"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Cannibal Capitalism’

Ecological Crisis And The Tragedy Of The Commodity

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm

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Oldspeak:”The ceaseless drive for accumulation inherent in capitalist commodity production speeds up the social metabolism. It results in a faster depletion of resources, stemming from increasing demands for materials and throughput, and the generation of ever-more waste. It degrades the conditions that support resilient ecosystems. The capitalist system creates numerous contradictions between nature and commodities; it progressively deepens and creates ecological rifts.”-Brett Clark and Richard York

“Yep. The above statement delineates the folly of market-based “green economy” responses to global warming and climate change. De-growth is not an option. Infinite growth and accumulation are immutable imperatives.This is the inherent and terminally destructive nature of the system of Global Industrial Capitalist Civilization which has played a major role in bringing about Earth’s 6th Mass extinction. Commodifying All has a price; and it is the end life on earth. The piece ends with a hopium-laced “sustainable” way forward, that artfully prescribes an end to capitalism, replacing it with an anacro-syndicalist, decentralized and democratized sociocultural system. Great idea. Far too late to matter as our proverbial goose is cooked.” -OSJ

Written By

We live in an era of ecological crisis, which is a direct result of human actions. Natural scientists have been debating whether the current historical epoch should be called the Anthropocene, in order to mark the period in which human activities became the primary driver of global ecological change.[1]

Initially, it was proposed that this new epoch, corresponding with the rise of modern capitalist and industrial development, began in the eighteenth century. The growth imperative of capitalism, as well as other sociocultural changes, is a primary factor generating major environmental problems that culminate in ecological crisis.[2]

It has become increasingly clear that humans face an existential crisis. The environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben explains:

Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived…. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has—even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet…. This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on a par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.[3]

Many modern ecological problems are referred to as a tragedy of the commons, a concept developed by Garrett Hardin in the 1960s to describe the overexploitation or despoliation of natural resources.[4] We contend that they are actually associated with the tragedy of the commodity. While an obvious play on Hardin’s concept, this approach offers, we argue, a much more comprehensive and historically appropriate analysis of the drivers of ecological degradation.

The classic illustration of the tragedy of the commons used by Hardin involved the dynamic of herders and their livestock. He claimed that each herder will act primarily in his or her own interest by adding additional livestock to common grazing land when it served to increase individual benefits. Therefore, Hardin argued, each herder would attempt to acquire the benefits offered by the commons, while socializing the costs to all. For example, by adding an extra animal to the pasture the herder reaps all the benefit, but pays only a fraction of the environmental costs, such as depletion of the grazing land. Each actor, motivated by individual maximization of benefits, increasingly introduces grazing animals into a finite system of resources, leading to the tragic destruction of the land. With this Hardin concludes “freedom in commons brings ruin to all.”[5] For Hardin, and many others who have adopted this perspective, expanding private property is offered as a leading policy solution for avoiding ecological tragedies.[6]

The tragedy of the commons theory explains the behaviors of individual actors in given social circumstances. However, it does not address how historical conditions and the socioeconomic system influence individual actors. In other words, the social context is simply taken for granted. The existing social conditions and relations are regarded as ever-present, universal, and permanent. The model neglects to recognize that human interactions and exchanges with ecological systems change through time and are regulated by particular institutional conditions. Once examined from a sociological perspective, the tragedy of the commons theory is simplistic and one-sided in that it attempts to explain human social behavior, or human agency, without a thorough understanding of the historical social organization.[7] This simplification results in a mystification of the modern systems of production and consumption and the historically specific ecosystem effects.

In contrast, the tragedy of the commodity approach emphasizes the role of the growth imperative of capitalism and commodification in producing the institutional rules by which nature and, for example, the commons are governed and historically transformed. Ecological systems are never altogether free of social influences. Rather, they are shaped by social conditions including norms, traditions, economic rules, the organization of labor, politico-legal arrangements, etc.[8] The social actions that have emerged with capitalist development are dominated by what Adam Smith called “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange,” matched with a crude utilitarianism, where individuals follow pure self-interest without social constraint. Unfortunately, these actions are often incorrectly ascribed to innate human behavior.[9] Thus, what might appear to the casual observer to be a system governed by base greed and human instinct is in fact largely directed by the drive for capital accumulation and what Immanuel Wallerstein called the progressive “commodification of everything.”[10] Among other outcomes, the commodification process results in a social metabolic order—socio-ecological interchanges and interrelationships—that produces unsustainable social and ecological consequences.

In a society organized around the logic of capital, human activities tend to be directed toward the production of commodities. That is, capitalism can be understood in a broad sense as a system of generalized commodity production. The institutional arrangements result in particular social arrangements and generate distinct types of human social action. The commodity serves as a basic unit to understand the larger culture-nature relations and capitalism itself. It is a base element of capitalist market processes.

Nature is an essential source of use value, or the qualitative usefulness of things. For example, Earth’s biogeochemical systems provide the conditions and means that allow for the production of food. Karl Marx emphasized that under capitalist relations, nature was seen as a free gift; it was not considered as part of wealth.[11] He famously explained this in terms of a “general formula for capital”—whereby capital is understood as the “continuous transformation of capital-as-money into capital-as-commodities, followed by a retransformation of capital-as-commodities into capital-as-more-money.”[12] Even though use value expresses the useful properties of an item or service, it is exchange value, or market value, which knows only quantitative increase and drives capitalist economic activity.

Money is put into circulation in order to return money, a quantity for a quantity, “its driving and motivating force is therefore exchange-value.”[13] Thus, capital constantly expands into more capital, motivated by surplus value or profits, the generation of which is “the absolute law of this mode of production.”[14] Under this logic, money dominates the organization of social and natural relationships. Addressing the pervasiveness of this logic, Karl Polanyi explained, “All transactions are turned into money transactions.”[15] The emergence of an all-encompassing, self-regulating, market disembedded human practical activity from its foundation in the broader sociocultural and environmental conditions. Market activity directed by commodity production for the endless accumulation of capital acquired the irresistible impetus of a “process of nature.”[16] Accordingly, the organization of production and consumption activities is fundamentally transformed from the exchange of qualities into the exchange of quantities. Alienation from each other and nature increases, as qualitative relations of production and the universal metabolism of nature are subsumed under the quantitative growth imperative of capital and a culture of quantity.[17] This fundamental tension between the necessity of quantitative expansion to sustain the economic relations and the qualitatively unsustainable ecological consequences marks the defining characteristic of the modern ecological crisis and the tragedy of the commodity.

Capital tends to simplify natural processes and ecosystems, imposing a division of nature to increase economic efficiency. It directs the life cycles of plants and animals to the economic cycle of exchange. Qualitative social relations—such as subsistence use within an ecosystem—are not part of the capitalist accounting system and can suffer various forms of destruction as a result. Use values, as the qualitative means for meeting the needs of life, are limited given biophysical properties. In contrast, there are no limits to quantitative measures of wealth. In other words, growing returns on investment have no end, but real human needs are confined to definite and knowable material limits.

The ceaseless drive for accumulation inherent in capitalist commodity production speeds up the social metabolism. It results in a faster depletion of resources, stemming from increasing demands for materials and throughput, and the generation of ever-more waste. It degrades the conditions that support resilient ecosystems. The capitalist system creates numerous contradictions between nature and commodities; it progressively deepens and creates ecological rifts.[18]

The way forward, toward a more sustainable world, requires radical changes in the social conditions that have historically shaped the productive and consumption system of capitalism. Collective action must take back public commons and put them in control of the people who most closely interact with them and depend on them for community well-being. In order to be successful, these actions must (in effect) de-commodify nature. Commons must be decentralized and democratized, rather than, in the standard neoliberal view, privatized. Farmland and fisheries must be socially organized to advance nourishment and health. Forests must be valued as reserves of biodiversity, clean water, and culture. Economic activities must be embedded within society as a whole and the universal metabolism of the biophysical world, allowing for the continuation of reproductive processes, nutrient cycles, and energy flows that support all life. Human society must transcend the logic of capital, creating a new social metabolic order that increases the quality of life and enhances the potential for ecological flourishing and universal human freedom.

