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Pumped Dry: Global Water Crisis Widespread And Worsening With Continued Depletion Of Groundwater

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2015 at 8:11 pm
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Kansas Farmer Jay Garetson said: “Thinking about Jared and the challenges that his generation faces, that’s what leaves you gasping for air. It kind of leaves you at a loss for what to do next,” he said, wiping a tear.

 

Oldspeak: “Expect this existential crisis to intensify as temperatures rise and conditions worsen. Sustainability tipping points have been passed for 21 of 37 of Earth’s largest aquifers.  I would imagine these figures are not taking into account the incalculable and permanent damage being done to our water supplies by our extractive energy and mineral mining practices. This story focuses on the U.S. but this story is being told worldwide, be sure to click on the link to the original story &  check out the stories documenting the carnage in India, Peru and Morocco at the bottom of the article. Hmm, Less water for what’s expected to be 9 billion humans, what’s the worst that could happen!?” -OSJ

 

Written By Ian James and Steve Reilly @ The Desert Sun:

SUBLETTE, Kansas – Just before 3 a.m., Jay Garetson’s phone buzzed on the bedside table. He picked it up and read the text: “Low Pressure Alert.”

He felt a jolt of stress and his chest tightened. He dreaded what that automated message probably meant: With the water table dropping, another well on his family’s farm was starting to suck air.

The Garetson family has been farming in the plains of southwestern Kansas for four generations, since 1902. Now they face a hard reality. The groundwater they depend on is disappearing. Their fields could wither. Their farm might not survive for the next generation.

At dawn, Jay was out among the cornfields at the well, trying to diagnose the problem. The pump was humming as it lifted water from nearly 600 feet underground. He turned a valve and let the cool water run into his cupped hands. Just as he had feared, he saw fine bubbles in the water.

“It’s showing signs of weakening,” he said sadly, standing in the shoulder-high corn.

“This’ll last another five or 10 years, but not even at the production rate that we’re at here today,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much time is left.”

Time is running out for portions of the High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas and is the lifeblood of one of the world’s most productive farming economies. The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, makes possible about one-fifth of the country’s output of corn, wheat and cattle. But its levels have been rapidly declining, and with each passing year more wells are going dry.

As less water pours from wells, some farmers are adapting by switching to different crops. Others are shutting down their drained wells and trying to scratch out a living as dryland farmers, relying only on the rains.

In parts of western Kansas, the groundwater has already been exhausted and very little can be extracted for irrigation. In other areas, the remaining water could be mostly used up within a decade.

The severe depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is symptomatic of a larger crisis in the United States and many parts of the world. Much more water is being pumped from the ground than can be naturally replenished, and groundwater levels are plummeting. It’s happening not only in the High Plains and drought-ravaged California but also in places from the Gulf Coastal Plain to the farmland of the Mississippi River Valley, and from the dry Southwest to the green Southeast.

In a nationwide examination of the problem, USA TODAY and The Desert Sun analyzed two decades of measurements from more than 32,000 wells and found water levels falling in nearly two-thirds of those wells, with heavy pumping causing major declines in many areas. The analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data revealed that:

  • Nationwide, water levels have declined in 64 percent of the wells included in the government database during the past two decades.
  • The average decline among decreasing wells has been more than 10 feet, and in some areas the water table has dropped more than 100 feet during that period – more than 5 feet per year.
  • For 13 counties in Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Kansas and Iowa, average water levels have decreased more than 40 feet since 1995.
  • Nationally, the average declines have been larger from 2011-2014 as drought has intensified in the West. But water tables have been falling consistently over the years through both wet and dry periods, and also in relatively wet states such as Florida and Maryland.
  • Across the High Plains, one of the country’s largest depletion zones, the average water levels in more than 4,000 wells are 13.2 feet lower today than they were in 1995. In the southern High Plains, water levels have plunged significantly more – in places over 100 feet in just 20 years.

Average water level decrease in US counties

In many counties across the United States, groundwater levels have been dropping.

The problem is especially severe in the region that relies on the Ogallala Aquifer.

Aquifers are being drawn down in many areas by pumping for agriculture, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s use of fresh groundwater. Water is also being drained for cities, expanding development and industries. Across much of the country, overpumping has become a widespread habit. And while the symptoms have long remained largely invisible to most people, the problem is analogous to gradually squandering the balance of a collective bank account. As the balance drops, there’s less of that resource to draw on when it’s needed.

At the same time, falling groundwater levels are bringing increasing costs for well owners, water utilities and society as a whole. As water levels drop, more energy is required to lift water from wells, and those pumping bills are rising. In areas where aquifers are being severely depleted, new wells are being drilled hundreds of feet into the earth at enormous cost. That trend of going deeper and deeper can only go on so long. When groundwater levels fall to precarious lows and wells are exhausted, farming businesses can suffer. And in particularly hard-hit communities, such as parts of California, homeowners have been left relying on tanker trucks to deliver their water.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the United States is estimated to have lost more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of water from the nation’s aquifers – about 28 times the amount of water that can be held in Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir.

That estimate of water losses from 1900 through 2008, calculated by USGS scientist Leonard Konikow, shows the High Plains has accounted for 35 percent of the country’s total depletion. California’s Central Valley accounted for more than 14 percent, and other parts of the country have depleted the remainder, about half of the total.

In places, water that seeped underground over tens of thousands of years is being pumped out before many fully appreciate the value of what’s lost. The declines in groundwater in the United States mirror similar decreases in many parts of the world.

NASA satellites have allowed scientists to map the changes underground on a global scale for the first time, putting into stark relief a drawdown that has long remained largely out of sight. The latest satellite data, together with measurements of water levels in wells, reveal widespread declines in places from Europe to India, and from the Middle East to China.

“Groundwater depletion is this incredible global phenomenon,” said Jay Famiglietti, a professor of earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, and the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We never really understood it the way we understand it now. It’s pervasive and it’s happening at a rapid clip.”

Famiglietti and his colleagues have found that more than half of the world’s largest aquifers are declining. Those large-scale losses of groundwater are being monitored from space by two satellites as part of the GRACE mission, which stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment.

Since 2002, the orbiting satellites have been taking detailed measurements of Earth’s gravity field and recording changes in the total amounts of water, both aboveground and underground. Using that data, the researchers have created a global map showing areas of disappearing water as patches of yellow, orange and red. Those “hotspots” mark regions where there is overpumping of water or where drought has taken a toll.

The map shows that, just as scientists have been predicting due to climate change, some areas in the tropics and the higher latitudes have been growing wetter, Famiglietti said, while many dry and semi-arid regions in the mid-latitudes have been growing drier. In those same dry regions, intensive agriculture is drawing heavily on groundwater. And with little rain to recharge the aquifers, their levels are dropping.

“Many of these resources are finite,” Famiglietti said. “It took tens of thousands of years to accumulate this water, and we’re burning through it in a matter of decades.”

In many regions, government agencies and water districts have studied the problem but haven’t taken sufficient steps to manage aquifers or prevent declines.

Alongside climate change, groundwater depletion has become another human-caused crisis that could bring devastating consequences. As aquifers are pushed far beyond their natural limits, water scarcity is battering farms, undermining economies and intensifying disputes over water.

In parts of the southern High Plains, farmers are feeling the effects. Some counties have seen small decreases in population as people have moved away. Local leaders have been expressing concerns about what sorts of businesses can help sustain their economies as water supplies dwindle.

The Kansas Geological Survey has mapped out how much longer the aquifer can support large-scale pumping. It projects that some places still probably have more than a century of water left, but that large patches of western Kansas will go dry in less than 25 years. Some areas will likely run out faster, within a matter of years.

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The green circles of center-pivot irrigation systems stand out in areas where farms rely on water from the High Plains Aquifer. (Photo: Ian James, The Desert Sun)

The Ogallala Aquifer’s decline shows what the world can expect in other areas where groundwater is being quickly depleted, Famiglietti said. “The fact that they’re running out of water means that we will no longer be growing food there, and so where will that food come from?”

In Haskell County, Kansas, windswept fields of sorghum and corn stretch to the flat horizon in a swaying sea. The huge farms, many of them in the thousands of acres, still appear lush and productive. But driving along the arrow-straight country roads, Jay Garetson can point out spots where wells have gone dry – both on his family’s land and other farms.

All that’s left at one of his decommissioned wells is a round metal cover on a concrete slab, with a rusty Frigidaire lying on its side next to it. His grandfather once used the refrigerator to store oil for the pump.

Opening the well’s metal lid, Jay dropped in a rock. It pinged off the steel casing. More than five seconds later, there was faint splash.

“Now the only water it finds is a couple three feet at the very bottom of the well that the pumps can’t effectively access anymore,” Jay said, his voice echoing in the empty well.

He and his brother, Jarvis, drilled this well in the early 2000s when a shallower well failed. It lasted less than a decade, and then it went dry in 2012, forcing them to drill again – this time 600 feet deep, down to the bedrock at the bottom of the aquifer. It’s hard to say how long that well might last.

If the water keeps dropping about 5 feet per year, he said, it might be finished in as few as 10 years.

“Very simply, we’re running out, and it’s happening far faster than anybody anticipated,” he said. “And as optimistic as I’d like to be about the future, the window for that optimism is closing very quickly.”

He put the cover back on the old well, pointing out a tag that was placed on it by a state regulatory agency.

“We’re documenting very well the demise of the aquifer, but we’re not making the real-world changes in the way we manage the aquifer to really do the serious things that need to happen,” Jay said. “We seem to be unwilling to take the necessary steps to actually reduce water usage.”

Jay is an influential farmer and a longstanding member of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture who has been appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors. He has many ideas about how to extend the life of the aquifer, including mandatory water cutbacks that would be shared by farmers. But he has faced resistance from those who oppose mandatory limits.

Over the past five years, the pumping capacity of the Garetsons’ wells has decreased by about 30 percent as the water table has fallen. They’ve been forced to plant less corn and instead more wheat and sorghum, which use less water and bring in smaller earnings.

