Rising Oil, Falling Birds and a Still Wobbly Economy

#262 dead bird

Image by romana klee via Flickr

January 8, 2011

The internet (and to a certain extent, the mainstream media) has been aflutter with news of masses of dead birds falling out of the sky and huge fish and crab kills washing ashore around the world. http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=22692

Causes are unknown, although there is no lack of speculation.

In the meantime, oil and food prices are reaching critical levels again around the world. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12122510, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12117902 (oil)  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/the-coming-hunger-record-food-prices-put-world-in-danger-says-un-2177220.html (food)

And depending on who you read at any given moment, both the world economy http://www.un.org/esa/policy/wess/wesp.html and the economy here at home http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/08/business/economy/08fed.html?ref=economicconditionsandtrends, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/03/economic-predictions-2011_n_803413.html (especially for ordinary Americans) still looks quite iffy.

Sitting back and looking at these different stories this week, they all speak to me of one commonality, something I and other doomers write about often at the personal level – resilience or, in these cases the lack thereof, on a worldwide scale.

Even a cursory glance through the available data, such as this from the CIA World Factbook https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2032.html shows that, worldwide, the loss of viable farmland, air and water pollution and overuse and waste of resources are stripping the earth of its ability to sustain itself – let alone a human population approaching seven billion.

According to the USDA, another million tons of U.S. farmland has eroded from the Mississippi River basin this last year. How fast? Every second of every minute of every hour of every day, the mighty Mississippi carries another ton of topsoil to the sea. 24 BILLION tons of soil are lost annually around the world – much of it topsoil, and much of that, WAS the top layer of fertile dirt. Several tons for every person alive on this planet, every year. But such loss seems so slow, out of sight, that it can ‘go away’ almost unnoticed in a person’s lifetime.http://www.thesoilguy.com/SG/Soil

“We have transformed approximately half the land on Earth for our own uses – around 11 percent each for farming and forestry, and 26 percent for pasture, with at least another 2 to 3 percent for housing, industry, services and transport. The area used for growing crops has increased by almost six times since 1700, mainly at the expense of forest and woodland.

“Of the easily accessible freshwater we already use more than half. We have regulated the flow of around two thirds of all rivers on Earth, creating artificial lakes and altering the ecology of existing lakes and estuaries.

“The oceans make up seven tenths of the planet’s surface, and we use only an estimated 8 percent of their total primary productivity. Yet we have fished up to the limits or beyond of two thirds of marine fisheries and altered the ecology of a vast range of marine species. During this century we have destroyed perhaps half of all coastal mangrove forests and irrevocably degraded 10 percent of coral reefs.

“Through fossil-fuel burning and fertilizer application we have altered the natural cycles of carbon and nitrogen. The amount of nitrogen entering the cycle has more than doubled over the last century, and we now contribute 50 percent more to the nitrogen cycle than all natural sources combined. The excess is leading to the impoverishment of forest soils and forest death, and at sea to the development of toxic algal blooms and expanding “dead” zones devoid of oxygen.

“By burning fossil fuels in which carbon was locked up hundreds of millions of years ago, we have increased the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 30 percent over pre-industrial levels. We have boosted methane content by 145 percent over natural levels.

“Through mining and processing we are releasing toxic metals into the biosphere that would otherwise have remained safely locked in stone. We are producing new synthetic chemicals, many of which may have as yet undetermined effects on other organisms.

“We have thinned the ozone layer that protects life on Earth from harmful ultra-violet radiation. Most scientists agree that human activities are contributing to global warming, raising global temperatures and sea levels.