Recently, Pope Francis highlighted what we have been calling the tragedy of the commodity. In his highly publicized Encyclical on the environment, he mentions the “tragic effects of environmental degradation.” He goes on to say: “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.”[xix] He contends that a “cultural revolution” is required to address ecological crisis.

Interestingly, Pope Francis limited his suggested response to a cultural revolution when it is clear throughout the document that he is describing a political-economic problem. We agree that a revolutionary approach is necessary for addressing the ecological crisis. Nothing short will be adequate for challenging the tragedy of the commodity.

This essay is based on the new book The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans Fisheries and Aquaculture by Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark, published by Rutgers University Press (2015).

Works Cited.

[1]. Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415, no. 6867 (2002): 23; Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The New World of the Anthropocene,” Environmental Science & Technology 44, no. 7 (2010): 2228-31.

[2]. Will Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369, no. 1938 (2011): 842–67.

[3]. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010), 2-3.

[4]. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968):

1243–1248.

[5]. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” 1244.

[6]. Theorists of the tragedy of the commons also acknowledge the potential for state action and management as alternative arrangements for promoting resource conservation. See Elinor Ostrom et al., The Drama of the Commons (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2002).

[7]. Bonnie J. McCay and Svein Jentoft, “Uncommon Ground: Critical Perspectives on Common Property” in Human Footprints on the Global Environment: Threats to Sustainability, ed. Eugene A. Rosa et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 207.

[8]. Thomas Dietz et al., “The Struggle to Govern the Commons,” Science

302, no. 5652 (2003): 1907–1912; Elinor Ostrom et al., “Revisiting the Commons,” Science 284, no. 5412 (1999): 278–282.

[9]. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 Volumes (London: Methuen & Co., 1930); Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1976); Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

[10]. Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization (London: Verso, 1983).

[11]. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

[12]. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 36.

[13]. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 250.

[14]. Ibid., 769.

[15]. Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 44.

[16]. Ibid., 132.

[17]. István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (London: Merlin Press, 1986), 35.

[18]. Brett Clark and Richard York, “Rifts and Shifts: Getting to the Roots of Environmental Crises,” Monthly Review 60, no. 6 (2008): 13–24.

[xix]. Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015), 12, 139.

Why Good News For The Ozone Layer Is Bad News For The Climate

In Uncategorized on September 29, 2014 at 12:19 am

2014 927 ozone fwOldspeak: “The “good news” arrived via the Associated Press on September 11: Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, atmospheric ozone is recovering. Scientists have been monitoring atmospheric ozone since 1989, the year the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete Ozone (a protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer) came into effect (it was negotiated in 1987). The scientists released their latest assessment on September 10, the subject of the Associated Press report….According to NASA scientist Paul A. Newman, ozone levels climbed 4 percent in mid-northern latitudes at about 30 miles up from 2000 to 2013… The very slight thickening of the ozone layer is, as claimed, due to the phase-out of CFCs and other bad ozone actors. But it’s also due to the increased concentration of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases cool the upper stratosphere. As that region of the heavens cools, ozone is rebuilt. The good ozone news is thus bad climate news….Among the most powerful greenhouse gases are HFCs, the non-ozone-destroying substitute for CFCs. Some HFCs have a global warming potential (GWP) 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide (the most commonly used, R-134a, has a GWP of 1430). The growth in their use is clear… without global action, HFC use is expected to increase significantly over the next three or four decades with dire consequences for the climate…Pretending that miniscule improvement in atmospheric ozone levels is cause for celebration is not that big of a deal. The more serious problem is continuing to suggest that the Montreal Protocol is a model for international action on climate change. Dealing with CFCs and their problematic substitutes was, and is, infinitely easier than confronting climate chaos. Banning gases with especially high global warming potential (GWPs) is necessary, but nowhere near sufficient. Carbon emissions are the lifeblood of the global economy, of affluent life styles lived by the few but aspired to by the many. A vigorous climate convention requires far-reaching shifts in virtually every corner of daily life in the developed world.” -Steven Breyman

“This is what’s it’s come to in our sad state of affairs. Manufacturing a “victory” and “one of the great success stories of international collective action in addressing a global environmental change phenomenon.” out of something that actually signifies defeat and failure in addressing the global environmental change phenomenon. The reality, is the chemicals that were used to replace the chemicals found to deplete the ozone layer, are thousands of times more potent and harmful than carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most of our attention is focused on. The use of these chemicals are expected to increase significantly over the next 3 to 4 decades. How can this reality be couched as good news? Only in a reality where words, artfully and duplicitously weaved together, mean their complete opposite. An Orwellian world, where “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength”.  No matter how we choose to perceive reality, Earth’s 6th mass extinction keeps rolling along.” –OSJ

 

By Stephen Breyman @ Truthout:

We live in a world hungry for good environmental news. But that’s no excuse for journalistic or scientific spin passing as an unvarnished victory for the environment, nor for exaggeration of the value of a narrowly focused environmental treaty as a model for a universal agreement.

The “good news” arrived via the Associated Press on September 11: Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, atmospheric ozone is recovering. Scientists have been monitoring atmospheric ozone since 1989, the year the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete Ozone (a protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer) came into effect (it was negotiated in 1987). The scientists released their latest assessment on September 10, the subject of the Associated Press report.

Some background is in order. The Montreal Protocol is important on its own merits. A world of thinning atmospheric ozone is a world of increased skin cancer, eye problems and reduced agricultural yields and phytoplankton production. Every member state of the United Nations ratified the Protocol. But it is as a model for climate change negotiations and agreement that it takes on greater importance. The successful negotiation of the Montreal Protocol required agreement among policymakers, scientists and corporations, as will the replacement for the Kyoto Protocol.

The original Montreal Protocol achieved iconic status – Kofi Annan called it “perhaps the single most effective international agreement to date” – because it phased out production of five chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) known to destroy atmospheric ozone. CFCs were most widely used as refrigerants, solvents, blowing agents and fire extinguishers, as are their substitutes today. There have been five effectiveness-improving amendments to the original Protocol.

The Protocol and its amendments were possible for five reasons:

First, given the phase-in of the phase-out (zero production and use of the five CFCs was not required until 1996) DuPont, the dominant firm in the business, had time to research and manufacture the economical and less destructive substitute hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and the nondestructive hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), even though it had to be pushed hard to do so. Lacking a chlorine atom, HFCs do not attack the ozone layer. HFCs and HCFCs are also less persistent in the atmosphere than CFCs, from two to 40 years for the former, to up to 150 years for the latter.

Second, CFCs were going off patent, so it was in DuPont’s interest to protect the multibillion-dollar market by developing HCFCs and HFCs.

Third, the science was clear on the Antarctic ozone hole, with but a handful of companies, led by DuPont, working to deny it.

Fourth, other ozone killers – several halons and some other CFCs – were not phased out until 2010.

Fifth, mandated phaseout of HCFCs does not begin until 2015, with zero production and consumption required by 2030.

The Montreal Protocol came to be because it posed a minor challenge to the profits of but a few firms, allowed time for new substitutes to come to market, and permitted use of less dangerous ozone-destroying chemicals, or those posing no threat at all.

Now back to the alleged good news report: According to NASA scientist Paul A. Newman, ozone levels climbed 4 percent in mid-northern latitudes at about 30 miles up from 2000 to 2013. (The tiny change for the better explains why it is hard to see much if any improvement between 1989 and 2010, or between 2006 and 2010, in the photos above.) The Associated Press does not tell us about ozone concentrations at other latitudes or other altitudes (except for 50 miles up, but no specific improvement figure is reported; this probably means the improvement was less than 4 percent elsewhere in the upper atmosphere).

The improvement is a “victory for diplomacy and for science, and for the fact that we were able to work together,” said Nobel Prize chemist Mario Molina, one of the scientists who first made the connection between certain chemicals and ozone depletion. Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program, hailed the slight recovery of atmospheric ozone as “one of the great success stories of international collective action in addressing a global environmental change phenomenon.” Political scientist Paul Wapner said the latest findings were “good news in an often-dark landscape.”

The very slight thickening of the ozone layer is, as claimed, due to the phase-out of CFCs and other bad ozone actors. But it’s also due to the increased concentration of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases cool the upper stratosphere. As that region of the heavens cools, ozone is rebuilt. The good ozone news is thus bad climate news.

2014 927 chart 1Among the most powerful greenhouse gases are HFCs, the non-ozone-destroying substitute for CFCs. Some HFCs have a global warming potential (GWP) 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide (the most commonly used, R-134a, has a GWP of 1430). The growth in their use is clear in the graph below; without global action, HFC use is expected to increase significantly over the next three or four decades with dire consequences for the climate, according to MIT atmospheric scientist Susan Solomon. (Source: TEAP/EPA/UNEP)

Ready for more double-edged good news? The Obama administration appears intent on phasing out HFCs (just in time for the UN gathering and Peoples Climate March in NYC), and a chemical that is nondestructive to ozone, with only four times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide – the hydrofluoroolefin HFO-1234YF, also known as 2,3,3,3-Tetrafluoropropene – is ready to go as the latest substitute for CFCs.

The plan (as under the Montreal Protocol) is to give giant producers (including DuPont and Honeywell which own most of the patents) and massive users (including, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Target and Kroger’s) time to phase in HFO-1234YF. The European Union directive that automotive air conditioners use refrigerants with global warming potential (GWPs) of 150 or lower had most European car makers begin shifting to HFO-1234YF in 2011 (a total ban on more powerful climate-changing chemicals comes in 2017). General Motors has been using HFO-1234YF in Chevys, Buicks, GMCs and Cadillacs since 2013. Chrysler reportedly plans to transition to HFO-1234YF as well.

Given the history of CFCs and their substitutes, at least some adverse effects from HFO-1234YF production and use, and some glitches in the transition are likely. German automakers worry that HFO-1234YF is both too expensive and too flammable (they’re investigating the use of carbon dioxide). In case of fire following a collision, HFO-1234YF releases highly corrosive and toxic hydrogen fluoride gas. One report had it that Daimler Benz engineers witnessed combustion in two-thirds of simulated head-on crashes. Considering the requirement that auto repair shops retool their air conditioning service equipment to use HFO-1234YF, it’s likely they’ll stick with the HFC R134a as long as possible. India is so far uninterested in moving toward replacing R134a by HFO-1234YF (China is working with the United States to jointly reduce emissions of HFCs). Canada, Mexico and the United States intend to propose amendments to the Montreal Protocol to command the phase-out of HFC production.

Pretending that miniscule improvement in atmospheric ozone levels is cause for celebration is not that big of a deal. The more serious problem is continuing to suggest that the Montreal Protocol is a model for international action on climate change. Dealing with CFCs and their problematic substitutes was, and is, infinitely easier than confronting climate chaos. Banning gases with especially high global warming potential (GWPs) is necessary, but nowhere near sufficient. Carbon emissions are the lifeblood of the global economy, of affluent life styles lived by the few but aspired to by the many. A vigorous climate convention requires far-reaching shifts in virtually every corner of daily life in the developed world.

Confronting ozone depletion permitted business as usual with but the smallest of tweaks that went unnoticed by most. Overcoming the ozone depletion denial industry was a trivial challenge compared to that posed by the forces arrayed to muddle climate science and stymie strong action.

Again: a climate change agreement that includes robust mitigation, a serious campaign to build resilience against a destabilized climate, and a foundation on the principle of climate justice requires genuine and widespread change.

Preventing catastrophic and irreversible climate change compels conversion of the complex systems of transportation, agriculture, generation of electricity, cooling and heating, waste management, manufacturing, technological innovation and more. It also requires transformation in developed countries’ sense of responsibility for past and future emissions. This is why we have yet to see one. Military budgets must be slashed and war machines stopped to free up the funds necessary for building clean green economies and to stop exacerbating the problem. How likely is that as the United States returns to Iraq for the third time in as many decades?

 

Do Less, Be More: What History Teaches Us About Living More Simple, Less Consumerist Lifestyles

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2013 at 7:20 pm
Diogenes. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Oldspeak: “An avalanche of studies… have shown that as our income and consumption rises, our levels of happiness don’t keep pace. Buying expensive new clothes or a fancy car might give us a short-term pleasure boost, but just doesn’t add much to most people’s happiness in the long-term. It’s no wonder there are so many people searching for new kinds of personal fulfillment that don’t involve a trip to the shopping mall or online retailers. If we want to wean ourselves off consumer culture and learn to practice simple living, where might we find inspiration?” –Roman Krznaric

“On the occasion of  New Years 2013, resolve to do less shit that doesn’t matter. Spend more face-time with people and less with iphones. Be more present. Consume less. Be open. Fear less. Love more. Decrease your web and carbon footprints. Breathe more deeply, often. Abandon old paradigms and beliefs. Think freely. Question everything. Discover new definitions of “Health”, ‘Wealth”, “Luxury” Withdraw your support as much as you can for the systems that are destroying us and our planet. Enjoy “the luxury of doing good.” ” -OSJ

By Roman Krznaric @ Yes Magazine:

When the recently elected Pope Francis assumed office, he shocked his minders by turning his back on a luxury Vatican palace and opting instead to live in a small guest house. He has also become known for taking the bus rather than riding in the papal limousine.

The Argentinian pontiff is not alone in seeing the virtues of a simpler, less materialistic approach to the art of living. In fact, simple living is undergoing a contemporary revival, in part due to the ongoing recession forcing so many families to tighten their belts, but also because working hours are on the rise and job dissatisfaction has hit record levels, prompting a search for less cluttered, less stressful, and more time-abundant living.

How Should We Live by Roman Krznaric.

This article is based on the author’s new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life.

At the same time, an avalanche of studies, including ones by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, have shown that as our income and consumption rises, our levels of happiness don’t keep pace. Buying expensive new clothes or a fancy car might give us a short-term pleasure boost, but just doesn’t add much to most people’s happiness in the long term. It’s no wonder there are so many people searching for new kinds of personal fulfillment that don’t involve a trip to the shopping mall or online retailers.

If we want to wean ourselves off consumer culture and learn to practice simple living, where might we find inspiration? Typically people look to the classic literature that has emerged since the 1970s, such as E.F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, which argued that we should aim “to obtain the maximum of wellbeing with the minimum of consumption.” Or they might pick up Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity or Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life.

I’m a fan of all these books. But many people don’t realize that simple living is a tradition that dates back almost three thousand years, and has emerged as a philosophy of life in almost every civilization.

What might we learn from the great masters of simple living from the past for rethinking our lives today?

Eccentric philosophers and religious radicals

Anthropologists have long noticed that simple living comes naturally in many hunter-gatherer societies. In one famous study, Marshall Sahlins pointed out that aboriginal people in Northern Australia and the !Kung people of Botswana typically worked only three to five hours a day. Sahlins wrote that “rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.” These people were, he argued, the “original affluent society.”