When Jay’s grandparents drilled wells in the mid-20th century, they were told the water supply was inexhaustible. They had clung to their land through the hardships of the Dust Bowl, when blowing drifts of soil and grit decimated crops and sent many others packing. In the decades that followed, they built a successful business on the water they pumped from the ground.

Since then, numerous studies have shown that the status quo is far from sustainable. Starting in 1986, Congress directed the USGS to monitor and report on changes in the levels of the Ogallala Aquifer, recognizing its economic importance. An estimated 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the country is pumped from the aquifer. Researchers have projected that without action to slow the losses, the portion of the aquifer in Kansas will be nearly 70 percent depleted within 50 years.

“What frustrates me is with all this knowledge and all this information, we still collectively refuse to act,” Jay said. “I don’t understand how we can all be so lacking in courage when we all can clearly see this is a train wreck happening in slow motion.”

The costs of inaction are visible just down the road, at a farmhouse where Jay lived as a young boy. Today the white house is abandoned. Weeds have grown around the front steps. Scraps of wood lie in a pile on the porch like logs on a campfire.

When the well went dry two years ago, a farm employee was forced to move out. The Garetsons drilled test holes but found no more water to tap.

In the yard, Jay pointed out the spot beneath a dying elm tree where he used to play on the swings. “It’s probably seen its last swing set in the yard,” he said wistfully.

“It’s something I used to read about and study, you know, the Dust Bowl. And you would see these abandoned farmsteads, and now I’m actually seeing it in my own lifetime,” he said. “Now we’re kind of at the end of the tracks here, and the only thing left to do is decide whether we should go ahead and push the house in and burn it, or probably the most painful option in my mind is to stand back and watch time just slowly melt it down.”

The worst-case scenario, he said, is that within a decade many more homes in the area could look just like this one – dry and deserted.

Jay Garetson checks on a well that is starting to weaken as the Ogallala Aquifer declines. Steve Elfers, Ian James

The United States, along with India and China, is one of the largest users of groundwater in the world.

The federal government has estimated that in 2010, the country used 76 billion gallons of fresh groundwater per day. That’s 117,000 cubic feet per second, roughly comparable to Niagara Falls. Wells across the country are pumping out as much water – even slightly more – than the average flow of approximately 100,000 cubic feet per second that tourists see plunging from the top of Niagara Falls.

When groundwater is pumped from wells, some of it is soaked up by plants, some evaporates, some courses through pipes to cities, and some soaks back into the ground. Part of it ends up flowing into the oceans, adding to the global problem of rising seas as glaciers and ice sheets melt.

Most of the planet’s available freshwater lies underground. Aquifers store water like sponges, holding it in the spaces between rocks, sand, gravel and clay. So much water is now being sucked from some aquifers that those underground spaces are collapsing and the surface of the Earth has been permanently altered.

The ground has sunk in parts of California, Texas, Arizona and Nevada, cracking the foundations of houses, leaving fissures in the ground, and damaging roads, canals and bridges. As layers of aquifers gradually subside, their water-storing capacity is irreversibly decreasing.

Groundwater levels have changed relatively little in some of the country’s wetter areas, as rainfall and snowmelt have offset the amounts pumped out. But even in pockets of the Northeast and upper Midwest, there have been significant declines. Average water levels in Cumberland County, N.J., for instance, decreased nearly 6 feet over the past two decades. In Outagamie County, Wis., there was a decline of 6.1 feet.

Elsewhere, there has been significant depletion across entire regions, largely driven by agriculture. Average water levels fell by 5.7 feet across the Mississippi River Valley aquifer system, by 12.6 feet in the Columbia Plateau basaltic rock aquifers of the Pacific Northwest, and by 17.8 feet in some of the Snake River Plain’s aquifers of southern Idaho.

As the nation’s population grows, expanding cities and suburban development are also having an effect. Total U.S. water use has decreased in recent years due to improvements in efficiency and conservation, but the cumulative strains on groundwater have continued to build.

Big drops in water tables have occurred in many parts the country. The U.S. Geological Survey’s data show that individual monitoring wells with water level decreases of more than 100 feet in the past two decades are located in a long list of states: California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Washington, Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Idaho, Arizona, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming and Mississippi.

Saltwater has been seeping into declining aquifers along portions of the Atlantic coast in places such as Hilton Head, S.C. and Savannah, Ga., and beneath coastal cities in Florida such as Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa. When saltwater intrusion taints supplies of drinking water, it can force water districts to use different wells or invest in other costly solutions.

In parts of the desert Southwest and the Great Plains, natural springs that used to gush from the ground have dried up.

There have also been long-term declines in groundwater levels around urban areas including Chicago, Milwaukee, Wis., Long Island, N.Y., Baton Rouge, La., Memphis, Tenn., and Houston.

In each state, the use of groundwater falls under different laws. In many areas, though, the agencies charged with managing water supplies have allowed aquifers to fall into a state of perpetual overdraft, with water levels receding deeper by the year. Even where groundwater regulations exist, pumping often remains largely unchecked.

“Like your bank account, you can’t keep depleting it forever. That’s a non-sustainable condition,” the USGS scientist Konikow said. “Society will have to do something about it. Some areas, they are doing things about it. Other areas, it’s going to kind of slap them in the face at some point as a wake-up call.”

In the farm country of Grant County, Kansas, where grain silos tower over fields that stretch out to a flat horizon, the chamber of commerce hosts an annual dinner that has been a tradition for 53 years. Hundreds of people line up while volunteers dish out local food: barbecued beef, sweet corn, candied squash and prized doughnuts made with milo, another name for sorghum.

The dinner consistently attracts top state politicians. This September, when Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer gave a speech to a packed auditorium, he emphasized the importance of water.

“We all know here that the lifeblood of our land is that Ogallala Aquifer below us,” Colyer said. “We’ve got to rely on that water.”

He said that’s why Gov. Sam Brownback recently launched an effort to develop a “50-year water vision” for the state. Colyer said southwestern Kansas is working to preserve its water, and he pointed to the large cattle industry and the fast-growing dairy business as signs of a bright economic future.

Those applauding at the long tables included Jay Garetson, his wife, Jill, and two teenage sons. But while Jay credits the state government with doing more than ever to focus on water, he’s concerned the consensus-building approach and the voluntary measures being promoted aren’t enough.

In his office, he rolled out a map to explain why. The map is marked with patches of orange and red denoting areas that have relatively little water left. In one of those spots, “right in the bull’s eye,” he pointed to the family’s hometown of Sublette.

The biggest problem, he said, is that no one can slow down the decline alone. And those who try to use less water will have the aquifer pumped out from beneath them by neighbors.

“Everybody’s got a straw in the same soda,” Jay said. “When you have a common resource, and the individual motivations are to accelerate the use rather than to stretch it out over a period of time, the net result is everybody loses.”

The economics of the profit-driven status quo are driving the depletion, he said, and that points to a need for the state and the regional groundwater district to intervene – like a referee in a sporting event that has deteriorated into a free-for-all. He said the referee should “call a timeout.”

Then, he said, “we need to sit down and think about changing the rules.”

Wells have been drawing out less water and going dry in places from eastern Colorado and the Texas Panhandle. Northern portions of the aquifer in Nebraska still have more water remaining, but parts of the southern High Plains have been left with parched fields.

In areas where little water remains, people have been turning to dryland farming, relying on the rains to grow wheat and other crops. That switch leads to sharply reduced earnings per acre. It requires farmers to use much bigger acreages to turn a profit. It means the land will support far fewer farms, and that could bring hard economic times.

Jay’s brother Jarvis explained how profound those changes could be, pausing from his work after changing a flat tire on a center-pivot irrigation system.

“It’s tough to think about what’s been in my family for well over a hundred years not being here in 20. It may mean that my kids or my nephews don’t come back, may not even have a chance if that’s their desire,” he said, his voice quavering. “It’s just tough to think about it not being there. I mean, it’s a way of life.”

Trying to make the aquifer last longer, some farmers have been adopting water-saving irrigation systems. A sign on one highway reads: “Make Every Drop of Water Count.”

Marieta Hauser, a dryland farmer who is director of the Grant County Chamber of Commerce, said she’s concerned about what sorts of businesses could take the place of irrigated farming, which drives the economy.

“Ideally we all want the aquifer to last forever. It’s not going to. We realize that. So what’s the best way to go forward and maintain the viability of our communities and our businesses?” Hauser said. “Those are the discussions that I hear more than anything, is ‘What’s going to happen to our communities when irrigation is not viable?’”

Some towns, such as Ulysses and Johnson City, have been buying water rights from farmers to secure enough drinking water supplies to keep the taps flowing.

One experiment aimed at slashing water use on farms is underway in Sheridan County, in northwestern Kansas, where the state’s first “Local Enhanced Management Area,” or LEMA, was established in 2013. Through that five-year plan, farmers are trying to keep within a “budget” that calls for a 20 percent reduction in water use.

Even as that strategy is showing signs of working, water managers acknowledge it’s not coming close to halting declines in the aquifer. It’s simply buying a bit more time.

Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, can put a specific number on the gap between the amounts of water pumped and the quantities of rainfall that recharge the aquifer in an average year: “We’re only about 9 percent sustainable.”

In other words, the people of southwestern Kansas are pumping out 11 times more than the aquifer’s natural recharge. People are barred from adding new wells in the area. If a new well is drilled, it needs to replace another well that is shut down.

In practice, the water rights system doesn’t limit pumping at all. In fact, farmers are using much less than they would be permitted under the system of appropriated groundwater rights, which was established decades ago when water seemed plentiful and flood irrigation was the norm.

“Ultimately, I think, budgeting the aquifer is where any area has to start. How much do you have and how much are you willing to see consumed? That’s always a difficult step,” Rude said. When the water district has held meetings and asked farmers whether they’re in favor of developing a water budget, some have been apprehensive about restrictions or mandates.

