A little something I finished putting together for a PhD student. We borrowed the chamber, but if I were to build one from scratch, I’d make the chamber a little differently, minimising the production further.
Firstly, I have to thank my readers. My previous post, The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse, did extremely well. I’ve never had a post that has caught such traction, so thank you to everyone who has shared it via report, twitter, facebook, email, whatever. It’s rewarding to know that my efforts are not in vain.
Yet one criticism has crept up over and over again; I’m ignoring the Ord River Irrigation Area. The commentators think I’m dead wrong, based entirely on this point and so, I figured it was worth writing a detailed reply post.
While I admit that my local knowledge of northern Australia between Cairns and Broome is limited (not a small area, by any means), I know enough about remote sensing, climate and ecology to feel my analysis remains correct.
Ecology demonstrates that where there is a resource, species move in to exploit it. Even warm springs full of chemicals that are toxic to most life can be abundant with activity – just look at Yellowstone Park.
The advocates of the northern development talk of the north as being “underdeveloped” and this River Irrigation Area being shockingly impressive for soil quality.
But microbe and plants never organised committees or governments to decide where they will set up home, they do so and to population sizes that the environment allows.
Looking at gross or net primary productivity gives us an idea of how productive an environment is, obviously. Apart from eastern Queensland and the top of the Northern Territory, much of this northern development region has a productivity akin to that of the dry land irrigation regions in southern Australia. Of course, it also lacks the accommodating mild climate of the south as well.
Using the MODIS GPP image, we have the existing Australian food baskets in the south – largely Victoria, Eastern NSW and the southern tip of WA – with a value greater than 0.03; a value this wonderful northern region simply does not reach anywhere.
If there is wide spread untapped fertile lands just begging for agriculture, how has it managed to hide itself from the most basic microbes, communities of trees (this region is typified by savannah, wetlands and arid landscapes) and most disturbingly, our best monitoring equipment?
I know the tropics can be farmed, but the land in southeast Asia is not as old and depleted as Australian soil. You cannot build complex carbon lifeforms without nutrient rich environments. Australian tropical rainforests are our best teachers to this reality; they are hives of life, yet their soils are depleted, which Australian farmers learned when they cleared them for farming.
In such places, there is a wealth of nutrients, but life lives on the fringe – keeping all the resources in the cycle and leaving none in the ground (ie. rip and burn removes the nutrient base).
So, as was stated in the original article, without vast investments in fertilisers or clearing of the few fertile ecosystems currently there, we do not have an untapped Australian food bowl in the north, as far as productivity is concerned.
Again, water is a massive problem. One critic told me about pumping water – but that is a commitment. If one is planning to move hundreds of thousands of people to the north, that is a massive, ongoing, commitment to keep the community hydrated. It is terribly hot, regardless if it is dry or monsoonal, having ample water will be essential.
How is pumping gigatonnes of water to irrigate a low productive environment and to hydrate a heat stressed large community any different to the criticisms regarding desalination plants? In fact, I think it is worse because a political party is willfully wishing to invest in placing such people in such an otherwise avoidable position.
The Ord River Irrigation
This is the root of the dream for the northern Australian food bowl. The Ord River Irrigation area proves the norther is fertile and begging for development.
No, it is one region we have been flooding for more than 50 years, so that the feeding water supply and wetland birds can fertilise. It is also not an ecological risk if extended.
Yet it covers 117km2 of agricultural area – apparently to be extended to 440km2.
Yet a quick GIS polygon of the northern development region norther of Cairns to Broome is a region around 1025700km2. So the Ord River Irrigation area currently amounts for less than 0.0001% of the total region, to be extended to 0.0004%.
Sure, I’m ignoring currently developed regions and places you would not develop for ecological reasons, but are we really willing to bet on “greener pastures” on a sample less than a hundredth of 1% of the entire study region?
