and again from children we work with sowing gardens of hope with seeds of
freedom. When you ask, “So what did you learn?” they always talk about the
miracle of life—that a tiny seed bursts into a plant and gives an abundance,
and they can harvest a seed from it.
A seed sown in the soil makes us one with the Earth. It makes us realize that we are the Earth. That this body of ours is the panchabhuta—the five elements that make the universe and make our bodies. The simple act of sowing a seed, saving a seed, planting a seed, harvesting a crop for a seed is bringing back this memory—this timeless memory of our oneness with the Earth and the creative universe.
There’s nothing that gives me deeper joy than the work of protecting the diversity and the freedom of the seed. Every expression of diversity is an expression of freedom, and every expression of monoculture is an expression of coercion.
van Gelder: Can you say more about that? What is the relationship of freedom
to biodiversity?
Shiva: Life is self-organized. Self-organized systems evolve in diversity. You
are not identical to me, because each of us has evolved in freedom. The self-organizing capacity of life is expressed in diversity. Diversity of culture, diversity of humans, diversity of seeds.
Uniformity is constructed from the outside. It is coercive. So a farm of only Roundup Ready soya is actually a battlefield. Chemical warfare is going
on—spraying of Roundup to kill everything green, to kill the soil organisms,
to kill the diversity, but also to kill the potential of the crop to manage itself
and diseases.
Monocultures can only be held together through external control, and
uniformity and external control and concentration go hand in hand.
van Gelder: How do we, the people, get strong enough to counter the enormous
power of Monsanto and the like?
Shiva: We are dealing with life itself, so the first place we get power is by
aligning ourselves with the forces of life. That is why the act of seed saving
is such an important political act in this time. And that is the part that is
linked to self-organizing—organizing yourself to save the seeds, have a community garden, create an exchange, do everything that it takes to protect and rejuvenate the seed. But at this point, industry is hungry to have absolute
control. They will not tolerate a single farmer who has freedom in his seed
supply. They will not stand a single seed that grows on its own terms.
van Gelder: If anything, things have gotten more dire since the last time we
talked. How do you get energized and keep your own spirits up?
Shiva: You know it is true that on the one hand, the concentration of power is
more than ever before. But I think the awareness about the illegitimacy of this
power is also more than ever before. If you take into account the number of
movements, the number of protests taking place, and the number of people building alternatives, it’s huge.
The first place where I get joy as well as the energy to continue is the positive
work of seed saving, promoting a peaceful agriculture, working with farmers, and now increasingly working with non-farmers. In the course we are running on the farm right now, we have 55 young people—someone from a banking system, someone from a software firm, three filmmakers.
No matter where in the world you are, people are realizing food is important. They are realizing food begins with seed, and everyone wants to learn. When I see those processes get unleashed, when I see how rapidly gardening has become such an important way of healing violence—I just met a young man who’s working with ex-convicts to spread gardens. That’s his work! He’s created a firm, and they are the owners, and the board members—how can you not be charged with energy?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Vandana Shiva: Why We Face Both Food and Water Crises

The world-renowned activist reminds people that corporation-friendly economic schemes got us into this mess in the first place.
Policy-makers are finally grappling with the growing global food and water crises that are upon us. While they grope for answers, Vandana Shiva reminds them that it was their wild economic schemes that created these crises in the first place.
The globalized economic structure is simply incompatible with the basic physics of the planet and the principles of democratic governance, she says. And until we align the economic system with those of the ecological system, the problems will only get worse. While many of Shiva's books address some aspect of this fundamental problem, one title captures it most succinctly, Earth Democracy, Justice, Sustainability and Peace.
Shiva is a physicist, author, director of the Research Foundation on Science, Technology and Ecology and the founder of Navdanya.
AlterNet: Much of your writing and speaking has focused on our economic structure's incompatibility with the ecological functioning of the earth. Talk about that incompatibility.