While some keep pumping, others are leaving. Within the traditional Mennonite community, elders have begun sending away young couples to settle in other areas such as the Snake River Plain in Idaho, where even though aquifer levels are declining, more water remains. They’re leaving, Rude said, “because as the water supply leaves, the intensity of agriculture leaves, and the job opportunities also leave.”

For every acre that runs out of irrigation water and starts being dry-farmed, the state estimates the economy loses nearly $4,000 a year.

The difference between irrigated fields and dryland farms appears starkly on a large satellite photo on the wall of the water district’s office in Garden City. Patches of brown border the green circles of center-pivot irrigation systems.

Moving a hand across the map, Rude pointed out spots where springs and streams have dried up. One spring was a popular swimming hole half a century ago, he said, and it doesn’t flow anymore.

Decades ago, the Arkansas River used to flow between Garden City and Dodge City. Now all that’s left are scattered patches of reeds in the dry riverbed.

Jay Garetson’s wife Jill, who is a teacher, lived near the flowing river as a child. She has watched it disappear, drained by diversions upstream and the declining water table. As a girl, she used to follow her father into cornfields while he fixed sprinklers. Now he’s out of water and relying on several oil wells for income.

“I don’t think we can continue to do things the way we’re doing them,” she said. “Some serious action has to be taken quickly.”

The Garetsons’ 17-year-old son, Jared, is cautiously assessing the future and thinks it may be difficult to return home to farm after college.

Every year he helps out during the corn harvest, and as a hobby he flies a drone to film the harvester mowing down golden rows. But he said the aquifer now seems like a gas tank with its gauge approaching “E.”

“If we lose the aquifer, we lose probably 80 percent of our crops out here,” Jared said. “If our water supply is shut off, that’s a huge amount of food that we’re going to have to find elsewhere.”

They are a close-knit family, and stories of their farming history are woven into conversations around the kitchen table. It’s a legacy that may be slipping away for Jared.

“I’ve thought, why don’t we just pack up, sell the farm and leave? And we’ll find somewhere else that’s got water and that’s going to continue to have water, where we can build?” Jared said. But that’s a difficult idea for his parents and grandparents to accept. “It’s been our home for 113 years now, and for all that to go away and just stop that, that hundred-year-old investment, and that’d be really hard to just pack up and say goodbye to everything.”

As for Jared’s future, he said in order to make long-term investments in farming, it would be crucial to secure enough water for the next 40 years.

“Until we’ve got our water issue taken care of, then I basically have no future here,” Jared said. “It’s kind of sad, but it’s the harsh reality.”

Large rice farms in the Mississippi River Valley depend heavily on water pumped from wells. So do fields of cotton, soybeans and corn across portions of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. The farms are drawing out significantly more than is naturally replenished, and the valley’s alluvial aquifer system has been declining.

“Here, we actually get a lot of rain so you tend to not think of it as being in danger of running low on water,” said Brian Clark, a USGS hydrologist in Little Rock, Arkansas. “But just the sheer amount of use kind of poses that issue.”

Officials in Arkansas, which is the country’s top rice-producing state, are updating the state’s water plan with proposals for coping with a growing “groundwater gap” in the eastern portion of the state. They’ve recommended building infrastructure to make surface water the primary irrigation source for areas that now depend on a declining supply of groundwater.

Other proposed regulatory changes aimed at addressing strains on groundwater are being debated elsewhere, in wet regions as well as dry regions of the country.

In Arizona, state lawmakers have been under increasing pressure to consider groundwater regulations for some of the same rural areas that fought off restrictions about 35 years ago. Some farmers and residents in southeastern Arizona are concerned that unregulated pumping is drawing down groundwater levels, and have been pushing the legislature for action to limit the expansion of irrigated farmlands and begin charging fees for groundwater use.

In Wisconsin, where some people are concerned about farms’ wells drawing down streams and lakes, a bill pending in the legislature would allow state regulators to establish “groundwater protection areas” where there would be tighter permitting rules for new high-capacity wells in order to prevent environmental impacts. The proposed measures would also ease the permitting process for redrilling or repairing existing wells.

In Iowa, growing demands are being placed on the Jordan Aquifer as water is pumped for cities, farms, and industries such as ethanol plants. In June, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission approved a new rule aimed at limiting pumping. The measures divide wells into tiers based on how much water levels have declined, and lay out procedures for reductions in water use in areas where the aquifer has dropped significantly.

Florida has also faced problems with groundwater declines as expanding development has strained water supplies. As the vast Floridan Aquifer has been drawn down, the amounts of water flowing from some of the state’s natural springs have decreased significantly, altering the sensitive environments where fish, turtles and other wildlife have long flourished.

“We have springs that are going silent because they’re not bubbling with the artesian pressure that they did in the past,” said Robert Knight, president of the Gainesville-based Florida Springs Institute, which advocates reducing the extraction of groundwater to safeguard the natural springs. He pointed out that much of the water pumped from wells is being sprayed on lawns.

As freshwater is pumped out, more seawater has been moving inland underground. And water managers across Florida have been tracking the problem and investing in remedies, including more desalination plants.

The Tampa Bay area built a seawater desalination plant that can churn out 25 million gallons of drinking water a day. The Tampa Bay Water plant, which has been operating since 2008, has helped reduce the stresses on the area’s groundwater supplies. But that has come at a price, with cost of construction alone totaling $158 million.

As the Ogallala Aquifer has declined beneath their land, Jay and Jarvis Garetson have been locked in a bitter dispute with a neighboring landowner over water.

They’re suing the company American Warrior, which owns adjacent farmland, in a case that could set a legal precedent in Kansas.

The case revolves around one of the Garetsons’ wells. They own a vested water right that is one of the oldest in the area, and they have priority under the state’s “first-in-time, first-in-right” system. They’ve claimed “impairment” of that well by two of the company’s nearby wells.

American Warrior holds junior water rights, and a judge issued an injunction temporarily barring the company from using the wells while the case proceeds.

Mike O’Brate, vice president of the family-owned American Warrior, accused the Garetsons of suing out of “greed” and said a lawsuit isn’t the right way to settle the dispute. He said if the Garetsons win, it will set a bad precedent and more suits will follow.

“Everybody will want to file these to shut off their neighbors,” O’Brate said. “Attorneys are going to get filthy rich in a fight over water. It’s not a good thing.”

The Garetson brothers said the 2012 lawsuit was necessary to defend their family’s livelihood.

“The fact of the matter is, we have a vested right to their junior rights, and Kansas water law is very clear,” Jarvis said. “And the sad thing is we had to get the courts involved to make it happen.”

Jay said that in addition to pressing the state to enforce its laws, they hope to call attention to the urgent need for action to preserve the aquifer.

“I guess our family’s decided we’d rather call a question and force everybody to make an informed decision one way or the other than to be complicit in the death of something that didn’t have to go out this way,” he said.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Garetsons faced hostility – even death threats.

As aquifers decline, more legal conflicts are likely to flare up in places across the country. Many disputes have already ended up in the courts.

Mississippi, for instance, is in a long-running legal battle with Tennessee and the city of Memphis, claiming the neighboring state is taking groundwater that belongs to Mississippi. In California, where many aquifers have been divvied up by courts, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is suing two Coachella Valley water districts in a fight over rights to groundwater.

In Kansas, the state Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have studied a proposal to build an aqueduct that would carry water from the Missouri River to the High Plains, and have estimated the cost at $18 billion.

When Jay and his family start talking about water, the conversation touches on mega-fixes, such as the idea of building a wind-powered pipeline from the Mississippi River.

In the meantime, Jay holds out hope there is still time to save what’s left and extend the use of the aquifer. “But it’s going to take immediate action and it’s going to take mandatory action, and that’s something that is hard for most of us out here, who are pretty individualistic and self-reliant, to contemplate.”

Any imposed cutbacks would be painful for everyone, though the pain could be spread around, he said. And water credits could be traded, creating a market that would help deal with scarcity and put the limited water toward high-value uses.

Jay sometimes wonders if roadside billboards would help increase the sense of urgency. He envisions signs with cross-section drawings of the aquifer “that show the reservoir declining and force people to admit at least, if we’re not going to act, that it was an informed decision not to act.”

Driving down a dirt road through farmland, Jay talked about what losing the aquifer would mean for his family.

“Thinking about Jared and the challenges that his generation faces, that’s what leaves you gasping for air. It kind of leaves you at a loss for what to do next,” he said, wiping a tear.

Jay said he and his brother keep trying to gain five or 10 years by using a new crop or new irrigation technologies. He said their father, Jesse, encourages them to “keep pushing” and keep praying.

“We’ll succeed somewhere. I just always thought it would be here,” he said as he pulled into his gravel driveway next to a cornfield.

He stood beside the mud-splattered pickup, petting his dog.

“In spite of everything I do and we do, it’s still not enough,” he said, sniffling softly. “My boys and my nephews will never have the … they won’t have the same opportunity.”

He paused, keeping his composure.

“If they stay here, it’ll be a salvage operation. It won’t be an expansion or a growth or an improvement. It’ll be a salvage operation,” he said. “That’s the mentality they’ll have to have – unless everybody can come together. The problem is everybody won’t come together, in my experience, until it’s too late.”

As he began to cry, he walked away.

Ian James reported from Kansas and Steve Reilly reported from McLean, Virginia.

Steve Elfers of USA TODAY, Caitlin McGlade of The Arizona Republic and Chad Gillis of The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., contributed to this report.

This special report was produced with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

Alarming Research Finds Humans Are Using Up Far More Of Earth’s Water Than Previously Thought

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2015 at 7:17 pm

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Oldspeak: “How bout that. Our unsustainable, infinite growth and resource incinerating “civilization” is not only depleting Earth’s largest sources of freshwater at ever more unsustainable rates worldwide, its doing it 2o PERCENT FASTER THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT. And to add insult to injury, human activity with all its “innovation”, “progress”, “technological advancement” and “development” is literally fucking up Earth’s water cycle. Oh those pesky little unintended consequences, they always come back to bite us in the ass one way or the other… Anywho, everyone paid to bloviate on infotainment streams is paying attention to what Trump said…” -OSJ

 

Written By Chelsea Harvey @ The Washington Post:

Freshwater is one of the planet’s most precious resources — and as the global population grows and our demand for water rises, so does the need to carefully monitor its use and availability. Numerous studies have attempted to calculate the amount of freshwater humans consume globally from year to year. But in a worrying new study in the journal Science, scientists argue that we’ve been significantly underestimating our water footprint — in fact, their research raises the estimate of our global water consumption by nearly 20 percent and suggests that we may have crossed an unsustainable threshold in our water use.