My argument was this; it is wishful thinking to bet on the northern development. The Coalition is no stranger to wishful thinking if basic mathematics mean anything, as I demonstrated in my review of the sequestration requirements of the Direct Action Plan or my analysis of their enthusiasm for 100 new dams – a move that would provide as much greenhouse emissions as a city the size of Warrnambool.
The advocates for the northern development, from my opinion, seem to be people who either have no personal interest to endure the harsh tropical climate or are the few locals there that seem to enjoy the prospect of investment potential and a few extra mates at the pub.
The climate is harsh. The soils are old and depleted for the most part. Once the mining investment is done, pumping water, maintaining dams, transporting resources to the middle of nowhere (which will also make them more expensive locally); all these and more will become more and more of a financial burden to be taken up by the locals. It will erode the financial security of the local community and leech the settlements until most move back down south (again the productivity is evident – not just in MODIS data, but in the carrying capacity and economy of a region).
In short, the dead horse is still a stinking rotting mass of bad ideas and wishful thinking. A good punter would be quick to be turned off. However, I do not like instincts. I prefer to test things. I have listened for a heart beat and found none. I have tested for temperature and found it unsuitable for life. I have looked into the eyes of the beast in search for the racers spirit and found nothing but the pale, unfocused glare of an idea that should have been buried a long time ago.
The Ord River Irrigation development is the unlucky horse shoe on the foot of the dead beast. This is not a subject I wish to debunk for the rest of my life, regardless of how many whipping boys are lining up in the vain hope of the norther development.
Part one here.
They even showed a rice crop, happily evaporating that water away…
It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly people tend to reject a blatantly obvious observation such as the hopeless naivety that spawns from growth economics. One would assume that it should be a no-brainer to say that growing resource demand from a limited resource pool will ultimately lead to a collapse of that resource and if the resource is vital, so to the population.
Yet, surprisingly, people scoff such conclusions away as the result of some lunatic dooms-day theorist.
So here I will present a basic version of the problem to illustrate it as basically as one can.
Let’s say you start with a population value “ɲ” (here, 10 people) and starting quote of a resource “ß” (here, 1000000 units) with each unit supporting 1 person for one year. Effectively, that is a huge number of a resource. Using the numbers pre-selected, at the very least, such a resource should last the population for 100,000 years (if non-renewable).
We often hear of a favoured growth of 2% per year, so we will add a population growth of 2% per year.
If the resource is non-renewable, now it runs collapses in 0.004% of the time, when the population has increased 2000 fold (fig. 1). For example, if our consumption for fossil fuels, for example, had remained stable, rather than driven purely by growth, it would have lasted us many centuries longer, place providing environments that extra time to absorb these emissions, saving us all this trouble.
Of course, some vital resources also grow with time. If we start with the same initial conditions and this time match the 2% growth for resources as well, we find that they continue to grow regardless of population and only collapse if the growth rate is dropped to 1.7%. Collapse with this reduced growth rate occurs in about 0.019% of the time of the original conditions (ie. stable population with ß units of non-renewable resource, fig. 2).
However, even this scenario is not very realistic. Resources and population are spatially limited to suitable areas for life on the globe. Therefore, we can assume the original value of ß for resources is the natural limit of the resource as it is likely to reached equilibrium prior to the coming of the population.
This time, we can match growth rates for population and resource renewal of 2%, with the upper limit of resource amount being ß. This time, the resource remains stable at ß until population increases by 2000 fold (again!) and then it rapidly collapses (fig. 3).
It seems no matter how you shift the values, collapse is inevitable. In fact, noting the 2000 fold value, we only reach an ongoing access to such a renewable resource if ɲ is kept beneath this magnitude, in other words, growth in resource extraction has an upper limit or, a stable economic model.
I admit, I have grossly simplified the situation. However the basic principles stand regardless of how much one desires to add complexity. This is why I continually stress the virtue of efficiency. We must acknowledge that there is a maximum limit to how much of a renewable resource that we can exploit indefinitely and also that growth dramatically reduces the time in which a non-renewable can serve a role, however such points have no say in how well we use the resource!