Vandana Shiva: One aspect of the inconsistency is between the principles of Gaia, the principles of soil, the ecology, renewability, how the atmosphere cleans itself and the laws of the global marketplace. The global marketplace is driven by the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the illogic of so-called "free trade," which is totally not free. [The result of this incompatibility] is the current food crisis: The more agriculture is "liberalized," the greater the food scarcity, the higher the food prices and the more people will go hungry.
Never has there been this rate of escalation in food prices worldwide as we witness now with the global integration of the food economies under the coercive and bullying force of the WTO.
AlterNet: You have said, in the past, that these activities are done in the name of improving human welfare. But instead, poverty and dispossession have increased. Where do we see this the most?
VS: We see the worst dispossession in the countries of the South -- tragically -- those countries that could feed themselves. India, for example, was food self-sufficient. We were able to feed our people with a universal distribution system, affordable food for all, and agriculture policies that put food first. Small farmers could make a living.
But a decade and a half of globalization's perverse rules have led to 200,000 farmers committing suicide because they can't make a living anymore -- all their money goes to make profit for Monsanto or Cargill. Meanwhile, with the economy's so-called growth, people are starving. Per capita entitlement to food has dropped in a decade and half from 177 kg to 152 kg per year.
This contradicts the false propaganda being spread about the reason prices are rising. They say it is because Indians are getting richer and Indians are eating more. Well, some Indians are getting richer, but they're not eating more. There's a limit to how much you can eat. And the handful of billionaires buys a few more private jet planes and builds a few more private mansions. [But in reality], the average Indian is eating less. The average child has a bigger chance today of dying of hunger. The Cargill's of the world have a stranglehold of the world's economy; they're harvesting super-profits while people die of hunger.
AlterNet: You talk about India being worse off, but many economists -- including those on the political left -- say that places like China and India are, overall, actually improving. But you say that is not true.
VS: It's not true. India, under the perverse growth of globalization, has beaten out Africa in the number of hungry people. While we have 9.2 percent growth measured by GNP and GDP, 50 percent of our children have very severe malnutrition. Fifty percent of deaths for children under five are due to lack of food. That's about a million kids per year.
AlterNet: That is a considerable change that I don't think the world is seeing.
VS: That's because the media orchestrates every analysis and interpretation. They would like this crisis to look like a success of globalization, and they would like to offer more globalization as a solution. In fact, the World Bank has said there should be more liberalized trade. Before the WTO was formed, we had protests with 500,000 farmers on the streets of Bangalore in 1993 to say that this is a recipe for starvation, for destroying agriculture, self-reliance and food security. And the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs -- before the WTO was born -- had a press conference to say that globalization will make food affordable for all.
They forget that food ultimately is not produced in the speculation and commodity exchanges controlled by Cargill in Chicago. It is produced by hard working women and men working with the soil and sun. And if you destroy the capacity of the people to work the land and the capacity of soil to produce, you're going to have hunger. The tragedy is that the hunger of today and the rise of food [prices] is the result of globalization policies, and it is being implemented on a global scale. Unless we bring local food sovereignty and "food democracy" back into the picture, we will not have a solution to this.
AlterNet: You're talking about basic ecological principles here. But there are two other aspects about food shortages that are being discussed. One of them is that among some societies, such as China, the diet is changing, which contributes to food shortage. Reportedly, after being exposed to western diets, they are eating more meat which requires an enormous amount of grain -- normally fed to people -- to instead be fed to cattle. Do you see this as part of the problem?
VS: Well, I can definitely say that is not true for India. Vegetarian India will stay vegetarian India -- rich or poor, integrated globally or not integrated globally. And the Chinese have always eaten meat. The difference is that now they are integrated into the global production system: It is factory farming that feeds grain to chicken and pigs and cows.
No indigenous culture -- not China or India -- has fed grain to animals. Animals have fed on what humans could not eat. Global agribusiness, which makes huge money out of the feed industry, is creating this pressure while destroying what I would call the "real free economy" -- the free-range cattle, the free range chicken -- and replacing it with prison factories for animals. In fact, in my interpretation, even the Avian flu is being used to violently shut down small economies, the free economies of Asian peasants, and turning them into Tyson and Cargill factory farming systems.