Authors Fernando Jaramillo and Georgia Destouni of Stockholm University focused their research on the effects of flow regulation and irrigation — essentially, building dams and reservoirs for human use — on the water cycle, and found that previous studies have significantly underestimated their influence. Notably, they found a significant increase in water consumption — thousands of cubic kilometers worth — in the latter half of the twentieth century due to human water management.

These practices can have an important influence on what scientists call “evapotranspiration,” which is water that is lost to the atmosphere by either evaporating from the Earth’s surface or being taken up by plants and later released into the air through their leaves. Such factors can add up to a very significant percentage of global water consumption.

While most people think about “water consumption” as referring to the amount of water humans drink or use for industry, water that evaporates into the atmosphere is actually a major component too, said Jaramillo. This handy blog from the World Resources Institute helps explain the concept: Essentially, water consumption refers to any water that is withdrawn and not immediately returned to its original source.

So when water vaporizes and goes into the atmosphere as a result of human actions, such as irrigation or dam-building, it counts as being consumed by humans — even if it comes back down to the Earth at a later point as rain. It’s important to think about consumption in this way: Water that goes into the atmosphere in one place doesn’t necessarily come back down in the same location or in the same amount . And by engaging in practices that cause more water to be lost into the atmosphere than naturally would, humans are interfering with the natural ratio of evapotranspiration to precipitation — in other words, water out versus water in — and that could lead to increases in water shortages down the road.

“A  scientific motivation for this [study] is that we want to understand what is it that drives changes in the freshwater system on land,” said Destouni, the senior author and a professor of hydrology and water resources at Stockholm University. And as the research was conducted, she said, “we started to see that the landscape drivers of change [including human water management] were actually important nearly everywhere.”

There are a variety of ways that human water management techniques can affect how much water is lost to the atmosphere as water vapor, not all of them well understood. Creating reservoirs means there’s a larger surface area of standing water, which can increase evaporation rates. Additionally, irrigation can increase the number of plants in an area, which then draw in more water and release it into the air through their leaves, the process known as transpiration.

The authors decided to determine the global impact of flow regulation and irrigation on the water cycle in order to figure out how much water is being consumed, or lost to the atmosphere, just as a result of these practices. They selected 100 large water basins from around the world to use as a sample, choosing basins “that were more representative and had long-term consistent data on climate and water change and long-term data on water use and land use,” Jaramillo said.

They then used these data to figure out the ratio of evapotranspiration to precipitation — essentially, water out versus water in — between 1901 and 2008. In the past, studies examining the influence of flow regulation and irrigation on the water footprint have used global-scale models, which the authors argue have underestimated the effects on the water cycle. Their study is the first to take a global look at these practices using observed historical data.

“What is really novel and exciting about what Dr. Jaramillo and Destouni did was they took observational data, so measured flow data, on major watersheds, and they were able to detect a signal of a specific human impact,” said Shannon Sterling, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Dalhousie University, who was not involved with this paper. “And that’s remarkable.”

After conducting their analysis, the researchers found that between the period from 1901 to 1954 and the period from 1955 to 2008, there was an increase in the average loss of freshwater to the atmosphere of more than 3,500 cubic kilometers, or about 850 cubic miles, of water. Altogether, they estimate that the current level of human freshwater consumption is about 4,370 cubic kilometers, or close to 1,050 cubic miles, per year.

These calculations raise the estimated total human water footprint — that’s all water consumed, freshwater or otherwise — by a whopping 18 percent, bringing it up to about 10,688 cubic kilometers per year.

The authors note that previous papers have proposed a “planetary boundary” of 4,000 cubic kilometers of freshwater consumption per year. Beyond that point, some scientists say that water consumption becomes unsustainable for the Earth’s growing population. Notably, this new study brings the total estimated freshwater consumption above the proposed planetary boundary.

“Whether this actually is a real boundary, of course there’s huge uncertainty related to that,” Destouni said, but added that the study’s results are concerning either way.

“It’s very serious that with such a relatively straightforward thing as water, freshwater — all of us use it all the time — we don’t keep track of what changes we have made and how these changes actually relate to what the planet can withstand,” she said.

Sterling also pointed out that the paper suggests human activities have a particular influence in already water-stressed regions.

“Another important implication of what they found [is that] the biggest reductions in available water from these human activities of dam building and irrigation are in areas that are already arid,” she said. “In these areas, they probably built dams and irrigation to address an existing water stress in the first place.”

The study highlights a critical need for better monitoring of our freshwater use and the ways our management techniques can affect the water cycle, as Jaramillo noted that the current effects of human water management “are even larger and more recognizable than the effects of atmospheric climate change.”

As climate change is predicted to become an increasing threat to water security worldwide, the persistent impacts of human activity on the water cycle will only be compounded by the effects of global warming in the future — making the need for better management techniques an even higher priority.

“That’s another future direction our society needs to take — to go towards greater resource efficiency,” Destouni said. “And if we don’t keep track of how we use water, we cannot reach that efficiency, or even understand what that efficiency means for the future.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

Chelsea Harvey is a freelance journalist covering science. She specializes in environmental health and policy.

 

Study – Earth’s Battery Level Critical: Continued Destruction Of Earth’s Biomass Foretells Grim Future For Life On Earth

In Uncategorized on August 28, 2015 at 6:29 pm

Fig. 1. Earth-space battery.The planet is a positive charge of stored organic chemical energy (cathode) in the form of biomass and fossil fuels. As this energy is dissipated by humans, it eventually radiates as heat toward the chemical equilibrium of deep space (anode). The battery is rapidly discharging without replenishment.

Oldspeak: I’ll let the scientists tell it:

Earth is a chemical battery where, over evolutionary time with a trickle-charge of photosynthesis using solar energy, billions of tons of living biomass were stored in forests and other ecosystems and in vast reserves of fossil fuels. In just the last few hundred years, humans extracted exploitable energy from these living and fossilized biomass fuels to build the modern industrial-technological-informational economy, to grow our population to more than 7 billion, and to transform the biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity of the earth. This rapid discharge of the earth’s store of organic energy fuels the human domination of the biosphere, including conversion of natural habitats to agricultural fields and the resulting loss of native species, emission of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate and sea level change, and use of supplemental nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar energy sources. The laws of thermodynamics governing the trickle-charge and rapid discharge of the earth’s battery are universal and absolute; the earth is only temporarily poised a quantifiable distance from the thermodynamic equilibrium of outer space.

Although this distance from equilibrium is comprised of all energy types, most critical for humans is the store of living biomass. With the rapid depletion of this chemical energy, the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity. Because there is no substitute or replacement energy for living biomass, the remaining distance from equilibrium that will be required to support human life is unknown.
Eventually, without sufficient living biomass to run the biosphere, it simply doesn’t matter how much oil, solar, nuclear, etc. energy you have, as there is no biosphere left for humans to use it. Biomass is not an interchangeable energy. There is no replacement and we are depleting it rapidly.
As we burn organic chemical energy, we generate work to grow our population and economy. In the process the high-quality chemical energy is transformed into heat and lost from the planet by radiation into outer space. The flow of energy from cathode to anode is moving the planet rapidly and irrevocably closer to the sterile chemical equilibrium of space.
Unless biomass stores stabilize, human civilization is unsustainable.
The Earth is in serious energetic imbalance due to human energy use. This imbalance defines our most dominant conflict with nature. It really is a conflict in the sense that the current energy imbalance, a crisis unprecedented in Earth history, is a direct consequence of technological innovation.
Ironically, powerful political and market forces, rather than acting to conserve the remaining charge in the battery, actually push in the opposite direction because the pervasive efforts to increase economic growth will require increased energy consumption.”
Dr. John R. Schramski et al. June 2015
the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity.” You can say that again. Not a “doomer”, not a “Nihilist” that said that, but a good old fashioned, dyed in the wool and presumably conservative, scientist. As I’ve been saying for some time now. It’s just physics at this point. And the physics are SHITTY for probability of continued survival of humans and most other forms of complex life on Earth. As has been discussed here, humans are using ever increasingly unsustainable quantities of biomass. With no tenable plans for population control in place or even being discussed (every one has a right to babies dammit!), or sufficiently sustainable limits to biomass consumption,  We can expect human population to increase in relation to depletion of biomass. Unfortunately for us, biomass is not infinite at current and future levels of consumption. We have used HALF the amount of biomass that it took billions of years to accumulate: 1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass; in the last 2000 years. 10 percent of it in the last 100 years.  So energy consumption and energy depletion is increasing exponentially. This is unsustainable. Our technology and cleverness will not make everything ok this time. Our actions will likely make things worse. Yet we’re being driven maniacally, ceaselessly, to “do more”, to “fight climate change”, not understanding that every time we do something, we’re merely increasing our increasingly unsustainable and irreplaceable earth battery usage. And carbon footprint. Nothing we “do” can be done without plunging us further into ecological debt and destruction. That is what you call a conundrum Kimosabe. The technology many magical thinkers are trusting to “fix it”, requires tremendous amounts of resources and energy to produce and maintain. Resources and energy that are rapidly and unsustainably being depleted.  In this stage of this mass extinction event, our “actions” serve only to hasten our extinction. Marches won’t stop it. Policy changes wont stop it. Geo-engineering won’t stop it. Hopium won’t stop it. We’re simply too far gone now. Can’t shift into reverse. One of the studies author’s said it best: “I call myself a realistic optimist, I’ve gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we’re wrong, but I haven’t found it.” Eventually Earth, the sacred battery upon which we depend inextricably for energy and life, will go dead. At some point shortly after that,  we and most life on Earth will go extinct, and at some point in the distant future, the microbes inherit the Earth. And SCENE. Show’s over folk. Humans will be added to the geologic history pile of  species that used to be here. It happens all the time. It’s the circle of life. Some times on, some times off. Read the actual Study if you can.  Good stuff in there.” -OSJ
Related Link:
Written By James Hataway @ University Of Georgia:

Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable, according to a paper published recently by University of Georgia researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years,” said the study’s lead author, John Schramski, an associate professor in UGA’s College of Engineering. “The sun’s energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished.”