The difference between when we reach peak coal or gas and how much of it changes the chemistry of the atmosphere depends on how much energy we can extract per unit (recognising too that population size must also be limited). It is nothing but account keeping and growth puts us more in debt.
Another point worth raising is yet another one of my favourite points that goes alongside efficiency – it is investment. How much we change the atmosphere or how many units of fresh water we have access to depends upon how much we shore up natural processes that provide the ecological and geological functions for these processes. Spending money on biodiversity and biophilic design to human landscapes is an investment that is highly profitable (in a real world sense) without the same volatility of our markets.
In short, our favoured approach is a bad bet. The bookies are making a stack of cash by convincing us to bet on that dead horse – growth markets. Overlooking the simple story is making fools of us all.
The horizon stretches out before me, flat but for a few clusters of trees. The baked soil makes the horizon dance beneath the hot sun.
It is an arid environment and yet, before my feet spreads out an artificial wetland, complete with ibis, herons, egrets, plovers and ducks. Some of these wetland plots are void of all life, but for the rice shoots, due to air cannons sporadically setting off to scare all other life away.
Around the region, it is not uncommon to find aging signs tied to posts and trees along the roads, warning anyone who cares to listen that without water, we have no farms. I cannot help but feel that I am witnessing a real example of the tragedy of the commons. No story of cowboys feeding stock on a shared land required for, in Australia, we have real farmers on one real waterway.
Some readers will remember that, under the chapter “Nothing is Wasted” in The Human Island, I discussed the heated response to the Murray Darling Plan in agricultural communities across the waterway. Memories of that time flooded back as I stand over this man-made wetland.
What happens up-stream plays a roll on what happens down-stream. In effect, these farmers are evaporating away wealth stripped away from periodic wetlands and farming communities from the Riverland all the way down to the Lower Lakes solely to grow a subtropical crop on the arid inland of New South Wales. They could do this due simply to the rule; first come, first served.
I have been privileged to have travelled and to work alongside the most of the length of the great River Murray. I have been involved in air quality concerns resulting from the dry Lower Lakes blowing acidic dust around the struggling communities. I have worked alongside individuals measuring pollution due to industrial, residential and agricultural run-off as well as from the icon house boats that drift along the river system. My previous research focused on the productivity of the floodplains to fringing mallee lands while my current work places me in the Murrumbidgee region, further up-stream.
Even more personally, my father was born in Murray Bridge.
More than many Aussies, I have been lucky not to just know the Murray, but to follow the river from the Great Dividing Range all the way to the ocean mouth and to have studied alongside it and appreciate the rich biota at every bend.
Standing over the evaporating pool, after years of appreciation of the hardship at the tail-end, I could not help but shake my head. States and individuals prove that they are not capable of managing the river system properly as independent entities across the river. Gluttonous behaviour follows an inappropriate selfishness wherever the resource first finds itself. Rice fields in the arid inland are iconic to this fact.
We are likely to experience climatic conditions we simply cannot adequately predict to any great certainty simply because they are not what we knew of the Holocene as we push the climate deeper into the Anthropocene. We, along the Murray, may know a wetter future, with the biggest impact being from inundation of housing on the floodplains. More likely, the Australian “boom and bust” cycle will become more prominent and we will need to plan conservatively in how we utilise common resources. Even in the wetter years, we may not be able to excuse rice and cotton crops with any ethical conviction.
Productivity and, more importantly, what we hope to achieve from productivity – prosperity – will need to result from management of vital resources holistically and not based on border boundaries. Moreover, we need to increasingly maximise our return from limited resources and, in the case of our only major river system, this must mean agricultural practices demanding high water efficiency. The strong pull of water conservation down-stream needs to work against the flow and reach the users up-stream. A lot of progress has been made in South Australia to improve water efficiency that could make a difference up-stream.