In the Western tradition of simple living, the place to begin is in ancient Greece, around 500 years before the birth of Christ. Socrates believed that money corrupted our minds and morals, and that we should seek lives of material moderation rather than dousing ourselves with perfume or reclining in the company of courtesans. When the shoeless sage was asked about his frugal lifestyle, he replied that he loved visiting the market “to go and see all the things I am happy without.” The philosopher Diogenes—son of a wealthy banker—held similar views, living off alms and making his home in an old wine barrel.

We shouldn’t forget Jesus himself who, like Guatama Buddha, continually warned against the “deceitfulness of riches.” Devout early Christians soon decided that the fastest route to heaven was imitating his simple life. Many followed the example of St. Anthony, who in the third century gave away his family estate and headed out into the Egyptian desert where he lived for decades as a hermit.

Later, in the thirteenth century, St. Francis took up the simple living baton. “Give me the gift of sublime poverty,” he declared, and asked his followers to abandon all their possessions and live by begging.

Simplicity arrives in colonial America

Simple living started getting seriously radical in the United States in the early colonial period. Among the most prominent exponents were the Quakers—a Protestant group officially known as the Religious Society of Friends—who began settling in the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth century. They were adherents of what they called “plainness” and were easy to spot, wearing unadorned dark clothes without pockets, buckles, lace or embroidery. As well as being pacifists and social activists, they believed that wealth and material possessions were a distraction from developing a personal relationship with God.

But the Quakers faced a problem. With growing material abundance in the new land of plenty, many couldn’t help developing an addiction to luxury living. The Quaker statesman William Penn, for instance, owned a grand home with formal gardens and thoroughbred horses, which was staffed by five gardeners, 20 slaves, and a French vineyard manager.

Partly as a reaction to people like Penn, in the 1740s a group of Quakers led a movement to return to their faith’s spiritual and ethical roots. Their leader was an obscure farmer’s son who has been described by one historian as “the noblest exemplar of simple living ever produced in America.” His name? John Woolman.

Woolman is now largely forgotten, but in his own time he was a powerful force who did far more than wear plain, undyed clothes. After setting himself up as a cloth merchant in 1743 to gain a subsistence living, he soon had a dilemma: his business was much too successful. He felt he was making too much money at other people’s expense.

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In a move not likely to be recommended at Harvard Business School, he decided to reduce his profits by persuading his customers to buy fewer and cheaper items. But that didn’t work. So to further reduce his income, he abandoned retailing altogether and switched to tailoring and tending an apple orchard.

Woolman also vigorously campaigned against slavery. On his travels, whenever receiving hospitality from a slave owner, he insisted on paying the slaves directly in silver for the comforts he enjoyed during his visit. Slavery, said Woolman, was motivated by the “the love of ease and gain,” and no luxuries could exist without others having to suffer to create them.

The birth of utopian living

Nineteenth-century America witnessed a flowering of utopian experiments in simple living. Many had socialist roots, such as the short-lived community at New Harmony in Indiana, established in 1825 by Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer and founder of the British cooperative movement.

In the 1840s, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau took a more individualist approach to simple living, famously spending two years in his self-built cabin at Walden Pond, where he attempted to grow most of his own food and live in isolated self-sufficiency (though by his own admission, he regularly walked a mile to nearby Concord to hear the local gossip, grab some snacks, and read the papers). It was Thoreau who gave us the iconic statement of simple living: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” For him, richness came from having the free time to commune with nature, read, and write.

Simple living was also in full swing across the Atlantic. In nineteenth-century Paris, bohemian painters and writers like Henri Murger—author of the autobiographical novel that was the basis for Puccini’s opera La Bohème—valued artistic freedom over a sensible and steady job, living off cheap coffee and conversation while their stomachs growled with hunger.

Redefining luxury for the twenty-first century

What all the simple livers of the past had in common was a desire to subordinate their material desires to some other ideal—whether based on ethics, religion, politics or art. They believed that embracing a life goal other than money could lead to a more meaningful and fulfilling existence.

Woolman, for instance, “simplified his life in order to enjoy the luxury of doing good,” according to one of his biographers. For Woolman, luxury was not sleeping on a soft mattress but having the time and energy to work for social change, through efforts such as the struggle against slavery.

Simple living is not about abandoning luxury, but discovering it in new places. These masters of simplicity are not just telling us to be more frugal, but suggesting that we expand the spaces in our lives where satisfaction does not depend on money. Imagine drawing a picture of all those things that make your life fulfilling, purposeful, and pleasurable. It might include friendships, family relationships, being in love, the best parts of your job, visiting museums, political activism, crafting, playing sports, volunteering, and people watching.

There is a good chance that most of these cost very little or nothing. We don’t need to do much damage to our bank balance to enjoy intimate friendships, uncontrollable laughter, dedication to causes or quiet time with ourselves.

As the humorist Art Buchwald put it, “The best things in life aren’t things.” The overriding lesson from Thoreau, Woolman, and other simple livers of the past is that we should aim, year on year, to enlarge these areas of free and simple living on the map of our lives. That is how we will find the luxuries that constitute our hidden wealth.

Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Roman is an Australian cultural thinker and cofounder of The School of Life in London. This article is based on his new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (BlueBridge). www.romankrznaric.com @romankrznaric

 

 

Violence Against Our Environment

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2013 at 7:05 pm

https://i1.wp.com/cooper.edu/sites/default/files/2302-081_r.jpg

Oldspeak: “An increasing number of environmental activists, myself included, regard the word “environment” with some suspicion, generally preferring the term “ecological.” The reasoning behind the change in emphasis is because using the word “environment” posits the idea that nature is something that surrounds humans, but at the same time, something that we are fundamentally outside of, and separate from. The separation of nature from humans is the ideological position underlying capitalist orthodoxy; namely that the biosphere is a subset of the economy, rather than the other way around. Capitalists can freely take “natural resources” from outside of the economy as inputs, and dump waste from the production process back into the environment as outputs. Mainstream economic theory then pronounces that the ramifications of such an outlook will have only limited impact on the planet as a whole, and, thereby, economic accumulation and growth can continue indefinitely.

“Ecological,” on the other hand, embeds humans back within the external world as a natural component of it, the same as any other organism. The use of tools such as microscopes, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices, can then be seen not simply as humans investigating nature in order to understand it, but that we are concurrently investigating ourselves, because tools are merely mechanical extensions of our bodily senses. No doubt, Marx would very much approve of such an attention to the hidden social meaning of words, particularly with regard, in this example, to his very important concept of “metabolic rift”: the devastating and unnatural split or break between humans and nature, forced on us by capitalist social relations…

….Capitalist environmental violence rests on the dual exploitation of humans and nature, which were regarded by Marx as the twin sources of all wealth. Exploitation of the natural world, driven forward by the never-ending hunt for profits, is merely the flip side of the exploitation of humans, put to work to turn the source of sustenance into money. Viewed this way, socialists fighting for social justice and a different world cannot avoid integrating a fight for ecological justice, as the two are inseparable components of the same fight.” -Chris Williams

“Brilliant insight. in much the same way as we otherize & dehumanize each other in order to perpetrate violence, we consider ourselves separate from ecology we’re fundamentally a part of to rationalize violence against it. The faux distinction allows for the length, breadth and depravity of capitalist ecological violence. Blown up mountains. Poisoned waterways. Habitat Destruction. The list of offenses is very long. The economic system around which we organize our societies is at its foundation, ecocidal, homicidal, exploitative, repressive, racist, patriarchal, and interminably bureaucratic. it is animated by violence destruction & death. As long as we regard the biosphere a subset of the economy, the prospect of a livable future environment and planet is nil.  There is no economy on dead planet.” -OSJ

By Chris Williams @ Dissident Voice:

Both the words “environment” and “violence” have so many meanings, that they require some definition of how they can be of use in the context of a struggle for social justice. Regarding the word violence, according to Merriam Webster, one definition is “the use of brute strength to cause harm to a person or property”; a definition that doesn’t seem to have an immediately obvious connection to ecological issues associated with climate change, loss of biodiversity and various forms of pollution.

