Nature and Environment Archive


400 Chernobyls

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

MIT engineer warns of nuclear Armageddon, urges preventative measures

There are nearly 450 nuclear reactors in the world, with hundreds more either under construction or in the planning stages. Imagine what havoc it would wreak on our civilization, and the planet's ecosystems, if we were to suddenly experience not just one or two nuclear meltdowns, but 400. In this article, you will come to understand that unless we take significant preventative measures, this Apocalyptic scenario is not only possible, but probable.

Over the past 152 years the Earth has been struck by at least two naturally occurring severe geomagnetic solar storms of such a magnitude that if they were to occur today, in all likelihood would initiate a chain of events leading to catastrophic failures at most of our world's nuclear reactors. During the Great Geomagnetic Storm of May 14-15, 1921, brilliant aurora displays were reported in the Northern Hemisphere as far south as Mexico and Puerto Rico, and in the Southern Hemisphere as far north as Samoa. Just 62 years earlier, an even more powerful solar storm, referred to as "The Carrington Event," raged from August 28 to September 4, 1859.

Solar storms occur when the sun launches a huge mass of charged plasma directly towards the earth, in what is commonly referred to as a "coronal mass ejection" (CME). Since we are headed into an active solar period, much like the one preceding the Carrington Event, scientists are concerned that conditions are ripe for the next extreme "geomagnetic disturbance" (GMD).
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Figure 1. Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), SOHO image, June 9, 2002.

The extreme GMDs of 1829 and 1921 induced massive current and voltage spikes in telegraph and power lines, disrupting telegraph communications over much of the planet while sparking numerous fires in and around telegraph equipment. Prior to the advent of the microchip, most electrical systems were relatively robust and resistant to the effects of GMDs. Given the fact that a simple electrostatic spark can fry a microchip, and many thousands of miles of power lines tend to act as giant antennas for capturing massive amounts of GMD spawned electromagnetic energy, the electrical systems of the modern world are far more vulnerable than their predecessors.
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Figure 2. Growth of U.S. Electrical Power Grid & Electrical Usage

A growing number of scientists and engineers have become concerned about the vulnerability of both the grid and modern microelectronics to debilitating damage from severe electromagnetic disturbances. These could come either in the form of naturally occurring extreme GMDs, like what occurred during the 1921 and 1859 super solar storms, or an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) resulting from the deliberate detonation of a nuclear device at a high altitude above the earth. Since the most recently recorded extreme GMD last occurred in May of 1921, long before the advent of modern electronics and nuclear power plants, we are for the most part blissfully unaware of this threat, and totally unprepared for its consequences. However, a small but growing number of scientists and engineers have come to realize that the next extreme GMD may very well cause a chain of events so severe in nature that the result would be the end of the world as we know it.

The federal government recently sponsored a detailed scientific study to more fully understand the extent to which critical components of our national electrical power grid might be affected by either a naturally occurring GMD or a man-made EMP. Under the auspices of the EMP Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Metatech corporation analyzed the effects on the U.S. power grid of an extreme GMD equal to the 1921 super solar storm. The Metatech study predicts that massive current and voltage spikes induced by an extreme GMD would fry more than 350 "Extra High Voltage" (EHV) power transformers in the continental U.S. and possibly well over 2000 EHV transformers worldwide. Since these massive transformers are critical to the operation of our electrical power grid, their loss would be devastating.

EHV transformers are custom designed for each installation and are made to order, weighing as much as 300 tons each, and costing well over a million dollars. There is currently a three year waiting list for a single EHV transformer (recent demand from China and India caused lead times to stretch from 1 to 3 years), and the total global manufacturing capacity is roughly 100 EHV transformers per year. Given these facts, if a thousand or more of the world's EHV transformers were to be destroyed during a single geomagnetic storm, it would take years, and possibly decades, for much of the world to recover from such an event.

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Figure 3. Severe geomagnetic storm with a 50 degree geomagnetic disturbance scenario. The above outlined regions are susceptible to system collapse due to the effects of extreme GMD disturbance

The implications of widespread long-term grid collapse seem even more ominous once one realizes that the world's nuclear power plants are totally dependent upon a steady supply of electricity to power the cooling system pumps for both the reactor cores as well as well as nearby "spent fuel ponds" where decommissioned reactor fuels rods are stored. Due to lack of a permanent repository, these fuel containment ponds are greatly overloaded and tightly packed beyond original design. Typically surrounded by common light industrial buildings, with concrete walls and corrugated steel roofs, the average spent fuel pond contains the accumulated fuel rods from ten or more decommissioned reactor cores.