AlterNet: What about the role of climate change in this global food crisis?
VS: Climate change and agricultural food crises do have a connection. In fact, my next book is precisely about this connection. Industrial farming -- driven by agribusiness in order to sell more chemicals, pesticides, and costly seeds to farmers -- is heavily responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane from factory farms nitrogen oxide from chemically fertilized soil and fossil fuels from mechanized farming systems.
Further, the long distance trade is responsible for adding food miles, which adds more carbon emissions. Taken together, more than 25 percent of climate instability is being caused by unsustainable farming that [simultaneously] displaces small peasants, creates poverty and bad food. So, tomorrow we could solve 25 percent of the planet's climate instability if we returned to ecological agriculture as the earth wants it, farming according to 10,000 years of wisdom that evolved from the third world.
Research that we are undertaking now shows a 200 percent higher level of carbon return and 10 times higher level of moisture retention. So if increased drought is one consequence of climate change, what you need is sorted organic matter, not more chemical fertilizers. We have two issues pertaining to climate change: We need to get rid of emissions from agriculture and long-distance transport.
This means ecological farming, localization of the food system and only importing what can't be grown locally -- not forcing imports as the U.S has done on India. It has forced us to buy wheat, give up our mustard and coconut oil and to live on soya. These trade factors are "forcings" that are causing more damage to our climate and destroying our food culture, nutrition and access to food.
Finally, biodiverse systems actually produce more food. It is an illusion that because there's a food crisis, we must have [genetically modified food] spread around the world. First, genetically-engineered crops don't produce more food. And secondly, they make the soil more vulnerable to climate change. They are herbicide resistant and toxin traps. That is not a yield increase.
AlterNet: So the genetic altering of food ultimately exacerbates the already difficult circumstances with food shortages.
VS: Absolutely. I think any recipe today offered in agriculture should be measured against the test of whether it will enhance the food production capacity of the poor and if it will reduce the pressure on the planet.
AlterNet: Let's also incorporate another concept that you feature in your writing -- "biopiracy."
VS: Biopiracy is the strange phenomenon whereby the richest and biggest of corporations steal genetic resources and traditional knowledge from poor little women and peasants who have shared it for free for over a millennium. The first case I had to fight was against the United States government with W.R. Grace, which became infamous in the film A Civil Action , when it polluted the groundwater outside of Boston.
They stole Neem, which is a tree that gives us [natural] pest and fungal control through its oil. The USDA along with Grace claim to have invented Neem. Of course, my grandmother and my mother used it. Then, I popularized it after Bopal with a campaign called "No more Bopal. Plant a Neem." When I saw this patent, I had to fight it. We fought for 11 years, and eventually the biggest governmental powers and one of the biggest chemical companies were beaten out by a coalition of civic society groups and movements.
Another case of biopiracy is the famous Basmati rice that comes from my valley. A company in Texas claims to have invented it. The third case was Monsanto, which claimed to have invented an ancient wheat variety, which is very low in gluten. The problem with biopiracy is not simply that they're taking genetic material and knowledge for free, but that they are claiming an exclusive right to it and then demanding royalty, claim and fame from the very communities and societies [from which they have taken it], communities that have had this biodiversity and this knowledge for years.
AlterNet: Speaking of Monsanto, you have done considerable research on this company and published a report, "Peddling Life Sciences or Death Sciences."
VS: If I had to rank criminality of corporations, Monsanto will easily walk away with the highest award. Monsanto has taken over the control of world's seed supply. It has bought up every small seed company in India, Brazil and the United States and become the biggest seed corporation. But its entire model of functioning is through corruption. They corrupted the United States decision-making such that U.S. citizens no longer have a right to know what they are eating, whether milk has bovine growth hormone in it or if soybeans and corn are genetically engineered. They are spreading this corruption worldwide.