“These processes affect the habitats and environmental pressures under which all species exist. As a result, we have had an incalculable effect on the Earth’s biodiversity. The 484 animal and 654 plant species recorded as extinct since 1600 are only the tip of a massive iceberg.” http://www.ourplanet.com/aaas/pages/overview01.html

Paleontologists estimate the background rate of species extinction–the long-term extinction rate exhibited prior to humanity’s influence–at between 1 and 10 extinctions each decade among every million fossil species. Assuming from a variety of estimates that 10 million species are alive today (Stork 1993 and 1997, May 1988, Hammond 1992), scientists can expect from 1 to 10 species to go extinct each year from all forms of life, visible and microscopic. In fact, species are exiting much faster. Based on records of extinction among the best- studied types of animals, ecologist Stuart Pimm and colleagues calculated extinction rates during the past century to range from 100 to 10,000 species per year (again, assuming 10 million species exist). That rate is between 100 and 1000 times faster than the background rate of species extinction (Pimm et al 1995).” http://www.arbec.com.my/popbiodiv.htm

Our oceans are in no better shape than the land, according to a new report released in December.  From a Time magazine article:

“In a study published yesterday in the open-source journal PLoS One, a group of fishery experts and oceanographers showed that global fisheries have expanded geographically over the past 50 years, keeping a fresh supply of fishing—but that the world’s fishing fleets are now running out of ocean. (Download a PDF of the study here.) Charting the movements of fishery fleets since 1950, the researchers showed that boats have been expanding southward at about one degree of latitude a year, moving away from the long-exploited waters of the Northern Hemisphere.

“While the fleets migrated, the global fish catch rose from 19 million metric tons in 1950 to a high of 90 million at the end of the 1980s, before declining to 79.5 million tons in 2008. As Daniel Pauly, a researcher at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre and one of the paper’s authors, told Juliet Elperin of theWashington Post:

“Global seafood catch is dropping “because there’s essentially nowhere to go.” The fact that fish catches rose for so many decades “looks like sustainability but it is actually expansion driven. That is frightening, because the accounting is coming now.”

Essentially we’ve been digging into our capital stock of fish, and the bill is coming due. Short of significantly reducing our catch of vulnerable fish, we are looking at a future where wild seafood may become a rarity. (We’re already on that path—half the fish consumed today in the world is farmed, not caught, though that comes with its own set of environmental problems.) But there’s little evidence that governments are willing to restrict fishing—just last month the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) refused to put severe catch limits on bluefin tuna, despite increasing evidence that the species is headed for extinction.”

Of course, if that’s not enough, we’ll also have to deal with the threat of ocean acidification. In a new study released at the Cancun climate summit yesterday, the United Nations Environment Programme reported that increasing carbon emissions are already beginning to change the pH balance of the oceans—and a more acidic ocean could have major impacts on the food supply. Gathering data on ocean acidification, the report found that corals and shellfish will likely find it more difficult to build skeletons, which could reduce their numbers. The report also found that ocean acidification and ocean warming could interact in a way that will limit the range of species like crabs.” http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2010/12/03/oceans-from-climate-change-to-overfishing-bad-news-for-the-deep-blue/

We humans  forget, in our ideology of continuous growth, that we are embedded in a web of life that not only is sustained by the earth, but that in turn sustains the earth as the habitat for that life.  As the article at arbec reminds us, “Accounting for the annual economic productivity of the Earth’s biodiversity–for example, the value of commercial fishing or timber production, or even of that of certain genes used in crops or pharmaceuticals–is a straightforward exercise. Much of biodiversity’s services, however, never trade in the marketplace. Some–such as the generation of our atmosphere’s oxygen, the purification of water, the pollination of crops, the formation of organic soil components, and the cycling of soil nutrients–are essential to human life and seemingly irreplaceable on a large scale. Another, even less tangible, category includes biodiversity’s aesthetic contributions to the human experience, and its role as an essential ingredient in the quality of life.”

I have children and grandchildren, as do most of you.  I can’t help but worry about the world we are leaving them.  Even if we live a sustainable lifestyle, even if we build resilience into our lives and teach them to do the same, it will do little good if the economic pressures of globalization and constant growth eat away at the resilience of the earth we live on until that resilience is gone.

Tara Lohan ended her recent article, ‘Aflockalypse’: Here’s Why We Should Really Be Concerned About the Huge Bird and Fish Die-off, http://www.alternet.org/story/149440/?page=entire by saying, “We can take action now, or we can wait until it starts raining dead birds. Oh wait, that’s already happening. I guess that only leaves us with one choice.”



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