An increasing number of environmental activists, myself included, regard the word “environment” with some suspicion, generally preferring the term “ecological.” The reasoning behind the change in emphasis is because using the word “environment” posits the idea that nature is something that surrounds humans, but at the same time, something that we are fundamentally outside of, and separate from. The separation of nature from humans is the ideological position underlying capitalist orthodoxy; namely that the biosphere is a subset of the economy, rather than the other way around. Capitalists can freely take “natural resources” from outside of the economy as inputs, and dump waste from the production process back into the environment as outputs. Mainstream economic theory then pronounces that the ramifications of such an outlook will have only limited impact on the planet as a whole, and, thereby, economic accumulation and growth can continue indefinitely.

“Ecological,” on the other hand, embeds humans back within the external world as a natural component of it, the same as any other organism. The use of tools such as microscopes, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices, can then be seen not simply as humans investigating nature in order to understand it, but that we are concurrently investigating ourselves, because tools are merely mechanical extensions of our bodily senses. No doubt, Marx would very much approve of such an attention to the hidden social meaning of words, particularly with regard, in this example, to his very important concept of “metabolic rift”: the devastating and unnatural split or break between humans and nature, forced on us by capitalist social relations.

Given these issues, and the importance of words to explain and communicate thought, how should those of us engaged in a struggle against capitalist environmental violence, conceive of that fight?  If we are to argue that the social, economic and political system known as capitalism is the root cause of environmental violence, what are we arguing it is responsible for?

Interestingly enough, but, perhaps unsurprisingly given the prevalence of overt violence in our world, the dictionary gives almost 50 related words for “violence”. These begin with words such as “coercion”, “compulsion”, “constraint”, go on to “barbarity”, “brutality”, “damage” and continue with “onslaught”, “tumult” and “upheaval.”

Putting these words into a human context and joining them up with the word “environment” now starts to make significant sense. It is no longer possible to restrict violence to an act that is immediate and causes direct and obvious harm, whether that is in the most commonly thought of cases of warfare, police brutality, or state-sponsored torture such as waterboarding, or racist, sexist or homophobic language and bigotry.

Capitalist environmental violence rests on the dual exploitation of humans and nature, which were regarded by Marx as the twin sources of all wealth. Exploitation of the natural world, driven forward by the never-ending hunt for profits, is merely the flip side of the exploitation of humans, put to work to turn the source of sustenance into money. Viewed this way, socialists fighting for social justice and a different world cannot avoid integrating a fight for ecological justice, as the two are inseparable components of the same fight.

In this broadened understanding of violence, capitalism is an intensely violent system, as it depends on the systematic coercion of workers who are daily faced with the choice of working for “a living” or starvation and homelessness; their life choices for education, health and human fulfillment are hugely constrained by the unyielding ferocity of class exploitation and racism. Billions of people’s lives are stunted and foreshortened by the daily violence meted out to them via the dictates of a system that prioritizes profit above all else. In Volume I of Capital, Marx’s words resonate as much in our day as his:

In its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is supplied to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential.

But for Marx, the violent treatment of humans by capitalist social relations, in shortening and hamstringing their lives through overwork, poor housing, inadequate food and pollution, was directly analogous to capitalist farming practices:

Capital cares nothing for the length of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the [worker’s] life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

One can only have nutritious food, health care, or decent housing located in an unpolluted neighborhood, if one has the money to pay for those things. Lack of access to these necessities by some, where others have access, makes the violence explicit. Furthermore, there is the violence of institutionalized racism, and a culture saturated with sexism that turns women’s bodies into objects, doubly exploits them through unpaid domestic labor, and in the United States, refuses to allow women control over their own reproductive organs.

There is the associated psychological violence done to humans against our own sociality, whereby we are forced to live, in Marx’s emotive phrase, in “dot-like isolation,” as the primacy of the individual over the collective is sanctified. Few have written of the social alienation and environmental degradation suffered by working people with greater effect than Frederick Engels, in his classic study, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Engels highlights the contradiction engendered by capitalism, between bringing millions of people together in giant urban conglomerations, which, rather than fostering collective solidarity and companionship, instead produce its opposite — an unfeeling and solitary individuality that corrupts the human spirit:

After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others.

For  Engels, this produces feelings and a mode of living that is profoundly alienating of all that is good about humans:

The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

Of course, there is the more overt and immediate violence of the state against people trying to protect their land from environmental degradation and ensuing displacement and poverty associated with fossil fuel extraction. From the Ogoni people in Nigeria fighting Shell, to indigenous people poisoned by Chevron in the forests of Ecuador, the paramilitary arm of the state serves corporate priorities the world over.

In North America, this was brutally demonstrated in September, as members of the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq First Nation, alongside local residents, blockaded a road in New Brunswick, Canada. They were trying to prevent fracking exploration and were assaulted and tear gassed for their protest by paramilitary police.

The group, which had never been asked about whether they wanted their land used in this way, had blocked the road to stop shale gas exploration by SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of the Houston-based Southwestern Energy Co. As Susan Levi-Peters, the former chief of the nearby Elsipogtog indigenous group, told reporters, “The RCMP is coming in here with their tear gas – they even had dogs on us… They were acting like we’re standing there with weapons, while we are standing there, as women, with drums and eagle feathers.

There are myriad ways in which environmental violence plays out, especially when it is compounded by climate change. So, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack of tree-cover from ongoing deforestation, means even when rain comes, it runs off the land and carries fertile topsoil with it. As a result, women and girls, who are responsible for over 70 percent of water collection, have to travel further and further to obtain it. The UN estimates that women in Sub-Saharan Africa spend 200 million hours per day collecting water for food and farming purposes, or 40 billion hours annually.

In 1992, Lawrence Summers, who was at the time chief economist of the World Bank, later to become Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, president of Harvard, and most recently one of Obama’s key economic advisors in his first cabinet, wrote in an internal World Bank memorandum published by The Economist:

“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs?” By way of answering his own question, he gives three reasons. Here’s the first:

(1) The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

The fact that a major establishment actor is able to advocate and rationalize the dumping of toxic waste on poor communities is a perfect illustration of the inhumanity of the thought process behind capitalist decision-making.

As I have argued, we need a much broader definition of violence than is allowed for by limiting its meaning to a physical and immediate brutal act of aggression, and one that includes an environmental dimension. Violence can happen over extended periods of time. Exploited workers in unhealthy conditions and poor communities exposed to toxins gradually succumb to a worsening quality of life, through a compendium of often intersecting long-term ailments. Due to financial restrictions on health care (itself a violent act), they often can’t treat these illnesses by going to the doctor, seeking another job, or relocating to a different neighborhood.

A broadened definition of violence is exactly what Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Madison, argues is required in his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor:

By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting in sensational visibility.

That is to say, the unplanned, shorter and shorter time frames upon which capitalism operates, clash with the longer and longer term effects of the actions taken on those shorter time scales. Human induced climate change is arguably the primary and perfect example of just such a contradiction between the short-term priorities of capitalism to make profit from continuing to burn fossil fuels, and the longer term implications for future generations of humans, and planetary life in general, due to the now well-known side-effect of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One could reasonably debate whether climate change, or the irradiation of the atmosphere from atomic tests and the need to deal with nuclear waste from nuclear power plants — waste that remains toxic and deadly for hundreds of thousands of years — is a more disruptive and long-term negative impact of capitalist social relations.