I am fighting them through three cases in our supreme court. And we've managed to hold them at the level of Bt cotton. They have not yet managed to invade into our food economy with genetically modified food crop. But the worst thing Monsanto is doing is buying Delta and Pine Land, a company that has the patent for terminator technology that designs seeds to be sterilized. It is genetically engineering life for life's extinction.
AlterNet: We should also talk about water scarcity. There are major water wars occurring and considerable concern about the future of water. Do you think that water scarcity is being created largely by the phenomenon of privatization or is it resulting from climate change and other such phenomena?
VS: Water scarcity [is] being created by non-sustainable systems of production for both food and textile. Every industrial activity has huge water demands. Industrial agriculture requires ten times more water to produce the same amount of food than ecological farming does. And the "green revolution" was not so green because it created demand for large dams and mining of groundwater.
Industrial agriculture has depleted water resources. In addition, as water has become polluted and depleted, a handful of industry saw water as a way of making super-profits by privatizing it. They are privatizing it in two ways. The first is through buying up entire civic, municipal distribution. The big players in this are Bechtel, Suez and Vivendi.
And interestingly, wherever they go, they face protests. Bechtel was thrown out of Bolivia. Suez wanted to take Delhi's water supply, but we had a movement for water democracy and did not allow them to take over. But there's a second kind of privatization, which is more insidious -- and that is the plastic water bottle. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are leading in this privatization. But in India where Coca-Cola was stealing water, I worked with a small group of village women, and they shut their plant down. Across India, these giant corporations are taking between 1.5 to 2 million liters of water a day and leaving behind a water famine.
AlterNet: Given what is happening as a result of climate change, would we still face a water crisis without these practices?
VS: We would not be facing water problems if people have been allowed to have their economies, to practice sustainability and to live their lives. Every step in the water crisis is due to greed. As the water becomes increasingly scarce, the corporations who control the water become richer. It is the same with food. As food becomes scarce, the corporations controlling food become richer. That is the paradox of the global economy. Growth shows up in the profits of corporations while in the real world, the resources from which they make their profits, shrink.
AlterNet: You have also suggested that these same economic principles are incompatible with the sustenance of democratic governance.
VS: There are many levels at which a market economy called corporate globalization has to kill democracy in order to survive. Take the birth of World Trade Organization (WTO), an undemocratic institution. There are no negotiations on the rules it imposes. These rules are created undemocratically. Then, every time these rules are implemented, there are protests. Normally in democracy, if the will of people say change this policy, governments change. Unfortunately, governance today is run by corporations not the people. Every step of deepening the market economy is a depletion of democracy. Our very governments have been stolen from us, and we have to use democracy to counter these rules, this paradigm, and the absolute destruction [it causes].
AlterNet: Describe your alternative vision that could replace what we currently have.
VS: I try to articulate an alternative vision in terms of a democracy. Global market economy makes the first citizen the corporation. The rest of us are slaves, second class citizens. Secondly, it creates an identity for the human species as consumers in a global supermarket. We are no longer creators and producers. We are just consumers of goods that corporations bring to us from the place where they can manufacture them -- at the highest cost to the environment and workers.
What we need is a reclaiming of who we are as human beings. We are first and foremost citizens of this beautiful planet. Our first duty is to protect this planet. And out of that flows the rights to the earth, air, water and food that the earth gives us. Those gifts are common resources, not commodities, private property or intellectual property. They are the commons of the earth and all of us have equal access to it. Nobody can interfere in the access of a person to their share of water, land and air. That interference is a violation of the rules of Gaia and the rules of democracy.
But the polluting industry has privatized even the air by first putting their pollutants into it and then by the carbon trade. They're basically are saying that because we polluted the atmosphere, we own it. So we can pollute as much as we want and then buy up clean credits from someone else who is not polluting. The commons and the recovery of commons is vital to earth democracy. It's at the heart of sustainability of the earth and democratic functioning of society.