Reactors are designed to automatically disconnect from the grid, and start shutting themselves down, whenever they are subject to severe grid anomalies or local blackouts. Backup electrical power generators are required at every nuclear reactor to provide power for the reactor's cooling systems in the event of a local blackout or an emergency reactor shut-down. In the U.S., since it is assumed that grid blackouts will last for a few days at most, our nuclear power plants are only required to store enough fuel on hand to keep the backup generators running for one week.

It was a short-term cooling system failure that caused the partial reactor core melt-down at Three Mile Island, and Japanese officials claim it was not direct damage from Japan's 9.0 magnitude Tohoku Earthquake that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor disaster, but the loss of electric power to the reactor's cooling system pumps when the reactor's backup generators were wiped out by the ensuing tidal wave. In the hours and days after the tidal waves shuttered the cooling system, the cores of reactors number 1, 2 and 3 were in full meltdown and released hydrogen gas, fueling explosions which breached several containment vessels.

A few days later, lacking cooling system circulation, the protective water bath boiled away from Fukushima's spent fuel pool for reactor No. 4. Had it not been for heroic efforts on the part of Japan's nuclear workers to replenish waters in this spent fuel pool, these spent fuel rods would have melted down and ignited their zirconium cladding, which burns like a magnesium fire. A zirconium fire in one of the spent fuel pools would have the potential to spew far more radioactive contamination than has been previously released. Japanese officials have estimate that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has released to date just over half the total radioactive contamination from Chernobyl, but other sources estimate it could be significantly more radiation than was released by Chernobyl.

Preventing Armageddon
The congressionally mandated EMP Commission studied the threat of both EMP and extreme GMD events, and they made recommendations to congress for a plan that would insure the survival of the grid and other critical infrastructures in either event. John Kappenman, author of the Metatech study, estimates that it would cost on the order of $1 billion to protect our grid's extra-high voltage (EHV) transformers from either EMP or extreme GMD, and to build stores of critical replacement parts in the event that some of these items were inadvertently damaged or destroyed. Kappenman estimates that it would cost significantly less than $1 billion to store at least one-year supply of backup generator fuel at each of our nuclear facilities, and to store sets of critical spare parts, including generators, inside steel EMP-hardened containers to be available for quick change-out in the event that any of these items were damaged by an EMP or GMD.

For the cost of a single B-2 bomber, or a tiny fraction of the TARP bank bailout, we could invest in preventative measures to avert the potential end of our civilization and life as we know it. There is no way to protect against all possible effects from an extreme GMD or EMP attack, but certainly we could implement measures to protect against their worst effects. Since 2008, Congress has narrowly failed to pass legislation that would implement at least some of the EMP Commission's recommendations.

For more than 50 years, the US Army Corps of Engineers knew that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen, and they made plans for rebuilding the aging system of inadequate levies, but those plans were never implemented. Have we learned nothing from the wholly preventable flooding of New Orleans? Will we continue to ignore facts and pretend that "everything will be OK" while our world drifts towards the next inevitable extreme GMD? This time, failure to prepare will not just mean the loss of a major city, but will lead to the end of the industrialized world as we know it, along with incalculable suffering, death, and environmental destruction on a scale not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

We have a long ways to go to make our world EMP and GMD safe. Every citizen can do their part to push for legislation to move towards this goal. We must work inside our homes and communities to develop local resilience and self reliance, so that in the event of a long term grid-down scenario, we might make the most of a bad situation. For more information, or to get involved, see http://empactamerica.org/ or http://survive-emp.com/, and contact your congressman at http://www.contactingthecongress.org/.

Matthew Stein is the author of When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival, and When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com and whentechfails.com and matstein.com.

Backcasting Into the Future

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. –Albert Einstein

It used to be that as the New Year approached and people reminisced about the passing of the old one, they would optimistically look forward to the coming year, anticipating that it would be fertile with opportunities for advancement, growth, expansion, and ever increasing prosperity. For many, our former optimism has been replaced by trepidation. The combined weight of the global financial meltdown, a changing climate, the constant threat of terrorism, the recent plateau and impending decline in world oil production, and a steadily increasing population ever harder to keep fed and employed, has settled upon our collective consciousness like a thick fog, blocking visions of a rosy future that most of once enjoyed.

It was Einstein who defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". He also said, "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them." Essentially this means the same behavior and ways of thinking that got the world into its current mess will most certainly not get us out of it. It we are to avoid the collapse of our civilization along with the natural systems of our planet, it will require a new paradigm–a new level of thinking and vision that goes far beyond the limits of the old ways that got us here in the first place. The problem is that most of us stay stuck in the same old ways of thinking as we project the past into the future, seeing the future in terms of prior trends, tools, and techniques.