In the more immediate sense, while we currently produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, over one billion people suffer starvation and hunger. In discussing why people starve in England, when food was in fact abundant, Engels posed the question of who should be blamed for the extreme violence of death by starvation: “The English working-men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong?”

In answering Engels’ question, one must blame the system for the long-term “social murder” of our planet, and the daily degradation and violence of life under capitalism. Given the critical state of the biosphere and an exploitative and constantly-growing economic model based on profit and fossil fuels for energy, which is bringing about global climate change, Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion, that we face the choice of barbarism or socialism, rings true now more than ever.

If we accept that premise, to return to where I began, one cannot be a social justice activist without equally being an ecological justice activist; and link arms with all those fighting racist environmental violence the world over.

Ultimately, all of this can only be solved by the self-emancipation of humanity and putting in place a system that prioritizes long-term human and planetary health; real, bottom-up democracy based on cooperation; and production for human needs at its center. We need a system of cooperative and meaningful production, whereby the goal of society is social equity and ecological sustainability, and where environmental violence, in all its manifestations, is a thing of the past. To bring this about will require a social and ecological revolution. While we organize and fight for that future, we must simultaneously work to bring about the small victories, necessary to make people’s immediate lives better and less polluted under capitalism, organize, and gain confidence for the larger, longer-term, and more profound and revolutionary battles to come.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011). He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science. Read other articles by Chris.

 

Water Scarcity: A Widening Global Emergency & The Coming Water Wars

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Oldspeak: “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.” –Ismail Serageldin.A comprehensive report from the global conservation organization WWF, released August 16, details how the looming water crisis is now affecting rich countries as well as poor. Global warming, diminishing wetlands, and inadequate resource management are the main causes of expanding water shortages worldwide, according to the group.” As water scarcity grows worldwide, mighty rivers to tiny streams dry up. We continue unabated to expand our obviously unsustainable use of water intensive and contaminating production of our food and energy. While 40% of the world population lives with little or no access to clean water (expected to jump to 50% in 12 years).  Investors are positioning themselves to profit from water shortages and the water purification technology that will be come essential. This is seen as normal and sound business in a civilization animated by greed and exploitation. Cannibal capitalism is that particularly vicious and vampiristic form of capitalism that encourages greed, austerity, prefers gambling to investing and advances the economic interest of the top 00.1% at the expense of all others.  At what point will we shift our priorities from manufactured crises like “The Sequester”, “The Debt Ceiling”, “Entitlement Spending” and “Crises of Confidence” to actual existential crises, threatening our water, soil, air and environment?

By Doug Hornig & Alex Daley @ Casey Research:

Water is not scarce. It is made up of the first and third most common elements in the universe, and the two readily react to form a highly stable compound that maintains its integrity even at temperature extremes.

Hydrologist Dr. Vincent Kotwicki, in his paper Water in the Universe, writes:

“Water appears to be one of the most abundant molecules in the Universe. It dominates the environment of the Earth and is a main constituent of numerous planets, moons and comets. On a far greater scale, it possibly contributes to the so-called ‘missing mass’ [i.e., dark matter] of the Universe and may initiate the birth of stars inside the giant molecular clouds.”

Oxygen has been found in the newly discovered “cooling flows” – heavy rains of gas that appear to be falling into galaxies from the space once thought empty surrounding them, giving rise to yet more water.

How much is out there? No one can even take a guess, since no one knows the composition of the dark matter that makes up as much as 90% of the mass of the universe. If comets, which are mostly ice, are a large constituent of dark matter, then, as Dr. Kotwicki writes, “the remote uncharted (albeit mostly frozen) oceans are truly unimaginably big.”

Back home, Earth is often referred to as the “water planet,” and it certainly looks that way from space. H2O covers about 70% of the surface of the globe. It makes all life as we know it possible.

The Blue Planet?

However it got here – theories abound from outgassing of volcanic eruptions to deposits by passing comets and ancient crossed orbits – water is what gives our planet its lovely, unique blue tint, and there appears to be quite a lot of it.

That old axiom that the earth is 75% water… not quite. In reality, water constitutes only 0.07% of the earth by mass, or 0.4% by volume.

This is how much we have, depicted graphically:

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.

What this shows is the relative size of our water supply if it were all gathered together into a ball and superimposed on the globe.

The large blob, centered over the western US, is all water (oceans, icecaps, glaciers, lakes, rivers, groundwater, and water in the atmosphere). It’s a sphere about 860 miles in diameter, or roughly the distance from Salt Lake City to Topeka. The smaller sphere, over Kentucky, is the fresh water in the ground and in lakes, rivers, and swamps.

Now examine the image closely. See that last, tiny dot over Georgia? It’s the fresh water in lakes and rivers.

Looked at another way, that ball of all the water in the world represents a total volume of about 332.5 million cubic miles. But of this, 321 million mi3, or 96.5%, is saline – great for fish, but undrinkable without the help of nature or some serious hardware. That still leaves a good bit of fresh water, some 11.6 million mi3, to play with. Unfortunately, the bulk of that is locked up in icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow, or is too far underground to be accessible with today’s technology. (The numbers come from the USGS; obviously, they are estimates and they change a bit every year, but they are accurate enough for our purposes.)

Accessible groundwater amounts to 5.614 million mi3, with 55% of that saline, leaving a little over 2.5 million mi3 of fresh groundwater. That translates to about 2.7 exa-gallons of fresh water, or about 2.7 billion billion gallons (yes billions of billions, or 1018 in scientific notation), which is about a third of a billion gallons of water per person. Enough to take a long shower every day for many lifetimes…

However, not all of that groundwater is easily or cheaply accessible. The truth is that the surface is the source for the vast majority – nearly 80% – of our water. Of surface waters, lakes hold 42,320 mi3, only a bit over half of which is fresh, and the world’s rivers hold only 509 mi3 of fresh water, less than 2/10,000 of 1% of the planetary total.

And that’s where the problem lies. In 2005 in the US alone, we humans used about 328 billion gallons of surface water per day, compared to about 83 billion gallons per day of water from the ground. Most of that surface water, by far, comes from rivers. Among these, one of the most important is the mighty Colorado.

Horseshoe Bend, in Page, AZ. (AP Photo)

Tapping Ol’ Man River

Or perhaps we should say “the river formerly known as the mighty Colorado.” That old Colorado – the one celebrated in centuries of American Western song and folklore; the one that exposed two billion years of geologic history in the awesome Grand Canyon – is gone. In its place is… well, Las Vegas – the world’s gaudiest monument to hubristic human overreach, and a big neon sign advertising the predicament now faced by much of the world.

It’s well to remember that most of the US west of the Mississippi ranges from relatively dry to very arid, to desert, to lifeless near-moonscapes. The number of people that could be supported by the land, especially in the Southwest, was always small and concentrated along the riverbanks. Tribal clusters died out with some regularity. And that’s the way it would have remained, except for a bit of ingenuity that suddenly loosed two powerful forces on the area: electrical power, and an abundance of water that seemed as limitless as the sky.

In September of 1935, President Roosevelt dedicated the pinnacle of engineering technology up to that point: Hoover Dam. The dam did two things. It served as a massive hydroelectric generating plant, and it backed up the Colorado River behind it, creating Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country.

Early visitors dubbed Hoover Dam the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and it’s easy to see why. It was built on a scale unlike anything before it. It’s 725 feet high and contains 6 million tons of concrete, which would pave a road from New York to Los Angeles. Its 19 generators produce 2,080 MW of electricity, enough to power 1.75 million average homes.

The artificially created Lake Mead is 112 miles long, with a maximum depth of 590 feet. It has a surface area of 250 square miles and an active capacity of 16 million acre-feet.