AlterNet: Do property rights fit into this vision of the commons?
VS: Most private property rights have been carved out of the shared resources of the earth. In India we say "land belongs to creation." We can use it and have "use rights," but that is different from ownership and tradable rights. It is British colonialism that created private property in land the way it is now practiced.
Now, the World Bank is trying to create private property in land among indigenous communities. Water was never property either, but today, they are trying to change that. Seeds were meant to be shared and distributed, not treated as property. Intellectual property rights are as recent as the World Trade Organization and need to be eliminated because they are inconsistent with life [principles]. A world of the future governed by intellectual property rights over seed in Monsanto's hands is a future where biodiversity will be destroyed, farmers will be wiped out and there will be no food worth eating.
AlterNet: You've also been involved in the "slow food" movement and organic farming.
VS: I was just elected Vice President of Slow Food [International], and I chair an international commission on the future of food, a commission started by the region of Tuscany in Italy. I convinced the [founder], Carlo Petrini, to recognize that food does not begin in the kitchen or in the chef's hands. It begins in the farmers' fields. One of the contributions that I and my colleagues have made in the seed-saving and organic farming movements is the recognition that biodiversity, organic farming and small-scale agriculture produces more food. It is a myth created by industrial agriculture and agribusiness that monocultures and chemical farming produce more food. They use more energy and chemicals, and do not produce more nutrition per acre. In fact, they use ten times more energy inputs than they produce as food. So with the food crisis, it is vital that we move to efficient food systems that also give us better quality food.
AlterNet: How would we carry your vision and language into actual political and farming structure?
VS: In countries like India, it's not a case of vision being translated into practice. It's defending a practice that's being destroyed by a perverse vision. For us, it is defending the rights of small peasants. That's where lot of my energy goes. An India of the villages was Gandhi's dream and is my dream. But I do not see India surviving if her villages and her food capacity are wiped out. In the Northern countries like the United States farmers have already been uprooted. We need more farms producing more locally-grown foods. This country that can subsidize biofuel and chemicals should instead subsidize the return of small farmers to the land. This would solve much of the unemployment problem too.
Maria Armoudian is a singer/songwriter, a commissioner on the environment for the City of Los Angeles and host and producer of the Insighters for KPFK. Ankine Aghassian is co-producer of the Insighters on KPFK and a human rights activist.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Sins of Syn Bio

How synthetic biology will bring us cheaper plastics by ruining the poorest nations on Earth.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on whether governments can keep pace with scientific advances will be held at Google D.C.'s headquarters on Feb. 3-4. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the  NAF Web site.)
An aerial view of rainforest.
Synthetic biology could harm rain forests and the communities that depend on them
Here's a grim prediction to chew on. This biotech craze dubbed "synthetic biology"—where hipster geeks design quirky life-forms: That technology is going to wind up costing lives—likely a lot of them. I'm not suggesting a direct kill by rogue viruses. These will be economic deaths. The dead will not be noteworthy: farmers, pastoralists, and forest dwellers who live in poor nations that depend on plant commodities.
Syn bio is feted as the next big thing, but we should be clear-eyed about what makes syn bio such a big deal and about whom it will harm. Its advocates predict that synthetic bio will lead to the "New Bioeconomy," in which we harness biology to perform tasks now accomplished by manufacturing.
The New Bioeconomy seems innocently green. It involves yeast and bacteria being repurposed as bio-factories to churn out the plastics, chemicals, and fuels we are already addicted to. Since microbes feast on plant-stuff—whether algae, wood chips, or sugar—plants would replace petroleum as the key feedstock for industrial production. The sourcing of strategic raw materials, including medicines, rubber, and oils, will shift from the hands of farmers in the global South to fermentation vats controlled by the North.
