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Time’s Up from the Inside : Chapter 3

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

In the last article, we were looking at things that you can only see under a microscope, and it would have been wonderful to continue in that vein because — as much as it creeps a lot of people out — there is so much “out there”, and also “in here”, that is invisible to the naked eye. I could have had such adventures with phytoplankton in my book (although I do talk about them in Chapter 5), fungal spores, single-celled amoebas and all sorts of other minute organisms that contribute to the rich tapestry of life on Earth.

But for some reason I was attracted to Nematodes. Actually, by logical necessity I had to progress to something around a millimetre in size otherwise the size of the book would have got out of hand; but even at that scale I could have chosen all sorts of fairly familiar things, like seeds, springtails and zooplankton (tiny floaty animals). The thing that made nematodes so compelling was that I knew almost nothing about them — few people do — and yet they were considered by those in the know to be some of the most important creatures on Earth:

There is a certain difficulty in gaining realistic statistics about the variety and quantity of nematodes; after all, nematodes were not formally discovered until 1808, principally because they are too small to observe properly with the naked eye. Victor Dropkin made a more sober assessment than [Nathan Cobb, father of Nematology] of the nematode population in 1980, stating: “Take a handful of soil from almost anywhere in the world . . . and you will find elongate, threadlike, active animals. These are nematodes. Or catch a fish, a bird or a mammal almost anywhere in the world…and in most cases you will find some nematodes inside.” Although nematodes are aquatic animals, in that they need water to survive, the best place to find them is in soil. Simon Gowen of the University of Reading tells his students that in temperate grasslands there are around nine million nematodes for every square metre of soil – then the same students are expected to count them for themselves (not all nine million of them, I hasten to add), just to get an idea of what this means. That is an astounding figure for something that is not a virus or a bacterium, but an animal. This means that the lush grasslands of New Zealand that produce rich butter, high quality lamb and 150 thousand tonnes of wool each year, but only constitute 5.5% of New Zealand’s land area, also hold something like 132,660,000,000,000,000 nematodes. That’s 132 quadrillion, for those of you who ever wanted to know how large a quadrillion is. Compare this with the apocryphal (but believable, and slightly disturbing!) figure of one million spiders per acre of grassland, and you find that nematodes outnumber spiders by 36,000 to 1.

Anyone like to hazard a guess on how many nematodes there are to each human being? I worked it out at about a trillion, for every single human being on Earth! If that’s not interesting enough, there is also the fascinating division between what are considered “good” and “bad” nematodes: it depends to a great extent on whether you are trying to sell pest control devices and chemicals or not; but there are also a great number of nematodes that are unequivocally highly effective — more than almost anything else — at controlling the very “pests” that the agro-chemical companies make so much money out of. Not surprisingly, this relates very closely to the whole synthetic chemicals industry, as well as the often indecent world of biotechnology:

So why aren’t nematodes used all over the world, making most types of pesticide redundant? There are three reasons. First, not a lot of widely read research has been carried out on the usefulness of such nematodes; in fact many nematologists still believe that every nematode is a pest. Second, although nematode insect parasites were identified as effective controls in the 1930s, the availability of cheap, effective chemical pesticides in the 1940s caused this research to be largely ignored, and it was not until some chemicals were banned that research started up again. Finally, and linking these two together, it is clear from the continued lobbying of powerful companies like BASF, Monsanto and Syngenta, that the chemical industry will not give up without a fight. It is no coincidence that DDT was not widely banned until 20 years after clear evidence of its terrible impacts on wildlife was made public, and that the 2007 European Union REACH legislation – which enforces the control of hundreds of previously uncontrolled chemicals – took ten difficult years to come into force. Industry still calls the shots, even in an age when it is so obvious that natural ecosystems cannot cope with the torrent of chemicals being washed into them day after day.

Even with that said, there was even more to unearth in the shady and mysterious world of nematodes. It took me an awful long time to make the rather esoteric concept of Degree Days work on paper; but I had to because it related directly to Climate Change. I won’t try and explain it here, but after about four rewrites I finally made it easy to understand, and thus showed (I think) how relevant a warming world is to agriculture and our force-fed dependency on the global food market. The most surprising thing of all, though, was that it was possible to knit together the fate of something we now take for granted in the West — to the extent that in some countries the familar yellow banana forms an integral part of the cultural milieu — with Industrial Civilization’s obsessive quest for homogeneity, and just two types of nematode that could spell disaster for the world banana crop.

What strange and wonderful things nematodes are.

Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

Time’s Up from the Inside : Chapter 2

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Not so much in the news as viruses, but bacteria can definitely be classified as “living” and — astonishingly — they comprise two of the three major branches of carbon-based life. For every non-bacterial form of life, there is at least one type of uniquely evolved bacteria, and who knows what else waiting to emerge. In fact, to ignore bacteria in a section about the different scales of life, would be tantamount to ignoring life itself.