Hoover Dam was intended to generate sufficient power and impound an ample amount of water, to meet any conceivable need. But as things turned out, grand as the dam is, it wasn’t conceived grandly enough… because it is 35 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Vegas had a permanent population in 1935 of 8,400, a number that swelled to 25,000 during the dam construction as workers raced in to take jobs that were scarce in the early Depression years. Those workers, primarily single men, needed something to do with their spare time, so the Nevada state legislature legalized gambling in 1931. Modern Vegas was born.

The rise of Vegas is well chronicled, from a middle-of-nowhere town to the largest city founded in the 20th century and the fastest-growing in the nation – up until the 2008 housing bust. Somehow, those 8,400 souls turned into a present population of over 2 million that exists all but entirely to service the 40 million tourists who visit annually. And all this is happening in a desert that sees an average of 10 days of measurable rainfall per year, totaling about 4 inches.

In order to run all those lights, fountains, and revolving stages, Las Vegas requires 5,600 MW of electricity on a summer day. Did you notice that that’s more than 2.5 times what the giant Hoover Dam can put out? Not to mention that those 42 million people need a lot of water to drink to stay properly hydrated in the 100+ degree heat. And it all comes from Lake Mead.

So what do you think is happening to the lake?

If your guess was, “it’s shrinking,” you’re right. The combination of recent drought years in the West and rapidly escalating demand has been a dire double-whammy, reducing the lake to 40% full. Normally, the elevation of Lake Mead is 1,219 feet. Today, it’s at 1,086 feet and dropping by ten feet a year (and accelerating). That’s how much more water is being taken out than is being replenished.

This is science at its simplest. If your extraction of a renewable resource exceeds its ability to recharge itself, it will disappear – end of story. In the case of Lake Mead, that means going dry, an eventuality to which hydrologists assign a 50% probability in the next twelve years. That’s by 2025.

Nevadans are not unaware of this. There is at the moment a frantic push to get approval for a massive pipeline project designed to bring in water from the more favored northern part of the state. Yet even if the pipeline were completed in time, and there is stiff opposition to it (and you thought only oil pipelines gave way to politics and protests), that would only resolve one issue. There’s another. A big one.

Way before people run out of drinking water, something else happens: When Lake Mead falls below 1,050 feet, the Hoover Dam’s turbines shut down – less than four years from now, if the current trend holds – and in Vegas the lights start going out.

What Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

Ominously, these water woes are not confined to Las Vegas. Under contracts signed by President Obama in December 2011, Nevada gets only 23.37% of the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. The other top recipients: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (28.53%); state of Arizona (18.95%); city of Los Angeles (15.42%); and Southern California Edison (5.54%).

You can always build more power plants, but you can’t build more rivers, and the mighty Colorado carries the lifeblood of the Southwest. It services the water needs of an area the size of France, in which live 40 million people. In its natural state, the river poured 15.7 million acre-feet of water into the Gulf of California each year. Today, twelve years of drought have reduced the flow to about 12 million acre-feet, and human demand siphons off every bit of it; at its mouth, the riverbed is nothing but dust.

Nor is the decline in the water supply important only to the citizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. It’s critical to the whole country. The Colorado is the sole source of water for southeastern California’s Imperial Valley, which has been made into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the US despite receiving an average of three inches of rain per year.

The Valley is fed by an intricate system consisting of 1,400 miles of canals and 1,100 miles of pipeline. They are the only reason a bone-dry desert can look like this:

Intense conflicts over water will probably not be confined to the developing world. So far, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado have been able to make and keep agreements defining who gets how much of the Colorado River’s water. But if populations continue to grow while the snowcap recedes, it’s likely that the first shots will be fired before long, in US courtrooms. If legal remedies fail… a war between Phoenix and LA might seem far-fetched, but at the minimum some serious upheaval will eventually ensue unless an alternative is found quickly.

A Litany of Crises

Water scarcity is, of course, not just a domestic issue. It is far more critical in other parts of the world than in the US. It will decide the fate of people and of nations.

Worldwide, we are using potable water way faster than it can be replaced. Just a few examples:

  • The legendary Jordan River is flowing at only 2% of its historic rate.
  • In Africa, desertification is proceeding at an alarming rate. Much of the northern part of the continent is already desert, of course. But beyond that, a US Department of Agriculture study places about 2.5 million km2 of African land at low risk of desertification, 3.6 million km2 at moderate risk, 4.6 million km2 at high risk, and 2.9 million km2 at very high risk. “The region that has the highest propensity,” the report says, “is located along the desert margins and occupies about 5% of the land mass. It is estimated that about 22 million people (2.9% of the total population) live in this area.”
  • A 2009 study published in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate analyzed 925 major rivers from 1948 to 2004 and found an overall decline in total discharge. The reduction in inflow to the Pacific Ocean alone was about equal to shutting off the Mississippi River. The list of rivers that serve large human populations and experienced a significant decline in flow includes the Amazon, Congo, Chang Jiang (Yangtze), Mekong, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Amur, Mackenzie, Xijiang, Columbia, and Niger.

Supply is not the only issue. There’s also potability. Right now, 40% of the global population has little to no access to clean water, and despite somewhat tepid modernization efforts, that figure is actually expected to jump to 50% by 2025. When there’s no clean water, people will drink dirty water – water contaminated with human and animal waste. And that breeds illness. It’s estimated that fully half of the world’s hospital beds today are occupied by people with water-borne diseases.

Food production is also a major contributor to water pollution. To take two examples:

  • The “green revolution” has proven to have an almost magical ability to provide food for an ever-increasing global population, but at a cost. Industrial cultivation is extremely water intensive, with 80% of most US states’ water usage going to agriculture – and in some, it’s as high as 90%. In addition, factory farming uses copious amounts of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, creating serious problems for the water supply because of toxic runoff.
  • Modern livestock facilities – known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – create enormous quantities of animal waste that is pumped into holding ponds. From there, some of it inevitably seeps into the groundwater, and the rest eventually has to be dumped somewhere. Safe disposal practices are often not followed, and regulatory oversight is lax. As a result, adjacent communities’ drinking water can come to contain dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria and other harmful organisms.

Not long ago, scientists discovered a whole new category of pollutants that no one had previously thought to test for: drugs. We are a nation of pill poppers and needle freaks, and the drugs we introduce into our bodies are only partially absorbed. The remainder is excreted and finds its way into the water supply. Samples recently taken from Lake Mead revealed detectable levels of birth control medication, steroids, and narcotics… which people and wildlife are drinking.

Most lethal of all are industrial pollutants that continue to find their way into the water supply. The carcinogenic effects of these compounds have been well documented, as the movie-famed Erin Brockovich did with hexavalent chromium.

But the problem didn’t go away with Brockovich’s court victory. The sad fact is that little has changed for the better. In the US, our feeble attempt to deal with these threats was the passage in 1980 of the so-called Superfund Act. That law gave the federal government – and specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the authority to respond to chemical emergencies and to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites on both private and public lands. And it supposedly provided money to do so.

How’s that worked out? According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “After decades of spearheading restoration efforts in areas such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, improvements in these water bodies remain elusive … EPA continues to face the challenges posed by an aging wastewater infrastructure that results in billions of gallons of untreated sewage entering our nation’s water bodies … Lack of rapid water-testing methods and development of current water quality standards continue to be issues that EPA needs to address.”

Translation: the EPA hasn’t produced. How much of this is due to the typical drag of a government bureaucracy and how much to lack of funding is debatable. Whether there might be a better way to attack the problem is debatable. But what is not debatable is the magnitude of the problem stacking up, mostly unaddressed.

Just consider that the EPA has a backlog of 1,305 highly toxic Superfund cleanup sites on its to-do list, in every state in the union (except apparently North Dakota, in case you want to try to escape – though the proliferation of hydraulic fracking in that area may quickly change the map, according to some of its detractors – it’s a hotly debated assertion).