Earth was once a barren landscape devoid of life, he explained, and it was only after billions of years that simple organisms evolved the ability to transform the sun’s light into energy. This eventually led to an explosion of plant and animal life that bathed the planet with lush forests and extraordinarily diverse ecosystems.

The study’s calculations are grounded in the fundamental principles of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with the relationship between heat and mechanical energy. Chemical energy is stored in plants, or biomass, which is used for food and fuel, but which is also destroyed to make room for agriculture and expanding cities.

Scientists estimate that the Earth contained approximately 1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass 2,000 years ago. Since that time, humans have reduced that amount by almost half. It is estimated that just over 10 percent of that biomass was destroyed in just the last century.

“If we don’t reverse this trend, we’ll eventually reach a point where the biomass battery discharges to a level at which Earth can no longer sustain us,” Schramski said.

Working with James H. Brown from the University of New Mexico, Schramski and UGA’s David Gattie, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, show that the vast majority of losses come from deforestation, hastened by the advent of large-scale mechanized farming and the need to feed a rapidly growing population. As more biomass is destroyed, the planet has less stored energy, which it needs to maintain Earth’s complex food webs and biogeochemical balances.

“As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest,” Schramski said.

If human beings do not go extinct, and biomass drops below sustainable thresholds, the population will decline drastically, and people will be forced to return to life as hunter-gatherers or simple horticulturalists, according to the paper.

“I’m not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics,” Schramski said. “These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of biomass energy available on the planet, and once it’s exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it.”

Schramski and his collaborators are hopeful that recognition of the importance of biomass, elimination of its destruction and increased reliance on renewable energy will slow the steady march toward an uncertain future, but the measures required to stop that progression may have to be drastic.

“I call myself a realistic optimist,” Schramski said. “I’ve gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we’re wrong, but I haven’t found it.”

The study, on “Human Domination of the Biosphere: Rapid Discharge of the Earth-Space Battery Foretells the Future of Humankind,” will be available online at www.pnas.org/content/early/recent the week of July 13.

Ecological Crisis And The Tragedy Of The Commodity

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

https://i1.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/71dS90SbtPL.jpg

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.

“We’re Already There…” Burnin’ And Lootin’: On The Occation Of Impending Ecosystem Collapse

In Uncategorized on July 15, 2015 at 5:25 pm

Oldspeak:

“(That’s why we gonna be)
Burnin’ and a-lootin’ tonight;
(Say we gonna burn and loot)
Burnin’ and a-lootin’ tonight;
(One more thing)
Burnin’ all pollution tonight;
(Oh, yeah, yeah)
Burnin’ all illusion tonight.

Oh, stop them!-Robert Nesta Marley

“As The World Burns, we loot Her endlessly. We can’t help it really. We know no other way. We’re pretty much locked in to this way of being. Many of us are very comfortable ensconced in the Ecocidal Perpetual Death Machine/Heat Engine that is Industrial Civilization. Eagerly consuming our daily rations of hopium laced infotainment through our telescreens and “Victory Gin” whenever possible. Labouring dutifully in our invisible prisons of “busyness|business”, conformity, and compliance. What follows is an unvarnished delineation of the ongoing and intensifying global ecological collapse, most of us are actively and aggressively ignoring. For me the most pertinent part of this piece is what  Dr Alex Rogers has to say:

Climate Change affects are going to be extremely serious, and it’s interesting when you think many people who talk about this in terms of what will happen in the future… our children will see the effects of this… Well, actually we’re seeing very severe impacts from climate change already… We’re already there…Most, if not all, of the five global mass extinctions in Earth’s history carry the fingerprints of the main symptoms of… global warming, ocean acidification and anoxia or lack of oxygen. It is these three factors — ‘the deadly trio’ — which are present in the ocean today. In fact, the [current] situation is unprecedented in the Earth’s history because of the high rate and speed of change.”

In that context, I struggle to comprehend the Hopium of the author. When he writes, right after that quote:

Maybe, in the near future, somebody who has solid political leadership skills will initiate a nationwide infrastructure project connecting major cities via electric-powered trains and construct solar panels and wind turbines along the right of ways, assuming there is enough time

“Why? Why this baseless faith in “The market” of Politics? That market, that political system, has helped bring us to where we stand today. What possible good could come from more of the ecological destruction, pollution, extractive mining for the minerals & materials required to construct this “green” infrastructure, that will in the long run be meaningless in mitigating that which is beyond mitigation? I don’t get it. When will we burn the illusion?” -OSJ

Written By Robert Hunziker @ Dissident Voice:

Climate change/global warming is the main protagonist on the worldwide stage of collapsing ecosystems.

The ecosystem is a combination of living organisms in harmony with nonliving elements like air, water, and mineral soil interacting as one whole. But, what if the living and nonliving elements stop interrelating as “one harmonized whole”? Then, what happens?

As things stand today, the planet’s future is decidedly in the camp of “then, what happens?”

Signals of planetary stress are literally off the charts.  Meanwhile the world continues spinning like always, as people go to work, drive cars, go out to dinner, and watch TV, some read books but not much these days.

Those routines of going to work, out to dinner, and so forth maintain an equilibrium, a daily pattern on the same freeways, the same faces, the same workplaces. By itself, life seems very normal, nothing much to worry about other than making monthly car payments.

Similarly, the natural world experiences its own rhythm, like the everyday cycle of people going to work, on the freeway, to dinner, watching TV. But, radically dissimilar to that everyday cycle that seems so dependable, so routine, the natural world is amiss, chaotic, crumbling apart, bursting at the seams. However, this deep trouble is not noticed, not recognized, not reported in accordance with severe levels of impending calamity. After all, as long as Wall Street goes up, all is well, isn’t it? Yet, all is not well, not by a long shot.

Ecosystem degradation happens in silence, not on freeways, not in theaters, not in malls. There is no ticker tape to watch or CNBC to listen to.

Consider this, what if tire blowouts occurred every day on the commute? What if the television set blacks-out every two minutes? What if faucets unexpectedly turn dry? Those situations could be metaphors for the ecosystem today, anomalous, irregular, variable, faltering!  Thus, climate change is very real, and people are already starting to experience ecosystem collapse.

The São Paulo water crisis, or “hydric collapse” as many are calling it, has left a city of 20 million teetering on the brink.1 Water is shut off in most parts of the city every day at 1:00 P.M. Scientists say this disaster, in large measure, is payback because of massive rain forest degradation, disrupting normal weather patterns.2

A shortage of water leads to various and sundry consequences, as for one example among many: “The financial hub of one of the world’s biggest economies is experiencing a water crisis so bad that experts say it could affect investors globally”.3

All of which may be a blessing in disguise because “affecting investors globally” may be the only way for “ecosystem collapse” to gain attention in today’s neoliberal “only-the-bottom-line-counts” world.

The ecosystem’s collapse knows no boundaries. Three million people will be without water in Taiwan, as the government drastically rations.4 The normal rainy season is now abnormally missing. Scientists say global warming has altered the jet streams and weather patterns. Thankfully, good news, as of July 10th, typhoon Chan-hom heads towards Taiwan for a little temporary relief.

California is haunted by and threatened with full-scale desertification as a powerful high-pressure system known as the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge hovers over the Pacific Ocean, blocking normal wintertime rainfall.5 Scientists (Princeton and Stanford) say climate change is a significant culprit.

Not only that, but with planetary heat; i.e., global warming increasing month-by-month for years on end, California’s main water tower, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range snow pack runs dry way too quickly.

In fact, worldwide, glacial water towers are rapidly diminishing from too much heat, threatening hydro-power, irrigation, and drinking water as well as commercial rivers in heavily populated areas of Asia and South America, akin to São Paulo.

Chinese scientists report significant glacial loss (up t0 70%) at the headwaters of major commercial rivers, like the Lancang River, the “Danube of the East.”

Based upon the past record of incessant temperature rise over the last few decades, glacial ice/snow will likely remain under heated attack: “March 2015 and first quarter of year warmest on record: Arctic sea ice extent smallest on record for the month of March.”6

Relentlessly, global temperatures continue setting new record highs, year after year. In the United States: “The June contiguous U.S. average temperature was 71.4°F, 2.9°F above the 20th century average, second only to June 1933 in the 121-year period of record,”7

Not only that: “A new study published online in the journal Science finds that the rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as or faster than that seen during the latter half of the 20th Century. The study refutes the notion that there has been a slowdown or ‘hiatus’ in the rate of global warming in recent years.”8

Increasing levels of heat bring forth new problems. China suffers from major desertification with 27% of the country or 2.6 million sq km affected. Woefully, another 1.7 million sq km, or 65% additional land, is at risk of turning to desert for a grand total of 45% of China at risk of desertification. Proof that land degradation in combination with global warming takes a huge toll even though the government has been fighting back.9 Scientists say global warming accelerates worldwide desertification.

In turn, desertification contributes to global warming, a positive feedback loop (which is really a negative), as “warming is allowing the carbon that has been stored in dry land vegetation and soils to be released to the atmosphere as it dries out and dies.”10

Tipping Points of Irreversible Ecosystem Decay/Destruction/Collapse

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences… there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.11

As for planet-wide tipping points: “There are 30 self-reinforcing feedback loops that are irreversible.”12 Some are very tipsy, some already tipping.