The agribusiness, forestry, chemical, biotech, and energy sectors have serious money riding on this vision. Chevron and Procter & Gamble are backing LS9 Inc., whose syn bio microbes can ferment plant cellulose into gasoline, jet fuel, or plastics. * Chevron is also betting on Solazyme's sugar-munching algae to deliver a drop-in gasoline replacement, while Unilever is funding them for a palm-oil substitute. Exxon, BP, and Novartis are backing Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics Inc. General Motors and Marathon Oil hope that Mascoma's bioengineered bugs can turn woodchips into plentiful ethanol. DuPont already brews 40,000 acres of corn a year into plastic courtesy of synthetic yeast.
Or consider syn bio darling Amyris Biotechnologies. Its researchers have rewired yeast to spit out a substance that makes diesel, gasoline, plastics, detergents, fragrances, and more. Amyris' list of partners reads like the attendance roll at Davos—Shell, Mercedes, Total Oil, Procter & Gamble, Sanofi-Aventis, Cosan, Bunge, Al Gore, Bill Gates, and Vinod Khosla. Amyris even enjoys a philanthropic sheen, having received Gates' money to produce the anti-malarial compound artemisinin in a vat in Eastern Europe instead of the fields of East Africa. When that synthetic artemisinin goes on sale next year, thousands of small-scale artemesia farmers could find their incomes pulled from under them. In time they may be joined in joblessness by rubber tappers as Goodyear scales up tire-rubber production from synthetic E. coli. Madagascar's vanilla farmers may be close behind when Evolva's vanillin-in-a-vat goes commercial.
Dispossessed farmers aren't the only downside of this new bio-industry. Fermenting all those synthetic microbes gobbles vast quantities of plants—euphemistically termed "biomass." Surprisingly, biomass is in short supply. Yes, the planet annually blooms 320 billion tons of plant stuff, but a quarter of that is already spoken for as food, feed, and firewood. The rest struggles to clean our air and water, cycle carbon, sustain biodiversity, and replenish soil fertility—ecosystem functions performed by plants long before we re-assigned them as biomass. According to the Global Footprint Network, we already overuse this biological capacity by 150 percent, running up a deepening ecosystem debt for which nature can offer no bailout. From an earth-systems perspective, taking more of the planet's biomass is akin to extracting blood from a hemorrhaging patient: stupid.
The ground-level perspective is also dismal. When Amyris starts commercial production of sugar-based diesel this year, it will drive expansion of Brazilian sugar—a water-hungry crop rapidly destroying the fragile Cerrado watershed, pushing soy production deeper into the Amazon, and releasing 150 million tons of carbon dioxide a year from harvest burning, land-use change, and fertilizer. The social costs run high, too. Expanding Brazil's agro-frontier accelerates landlessness, swelling the ranks of urban poor. Meanwhile the sugarcane itself is harvested by Brazil's army of half a million migrant workers, many of whom suffer slave conditions, respiratory health problems, and early death from exhaustion.
It's perfectly logical that syn bio companies such as Amyris are targeting Brazil for feed stocks. Eighty-six percent of global biomass is stored in the tropics or subtropics—exactly where the world's 1.5 billion peasants are also inconveniently located. Liberating biomass for a new bio-economy means first clearing away the "old bio-economy" of subsistence farming, pastoralism and hunter gathering. Even as this bio-economic transition gets under way, we are already seeing a voracious global grab on land, plant material, and natural resources.
According to the World Bank, close to 50 million hectares of tropical land have been grabbed by foreign investors in the past few years, of which 21 percent is to secure biomass for biofuel. An analysis of just 11 African countries by Friends of the Earth found an area the size of Denmark recently acquired for biofuel feedstock production. On-the-ground reports of such grabs (archived at tell of villages burnt, peasants murdered, and families going hungry.
In reporting on synthetic biology, it's the golem-like making of life-forms that grabs headlines. But in truth, syn bio's more earthly grab of land, biomass, and livelihoods matters a lot more.
Correction, Feb. 2, 2011: This article originally misspelled Procter in Procter & Gamble. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Jim Thomas is a researcher with technology watchdog the ETC Group and is the author of The New Biomassters, Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods