Monday, April 21, 2014

Fungal Forest Fire


April 21, 2014 – Life just got more interesting.  A fast-spreading wheat rust has scoured farmers’ fields from Africa to Latin America, the Middle East and Europe.  Wheat is the world’s second most important grain crop, after rice.  This modern epidemic began in North America’s wheat belt back in the 1950s, when the fungus that causes wheat rust destroyed 40 percent of the crop.  Since that time it has traveled to other parts of the world.  In response, rust-resistant varieties of wheat were developed.

A new era dawned in 1999, when an outbreak in Uganda was found to be the result of a virulent mutation of the wheat rust fungus.  According to Dr. David Hodson of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Addis Ababa, the mutation causes “large-scale destruction in a very short period of time over very large cultivated areas.”  The speed with which the fungus spreads can be likened to a forest fire, says Hodson.  Its wind-borne spores, which reproduce in the millions, are each capable of starting a new infestation.

Climate change has been found to be part of the mix.  Two forms of the fungus have spread very rapidly, due to their ability to adapt to warmer growing conditions.   Countries previously unaffected by the rust are now experiencing outbreaks that have reached epidemic proportions, especially in several nations in North Africa and South Asia.  Climate change is further expected to shift the range of distribution of other diseases and pests.

The following is a list of fungi, pests and diseases that could be potentially exacerbated by climate change.  It is lifted directly from The Independent.

Asian Soybean Rust affects the soya crop in Brazil, the world’s biggest producer.  There are more than 244 confirmed cases this year.  Industry spending on insecticides and fungicides is expected to reach $11 billion.

Cocoa Pod Borer Disease: Cocoa bean production in Indonesia, the world’s third-largest producer, is likely to dip 2 percent to 410,000 metric tons for 2013-2014, according to the International Cocoa Organization.  The fall is in part due to a tiny, mosquito-sized moth which attacks the plant.

Potato Blight is a fungus-like organism that thrives in damp, humid conditions.  The speed with which blight infection occurs and the devastating impact on the crop make it the biggest threat to the six million tons of potatoes produced in the UK each year.

Coffee Leaf Rust is an orange-colored fungus that has swept through coffee fields from Mexico to Panama.  The epidemic is affecting the livelihoods of more than two million people and causing the loss of 500,000 jobs.

Banana Fungus (TR4): This soil-borne disease is threatening banana crops in North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  The value of traded bananas worldwide totals $8.9 billion.



With thanks to www.independent.co.uk.






Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Time to Transition


April 14, 2014 – Alex Smith, of Radio Ecoshock, recently conducted a thoughtful interview with Dr. David Korowicz of Dublin.  Honestly, the adjective hair-raising would be far more accurate, in light of the fact that Korowicz dares to examine, in all its particulars, how the world as we know it will come apart at the seams.  He calls it rapid collapse.

Korowicz begins by studying a micro version of global collapse, that is, the economic disaster suffered by his own country of Ireland almost six years ago.  He believes that the Irish were able to put the pieces back together, at least in part, because Ireland is a small country where people feel personally involved with the day-to-day running of national matters.  This engenders societal trust, and a feeling that, with effort, things can once again be made right.  The Irish economy is broad-based, with a manageable level of poverty.  Since poverty is a leading cause of corruption, problems like nepotism, bribery, and tax avoidance didn’t need fixing.

On a broader scale, the world has become extremely interdependent, with many countries importing increasing amounts of food and energy.  In the wake of globalization, nations aspiring to developed-world status eagerly take on more and more debt, while at the same time encouraging their populations to want and expect all the material benefits enjoyed by richer countries.  Self-reliance has gone by the wayside.  Awareness of escalating vulnerability seems lacking, though as individuals it seems highly unlikely we would willingly turn over our food supply to unknown others.

Along with our increased dependency on far-away suppliers goes an inability to guard even that most essential element of modern civilization, electrical supply.  Easily disabled by either climate chaos or terrorists, even the United States is unable to keep its grid secure.  Vulnerability is further exacerbated by just-on-time delivery of food, medicine, building and repair supplies and tools, and other extremely valuable items.  As if all this weren’t enough, our continued demand for faster and faster service makes the whole system wobble a bit as it attempts to maintain a precarious balance.

Here’s what Korowicz thinks: we’re primed and ready for economic failure.  He believes the banks are headed for collapse, that we are currently enjoying an all-too-brief hiatus from reality (though the poor and waiting-to-be-poor unemployed would tell him different).  New currencies will be tried, most will fail, credit will completely dry up, and at that point the supply chain will stop functioning.  With only enough of everything to last a few days, the results could be horrific.

At some point, sad to say, global warming will also enter the picture, with further challenges to our high-speed, interdependent way of life.  Korowicz believes it is inevitable that, for a time, cascading failure will demoralize unfed millions.  Millions who have grown a great deal poorer.  Governments will no longer be able to help their distressed populations.  Pandemics may enter the mix as well.  Those who can will have to relearn how to survive. 



With thanks to radioecoshock.org.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Know Your Limits



April 10, 2014 – I wrote this article a little while ago, and Transition Voice hasn’t used it.  I think it’s useful, so I thought I’d publish it here.


Know Your Limits                       

There is a growing consensus that 2 degrees Celsius of global warming will be too much (http://www.livescience.com/41690-2-degrees-of-warming-too-much.html ).  As the winter of 2013-2014 gradually winds down, we see the evidence of what less than 1 degree of warming can do all around us.  The costs have yet to be tallied, but there is universal acknowledgement that budgets were virtually meaningless this winter.  In order to keep the United States functioning at a level anywhere near normal, states and corporations had to break the bank.  The alternative was inconceivable.

Yet merrily we roll along, calmly averring that there is still time before the climate will begin to wreak major havoc.  The notion that 2 degrees of warming are somehow “ok” has become foundational to both national and international planning.  After all, the thinking goes, that amount of warming is what scientists have told us will be acceptable, right?

Dr. Who?
That’s certainly what I thought, anyway.  It is with more than a small degree of chagrin that I must tell you that 2 degrees of warming was first presented to the waiting world as “safe” by none other than an economist.  Yes, that says economist, not ecologist.  One W.D. Nordhaus, to be exact.  Yale Professor Nordhaus wrote in 1977 that “if there were global temperatures more than 2 or 3C above the current average temperature, this would take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.”  In fact, that large an increase in temperature would be well outside of the natural limits known to have governed the climate during the past 10,000 years, during which period of time agriculture and civilization developed.

Furthermore, Dr. Nordhaus stated as recently as 2009 that 700 ppm (!!) of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in the atmosphere would not cause irreversible harm to our planet (http://thebiggestlieevertold.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/part-1-expose-the ).  He goes on to insist that trying to keep warming below 2.6 C would precipitate economic catastrophe.  Goodness, we wouldn’t want that …

A Wee Bit of Climate Chaos
For the record, 1C was first cited as the acceptable limit for climate-change induced warming in 1990 by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases.  The Advisory Group was an amalgamation of three international climate change heavyweights: the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).  In their report (http://www.scribd.com/doc/121702780/Responding-to-Climate-Change-Tools-For-Policy-Development-Part-I-of-II), the Advisory Group wrote that “beyond 1 C there might be rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

                                                                                   
I don’t know about you, but these non-linear responses are beginning to wear me out.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Solution to Leftovers

March 31, 2014 - My husband and I used to waste more food than we do now.  I frequently overbought, partly because I liked to make believe that we were big vegetable and fruit eaters.  All in the valiant effort to turn us into what we've never been and probably never will be (big vegetable and fruit eaters).  Ok, so we've closed that chapter after having made only modest gains.  And I do like to experiment, both with recipes I've previously made successfully, and with recipes being tried for the first time.  Somehow sticking with the same old same old week after week just isn't satisfying.  Neither, however, is an inedible meal, of which I've made a few (ahem).  So we've thrown out food which was at its peak when it came through the door, not so much on its way out.

But 40 percent??  You read that right: that's how much perfectly good food gets thrown out in the United States, week after month after year.  Can you guess how much money is being spent on all that uneaten food?  Probably not - I'd never have guessed the true figure, which is $165 billion.  Yes - billion-with-a-b.  Worse yet, that wasted food winds up in landfill, where it decomposes and creates 20 percent of all the methane emissions in the country.  (Not to mention all the hungry people who needlessly go without nutritious food.  While dumpster diving is a possible, partial solution, we need to do better.)

What if all that methane could be used to create electricity and heat?  What if the source of the methane never made the trip to landfill in the first place?  That's where things are headed, you know.  There are cities and states on both coasts that have banned food waste at landfills.  Enter the humble garbage disposal.  Sort of.  It's actually not so humble; it has a 2,000 gallon tank.  The scraps don't just get flushed "away," they fuel a food waste biodigester.  The maker is, however, a division of InSinkErator, in Racine, Wisconsin.  Grind2Energy has already installed two facilities, both of them in Ohio.  One is operating at Ohio State University, the other at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

Both installations consist of a grinding station and a holding tank.  Instead of throwing away food scraps, cooks are disposing of leftovers in bins that are hauled to a grinding station.  The purpose of the station is to convert the leftovers into a slurry that is fed through pipes to a 2,000 gallon sealed holding tank.  This tank is regularly emptied, and the contents transported to a wastewater treatment plant - or other facility - equipped with an anaerobic digester.  Biogas is then captured for use as renewable energy, either to produce electricity or to power a vehicle.  Leftover solids are treated and used as fertilizer!

As more and more landfills prohibit dumping food waste, anaerobic digesters will be ready to put them to good use.  In Massachusetts, the supermarket chain Stop and Shop has garnered state approval for a waste-to-energy project at a distribution center.  Food waste from each store in the state will be shipped to the distribution center so that it can be processed and converted into energy.  While food waste should and must be reduced, the country's need for renewable energy can in part be satisfied with a resource that comes readily to hand.  Bring it!



With thanks to the Racine Journal Sentinel and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Small Farmers Will Be the Big Players


March 24, 2014 – The Post Carbon Institute has put together a fine talking heads documentary called “Agriculture in a Changing World.”  I learned a bit from it, so I thought I might summarize it for you.  You can find the film at

The half hour film consists of brief remarks made by leaders in the agriculture and climate change worlds.  I’ll start with Lester Brown, formerly of the World Watch Institute, now heading up the Earth Policy Institute.  He shocked me by stating that families in a number of countries around the world, among them Nigeria, Haiti, Ethiopia, India, and Peru, must go without food a certain number of days during the week.  While I was aware that Haitians have suffered this degree of deprivation for decades, I didn’t know that food supply was so precarious in other parts of the world.  He went on to say that water shortages are now a problem everywhere.

Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of “The Limits to Growth,” published in 1972 and considered a turning point in the early environmental movement, commented that humanity has failed to solve the problems of growth and climate change, and will therefore have to have solutions imposed upon it, presumably by governments.  He further contends that the next 20 years will be a period of drastic change, with living standards undergoing deterioration along with the environment.

Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org, made some interesting contributions to the discussion.  First of all, for the first time in 150 years, there were more farms last year than the year before.  Not only that, but these farms, many of them quite small, produce very high yields.  Small farms generally are high producers because of the time and attention that can be lavished on them.  When you consider that downpours and droughts are making farming more and more difficult, small farmers may make all the difference in the years ahead.

Wes Jackson, of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has always had a talent for pithy, unadorned truths, and this time was no exception.  He began by telling us what he considers obvious: humankind will try to subdue nature or, failing that, will try to ignore it.  We all know about the subduing part of the equation; I’d never thought about the fact that conservatives simply discount nature.  He then remarked, with regard to the slow food and slow money movements, that as long as energy-rich fuel is available, life will not slow down.  Jackson concluded by saying we must divorce ourselves from the extractive economy.

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns Movement, made what I thought were a couple of key points.  First of all, he categorically refused the alternative of giving up.  For this I applaud him.  Then he said we must invent our own economies, and do so as soon as possible.  If you’d like to hear Hopkins’ well-informed comments, along with those of Tad Patzek, Wendell Berry, Mathis Wackernagel, Michael Bell, and Mark Shepard (as well as the individuals listed above), then take a half hour out of your busy day to watch “Agriculture in a Changing World.”  It’s a relief to hear the truth.



With thanks to The Post Carbon Institute.






Monday, March 17, 2014

From Petro to Plastic and Back Again


March 17, 2014 – I didn’t know that plastic could be melted and returned to its petroleum state, but it appears that it can.  Plants already exist in England for that very purpose.  After spending years in a business incubation facility in Akron, Ohio, one such plant is now ready to go online in Ohio next month.

Certainly from the standpoint of putting plastic refuse someplace other than landfill, this sounds like a good idea.  It seems unlikely we will run out of plastic anytime soon.  It’s the diesel fuel that literally comes out at the other end that worries me.  While diesel produces no carbon dioxide pollution, particulate matter is another problem entirely.  Because diesel particles are extremely fine, they can penetrate deeply into the lungs.  The rough surfaces of the particles cause them to catch, and combine with, other toxic inhalants. 

The primary health concerns which result from exposure to these particles are heart and lung disease, including lung cancer.  So while the conversion plant itself produces little in the way of pollution, the end product is cause for concern.  Although diesel exhaust is far cleaner today than it was prior to the year 2000, the dilemma of particle pollution still remains to be solved.  (Diesel fuel is widely used around the globe.)

The foregoing notwithstanding, Vadxx Energy will begin accepting 60 tons of plastic a day next month.  The end product, 300 barrels of petrochemical liquid, will wind up as diesel fuel and lubricants.  Akron has kept faith with Vadxx for eight years, choosing to help the newly created business during its test phase when Cleveland sent the erstwhile job creator packing.

The Akron Global Business Accelerator, housed in a former B.F. Goodrich tire factory in downtown Akron, gave Vadxx its beginning.  The pilot plant, which also serves as a demonstration facility intended to attract investors, is located in a city-owned industrial building, close by the Business Accelerator.

Of particular interest is the fact that a second plastic conversion company is also near the startup phase, also in Akron.  RES Polyflow’s demonstration facility is located in North Perry, outside Cleveland.  Its first public demonstration was given there, successfully, last summer, and the company is now speaking with potential customers.

How should these developments be assessed?  While the practical use of plastic trash is welcome, its conversion to diesel fuel is a mixed blessing.  Let’s hope that the successful eradication of previous noxious pollutants contained in diesel exhaust are the precursor to at last eliminating the particles that are known to cause health havoc.



With thanks to the Akron Beacon Journal and Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cities Lead Climate Action


March 11, 2014 – The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is responsible for a near doubling of climate actions by their 63 member cities since 2011.  Member cities, the world’s largest, have implemented 8,000 climate actions in the last three years.  It will come as no surprise that the vast majority of member cities are coastal.  You can learn more about C40 at c40.org.

The organization’s most recent international meeting took place in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Three new cities were welcomed to the ranks at that meeting: Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, and Nairobi.  Michael Bloomberg presides over the C40 board, and plans to work closely with UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon in creating support for a UN Summit on Climate Change in September.

Bloomberg, of course, just retired as mayor of New York City after 12 years on the job.  During his time in office, greenhouse gas emissions declined 19%.  “Mayors don’t have time to debate politics, they have to deliver results, and mayors around the world increasingly recognize the threats climate change poses to our cities,” says Bloomberg.  (He is also widely known for having donated $50 million to the Sierra Club in order to help them combat the continued use of coal energy in the United States.)

The C40 Leadership Group represents 600 million people worldwide, 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 21 % of gross domestic product.  Because cities produce 70% of the world’s carbon emissions and use more than three-quarter of the world’s energy, they all can benefit from the programs tested and utilized by C40.  So far the greatest interest has been shown in bus rapid transit systems, ecologically friendly outdoor lighting, and bike sharing schemes.  C40 intends to set up a City Director in the next two years.  Cities can then apply to the Director for staff resources to help address their particular climate change priorities.

For instance, Latin America is a bus rapid transit leader.  Because of its pioneering work, Chicago and New York City are now implementing similar systems.  In Rio de Janeiro, the city has created a command center called the Rio Operations Center (ROC).  The center exists because Rio residents who live in its legendary favelas (slums) endure mudslides which occur without warning.  The ROC will have the ability to forecast weather events likely to precipitate mudslides.  Because ROC operations include a public announcement system, favela residents can now be warned of approaching danger.

Another mayor named Michael put it best.  “We will have to drive national policy,”
asserted Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia.  “On so many issues there is such gridlock at [the] federal level that it must be driven at the local level – that is where most of these things happen.”



With thanks to bloomberg.com, smh.com.au, and fastcoexist.com.