The first that comes to mind is covering channels to limit evaporation. Another; no crops that require the creation of a wetland. Apart from the ridiculous amount of water loss, the activity creates methane – a further driver taking us away from the stability that favoured our move from hunter-gathers to a point where you are now reading my musings via electrons on computers, tablets and even mobile phones.
I have no sympathy when I read the pleading call on the posters around this region. I have been lucky enough to see what farmers can do when they do not have much water to work with. These people are innovative not solely because of governmental regulations, but more so because other individuals – such as those behind the creation of the “No water, No farms” posters – whom have long taken large quantities of water to produce rice and cotton; water enough so as the Lower Lakes have at times no longer been lakes at all, but instead barren dust pools.
It has been the actions up-stream that have affected the lives and prosperity of communities and ecosystems down-stream. “No water” has been seriously contemplated along the tail-end of this common resource long before the slogan was planted all over the lucky up-stream region.
This river system illustrates a small real world tragedy of the commons. If this one little system cannot be managed properly, how can our global atmosphere?
In the lead up to the release of two more ebooks, I decided to revisit The Human Island as I was more or less happy with it, except that it did suffer from some grammatical errors and difficult wording. It helps also, because both new books will follow on from the basis I constructed within The Human Island.
For those new to New Anthro, The Human Island explores that very fact; islandisation of our species from ecological services so fundamental for the wealth of our species. Ecosystems trade material and energy. We exclude ecosystems and geological process only to do it at an increased expense. We would be immensely wealthier if we better integrated broader life to human activity. It’s that simple.
Some of it has been reworded, extended or reduced and I’m a lot happier with it now. With any luck I can convince my readers to get a free copy of it from Google Books to place on their readers or hold on their hard drives to read over at their leisure. It is formatted to suit readers. The following books will most likely also be available on the Google Books store and on Kobo, but more on that in the near future!
BBC have recently reported a project gearing up to acquire oil from reserves recently discovered in Uganda. This project will come at the expense local farmers. In a lot of ways, it screams cliché – like some 80’s fat cat and the underdog.
The worst of which being the profiteers undertaking surveying to establish “suitable” compensation, which the landholders contest have undercut them. Smiling, the profiteers invite the landholders to get an independent survey carried out which, of course, they cannot afford.
But, in reality, how much will be enough to compensate land lost? One of the locals put it this way:
“Land is not like bananas which you buy from the supermarket. It’s something very important in this world.”
Indeed, can any amount compensate the future potential farmers lost to this short term project? Not only this, how about the potential shifts to the hydrological cycle that very likely will occur with increasing climate change – assisted by the additional emissions resulting from this endeavour? The ongoing costs will surely, eventually amount to far more than any potential profits gained.
The next level of doublethink results from the notion of job growth… Now, who are going to get the jobs? The ex-farmers seem the most obvious recently unemployed in need of a job. It’s not really job growth, but really job conversion. The sad fact is that it’s conversion from indefinite resource creation (arguably very egalitarian to a short term (myopic – think climate change) resource extraction for unequal profit (favouring stake/share holders).
This is very much a cliché. There is nothing new or unique going on in Uganda. This is the same story happening elsewhere – even in the Kimberley in far north west Australia… Climate change is truly one of the smaller reasons why we need to get a grip of our fossil fuel addiction.
I’ve been following the whole GM and rat tumour rumble with great interest. It’s a shame that most of the discussions are within science literature not easily obtained by the general public, a fact which, in itself, opens up doors of concern to be discussed below.
Many alarms bells seem to have been triggered within the relevant scientific community in relation to the study, Séralini et al. (2012). The first of which centred around the unusual process the authors of this paper undertook in going public. Rather than discussing the limitations of the study itself in a reasoned and reflective manner, the approach encouraged wild gossip; through the creation of an embargo to avoid critical evaluation of the study by unrelated researchers within the initial media reports… oh, and it also coincided with the upcoming release of a book and movie on the study.
