Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

There is a problem with sustainability.

It is only possible if the resource base can cope with a human population growing at 8,000 per hour and support the 7.5 billion already here as they climb the hierarchy of needs. Resources must either be vast enough to not show symptoms of depletion or renew at rates greater than use.

This is clearly a very big ask.

Any one action might, on its own be sustainable — always take a reusable mug to the coffee shop — but this does not mean that the supply of beans, milk or the power to run the espresso machine is sustainable.

This post from 2011 explains more…

Can we have sustainability?

Sydney at four million inhabitants is a moderate sized city by modern standards. It is a similar size to Phoenix, half the size of Chennai, and a suburb compared to the 34 million inhabitants of Tokyo.

But Sydney is plenty big enough to have transport problems. The arterial roads that feed into the harbor side CBD are mostly modern freeways, with tunnels and six lane bridges, but they just cannot handle peak flow. Smart commuters travel on the train.

One bonus of train travel is that on the days when you forget your iPod you get to hear people chat. A young couple sat ahead of me on one such day and discussed water.

“No we can’t.”

“Why not?” said the husband.

“Those things just spray you with drips that don’t even get your hair wet. I need to get my hair

wet.”

“What about the water crisis?”

“What about it?”

“Here, the dams at 39.2%”

It was true; there in the black and white of the morning paper ‘Dam levels at a record low’.

Sydney relies on water storage in a major dam, Warragamba, and the rain sometimes forgets to fall in its catchment in the Blue Mountains some 80km inland from the coast. The significant drought that began in 2006 and broke three years later forced water restrictions on all domestic use. To augment supply and reassure consumers there was drawdown of groundwater together with pumping from catchments further afield. And then, just to be absolutely sure, a desalination plant was commissioned and constructed.

The husband pressed his point.

“If only half the residents of Sydney took a shower this morning that’s two million showers,” he said.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

“No, if they all showered for a minute less than usual they would save ten litres a minute, that’s 20 million litres saved.”

He said 20 million as though it was a large number and it certainly sounds impressive. The water from a minute of 2 million showers is 20 megalitres, enough to fill 30 Olympic sized swimming pools, provide 2 million toilet flushes or irrigate several hectares of winter wheat.

“I don’t care if it saves the planet I need a real shower.”

“It would help,” the young man said with hope in his voice.

It is easy to imagine a similar discussion over all sorts of conservation actions that can be done around the home. Recycling kitchen waste for example. All it requires is a sealable tub on the kitchen bench.

“But it smells and clutters up the place, get rid of it. And I hate those ants.”

Yet even in an average household it is easy to generate 10 litres of apple cores, vegetable peels and melon skins every week. Then if everyone in the street did it, say thirty homes, then we might see many tons of green stuff that the garbage men would not have to truck, saving fuel and space in the landfill for the garbage we cannot recycle.

There is a 60 litre black plastic bin in my garden that receives all the kitchen scraps. Every now and then there is a layer of brown leaves added and a bucket of water from the washing machine rinse cycle. All those apple cores and potato peelings decompose readily so that the bin is never full, even in winter. The magic of entropy facilitated by the military style operation conducted by decomposer organisms keeps the breakdown ahead of the household ability to generate waste. In spring the material under the bin is carbon rich compost ready to start off the vegetable patch.

If every second household in Sydney did this then, over a few years, millions of tons in greenhouse gas emissions would be avoided just by not having to shift the waste into landfill. There would be issues around nitrogen runoff into remnant vegetation patches from gardens now replete with green manure, but it is food for thought.

These sustainability actions are all good but surely we can do better. It would be great to do more than change the light bulbs, install a low-flow showerhead, manage the compost to help build up the carbon in the stony garden soil, recycle the gray water, install solar panels, grow vegetables and any number of household behaviours for sustainability.

Perhaps we could become self-sufficient.

The reality is that there is little prospect of genuine self-sufficiency for most of us. Even with half a hectare of yard and the compost going great guns, most of the vegetables I grow end up feeding the wildlife. There is greenery but not enough to provide for the family. The household members are also used to vigorous hot showers, power on demand, perfect fruit and veggies, the air conditioner in summer and the fireplace lit when it gets chilly.

No longer do we sit in front of smoky coal grates in high backed chairs with wings to keep the draft off our necks. We are acclimated to an even twenty something degrees wherever and whenever we happen to be. This level of comfort has sensitized us to the point where we really feel deviations from our comfort level, not that a few degrees colder or hotter would have any affect at all on our chance of survival.

We have climbed the hierarchy of needs yet, in our minds, we sit as though we are still at the base level where deviations from what feels safe have the power to upset us.

Does this mean that westerners are desensitized to the problems we have in the environment? Not totally. The media runs stories of environmental challenges and energy saving bulbs are sold in supermarkets. There are energy use ratings on white goods and grants to install water saving devices or solar heating systems.

In Sydney, the Inconvenient Truth made it onto the most watched movie list for a few weeks despite being shown only in selected cinemas; school kids prepare assignments that help them learn about water, land and wildlife challenges; market surveys put the environment high on the list of issues that decide elections hot on the heels of taxes, education, health and the military. Yet whatever we say people still want their needs met. This is their priority.