There is a powerful new tool that we can each use to help remove the "blinders" of the old ways that got here in the first place, and this tool is called "backcasting". We can each use this tool to discover and create the concrete actions and policies that will overcome today's seemingly insurmountable challenges, shifting our direction towards a vision of a wonderful future that most of the world desperately craves. Start the process of "backcasting" by imagining the future that you desire–regardless of whether or not you believe it is possible. I like to picture a modern renaissance, where we have created a sustainable world in which all peoples have access to clean water, clean air, abundant food, education, health care, and a life free of persecution and violence. A world in which the natural systems of our planet are no longer degrading but are recovering towards their native state of vibrancy, abundance and health. In my vision, we have halted population growth, the unsustainable fishing of the oceans, the destruction of the world's forests and ecosystems, and have weaned ourselves from dependence upon fossil fuels. Many would argue that this is an impossible dream, but I would argue that it is not an impossible dream but an imperative dream, and this is where the beauty and power of backcasting comes in.

With backcasting, you start from the vision of that which you wish to create, and work backwards. You step "back from the future", one step at a time, watching in your mind's eye how this beautiful fecund future was created, step by step, until you arrive at the present moment. Let your imagination run wild, and do not allow your vision to be limited by that nagging negative voice in the back of your mind telling you "this can't be done."

You will be surprised by this exercise! Some actions, which you may currently believe preposterous or "un-dreamed of," will be "seen" while backcasting as not only logical, but absolutely necessary steps along the path of global transformation. Collectively the peoples of this world got us into this mess, and there is no time better than the present for the peoples of the world to start shifting gears away from our current apocalyptic course and onto a new one pointed towards transformation and renaissance.

We can do this! It is time to "backcast" our way into a bright and beautiful future!

Read the original article over at The Huffington Post.

Mat Stein is the author of When Technology Fails, available now.

What Is True Sustainability?

Monday, October 11th, 2010

"We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security. The restorative economy unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes."

— Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

Every day we hear about topics like sustainable growth and sustainable building, but what does it really mean to be “sustainable?” The economist Herman Daly has suggested three simple rules to help define sustainability:

  1. For a renewable resource –– soil, water, forest, fish –– the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate of regeneration of its source. (Thus, for example, fish are harvested unsustainably when they are caught at a rate greater than the rate of growth of the remaining fish population.)
  2. For a nonrenewable resource –– fossil fuel, high-grade mineral ores, fossil groundwater –– the sustainable rate of use can be no greater than the rate at which a renewable resource, used sustainably, can be substituted for it. (For example, an oil deposit would be used sustainably if part of the profits from it were systematically invested in wind farms, photovoltaic arrays, and tree planting, so that when the oil is gone, an equivalent stream of renewable energy is still available.)
  3. For a pollutant, the sustainable rate of emission can be no greater than the rate at which the pollutant can be recycled, absorbed, or rendered harmless in the environment. (For example, sewage can be put into a stream or lake or underground aquifer sustainably no faster than bacteria and other organisms can absorb its nutrients without themselves overwhelming and destabilizing the aquatic ecosystem.)

Another way of looking at sustainability comes from Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Robèrt’s passion for sustainability developed in the late 1980s when he was working as a medical doctor and cancer treatment researcher. He felt a deep sorrow and fear in his heart concerning the destruction of the Earth’s environment. Working with his microscope, he saw that there were environmental limits that must be maintained within and around each cell and that when these limits are breached, the cell’s death is absolutely certain. The parallels to our Earth’s perilous condition of continuous environmental degradation became obvious, and Robèrt’s passion for the issue of sustainability turned into an obsession.

As Robèrt’s ideas began to crystallize into a formula for sustainability, he wrote a scientific paper on this subject, and shared it with numerous Swedish colleagues and scientists. After something like 22 drafts, this paper was published, and their consensus for a sustainability definition and guidelines became known as, “The Natural Step.” Robèrt recognized that our world is essentially a closed system, meaning that outside of the sun’s energy streaming to Earth, there are no new materials and resources to be found on this planet other than what was here to begin with. If we are to stand a chance of modifying humankind’s practices and industry in sustainable ways, then we must first understand what it means to be “sustainable.”

In two simple sentences, The Natural Step (TNS) defines four minimum environmental conditions as necessary elements for maintaining life sustainably in a closed-system world such as planet Earth:

In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  1. Concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
  2. Concentrations of substances produced by society; or
  3. Degradation by physical means.
  4. And in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

These four conditions provide us with a definition to help us determine whether a society is sustainable or not. TNS also provides a collection of strategic methods and resources for helping organizations, whether they are governmental or industrial, to make genuine progress on the road to sustainability. Robèrt’s sustainability conversations expanded beyond his circle of friends and the scientific community to public television, Swedish media stars, leading politicians, and even to the King of Sweden. Robèrt’s  ideas have had a profound effect on many businesses, including IKEA, McDonald's, Electrolux, and many others.