About 11 million people in the US, including 3-4 million children, live within one mile of a federal Superfund site. The health of all of them is at immediate risk, as is that of those living directly downstream.

We could go on about this for page after page. The situation is depressing, no question. And even more so is the fact that there’s little we can do about it. There is no technological quick fix.

Peak oil we can handle. We find new sources, we develop alternatives, and/or prices rise. It’s all but certain that by the time we actually run out of oil, we’ll already have shifted to something else.

But “peak water” is a different story. There are no new sources; what we have is what we have. Absent a profound climate change that turns the evaporation/rainfall hydrologic cycle much more to our advantage, there likely isn’t going to be enough to around.

As the biosphere continually adds more billions of humans (the UN projects there will be another 3.5 billion people on the planet, a greater than 50% increase, by 2050 before a natural plateau really starts to dampen growth), the demand for clean water has the potential to far outstrip dwindling supplies. If that comes to pass, the result will be catastrophic. People around the world are already suffering and dying en masse from lack of access to something drinkable… and the problems look poised to get worse long before they get better.

Searching for a Way Out

With a problem of this magnitude, there is no such thing as a comprehensive solution. Instead, it will have to be addressed by chipping away at the problem in a number of ways, which the world is starting to do.

With much water not located near population centers, transportation will have to be a major part of the solution. With oil, a complex system of pipelines, tankers, and trucking fleets has been erected, because it’s been profitable to do so. The commodity has a high intrinsic value. Water doesn’t – or at least hasn’t in most of the modern era’s developed economies – and thus delivery has been left almost entirely to gravity. Further, the construction of pipelines for water that doesn’t flow naturally means taking a vital resource from someone and giving it to someone else, a highly charged political and social issue that’s been known to lead to protest and even violence. But until we’ve piped all the snow down from Alaska to California, transportation will be high on the list of potential near term solutions, especially to individual supply crunches, just as it has been with energy.

Conservation measures may help too, at least in the developed world, though the typical lawn-watering restrictions will hardly make a dent. Real conservation will have to come from curtailing industrial uses like farming and fracking.

But these bandage solutions can only forestall the inevitable without other advances to address the problems. Thankfully, where there is a challenge, there are always technology innovators to help address it. It was wells and aqueducts that let civilization move from the riverbank inland, irrigation that made communal farming scale, and sewers and pipes that turned villages into cities, after all. And just as with the dawn of industrial water, entrepreneurs are developing some promising tech developments, too.

Given how much water we use today, there’s little doubt that conservation’s sibling, recycling, is going to be big. Microfiltration systems are very sophisticated and can produce recycled water that is near-distilled in quality. Large-scale production remains a challenge, as is the reluctance of people to drink something that was reclaimed from human waste or industrial runoff. But that might just require the right spokesperson. California believes so, in any case, as it forges ahead with its Porcelain Springs initiative. A company called APTwater has taken on the important task of purifying contaminated leachate water from landfills that would otherwise pollute the groundwater. This is simply using technology to accelerate the natural process of replenishment by using energy, but if it can be done at scale, we will eventually reach the point where trading oil or coal for clean drinking water makes economic sense. It’s already starting to in many places.

Inventor Dean Kamen of Segway fame has created the Slingshot, a water-purification machine that could be a lifesaver for small villages in more remote areas. The size of a dorm-room refrigerator, it can produce 250 gallons of water a day, using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer, provided by an engine that can burn just about anything (it’s been run on cow dung). The Slingshot is designed to be maintenance-free for at least five years.

Kamen says you can “stick the intake hose into anything wet – arsenic-laden water, salt water, the latrine, the holding tanks of a chemical waste treatment plant; really, anything wet – and the outflow is one hundred percent pure pharmaceutical-grade injectable water.”

That naturally presupposes there is something wet to tap into. But Coca-Cola, for one, is a believer. This September, Coke entered into a partnership with Kamen’s company, Deka Research, to distribute Slingshots in Africa and Latin America.

Ceramic filters are another, low-tech option for rural areas. Though clean water output is very modest, they’re better than nothing. The ability to decontaminate stormwater runoff would be a boon for cities, and AbTech Industries is producing a product to do just that.

In really arid areas, the only water present may be what’s held in the air. Is it possible to tap that source? “Yes,” say a couple of cutting-edge tech startups. Eole Water proposes to extract atmospheric moisture using a wind turbine. Another company, NBD Nano, has come up with a self-filling water bottle that mimics the Namib Desert beetle. Whether the technology is scalable to any significant degree remains to be seen.

And finally, what about seawater? There’s an abundance of that. If you ask a random sampling of folks in the street what we’re going to do about water shortages on a larger scale, most of them will answer, “desalination.” No problem. Well, yes problem.

Desalination (sometimes shortened to “desal”) plants are already widespread, and their output is ramping up rapidly. According to the International Desalination Association, in 2009 there were 14,451 desalination plants operating worldwide, producing about 60 million cubic meters of water per day. That figure rose to 68 million m3/day in 2010 and is expected to double to 120 million m3/day by 2020. That sounds impressive, but the stark reality is that it amounts to only around a quarter of one percent of global water consumption.

Boiling seawater and collecting the condensate has been practiced by sailors for nearly two millennia. The same basic principle is employed today, although it has been refined into a procedure called “multistage flash distillation,” in which the boiling is done at less than atmospheric pressure, thereby saving energy. This process accounts for 85% of all desalination worldwide. The remainder comes from “reverse osmosis,” which uses semipermeable membranes and pressure to separate salts from water.

The primary drawbacks to desal are that a plant obviously has to be located near the sea, and that it is an expensive, highly energy-intensive process. That’s why you find so many desal facilities where energy is cheap, in the oil-rich, water-poor nations of the Middle East. Making it work in California will be much more difficult without drastically raising the price of water. And Nevada? Out of luck. Improvements in the technology are bringing costs of production down, but the need for energy, and lots of it, isn’t going away. By way of illustration, suppose the US would like to satisfy half of its water needs through desalination. All other factors aside, meeting that goal would require the construction of more than 100 new electric power plants, each dedicated solely to that purpose, and each with a gigawatt of capacity.

Moving desalinated water from the ocean inland adds to the expense. The farther you have to transport it and the greater the elevation change, the less feasible it becomes. That makes desalination impractical for much of the world. Nevertheless, the biggest population centers tend to be clustered along coastlines, and demand is likely to drive water prices higher over time, making desal more cost-competitive. So it’s a cinch that the procedure will play a steadily increasing role in supplying the world’s coastal cities with water.

In other related developments, a small tech startup called NanOasis is working on a desalination process that employs carbon nanotubes. An innovative new project in Australia is demonstrating that food can be grown in the most arid of areas, with low energy input, using solar-desalinated seawater. It holds the promise of being very scalable at moderate cost.

The Future

This article barely scratches the surface of a very broad topic that has profound implications for the whole of humanity going forward. The World Bank’s Ismail Serageldin puts it succinctly: “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.”

There’s no doubt that this is a looming crisis we cannot avoid. Everyone has an interest in water. How quickly we respond to the challenges ahead is going to be a matter, literally, of life and death. Where we have choices at all, we had better make some good ones.

From an investment perspective, there are few ways at present to acquire shares in the companies that are doing research and development in the field. But you can expect that to change as technologies from some of these startups begin to hit the market, and as the economics of water begin to shift in response to the changing global landscape.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for the investment opportunities that are sure to be on the way.

While profit opportunities in companies working to solve the world’s water woes may not be imminent, there are plenty of ways to leverage technology to outsized gains right now. One of the best involves a technology so revolutionary, its impact could rival that of the printing press.