What we must accept is that our living environment has changed. For better or worse we are sensitized human beings. Most of us really would struggle to survive in the wild and this puts very different parameters on sustainability. Now we must sustain conditions in narrow comfort bands, supply only certain food types and ensure a high level of creature comforts.

The exchange on the train said it all. Not in the words, but the incredulity in the woman’s voice and the despairing logic of her husband.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

The numbers are vast. The resource base has to be equally huge or unfailingly renewable if sustainability has even a remote chance.

Only this post suggests that provisioning is not even the real problem.

Our heads are just not in it.

Five percent

Five percent

What is 5%?

Well apart from being a proportion, here are a few things.

  • 5% is one in twenty
  • 5% is an arbitrary threshold value considered significant in statistical analyses
  • 5% is half the current rate of GST in Australia
  • 5% is a pay rise almost worth having
  • 5% is less than the percentage increase in US military spend under the Trump administration

5% is quite the conundrum. It is not very big and yet it can be big enough to be noticed. You would not want food prices to increase by 5% but they have, roughly every two years or so in most mature economies.

You’d like a 5% pay rise over no pay rise at all but in the US rust belt, many workers have waited over a decade to get it, only for it not to really matter that much.

It seems that 5% is an awkward, niggly kind of proportion. Always a bit on the cusp of significance — one in twenty is surely just chance. Give me one in a hundred and I’m listening.

The other day a friend of mine, also a fellow science nerd, told me that 5% of the hip pocket dollar is spent on the environment.

One in twenty of the dollars in the average wallet ends up as an environmental expenditure.

Now this bald statement that could take a bit of unpacking. What’s in the hip pocket? What is the environment in this context? Would the 5% spend include food or the council waste levy or just donations to the WWF?

In most of the developed world food counts for around 8% of household spend. There is an environmental levy in my own local council but I pay that in my rates, part of my tax spend. And my hip pocket has a whole heap of unavoidable bills from utilities to the mortgage.

We could be here all day figuring it out, so let’s just say that, on average, people spend 5% of their after-tax dollar on something environmental.

That’s $5 for every $100 that arrives in their bank account, at their discretion.

So is this enough? Is it significant?

People die if they don’t eat and have access to clean water. They need somewhere safe to stay and the opportunity to build a meaningful life with some fun in it. These primary needs would use up most of the $100, most of the time.

Add in the inevitable unexpected cost when the boiler bursts, the roof leaks or a family member needs hospital care and there may rarely be 5% left over.

$5 is significant if the cost of living has already allocated the contents of your hip pocket to the necessities of life.

This is where the thought usually stops.

The cost of living is unavoidable. If it eats up all you can earn, then the environment is not even a thought.

Only think a little longer. The environment is where the food, clean water, timber for the house, sand for the mortar, clean air, space for fun, among many other key necessities comes from.

Ignore the environment and it is used up, polluted and dysfunctional for these key goods and services.

Fail to pay anything for these things and they stop.

We should be very scared that we spend only 5% for there is no point in investing in ourselves if the foundation for many of the vital things we need is eroding away beneath us.

One million people

One million people

Consider a city of roughly 1 million people, Adelaide, Australia for example — Calgary, Canada; Bonn, Germany; Tuscon Arizona; or Bristol in the UK would do equally well.

Adelaide has two Australian Football League teams, a pro soccer team, two professional basketball teams, three Universities, a cathedral, numerous hospitals, many shopping malls, around 440 schools, an International airport, and a zoo.

There are over 400 suburbs arranged around a CBD that has high-rise office blocks that provide a common destination for a metropolitan public transport system that includes a fleet of over 1,000 buses.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers, Artisans and actors; and enough skilled tradesmen to build or engineer almost anything.

In short, Adelaide is a self-contained community surrounded by enough farmland to feed everyone.

If it were possible to gather all the people who live in Adelaide into one, standing room only location it would be quite a spectacle. It is hard to imagine what it would look like.

There would people as far as the eye could see. Lay them down head to toe and the line would stretch 1,800 km — 400 km further than a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney.

Stand them in single file and the line would be 30 km long, similar to the queue at the post office.

Now having conjured the image of so many people in your mind’s eye put them all onto commercial aircraft.

Because 1 million is roughly the number of human beings who are, at any one time, airborne in commercial airliners making vapor trails around the globe.

This is both staggering and scary at the same time.

It is enough just to illustrate the scale of the challenge to provide life support to all the people we have made and still retain some environmental integrity.


First posted on LinkedIn

Warrior

Warriors beachThe desert bakes the feet of the brave warrior even in the shade of the acacia. A waft of thick air brings a strange scent, somehow fresh and made of vibrant colour. Our warrior turns toward the smell and an urge comes to stride out. Instinct draws feet forward ever faster as clean air banishes the torpor of heat. So powerful is this cleansing that he runs towards the breeze. As beads become rivulets down his temples he reaches the edge of a cliff and is amazed at what he sees, an azure vista full of promise and opportunity. Fatally he stops to think. The view is too much. It calls and repels in equal measure, pregnant with the opportunity of pastures new and yet is far away. His breath hurts and his legs stiffen in fear of further exertion. He thinks again and returns to the safety of the scalded earth.