Let’s take a closer look at the four TNS conditions for sustainability:

  1. Stored deposits: In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to increasing concentrations of potentially toxic materials that have been “liberated” from where they were stored as deposits inside the Earth’s crust. Mankind has been refining natural substances, such as mercury, lead, and radioactive materials, in unnatural concentrations. These substances that were previously bound into stable, durable matrices, such as bedrock or coal, are now accumulating in the biosphere, where they are metabolized into living organisms at ever increasing concentrations. Nothing disappears from our world, and everything that is not bound into a solid, stable matrix eventually disperses into the ecosystem.
  2. Synthetic compounds and other unnatural material byproducts of society: In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to increasing concentrations of unnatural synthetic compounds. If this condition is not met, eventually the concentrations of these substances will reach concentration levels where irreversible changes begin to occur, with potentially dire consequences. The solution is to proactively substitute more common compounds, or ones that break down easily, for certain persistent and unnatural compounds, and for society to use substances efficiently. Remember that even using less of a toxic compound (improved efficiency) will still add up over time to too much of a bad thing, if this compound decomposes slower than the rate at which it is inserted into the biosphere.
  3. Physical degradation of ecosystems and natural resources: We must draw our resources from well-managed ecosystems. Our health and prosperity depend on the capacity of nature to restructure our wastes into new resources. Human activities need to work in harmony with the cyclic principles of nature.
  4. Human needs: Unless basic human socioeconomic needs are met worldwide through fair and efficient use of resources, it will be difficult to coordinate efforts and cooperation to meet conditions one, two, and three on a global scale. In a sustainable society, human needs are met worldwide.

(Source: Adapted from The Natural Step for Business, by Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare, 2001)

From looking at both Robèrt’s and Daly’s definition of sustainability, we see that few things in our modern world are actually built, processed, or manufactured sustainably, including what is generally referred to as “sustainable building”, and that we have a long ways to go towards actually making our modern word sustainable.

Building a sustainable world will not be easy, but it is doable!

Green tip for the day: Fix it instead of throwing “it” away! When an item is manufactured, far greater inputs in the form of energy and raw materials go into making most items than meets the eye, and far more waste is generated in manufacturing and refining these raw materials than the item that sits in front of you. For example, according to a UN University study, 1.8 tons of raw materials are used to manufacture the average PC, and most of these materials are dumped somewhere as waste. So, when you repair an item rather than throwing it “away,” you are reducing your consumption and ecological footprint on the planet. It often seems hardly worth your time to sew a split seam on an item of clothing, upgrade a computer, or repair an appliance, but fixing something yourself, or spending a few bucks for someone else to fix it, is one more way of Doing the Right Thing. The exception to this rule is when the item is an old energy hog, such as a refrigerator that is more than ten years old, or a gas guzzling car. In these cases, the energy wasted by the old appliance over its lifetime is far more energy than what goes into making a new efficient one.

Read the original post at Mother Earth News.

Mat Stein is the author of When Technology Fails, available now.

Time for America’s Dunkirk!

Monday, June 21st, 2010

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post

I had my hair cut last week. While she was cutting my hair, Kelli and I were talking about the Gulf Oil Spill. As she swept the clumps of hair off her salon's floor she said, "that is a nice contribution". Explaining herself, Kelli proudly pulled out a large garbage bag full of hair that she was ready to ship off to the Gulf to help suck up some of that waste oil before it poisons more water and kills more wild life. Obviously my little bit of hair is not going to make much of a difference in the Gulf, but large chunks of the Gulf are dying every day, and we simply can't afford to keep waiting for BP to come up with the perfect solution. We've got to attack this problem on multiple fronts with wartime speed and priority. IT'S TIME FOR AMERICA'S DUNKIRK!

In the battle of Dunkirk during late May of 1940, the advancing German army had cornered what remained of the retreating British, French, and Belgian forces, and was closing in for the kill. When Churchill addressed the British House of Commons, he said that "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In what has been referred to as "The miracle of Dunkirk", 42 British warships, 39 flat bottomed Dutch "coaster" ships, and all available civilian vessels were hastily assembled for the evacuation of the allied forces. The civilian portion, referred to as "the little ships of Dunkirk", was a flotilla of about 700 pleasure craft, fishing boats, and some private merchant marine ships. These "little ships" played a key role in transporting troops from the shallow waters to the waiting battle ships, and carried over 20,000 troops across the English Channel. Original military estimates were that they would only be able to save roughly 45,000 troops before being cut off by the German army. However, in this miracle of civilian and military cooperation (the "spirit of Dunkirk") they were able to rescue 338,226 soldiers from death or imprisonment!