For example, methane hydrates in the Arctic Ocean, harmlessly contained, so far, under the ice for millennia, are equivalent to 1,000 to 10,000 gigatons of carbon versus 226 gigatons in the atmosphere.13 Today the level is over 300 gigatons (McPherson). Because the Arctic is loosing so much ice cover, a 50-gigaton burp of methane is highly possible at any time, which is equivalent to an additional 1,000 gigatons of carbon.14  The results could be dire.

In the melting permafrost of Siberia:

Methane vents 30 centimeters (one foot) in diameter were lit on fire by scientists in 2010… by the summer of 2011, they were not lighting this on fire anymore because those methane vents were a kilometer (1/2 mile) across… a twenty-six-hundred-fold (2,600) increase in size in a year… it’s almost as if we’ve triggered rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses. (McPherson).

According to NASA, methane plumes that are kilometers wide have already been monitored in the Arctic.15

The plain fact is that “loss of Arctic ice” equals way too much methane released into the atmosphere. It’s a dastardly closed circuit of ruination prompted by the selection of fossil fuels over renewable energy sources. But, Germany (25% renewables) knows better.  China is aware and active. However, as for the derisory U.S., nobody knows where or how or when it comes into the picture.

The biggest worry amongst some scientists is the rapidity of past ecosystem collapse. According to Paul Beckwith, Laboratory for Paleoclimatology and Climatology, University of Ottawa: “55 million years ago… the temperature rose globally by 5C in 13 years, as shown in sediment samples.”16

Notice that it did not take hundreds (100s) or thousands (1,000s) or millions (1,000,000s) of years to increase 5C. In that particular case, once the tipping point was triggered, it occurred in a geological flash, within only 13 years.

If perchance the Arctic ice entirely melts away during the summer season, which some prominent scientists believe is due fairly soon, it is not out of the question that the release of methane buried under the ice for millennia will self-perpetuate into a global warming frenzy or super cycle, possibly repeating the experience of 55 million years ago. Who knows? Then, the lights go out, no more TV, and who needs Wall Street? According to Dr. Peter Wadhams, Cambridge University, humanity cannot tolerate a 5C increase.

Thirteen (13) years seems like a short time frame to kick into gear the potential of an earth-shattering ecosystem breakdown. All of which begs the question: How deadly might it be and how quickly does 5C turn into disaster?

Nobody really knows for sure that it will even happen, but on the other hand, it happened in the geological record, only recently discovered within the past two years by Rutgers scientists17

The Ocean’s “under the weather”

The ocean is the kingpin of the ecosystem and the single best barometer of the condition/health of the planet’s ecosystem.

Decidedly, problems are found throughout the marine food chain from the base, plankton, showing early signs of reproductive and maturation complications due to too much CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels, to the largest fish species, the whale shark, which is on the endangered species list.

The ocean is not functioning properly. It’s a festering problem that will not go away. This is due to acidification, and, as long as fossil fuels predominate, it will methodically, and assuredly, over time, kill the ocean, which absorbs 30% of the CO2 from the atmosphere and has been absorbing 80-90% of the planet’s heat (NOAA).

Over 3,300 floating Argo probes strategically stationed in oceans worldwide measure heat content. The results show 90% of planetary heat is stored there (discussed in IPCC report d/d 2007). By way of comparison, the atmosphere stores only about 2% because of its small heat capacity.

The ocean heat build-up is potentially a big problem: Ocean heat, under certain conditions, can whiplash back up into the atmosphere causing rapid acceleration of global warming as Pacific trade winds potentially slacken in years ahead.18

Not only that, but problems stacked upon more problems, the rate of change of ocean pH (measure of acidity) is 10 times faster than 55 million years ago. That period of geologic history was directly linked to a mass extinction event as levels of CO2 mysteriously went off the charts.19

Zooming in on the Future, circa 2050 – Location: Castello Aragonese aka: “The Acid Sea”

Scientists have discovered a real life Petri dish of seawater conditions similar to what will likely occur ocean-wide by the year 2050, assuming fossil fuels continue to emit CO2 at current rates.

This real life Petri dish is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea at Castello Aragonese, which is a tiny island that rises straight up out of the sea like a tower. The island is located 17 miles west of Naples. Tourists like to visit Aragonese Castle (built 474 BC), which is on the island, to see the display of medieval torture devices.

But, the real commotion is offshore, under the water, where Castello Aragonese holds a very special secret, an underwater display that gives scientists a window 50 years into the future.  A quirk of geology is at work whereby volcanic vents on the seafloor surrounding the island are bubbling up large quantities of CO2. In turn, this replicates the level of CO2 scientists expect the ocean to absorb over the course of the next 50 years.

“When you get to the extremely high CO2 almost nothing can tolerate that,” according to Jason-Hall Spencer, PhD, professor of marine biology, School of Marine Science and Engineering, Plymouth University (UK), who studies the seawater around Castello Aragonese.20

The adverse effects of excessive CO2 are found everywhere in the immediate surroundings of the tiny island. Barnacles, one of the toughest of all sea life, are missing around the base of the island where seawater measurements show the heaviest concentration of CO2. And, within the water, limpets, which wander into the area seeking food, show severe shell dissolution. Their shells are almost completely transparent. The underwater sea grass is a vivid green, which is abnormal because tiny organisms usually coat the blades of sea grass and dull the color, but no such organisms exists. Sea urchins, which are commonplace further away from the vents, are nowhere to be seen around the island.

The only life forms found around Castello Aragonese are jellyfish, sea grass, and algae; whereas, an abundance of underwater sea life is found in more distant surrounding waters. Thus, the Castello Aragonese Petri dish is essentially a dead sea except for weeds, explaining why Jane Lubchenco, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, refers to ocean acidification, as global warming’s “equally evil twin.”

To that end, a slow motion death march leading to significant ecosystem collapse is churning away in the ocean in real time, and sadly, humans are witnesses to this extinction event, but it does not hit home. It happens in hiding, silent, within a vast expanse of water. Other than a few scientists, who really knows much about it?

Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of IPSO and professor of Conservation Biology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford:

Climate Change affects are going to be extremely serious, and it’s interesting when you think many people who talk about this in terms of what will happen in the future… our children will see the effects of this… Well, actually we’re seeing very severe impacts from climate change already… We’re already there.21

And:

Most, if not all, of the five global mass extinctions in Earth’s history carry the fingerprints of the main symptoms of… global warming, ocean acidification and anoxia or lack of oxygen. It is these three factors — ‘the deadly trio’ — which are present in the ocean today. In fact, the [current] situation is unprecedented in the Earth’s history because of the high rate and speed of change.22

The conspicuous issue is, according to Rogers: “The current situation is unprecedented in Earth’s history because of the high rate and speed of change”.

Maybe, in the near future, somebody who has solid political leadership skills will initiate a nationwide infrastructure project connecting major cities via electric-powered trains and construct solar panels and wind turbines along the right of ways, assuming there is enough time.

Postscript: On a quasi-positive, but still melancholic, note:

I don’t think we are going to become extinct. We’re very clever and extremely resourceful – and we will find ways of preserving ourselves, of that I’m sure. But whether our lives will be as rich as they are now is another question.

— Sir David Attenborough, English broadcaster and naturalist, Are We Changing Planet Earth, BBC, 2006

——————————————————————————————————————————————————–

  1. The Guardian, February 2015 [↩]
  2. Dr. Antonio Donato Nobre, National Institute for Research in the Amazon: “The Magic of the Amazon: A River That Flows Invisibly All Around Us,” TED, November, 2010 [↩]
  3. “Worries Grow as Serious Drought Hits São Paulo, Brazil”, CNBC, July 2015 [↩]
  4. BBC, April 2015 [↩]
  5. Weather West, February 2015 [↩]
  6. Global Summary Information – March 2015, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA. [↩]
  7. State of the Climate, National Centers for Environmental Information, July 2015. [↩]
  8. “Science Publishes New NOAA Analysis: Data Show no Recent Slowdown in Global Warming”, NOAA, June 4, 2015. [↩]
  9. China Times, June 2015 [↩]
  10. Julie Kerr Casper, Ph.D., Earth scientist, Bureau of Land Mgmt., “Changing Ecosystems: Effects of Global Warming,” November 2009. [↩]
  11. UC Berkley, June 2012 [↩]
  12. Guy McPherson, Climate Change and Human Extinction [↩]
  13. Science, March 2010 [↩]
  14. Nature, July 2013 [↩]
  15. NASA, July 2013 [↩]
  16. COP20: Global Arctic Methane Emergency, December 2014 [↩]
  17. Ken Branson, “New Finding Shows Climate Change Can Happen in a Geological Instant”, Rutgers Today, October 6, 2013. [↩]
  18. National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Kevin Trenberth [↩]
  19. C.L. Dybas, “On a Collision Course: Oceans Plankton and Climate Change”, BioScience, 2006. [↩]
  20. Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Acid Sea”, National Geographic, April, 2011 [↩]
  21. State of the Ocean.org, Video Interview, Dr. Alex Rogers, 2011 [↩]
  22. Rogers, A.D., Laffoley, D. A. “International Earth System Expert Workshop on Ocean Stresses and Impacts”, Summary Report, IPSO Oxford, 2011. [↩]

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.

Thirsty Yet? Global Urban Water Crisis Growing: These Eight Major World Cities Are Running Out Of Water

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2015 at 4:10 pm
water pipe mumbai

A woman in India walks atop a water main on her way to collect water. (Photo: Meena Kadri/Flickr)

Oldspeak: “Behold! The fruits of Industrial Civilization! It’s just physics really. When a system of infinite growth and consumption is operated on a planet with finite biocapacity, irreplaceably essential resources will eventually run out. Once mighty rivers are drying up and or terminally polluted. Reservoirs are at critical levels. Aquifers are drying up. What are we doing? Popping out babies. Curating our artificially flavored “lives”.  Being bombarded with messages to consume more and more food, alcohol and stuff. Driven by insatiable sense-pleasures. Self  medicating at unprecedented levels in an ever-growing variety of ways, to avoid feeling the base level pain and grief and sadness of existing in our well-appointed thought prisons; of bearing witness to the Great Dying we’re a part of and experiencing whether we choose to recognize it or not. Ignoring the reality of our dying world with an insidious a seductive strain of pathological anthropocentricity. Yes. Humans are running out of water.  Ecological overshoot is getting harder to ignore. The water wars have already begun, but, ultimately, fruitless uses of energy.  Before long, as population increases, and techno-fixes fail, there will be no more water to sustain us. Only Love remains.” -OSJ

Written By Marc Herman @ Take Part:

The amount of rainfall a place gets isn’t the only factor in how much water is available to it. These major urban areas show how dire the coming global freshwater shortage could get.