Jobless

workerIn the modern world people need jobs. Employment gives us a source of income so that we can pay bills, make a home and bring up kids. We take this as both fact and inevitable, for most of us will be short a lottery win or, lamentably, independent means

It was not always like this.

For our recent ancestors [all of those humans who lived before the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago] it was enough to find food, water and shelter on the back of your own effort.

People hunted and gathered with their time as they sourced from nature what was needed. They lived in groups to share out the workload, spread the risk of bringing up the kids, and protect the best gathering patches, but in the end they ate what they found.

No doubt there were roles within these groups but no jobs.

We assume that the employer worker story — the perennial struggle between capital and labor — began much later and in the scheme of things very recently. Paid work probably began in earnest around the time agriculture which would mean that 190,000 years had past where anatomically modern humans had existed without a salary.

Today everyone in the western [and increasingly the eastern] world has the notion of a job and we assume that most covet one. People know the difference between employer and employee even if they may not fully understand the mobilization of capital. Except that half the people alive today find their ‘jobs’ in subsistence agriculture where all their time is taken up growing food for themselves and their family.

In many ways half the world’s people are closer to the joblessness of our ancestors, tending and gathering from their kitchen gardens, paddies and maize fields. The other half could not imagine life was possible without work. How else would the rent get paid?

 

Idea for healthy thinking

Do you think it is possible in mature economies to return to such joblessness or roles without jobs?

I wonder?

It is hard to imagine that we could give up our competitive natures. Money and our desire to compete for ever more of it satisfies that need without resorting to its obvious alternative of beating each other up.

After all those hunter-gatherers did more than hunt wildlife with their spears and arrows.

Goanna

 

goanna

I can’t get this image out of my head.

A road in the outback and a young aboriginal kid in western clothes bashes the long grass on the verge with a big stick. He is trying, along with his mates, to flush a goanna all under the watchful eye of an elder. The hunted creature remains hidden and may or may not have avoided the blows.

The elder has his own stick, a baseball bat in metallic blue. After a fruitless search he calls time and the hunting party climb back into a late model land cruiser station wagon.

The sound bite captured by the media crew before the elder drives away is that this country is sacred to his people and should not be exploited for shale gas.

I know it is unholy to drawn attention to the truth of this scene. An ancient culture lost but still pretending to exist whilst embracing with both arms the trappings of a new one. I am afraid that even with a few baseball batted visits to the bush those youngsters will not have a feel for country. They will know mobile phones, internet porn, Call of Duty and soggy chips.

This is sad. The generations of indigenous kids that went before had a wholesome life that was connected to the earth. The kids that climbed into the air-conditioned land cruiser will live longer than their ancestors but maybe not with the same wellbeing.

It’s just that whilst fracking probably will contaminate groundwater, clutter the landscape with drilling rigs and mess up all the local roads with traffic, resource use is a requirement for a western lifestyle. We cannot fly, drive and cavort around with technology trappings by chasing goannas. We have to exploit natural capital and subsidize our own energies from external sources. And that is a truth.

Of course it would be nice to do this with the least externalities and with care to restore any damage that is done. But let us at least acknowledge the truth that we cannot make mobile phones with a goanna.

Nor can everyone who owns a car go out and hit one with a stick.

Sounds crazy #7 | Hidden hazards in the backyard

produce-01This ‘sounds crazy’ is an absolute ripper.

This bottom column headline and grab appeared on the front page of the weekend Sydney Morning Herald this week…

Hidden hazards in the backyard — Families are unwittingly exposing their children to the risk of sickness and even brain damage from lead hidden in backyard soil and paint… 

Fair enough. No doubt there is many an older inner city property that has not been renovated since the time lead was in most paint stock and some of that old stuff is peeling away and ending up in garden soil across the suburb.

Any city dweller knows that cities are not exactly pristine. The air is heavy with particulates from brake dust to builders waste and on a rainy day it washes all over your shoes. It comes with the territory.

The grab continued…

Lead experts fear the trend towards home vegetable patches and community and verge vegetable gardens is also putting children at risk.   

So at a time when all our electronic conveniences have deprived our youth of knowing anything about life giving soil, we must put the fear of god into those with the umph and initiative to get back to sharing produce they have tended.

Thousands of generations of good folk grew vegetables in their backyards. They planted, watered and cared for their crops and then fed their families wholesome fresh food. The extra they exchanged with their neighbors or sold at a local market helping to create the very essence of community that is so central to our wellbeing.

And they did this even when cars were spitting out lead, when the pipes were made of lead and when DDT was the pesticide of choice.

Did those dangers stop them? Not at all, they prospered and went ahead to multiply by the millions. So much so that today we need to double global food production in the next 30 years just to keep up with demand and will need every square foot of productive space we can find.

All I can say is shame on those ‘experts’, university academics with a career to build, and shame on the media for printing such fear mongering [and this time you can’t even blame Rupert].

For heavens sake, growing veggies in the backyard is a good news story.

I just wish the possums would stop eating mine.