It is this "CAN DO" attitude and spirit of cooperation that are badly needed today! BP knows how to discover oil, drill and pump oil, and distill it, but they do not know how to effectively clean it up, nor does our government. It is the private sector that knows how to do this dirty job, yet for the most part they have been cut out of it. How long must we watch BP's string of failures while perfectly good technologies lie waiting in the shadows? Why not make it "all hands on deck" while we pursue all viable options and techniques in parallel? When the Dunkirk evacuation took place, each and every seaworthy civilian boat was welcomed and well used–no viable option was turned away!

"When Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Guard ignited oil wells in the deserts of Kuwait, it was not the military, the oil companies or the Coast Guard that put out those fires, but experts like Red Adair's company and Boots and Coots who were called upon to extinguish the fires. The same is true now. The Coast Guard and BP are obviously not experts in stopping the leak or cleaning up the gulf. It is high time that we bring in private environmental remediation companies who are in this business and perform these services every day of their lives." — Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle (R - Tomball)

So far, in the Gulf we've seen bogus beach cleanup workers show up a few hours before Obama's visit to the beach, only to be released a few hours later once the president had left the scene. We've seen "no fly" zones, reporter intimidation, and employee "gag orders" designed to cover up the extent of the oil spill, not help contain it. BP has repeatedly lied or knowingly mislead the public about the size and extent of this disaster. Surprise! Surprise! It turns out you can't trust an oil company!

Two Dutch companies have been on endless standby, offering their proven technology for capturing oil from the oil spill. They have fully equipped oil spill response vessels utilizing giant booms and skimmers designed specifically to deal with oil spills. In the Dutch method, oil and seawater are sucked up in huge volumes onto the ship, where the oil and water are separated and the water is pumped back into the ocean while the oil is stored in the tanker for commercial processing. The so-called "problem" is that a tiny percentage of oil is still left in the seawater that is returned to the ocean, and American regulations will not allow that to occur (regulations specify that this water is to be stored for later processing). Let me make sure you get this straight. Current US government regulations allow us to drop millions of gallons of highly toxic dispersants (several times more toxic than the oil it is supposed to disperse) into the Gulf, but we can't return cleansed seawater to the ocean that is a thousand times cleaner than the scummy oil filled water that it is replacing, just because it still has a tiny residue of oil in it? Someone must have their head up their _ss!

Within a few days after the Deepwater Horizon sunk, and the oil started flowing into the Gulf, I watched a video about the oil spill relief technology funded and promoted by actor and director Kevin Costner. After weeks elapsed with all of Costner's efforts falling on seemingly deaf BP ears, it took a televised congressional testimonial on the part of Costner to finally get BP to commit to giving his technology a shot.

Costner's not alone in his frustration. There are numerous private sector solutions that are languishing in the sidelines while their company's team members are chomping at the bit to get their chance to assist with this vital do-or-die cleanup effort. Some of these "solutions" are rather amateur, but may well be worth the effort, like the "chopped hay" oil clean up solution promoted by at least one YouTube video. Other efforts are quite professional, from private sector companies with proven technologies for tackling this solution, such as the ones offered by Planet Resource Recovery. These people have spent years developing a proprietary non-toxic nano-particle formula that breaks the bond between oil and the soils, rock, or water that it is mixed with, or stuck too. They have teamed up with a other private sector companies to form a consortium called the "Gulf Spirit Group" to provide turnkey oil spill remediation services. Like Costner, they have created a video to show what they can do, but unlike Costner, they do not have the "star power" to get their message in front of congress, and so far their presentations to BP appear to have fallen on deaf ears. If our country truly supports the free market and private innovation, why are we not letting all qualified remediation firms and reasonable looking technologies give it a shot and prove to us what they can do? The private sector may well be our "little ships of Dunkirk", but only if the feds and BP give them a chance.

Come on America, let's take this bull by the horns and show the world what American ingenuity, cooperation, and fighting spirit can do. Let's turn the tide on this tragedy, make the miracle happen, and turn the Gulf Oil Spill into America's Dunkirk!


Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com and whentechfails.com.

Game Change or Game Over

Monday, June 14th, 2010

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

"Admittedly world organization with common obedience to law would be a solution. Not that easy…. Things cannot be forced from the top. The international relinquishing of sovereignty would have to spring from the people–it would be so strong that the elected delegates would be turned out of office if they failed to do it…"
–John F. Kennedy, from JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglas

When President Kennedy wrote these words, he was referring to the specter of war in the modern age, and the distinct possibility that armed conflicts could "go nuclear," thus ending life as we know it on planet Earth. Though we appear to have dodged that bullet, today's world is faced with the equally deadly specter of global collapse that is in ways far more insidious, and far more difficult to prevent, than Kennedy's worst nightmare.

The mortal enemy of today's world is not Kennedy's nuclear demon, but simply the logical outcome of continuing to do "business as usual" in a world that is reaching its environmental and natural resource limits. Tragic as it is, there is nothing highly unusual about the Gulf Oil Spill, which may be considered both a wake up call as well as a preview of coming attractions.