Earlier this year, an obscure United Nations document, the World Water Development Report, unexpectedly made headlines around the world. The report made the startling claim that the world would face a 40 percent shortfall in freshwater in as soon as 15 years. Crops would fail. Businesses dependent on water would fail. Illness would spread. A financial crash was likely, as was deepening poverty for those just getting by.

The U.N. also concluded that the forces destroying the world’s freshwater supply were not strictly meteorological, but largely the result of human activity. That means that with some changes in how water is managed, there is still time—very little, but enough—for children born this year to graduate from high school with the same access to clean water their parents enjoyed.

Though the U.N. looked at the issue across the globe, the solutions it recommended—capturing rainwater, recycling wastewater, improving sewage and plumbing, and more—need to be implemented locally. Some of the greatest challenges will come in cities, where bursting populations strain systems designed to supply far fewer people and much of the clean water available is lost to waste and shoddy, centuries-old infrastructure.

We’ve looked at eight cities facing different though representative challenges. The amount of water in the earth’s atmosphere is more or less fixed, meaning that as populations and economies grow, what we have needs to be clean, available, and conserved. Economies, infrastructure, river systems, and climates vary from place to place, and the solutions will have to as well. Here is how eight of the world’s major cities are running out of water, and trying to save it.

TOKYO

The roof of Ryogoku Kokugikan arena in Tokyo collects rainwater to be used in the building’s toilets. The inset shows a similar system for residential use. (Photo: Facebook)

Tokyo shouldn’t have a water problem: Japan’s capital enjoys average precipitation similar to that of Seattle or London. But all that rainfall is compressed into just four months of the year, in two short seasons of monsoon and typhoon. Capturing and storing so much water in such a short period in an area four times as dense as California would be a challenge anywhere. One weak rainy season means droughts—and those are now coming about once every decade.

Betting on the rain will be a precarious strategy for the world’s most populous city and its suburbs, home to more than 30 million people. When the four rivers feeding Tokyo run low, crisis conditions arrive fast. Though efficient, 70 percent of Tokyo’s 16,000-mile-long plumbing system depends on surface water (rivers, lakes, and distant snowpack). With only 30 percent of the city’s water coming from underground aquifers and wells, there are not enough alternative sources to tap during these new cyclical droughts.

The Japanese government has so far proved forward-thinking, developing one of the world’s most aggressive programs for capturing rainwater. In Sumida, a Tokyo district that often faces water shortages, the 90,000-square-foot roof of Ryogoku Kokugikan arena is designed to channel rainfall to a tank, where it’s pumped inside the stadium for nonpotable use.

Somewhat more desperate-seeming is a plan to seed clouds, prodding the environment to do what it isn’t doing naturally. Though tested in 2013 with success, the geo-engineering hack is a source of controversy; scientists debate whether the technique could produce enough rain to make much of a difference for such a large population.

MIAMI

As a result of a 20th-century project to drain nearby swamps, water from the Atlantic Ocean began seeping in to the Biscayne Aquifer, Miami’s main source of freshwater. (Infographic: YouTube)

Though most Americans’ concern with water shortage in the U.S. is firmly focused on California at the moment, a crisis is brewing in the last place you’d figure: South Florida, which annually gets four times as much rain, on average, as Los Angeles and about three times as much as San Francisco.

But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the essential Biscayne Aquifer, which provides water to the Miami–Dade County area, is falling victim to saltwater intrusion from the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the heavy rains replenishing the aquifer year-round, if enough saltwater enters, all of it will become unusable.

The problem arose in the early 20th century, after swamps surrounding the city were drained. Osmosis essentially created a giant sucking effect, drawing the Atlantic into the coastal soils. Measures to hold the ocean back began as early as the 1930s, but seawater is now bypassing the control structures that were installed and leaking into the aquifer. The USGS has made progress mapping the sea water intrusion, but ameliorating it seems a ways off. “As sea level continues to rise and the demand for freshwater increases, the measures required to prevent this intrusion may become more difficult [to implement],” the USGS noted in a press release.

LONDON

A view of the River Thames in London. In just a decade from now, the city’s water infrastructure will be unable to provide for its growing population. (Photo: IDS Photos/Flickr)

London faces a rapidly growing population wringing every last drop out of centuries-old plumbing. Water managers estimate they can meet the city’s needs for the next decade but must find new sources by 2025—even sooner than the rest of the world, by the U.N.’s measure. London’s utility, Thames Water, looked into recycled water—aka “toilet-to-tap”—but, being English, found it necessary first to politely ask people if they’d mind.

At least four urban districts in California use recycled water, which is treated, re-treated, and treated again to be cleaner than conventional supplies before being pumped into groundwater or other supply sources. The so-called “yuck factor” could be an impediment to this solution spreading to London and elsewhere.

CAIRO

The Nile Delta. Ninety-seven percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile; 85 percent goes to agriculture, and towns upwater from Cairo dump untreated agriculture and municipal waste into the river. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Five thousand years ago, an ample water supply and a fertile delta at the mouth of the Nile supported the growth of one of the world’s great civilizations. Today, while 97 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the great river, Cairo finds itself downstream from at least 50 poorly regulated factories, agricultural waste, and municipal sewage systems that drain into it.

Though Cairo gets most of the attention, a UNICEF–World Health Organization study released earlier this year found that rural areas to the city’s south, where more than half of Egyptians live, depend on the river not just for irrigation and drinking water but also for waste disposal. Engineer Ayman Ramadan Mohamed Ayad has noted that while most wastewater discharged into the Nile upriver from Cairo is untreated, the river’s enormous size has historically been sufficient to dilute the waste to safe levels (and Cairo’s municipal system treats the water it draws from the river). Ayad argues, however, that as the load increases—with 20 million people now discharging their wastes to the Nile—this will no longer be possible. The African Development Bank recently funded programs to chlorinate wastewater before it’s dumped in the river, but more will need to be done.

On the demand side, more than 80 percent of the water taken from the Nile each year is used for irrigation, mostly the inefficient method of just flooding fields, which loses significant amounts to evaporation. Two years ago, initial steps were taken to modernize irrigation techniques upriver. Those programs have yet to show much progress, however.

SÃO PAOLO

The Cantareira reservoir is one of the main water reservoirs that supplies the state of São Paulo, Brazil. The water level of the whole Cantareira System has recently fallen to 6 percent of total capacity. (Photo: Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

When it rains in Brazil, it pours. In São Paolo, where in an average year it rains more than it does in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, drains can’t handle the onslaught, and what could be the resource of desperately needed drinking water becomes instead the menace of urban floodwater.

With the worst drought in a century now in its second year, São Paolo’s reservoirs are at barely a quarter of capacity, down from 40 percent a year ago. Yet the city still sees heavy rainstorms. But reservoirs outside the city are often polluted and are too small even at capacity to supply the metropolitan area of 20 million. Asphalt covering the city and poor drainage lead to heavy floods on city streets after as little as a quarter-inch of rain. It’s hard to believe a drought is under way if your house is ankle-deep in water, so consumers haven’t been strident about conservation. The apparent paradox of flooded streets and empty reservoirs will likely fuel an ongoing debate over proposed rationing.

BEIJING

The Jingmi diversion canal, shown here under maintenance, transports freshwater from Miyun reservoir, Beijing’s main water source, 127 kilometers to the city. (Photo: Xiao Lu Chu/Getty Images)

Poor air quality isn’t the only thing impinging Beijing citizens’ ability to enjoy a safe environment. The city’s second-largest reservoir, shut down in 1997 because of pollution from factories and agriculture, has not been returned to use.

Ensuring the cleanliness of its water is even more crucial in China than elsewhere, as there is little it can afford to lose: With 21 percent of the world’s population, China has only 6 percent of its freshwater—a situation that’s only going to get worse, as it’s raining less in northern China than it was a century ago, and glaciers in Tibet, once the largest system outside the Antarctic and Greenland and a key source of drinking water in the country’s south and west, are receding even faster than predicted. The U.N. Environment Programme estimates that nationally, Chinese citizens can rely on getting just one-quarter to one-third of the amount of clean water the rest of the world uses daily.

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Hope emerged, however, from a 2013 study from Montreal’s McGill University, which found that an experimental program targeting farmers outside the capital showed promising results over nearly two decades. The vast Miyun reservoir, 100 miles outside Beijing, had seen its reserves reduced by nearly two-thirds because of increasing irrigation demands—while becoming polluted by agricultural runoff. Revenue from a tax on major water users in Beijing was spent paying farmers upstream from Miyun to grow corn instead of rice, which requires more water and creates more runoff.

Over the following 15 years, the study authors wrote, “fertilizer runoff declined sharply while the quantity of water available to downstream users in Beijing and surrounding areas increased.” Farmer income was not significantly affected, and cleaner water downstream led to higher earnings for consumers in the city despite the tax.

BANGALORE, India

Rendition of an apartment complex under development in Bangalore, India, and (inset) its construction. New housing is going up in the city faster than the utility can expand and repair the decaying water system. (Photos: Courtesy PrestigeConstructions.com)

Earlier this year, a report by India’s comptroller and auditor general found that the southern city was losing more than half its drinking water to waste through antiquated plumbing systems. Big losses from leaks aren’t uncommon—Los Angeles loses between 15 and 20 percent—but the situation in Bangalore is more complicated. A technology boom has attracted new residents, leading to new housing construction. Entire apartment blocks are going up faster than local officials can update the plumbing to handle additional strain on the water and sewage systems.