Given its fundamental position in the Tree of Life, the idea that the impact of environmental change on bacteria — and hence it’s impact on us when affected thus — could be compressed into a single chapter was faintly absurd, so I had to spend a lot of time carefully picking out the most salient points; like this one:

The relationship between the growth rate of bacteria and temperature is remarkably consistent, such that it is possible for scientists to develop general rules to predict how quickly a specific type of bacteria will multiply at a certain temperature. For example, if a certain type of bacteria doubles in number every fifteen minutes under a certain set of conditions, e.g. in a test tube full of milk at 10°C, then under the same conditions but at 15°C the growth rate of that strain of bacteria can be very accurately predicted. David Ratkowsky and his colleagues at the University of Tasmania found the relationship held true in their own samples, and also in the 29 other examples they extracted from various pieces of scientific literature. In short, under ideal conditions, for every 5°C increase in temperature, bacteria divide between 50% and 100% faster. A mere 1°C increase can therefore increase the division rate of bacteria by around 20%.

We are faced with a situation whereby in the last 100 years the average global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the 1900 baseline. In September, the Hadley Centre, part of the UK Meteorological Office, laid out the stark prediction of a 4 degree rise in temperatures above the baseline by 2055 if we don’t do something to radically turn around the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That is a potential 80% increase in bacterial division speed.

In a world that is becoming ever-more overcrowded and urbanised, with cities becoming the de facto location for the spilling over of populations into desparate living conditions, a disease as apparently easy to control as Typhoid Fever (just cap the infected wells) is bound to spread to places that were once free of infection. Add to this the prospect of a baking Earth and cities will become no-go areas:

Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, and is the cause of over half a million deaths worldwide every year. Unlike tuberculosis, typhoid will happily live outside of the body, specializing particularly in standing water containing human sewage. A pond, well or ditch only has to contain a fragment of faecal matter from the unwashed hands of a child for the entire water source to become infected; and the warmer the water is, the faster it will become infected until every person drinking that water is fated to ingest the bacteria. Vaccinations are an effective preventative measure against typhoid, and antibiotics can bring most cases under control, but studies carried out in Vietnam and throughout Africa have found numerous strains of antibiotic-resistant typhoid throughout the population, and even bacteria that appear to be changing the way that they evolve in order to survive.

The message carried later on in Time’s Up! is already becoming evident: our situation is a product not of humanity, but of a particular type of humanity. A type of humanity that will sacrifice its future in order to live a dream; a dream so many people are being sold, and are buying in ever larger numbers…

The kinds of conditions that much of the world’s population has to put up with are creating new breeding-grounds for diseases like typhus. The cramped, unserviced slums skirting Mumbai, Sao Paolo and Jakarta are barely acknowledged by the same authorities that pride themselves on their city’s economic opportunities. These shanty-towns, favelas and ghettos are the result of a multitude failed to deliver on their promises. Instead, the aspirant slum-dwellers get disease and a way of life that is often far worse than the one they wanted to escape from.

Time’s Up from the Inside : Chapter 1

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

It would be nice to think that we are all friends, but I do have to be careful sometimes, after all there are always a few politicians, corporations and other assorted members of the elite who will do anything they can to ensure no cracks open into the real world. So I’m having to compromise a little with this series of articles, written to give readers a taste of the book Time’s Up! and also a little insight into the ideas behind it — you might not get all my innermost thoughts, but you will find out a bit more than it was possible to put into the narrative; just like DVD extras, sometimes they can be very interesting.

It all starts with the very smallest things…

Breathe in, and your body starts a battle. Countless micro-organisms hitch a lift on every stream of air being pulled into your lungs, seeking out a place where they can embed themselves and multiply. Once inside, every potential form of nutrition is fair game: blood cells, fat cells, skin, bone marrow, lymphatic fluid – all hosts for the army of invaders that just want to find a way of increasing their numbers. You are alive because your body has evolved ways of fighting them off. No medicine can match the efficiency of your own army of defenders across such a vast range of attackers, without killing off its host as well.

Why start so small? Ok, this is what happened originally: I wanted to do something different; rather than the immediate leap into the global scale that most books about environmental change tend to make, it actually seemed far more logical to choose a number of different scales (the origin of the online title, “A Matter Of Scale“) and try to show how, regardless of scale, civilized humans were changing it, and as a result causing a knock-on effect that was hitting our own species hard. Tempting as it was to go straight to bacteria, these being the smallest organism that is definitely living, it would have been terribly amiss of me to ignore something that might just be living, and might also be changing in such a way that the future of vast swathes of humanity were at stake.