The explosion and sinking of the $350 million Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is the perfect example of what is wrong with the corporate world and our global economy. Corporations have no soul to tell them what is right from wrong, and in most cases their sole purpose is to make maximal profits for their stock holders. In an interview on 60 Minutes with Mike Williams, who was the chief electronics technician and possibly the last man alive to leap from the burning deck of the oil rig before it sank, Williams related that he was told the expected drilling schedule for this oil well was about 21 days, but by the time of the accident they had already been drilling for over six weeks. The drilling operation on the Deepwater Horizon was costing BP about $1 million a day, so their executives were under intense pressure to speed things up, and it appears that they made some rather unwise and risky decisions that ended in catastrophe.

Four weeks before the initial explosion, when a technician reported seeing shredded rubber come out of the drilling fluid after someone accidentally drove a drilling pipe through a critical rubber "annular" ring in the infamous "Blow Out Preventer" (BOP), a supervisor told them "it was no big deal" and drilling continued as usual. In the weeks that followed, communications problems with one of the two the electronic control pods that controlled the BOP were also ignored. Finally, in the hours shortly before the deadly oil rig explosion, a BP official overruled both Transocean and Halliburton engineers and opted for a quicker (and riskier) method of placing the concrete seals inside the well bore. The BP method obviously failed to do its job, allowing explosive gasses to break through the concrete seals with catastrophic results. In hind sight, it appears that BP executives may well have acted with criminal negligence, but in their own opinion, they probably felt they were acting in the best interests of their stockholders by trying to keep costs down through minimizing drilling delays.

Corporate decision makers are responsible to their stockholders for maximizing the profitability of their corporations. This often means producing products where labor is cheapest (essentially slave labor), environmental controls are at a minimum, and with little concern or regard for the future sustainability of the world. Spending extra money in any of these areas tends to cut into profits and may impair that corporate entity's ability to compete with other corporations operating with less concern for the welfare of their workers, pollution of the environment, consumption of nonrenewable resources, and so on. Society tends to applaud and reward the corporate warrior whose dedication to the "bottom line" dictates the cold-hearted decision to replace older workers nearing the top of their pay scale with younger associates who are willing to work longer hours for half the pay of their more seasoned counterparts, or to lay off thousands of American workers when they close local manufacturing facilities while opening similar plants in offshore locations.

"Profit at all costs" is not the only thing wrong with the way we are doing business in our world. Another area in which the free market has shown itself a dismal failure is referred to as "The Tragedy of the Commons". Wherever people live and propagate, there are common resources shared by the local residents. These shared resources might be in the form of common grazing lands, common fisheries, oil fields, river water, aquifers, hunting grounds, rain forests, and so on. From the high-tech, free market world to the most primitive, remote third-world villages, common sense dictates that the industrious individual, village, or corporation will do best for itself by maximizing its utilization of common resources for personal gain and/or maximum profit. In the case of the herdsman, it means growing more livestock; in the case of the oilman, it means drilling more wells and pumping more oil; in the case of the fisherman, it means buying or building more fishing boats and catching more fish; in the case of the farmer, it means growing more crops on more land; and in the case of the logger, it means cutting down more trees.

All of this is well and good when we are living in a world sparsely populated by human beings and well below the carrying capacity of local ecosystems. The tragedy comes into play when the local carrying capacity has been reached or exceeded. At this point, without strict management of local resources in a sustainable manner and agreed to by all (the end of the "free market"), the same logic of personal gain leads to rapid wholesale ruin. When there is no governing body to control consumption and dole out the "fair share" to each participant, then pure logic dictates that one must maximize his or her use of the remaining limited resources before some else beats him or her to these same resources, thereby cutting into the first person's potential profit, food for the family, and so forth. History has shown that relying on guilt or the innate "goodness of man" to control consumption and behavior is a recipe for failure. All it takes is for one person to come along and ignore all the rules before another one says, "I had better jump in and get my share too before it is all gone." Pretty soon, all those good intentions have been thrown out the window, and voluntary restrictions have turned into a free-for-all rush to get my share before another person (or corporation) snatches it first. The logical outcome of the unregulated free market is the wholesale consumption and destruction of our natural resources and ecosystems for maximal profit in as efficient and rapid of a manner as is economically feasible.

