Climate Changes

Today the Globe&Mail had a pair of articles about energy. One fretted about peak coal and cited the enormous appetite that China and India have for the stuff — to fuel their growing societies. The other commented that the CONS (Conservative Reformed Alliance Party) has no meaningful strategy for dealine with climate change — with the almost mandatory comments about why we should just shutdown our civilization and learn to live without electricity or make sure all those dirty polluters really pay the price.

But these folks both miss the point — yes, it is clear that the climate is changing. And yes, the science says that atmospheric CO2 has been rising steeply since the start of the Industrial revolution. But the science has also revealed that the ozone hole over the Antarctic is messing up rainfall in the southern hemisphere and causing, indirectly, droughts and other catastrophies. And methane from a whole lot of sources, natural and manmade, is an even more potent greenhouse gas, and so on. Seems hardly a week goes by that the pages of are not decorated with articles of new revelations about previously unknown climate relationships.

Problem is that the climate system of the Earth is pretty complex and involves the interaction of the planet, the biosphere and the star we orbit in ways that somehow I think we have not even begun to suspect. Put simply, the climate system is a tad bigger than our tiny minds can grasp, let alone make society-changing predictions about what to diddle to make things go back to the way they were — sometime in the past. But we persist in a combination of angst, concern and greed (anyone actually read the Ontario ‘Green’ Energy Act?). And despite the damage we have done in our lust to make money from the angst over climate change the climate will continue to change. And probably those very things we are doing — like destroying rural areas with huge, intermittently operating wind turbines, will have their own negative effects. One research paper I read said that the wind farms tended to dry areas downwind because they interferred with wind flow.

And these natural hydrocarbons are really too precious to burn — we need them as chemical feedstocks almost more than we need them to run our cars. And burning food is just plain silly — sort of a double up on wasting energy. Energy conservation should be done because it makes good business sense — which means it is more important to get all the useful energy out if we do burn it, not throw 1/2 or 2/3rds of it away because some loon thinks if we liquify all the combustion products and inject them into the ground someplace this will make the Arctic icecap come back. And make the problem go away…

But with all this attention to the putative source of the problem we are ignoring the inevitable results. Even if we shutdown our entire world wide society today the climate will continue to change for centuries untill the Earth finds a new equilibrium point. Meanwhile the Arctic is warming and one day will be a nicer place to live. And a lot of Canada will be tillable that is now just permafrost. And what I think may be the largest migration in human history will roll over us with the unstoppability of a glacier as people seek to live someplace that is more hospitable. It will take a while to prepare for that — and likely cost a lot more than just buggering up all the power plants.

And speaking of that, the more I read of the Japanese nuclear mess the more it convinces me that the problem is people, not technology. Too much coverup, too much hunger for profit and reluctance to change plant practices as the technology improved. Nothing unique here except they got caught by Mother Nature — truely a motha in this case. But as long as we let the fear camp keep us from seriously developing nuclear technology we will never realize its potential. Personally, I think small is beautiful and these huge plants are a mistake, as is our desire to avoid confronting the waste side of it — probably a huge asset we have not realized how to use. After all, gasoline was once considered too dangerous to use in a moving vehical — I am sure we can learn if we try.

So in the end I think that the real problem of climate change is not that the climate is changing but that we arrogantly assume that we can control it. And we spend our efforts at trying to make money from this rather than recognizing the limits of our wisdom and the inevitability of the changes. The future will come whether we want it to or not. I only hope we are preparing for it rather than trying to postpone it.

If small is beautiful why do we fear it?

Today there was another article about the safety of the food supply in the Globe. This was accompanied by a survey of food safety incidents world-wide that suggested that the record of the Canadian food industry was one of the worse. Countries with very few incidents appear to my uncritical eye as ones where there is pride in local production. But not here.

A local organization I am a part of runs a small market on Saturdays. A few days ago I received a request from the municipality that all vendors must register and sign off that they are in full compliance with all local, provincial and federal food safety regulations. This will probably scare off some of the smaller vendors — which I suspect is the real intent. The politicians claim it is because of rising insurance liability costs but one wonders.

All around me are the ruins of struggling and abandoned farms. At one point this locality boasted a number of cheese plants that consumed the output of the then abundant local dairy herds. One by one these have all closed — the complaint seems to be increasing government regulation and the difficulty of selling a unique product into a mass market. The interesting part is that the bulk cheese one finds in the chain stores seem to grow more insipid with each passing year. Similar stories are readily available for mushrooms and strawberries — I used to live down the road from a big mushroom farm. But the local stores only carried product trucked in from 100’s of miles away and nowhere near as good. My wife ran into this with strawberries — at the peak of the local strawberry season the chain stores only carried fruit from half a continent away. The produce manager told her that the contract negotiated by central purchasing banned any local products as long as the store brought in product from this large US vendor.

Despite the marketing messages about how unique we are and that the most desirable products are ones created especially for us — haute couture, for example. We are awash in goods that are created by the millions and hundreds of millions with little variation. Regardless of where one were to dine, places like McDonalds assure us that the meal will be predictable and uniform. The local colour and character that once made traveling so interesting is fading away like the flavor of mass market cheese.

And despite all the ills that cities have wrought, we persist in crowding people into them. And slowly dismantling the transportation network that made living a more dispersed existance possible. Bus service is being discontinued to rural areas, the train definately doesn’t stop there anymore — interestingly the railroad rerouted passenger services away from the urban centers along Lake Superior. And the roads are gradually degrading — as we no longer have the will to keep them up, even improve them. But if we cannot afford to maintain a major bridge, we can spend more to build a huge sports stadium.

In my darker thoughts I think that it is ultimately about control. Capital concentration and the myth of economies of scale are leading into a society every bit as stagnant and divided as the one that the Church used to rule back in the Middle ages. With the decline of the middle class in part due to the exporting of jobs and the increasing concentration of wealth we are slowly but surely rolling back centuries of social change and re-instituting a feudal society. A dispersed rural society would be both resilient and difficult to control — independent people have an attentuated respect for authority (other than their own). But starving and impoverished masses crowded into cities are a different problem. Especially when their food comes from away and their water and other services can be flipped off at will. And our leaders have already shown a willingness to impose a police state if it suits their purposes.

But there is a downside — how far can this process go before the masses revolt (again)? Will (sur)reality TV and cheap (but unsafe) food keep them content like the mythic bread and circuses? The Russian and French revolutions come to mind.

Personally, I like to think that we do not need to go through this cycle again. But here we are — rural communities are being killed off by intent and neglect. And overall quality of life is declining for everyone but a few. If it were my choice this is not an apple I would want to bite into.