It would be disingenuous to claim I predicted the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic that began in Mexico in April 2009, but I most certainly had an inkling that we were in for something significant when I wrote the words above back in November 2007: HIV, SARS, H5N1, Ebola…you name it, we are due on the menu again at some point. What a tasty feast for these oh-so-tiny, so ancient, pieces of proto-life.

You might notice something hidden between the lines of that last sentence: the army of invaders, killing off its host…bring anything to mind? There is indeed a terrible parallel between the seemingly unstoppable march of Industrial Civilization, and the potential destructive power of a mutant viral strain, ready to latch onto the heaving, quivering, packed-in mass of flesh that the world’s cities are the domain of.

When you bring the kind of rich pathogenic soup that can be found in cities in close proximity to the kinds of bird farming described above [on page 20] then the likelihood of cross-species transmission is greatly increased. If a human influenza virus evolves sufficiently to infect a bird, and that bird is infected with H5N1 bird flu then the two viruses can mix and ‘swap’ genes. The resulting virus will then have enough common characteristics to both infect humans and create the kind of turmoil that H5N1 has caused in flocks of birds. It only takes one person in the vast genetic pool of our major cities to contract a transgenic virus for it then to become a human epidemic.

Yet we positively encourage the epidemics of the future, simply by the way that we try to squeeze every last ounce of meat from the sea of factory farmed animals, the way we have an insatiable desire to live in cities that are the crucibles of the economic dream, and the way we are urged to cross the globe at an ever accelerating pace, simply to fulfil a desire to be somewhere else. We are now in Wave 2 of the Swine Flu pandemic; it was inevitable, but it need never have happened had we not become so addicted to this way of life.

My Name Is Keith, And I’m An Anti-Civilizationist

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Imagine the scenario: you are speaking to a crowd of people who have been enthusiastically lapping up your words and are ready for the great conclusion that is going to lead them to a better life. “The answer is at the other end of the country; you can take any route you like,” you tell them.

“Hooray! Let’s go!” they shout in unison.

“Oh, but you can’t use anything with a motor to get there.”

And the crowd disperses, except for a few stragglers who simply want to know if you really meant what you said about not being able to use any motorised transport. You tell them, “Yes”, and all but two of them walk away under a cloud of broken promises and lost hope.

The two who remain want to make the journey; they think it’s worth it if what you say is really true. You tell them you can’t make any guarantees — no one can — but if they are willing to stick with it then there is a pretty good chance that their future could be far brighter than if they had not made the journey. One of them says, “Thanks, but I can’t afford the risk.” Honest, and maybe he’ll decide to make the journey in his own time.

The last remaining person says, “When do we start?” She waits for the answer, and after a while you say, “Whenever you are ready.” Just one person out of a crowd of many; and there’s the rub. As I write these words, a book I spent 18 months writing, and far longer preparing to write, is being released by Chelsea Green. It’s called “Time’s Up!” and I am quite proud of it, if that’s allowed. Quite a few people have told me that they like it. That’s nice: it keeps me writing, and keeps me trying to make things happen.

All books need a subtitle, and mine is no exception, because regardless of the flying cars and oil rigs, and the metaphorical dandelion “clock” seeds, “Time’s Up!” could be about anything to do with the end of stuff. So I chose the subtitle, “An Uncivilized Solution To A Global Crisis.”

Possibly not my best decision if I was hoping for an environmental best-seller which would be featured on Oprah or in the pages of Readers Digest, but why lie? I could have called it: “A Really Easy Guide To Saving The World”, and copies would have flown off the shelves, only to be relegated to bookshelves and charity shops (actually, I like charity shops) because the Oprah fans and Readers Digest readers soon realised that in order to rescue humanity from a catastrophe that is looking more inevitable with every new day they would have to say goodbye to so many things they considered to be essential to their lives.

Like Oprah and Readers Digest.

It’s a really tough call to make, and an even tougher sell; but I would be fooling myself and everyone I write for — yes, perhaps you are among those people — if I suggested that by “Doing your bit” and “Greening your lifestyle” it would make the slightest difference to the outcome of the toxic game we have been part of for so many years. By making it clear that the only way out of this mess is to say goodbye to Industrial Civilization, I am at least being honest, for there really is no other way that the increasingly consumerised human population is going to bridge the gap between catastrophic ecological collapse, and a future in which we have a real chance of long-term survival.

So feel free to walk away from the message, but at least acknowledge that perhaps the answer to where we need to go isn’t going to be on peak-time TV or in the pages of the glossy magazines. It isn’t even in most of the environmental books that sell by the thousand every week, promising a brighter future for little effort.

My name is Keith, and I’m an Anti-Civilizationist.

Will you come with me?

Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution To A Global Crisis is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. You can find more information by going to http://www.timesupbook.com