For decades, we have been told that "The free market will govern itself" and that if we would only get government out of the way, the world would run a lot smoother and better. Thanks to the Gulf Oil Spill, it appears that perhaps the world is finally waking up to the fact that this logic is shear folly, and that to continue down this path will rapidly lead to ruin. When Kennedy clashed with the powers that be (what he referred to as the "military industrial complex"), I believe he grasped the truth that if we are to defeat this dark menace to our world, it will require a tide of humanity so strong, massive, and committed, that to buck this tide would be shear suicide. According to Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest, hundreds of thousands of independent organizations, that are dedicated to ecological sustainability and social justice, have recently arisen in all corners of the Earth. You see, on a massive scale we human beings are getting the fact that our world is in trouble and that if we continue conducting our business according to the same old paradigm, we will destroy the natural systems the support life as we know it on our planet.

With somewhere around 70 paid lobbyists in Washington for every single congressman, and the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations have the same right as individuals to make political donations, we have become a country of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations. It is time for America to take our power back–to once again be a country of the people, by the people, and for the people!

I pray that we may gain the necessary focus and collective determination to rise to this challenge before we pass the tipping point and it is too late. Whether we choose to act, or to do nothing, we are still making a choice, and that choice is between Game Change or Game Over!

 
Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com and whentechfails.com.

The Perfect Storm: Six Trends Converging on Collapse

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Originally published on the Huffington Post

Failure is not in falling down, but in refusing to get up.
–Chinese Proverb

There are dark clouds gathering on the horizon. They are the clouds of six hugely troubling global trends, climate change being just one of the six. Individually, each of these trends is a potential civilization buster. Collectively, they are converging to form the perfect storm–a storm of such magnitude that it will dwarf anything that mankind has ever seen. If we are unsuccessful in our attempts to calm this storm, without a doubt it will destroy life as we know it on Planet Earth!

There is a popular saying that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result." If we keep doing business in the same way as we have for the past century, each of these six trends will continue their steep rates of decline, collapsing the natural systems that form the foundation for our civilization and the lifeblood of the global economy. Perhaps the current Gulf oil spill is the wake up call that mankind needs to snap us out of our complacency, realize that we are soiling our nest and that continuation of "business as usual" will destroy the world as we know it? Time will tell whether we heed this warning, go back sleep once the oil spill is contained, or simply tire of the endless media coverage, numb ourselves, and set these critical issues to the side.

We already have the technology and the means to turn this dark tide, but we lack the commitment to make the hard choices and sweeping changes that are necessary for shifting the future of our world from its current course of collapse to a new course of sustainability.

The following six trends are converging to form the perfect storm for global destruction, each of which is a potential civilization buster in its own right, if left unchecked:

1. Climate Change: with a 90% degree of certainty, the world's top scientists believe that our planet's climate is changing at an accelerating pace, that these changes are caused by man, and will have increasingly severe consequences for our world. Naysayers stress the 10% scientific probability that man is not the cause of current climate changes, but would you board a plane if you were told it had a 9 out of 10 chance of crashing? It is a rare person over the age of thirty who will tell you that the weather is not quite different now from when they were a child. Certainly far more erratic, though not necessarily always hotter.

Recent estimates by a collaborative team of climate scientists, including a group from MIT, calculate that even if we implemented the most stringent greenhouse gas limits currently proposed by some of the world's governments, it is quite likely that our world's climate will warm by 6.3F or more over the next century, leading to disastrous crop failures in most of the world's productive farmlands and "breadbaskets".

2. Peak Oil: Our global economy and culture are built largely upon a reliance on cheap oil. From the cars we drive, to the jets we fly, to the buildings we live in, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear–almost everything that encompasses the fabric of our modern life is either powered by oil, built from oil, or made/grown via machines powered by oil. When the price of oil rose to $140 a barrel in 2008, the world's economy went into a tailspin–collapsing local economies, reducing consumption, and bringing the price of oil back down to a fraction of what it had been just a few months earlier. Global output of traditional crude oil peaked around 2005-2006 and is currently declining. Expensive alternate oil and oil-equivalent sources, like tar sands, deep ocean oil wells, and bio fuels have taken up the slack for the time being, but these are limited resources and their utilization is not growing as quickly as anticipated to fill in the gap caused by the shrinking output from the world's mature oil fields. In 2008 the International Energy Association (IEA) estimated that decline at a rate of the world's mature oil fields at 9.1% annually, with a drop to "only" 6.4% if huge capital investments are made to implement "Enhanced Oil Recovery" technologies on a massive scale.

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Without developing energy alternatives at warp speed, or discovering and developing an entire Saudi Arabia's worth of oil every few years from now until eternity (an impossible fantasy), our world will be in a heap of trouble if and when the economy starts to pop back and supply once again falls short of demand, resulting in more oil price spikes followed by another round of crashes. In the mid 1960s, when discoveries of new oil reserves reached their historical peak, we were discovering oil at a rate four times faster than we were consuming it. In recent years, the tables have turned. With technology that is miles beyond what was available in 1960, we are discovering about 1/10th as much oil each year as we did then, but consuming it at a rate five times faster than we discover it. That's like charging $100,000 dollars on our credit cards each year, and only paying off $20,000. How long can we keep that up before we bankrupt the system? For years, governments have been official naysayers about the "Peak Oil theory". However, in April the US military issued a report saying, "By 2012 surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach 10 million barrels per day."