Bangalore’s clean-water challenges illustrate a dynamic that’s repeating itself across the world’s second-largest nation. India’s urban population will grow from 340 million to 590 million by 2030, according to a 2010 McKinsey study. To meet the clean-water needs of all the new city dwellers, the global consulting firm found, the government will have to spend $196 billion—more than 10 percent of the nation’s annual GDP. (McKinsey has a potential financial interest in India’s infrastructure, so its numbers may be inflated.)

In Bangalore, they’re already behind schedule. The newspaper The Hindu reported in March that a 2002 plan to repair the existing system and recover the missing half of Bangalore’s freshwater had yet to be implemented.

MEXICO CITY

A worker fills tanks from a water truck in a poor neighborhood in Mexico City. The city’s water utility estimates that it loses 260 gallons—enough to provide a family of four for a day—per second to leaky pipes in the system. (Photo: Reuters/Eliana Aponte)

Gravity always wins. At more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Mexico City gets nearly all its drinking water by pumping it laboriously uphill from aquifers as far as 150 miles away. The engineering challenge of hauling that much water into the sky adds to the difficulty of supplying more than 20 million residents through an aging system. Mexico City’s public works loses enough water every second—an estimated 260 gallons—to supply a family of four for a day, according to CONAGUA, Mexico’s national water commission. CONAGUA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the capital’s potable water is lost to leaks and spills. The good news is that leaks can be fixed.

Water quality remains a worry, however. Unsurprisingly, companies selling bottled water have done very well in Mexico. The economy growing around the lack of potable water has attracted companies such as Coca-Cola and France’s Danone, whose Bonafont (“good spring”) brand is advertised in Mexico as a weight-loss aid. (Toting a bottle will help you “feel thinner anywhere,” according to a popular television ad.)

Meanwhile, disputes over who will get access to underground supplies have turned violent: In February 2014, residents of the town of San Bartolo Atepehuacan, on Mexico City’s outskirts, clashed with police over a waterworks project they feared would divert local springs to the city’s business district. At least 100 people were injured and five arrested as the disturbances continued for more than three months.

Why We Couldn’t Care Less About The Natural World

In Uncategorized on May 16, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Greendex survey of consumer attitudes

Oldspeak: “The more we consume, the less we feel. And maybe that doesn’t just apply to guilt.

Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise-pointless hyperconsumption: it smothers feeling. It might also be the effect of the constant bombardment of advertising and marketing. They seek to replace our attachments to people and place with attachments to objects: attachments which the next round of advertising then breaks in the hope of attaching us to a different set of objects.

The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become. Even if you somehow put aside the direct, physical impacts of rising consumption, it’s hard to understand how anyone could imagine that economic growth is a formula for protecting the planet.

So what we seem to see here is the turning of a vicious circle. The more harm we do, the less concerned about it we become. And the more hyperconsumerism destroys relationships, communities and the physical fabric of the Earth, the more we try to fill the void in our lives by buying more stuff.” –George Monbiot

Wherever i travel in the realm of industrial civilization, i encounter human beings who are far less than alive. Body language, facial expression and lack of animation and passion often communicate more than their predictably articulate speech ever could. Most of the time these folks live in their heads, with little indication of sensation below the neck. Consequently their words are not consistent with the actions with which they profess to be engaged. But i am not surprised by the deadening effect of modernity. After all we are socialized into numbness and encouraged to feel almost nothing except short, bursts of happiness – never any emotion that lasts more than 5 minutes. Otherwise we risk being called “Drama Queens”. it seems that only our indigenous friends in tribal cultures know how to feel about their feelings and fully inhabit their bodies. i suspect that as collapse intensifies, we will be compelled to choose whether we will feel our emotions and work consciously with them in the context of our own bodily experience or will we remain numb and therefore perilously at risk of physical and emotional breakdown?…. Domestication may be the most damaging emotional and spiritual catastrophe of enlightenment, which prized lack of emotion, intellect, and a ghastly disowning of the body as inferior to and even perhaps the enemy of the mind. i believe we must commit to radical aliveness if we are to navigate the turbulent times and remain emotionally and spiritually intact. Only if we settle for nothing less than full aliveness will we be able to discover the resonance of a full spectrum outer reality of external chaos with our inner most being.” -Carolyn Baker

“Humans were just puttering along, for millions of years, in perfect balance with our ecology. But when we lost our connection to it, and got the big idea to create industrial civilization, everything went to shit. i thought the distribution on the scatter chart above was fascinating and telling. Most of the oldest, more mature, pre-industrial cultures  have the most guilt about our impact on the environment, while the younger cultures, largely products of industrial civilization are not very guilty. Think about the profound dysfunction of the pathologically anthropocentric, narcissistic, terminally atomized, life-extinguishing greed and growth fueled  planet hyper-consuming happiness machine populated “civilization” we’ve wrought. The symptoms of this dysfunction are everywhere we care to look. Record levels of mental and physical ailments.  Maladaptive, imbalanced and unsustainable  ways of being viewed as normal. Busying ourselves with endless and ever multiplying distractions from actual reality.  Slavishly working ourselves to death, expending our life energy at jobs we can’t stand, rushing home to briefly interact (maybe) with our family before grabbing a few hours of restless sleep and getting up and doing it all over again. ignoring the hopeless emptiness of our corporatocracy managed lives. We have ‘civilized’ the true and authentic being out of humans. As a result of our near exclusive focus on intellect, science, infinite progress and growth,  ecological collapse, including industrial civilization is certain. We’ve triggered Earth’s most devastating extinction event. Our complete and utter lack of regard for our Great Mother has brought about our end.” -OSJ

By George Monbiot @ The U.K. Guardian:

Locals cross flooded railway lines after the river Thames burst its banks in Datchet.

That didn’t take long. The public interest in the state of the natural world stimulated by the winter floods receded almost as quickly as the waters did.

A YouGov poll showed that the number of respondents placing the environment among their top three issues of concern rose from 6% in mid-January to 23% in mid-February. By early April – though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just published two massive and horrifying reports – the proportion had fallen back to 11%.

 

CarbonBrief has plotted the results on this graph:

Public response to UK floods. Photograph: /CarbonBrief

Sustaining interest in this great but slow-burning crisis is a challenge no one seems to have mastered. Only when the crisis causes or exacerbates an acute disaster – such as the floods – is there a flicker of anxiety, but that quickly dies away.

Why is it so difficult to persuade people to care about our wonderful planet, the world that gave rise to us and upon which we wholly depend?

And why do you encounter a barrage of hostility and denial whenever you attempt it (and not only from the professional liars who are paid by coal and oil and timber companies to sow confusion and channel hatred)?

The first thing to note, in trying to answer this question, is that the rich anglophone countries are anomalous. In this bar chart (from the New York Times) you can see how atypical the attitudes of people in the US and the UK are. Because almost everything we read in this country is published in rich, English-speaking nations, we might get the false impression that the world doesn’t care very much.

Attitudes to climate change. Photograph: NYT/Pew

This belief is likely to be reinforced by the cherished notion that we lead the world in knowledge, sophistication and compassion. The bar chart puts me in mind of the famous quote perhaps mistakenly attributed to Gandhi. When asked by a journalist during a visit to Britain, “What do you think of western civilization?”, he’s reputed to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Our erroneous belief that we are more concerned about manmade climate change than the people of other nations informs the sentiment, often voiced by the press and politicians, that there’s no point in acting if the rest of the world won’t play its part. For example, last year the chancellor, George Osborne, remarked:

I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world. I certainly think we shouldn’t be further ahead of our partners in Europe.

But we’re not “the only people out there in front of the rest of the world.” In fact we’re not in front at all. As this map produced by Oxford University’s Smith School suggests, we are some way behind not only some other rich nations but also a number of countries much poorer than ours.

Oxford University’s Smith School climate change map. Photograph: Oxford University’s Smith School

As for the US, Australia and Canada, they are ranked among the worst of all: comprehensively failing to limit their massive contribution to a global problem. We justify our foot-dragging with a mistaken premise. Our refusal to stop pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is pure selfishness.

Both the map and the bar chart overlap to some degree with the fascinating results of the Greendex survey of consumer attitudes.

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

As you can see from the following graph, the people consulted in poorer countries feel, on average, much guiltier about their impacts on the natural world than people in rich countries, even though those impacts tend to be smaller. Of the nations surveyed, the people of Germany, the US, Australia and Britain feel the least consumer guilt; the people of India, China, Mexico and Brazil the most.

Greendex survey of consumer attitudes. Photograph: /Greendex

The more we consume, the less we feel. And maybe that doesn’t just apply to guilt.

Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise-pointless hyperconsumption: it smothers feeling. It might also be the effect of the constant bombardment of advertising and marketing. They seek to replace our attachments to people and place with attachments to objects: attachments which the next round of advertising then breaks in the hope of attaching us to a different set of objects.

The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become. Even if you somehow put aside the direct, physical impacts of rising consumption, it’s hard to understand how anyone could imagine that economic growth is a formula for protecting the planet.

So what we seem to see here is the turning of a vicious circle. The more harm we do, the less concerned about it we become. And the more hyperconsumerism destroys relationships, communities and the physical fabric of the Earth, the more we try to fill the void in our lives by buying more stuff.

All this is accompanied in the rich anglophone nations with the extreme neoliberalism promoted by both press and politicians, and a great concentration of power in the hands of the financial and fossil fuel sectors, which lobby hard, in the public sphere and in private, to prevent change.

So the perennially low level of concern, which flickers upwards momentarily when disaster strikes, then slumps back into the customary stupor, is an almost inevitable result of a society that has become restructured around shopping, fashion, celebrity and an obsession with money.

How we break the circle and wake people out of this dreamworld is the question that all those who love the living planet should address. There will be no easy answers.