3. Collapse of the World's Oceans: with 11 out of 15 of the world's major fisheries either in collapse, or in danger of collapse, our world's oceans are in serious trouble! The ocean's planktons form the bottom of both the food chain and the bulk of the carbon-oxygen cycle for our planet. According to a recent British government report, the oceans have lost 73% of their zooplankton since 1960, and over 50% of this decline has been since 1990, and the phytoplanktons are also in serious decline! Unfortunately, the coral reefs aren't doing much better than the planktons. By 2004, an estimated 20 percent of the world's coral reefs had been destroyed (up from just 11 percent in 2000), an additional 24 percent were close to collapsing, and another 26 percent were under long-term threat of collapse.

4. Deforestation: Over 50% of the world's forests have already disappeared, and much of the rest is in threatened. Deforestation contributes approximately 25% of all global greenhouse gasses, nearly double the 14% that transportation and industry sectors each contribute. Additionally, the forests of the world are a critical part of the weather cycle as well as the carbon-oxygen cycle. Each large mature tree acts as a giant water pump, recycling millions of gallons of water back into the atmosphere via evaporation from its leaves or needles. It has been estimated that a single large rainforest or coniferous tree has an evaporative surface area roughly equal to a 40 acre lake. When the trees are decimated in a region, a process called "desertification" tends to occur downwind because the trees are no longer there to pump groundwater back into the atmosphere to fall back to Earth as additional rainfall at some down wind location.

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5. The Global Food Crisis: Soils, Weather and Water. For the first time since the "green revolution" started, our world is producing less food each year, yet its population continues to rise as we loose more top soil, arable land, and have less water for irrigation. Climate change is currently contributing more to losses than technology is to gains. In 2008 and 2009, food riots threatened the stability of many governments. In 2010 extended droughts in the breadbaskets of both China and India are threatening the food supply for over 1/3 of the world's population!

6. Over Population: This is the elephant in the room that few are talking about. In the last decade, we have added more people to the population of our planet than were added between the births of Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. In the mid 1980s our world first overshot its capacity to provide for its human population, yet this population continues to grow and we continue to live on borrowed time. One thousand years after Jesus walked the Earth, human population was around 1/2 billion. Eight hundred years later this population doubled to 1 billion. It took only 130 more years to double to 2 billion in 1930. When I was a kid in 1960, world population hit 3 billion people and it only took another 40 years to double to 6 billion in the year 2000.

It is anticipated that the world's population will reach 7 billion in the year 2012, meaning that between the start of the year 2000 and the end of 2012 (barring some huge catastrophe that kills hundreds of millions), more people will have been added to the population of our world than lived on the entire planet just two hundred years ago! There is simply no way we can achieve a sustainable future unless our population stops growing and starts shrinking. Either nature will do this for us, with starvation and plagues spreading across the planet as our natural and man-made systems fall apart, or mankind will use its intelligence and free will to proactively implement positive solutions to these issues.

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My intention is not just to bum you out, but to do my part in sounding the alarm for a massive wake up call to start taking the sort of wide ranging actions that will be required in order to succeed in changing the course of our "Titanic" (planet Earth) to dodge the iceberg of global collapse. Averting collapse will not be easy, but it is far better that the alternative! Highly motivated societies have shown that they are able to marshal huge forces to accomplish great things. When Hitler joined forces with Mussolini and Japan, the threat was great enough to unite the Russians and Americans with the rest of the world in a common goal.

If we could put humans on the moon, build the Panama Canal, defeat Hitler, and rebuild Europe after WWII, why can't we unite to create a viable planetary civilization? So far, we lack not the means, but only the will and the leadership. In general, people lead and governments follow. It took massive action on the part of millions of people in the abolitionist movement to finally put a candidate in power (Lincoln) who was willing to do something about it, and for the suffrage movement to finally force governments to grant women the right to vote. Though none of us will individually alter the course of the universe, collectively we can do this! Just as the German people were asked how they could have allowed the Holocaust to take place before their very eyes, do we wish to be held accountable by future generations for allowing the approaching "Perfect Storm" to devastate our world while we had the knowledge and technology to change its course?

We must do what we can. Always. At night we must go to sleep knowing that we have done our best, and there is no more you can do than that. Do not let the problems overwhelm you. Start somewhere, anywhere, with just the smallest gesture of compassion, and you have made a dent against the evil of the world.
–Gottfried Muller, in Thom Hartmann's The Prophet's Way

 
Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit chelseagreen.com and whentechfails.com.