It sounds more sensational than good science, don’t you think?
It is made even more delicious by the book and movie covers of Tous Cobayes; the former, an apple cut open, revealing a portion of a human skull and the latter, a mother and child walking towards a power-station along a dirt road within a vast monoculture (not forgetting the human skull – this time replacing the “o” in Cobayes – which is also chewing on a grain straw).
Far from objective, the meaning is clear; from this one study, we’re all guinea pigs, with deadly consequences.
Before I go any further, I should clarify my standing on GM food. Like any chemical compounds to be exposed to our species, I believe they should be studied through critical clinical trialling. If it passes, all good. We have been in the business of genetic modification long before we knew what it was. I object entirely to genetic ownership and imposed sterility however. I just look at the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to mount my case of concern regarding profitable environmental ownership which compromises human flourishing.
That said, the backlash to Séralini et al. (2012) has continued, suggesting in itself why the embargo imposed on journalists was fundamental; the conclusions were not as strong as the researchers have allowed to permeate pop-media.
First of all, it was a two year study using a breed of rats, Sprague-Dawley rats, that “are prone to developing spontaneous tumours” and Harlan Laboratories (who supplied the rats) “show that only one-third of males, and less than one-half of females, live to 104 weeks.”
You heard right; a two year study with a breed of rats known to be highly susceptible to tumour development and are more likely than not to be dead within two years was undertaken to demonstrate high tumour development… hmmm.
“But the study was comparing two groups of the same rat breed (ie. control vs. exposure to GM maize) – surely this would counter such criticism?”
Fair point… Alas, Séralini et al. (2012) only used ten males and ten females for each treatment group. With a breed of rat known to spontaneously produce tumours and is more likely than not to be dead within your research period, comparing treatment size of a mere ten rats is likely to be compounded by statistical errors!
“[The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] recommends at least 20 rats of each sex per group for chemical-toxicity studies, and at least 50 for carcinogenicity studies.” Talk about a lightweight study!
If critical review was allowed with the media release of the study, it’s obvious that the study would have had far less impact and the accompanying book and movie, perhaps a waste of effort.
Here is where the real concern comes to play; the media has probably done its damage.
If we need evidence to suggest this, all we need to do is look at the thoroughly discredited Wakefield et al. (1988) study which suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Even though the study has been retracted and is considered and “elaborate fraud”, the damage has been done with anti-vaccination groups committed to the “Truth” of a causal relationship between vaccination and autism, which remains unshakable regardless how strong the contrary evidence is.
While Séralini et al. (2012) does not necessarily represent dishonestly as Wakefield et al. (1988) does, the conclusions of the paper are clearer weaker than have been trumpeted.
The resolve that all GM is bad is probably solidified even further from this study, regardless of its shortcomings and all the other contrary evidence. My only suggest is; link back here or follow up the links I’ve referenced to below. Hammer the point and don’t give credence to individuals whom bombastically pronounce Séralini et al. (2012) to be ‘the final nail in the GM coffin’. Do this because the argument is not a balanced by weighty evidence that deserves equal credibility. It is one lightweight study that stands today on its lonesome, alongside a rush to hush criticism and to advertise a book and movie.
References Séralini et al. (2012) Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 50.11 Link  Nature Editorial (25th Sept 2012) Poison postures. Link  see Google Images search of “tous cobayes”  Butler (2012) Hyped GM maize study faces growing scrutiny. Nature. Link  Wakefield et al. (1988) Lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351 (9103) Link  CNN Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’. Link  Moth: Anti-Vaccination vs. AGW denial. Link
I have been a student or employee of a few universities now and one thing I noticed they all share is a proliferation of proud posters, website “ads” and statements of their successes in progressive work.
As far as I can tell, this ought to be their primary position. Anything else would be squandering their unique assortment of resources.
Universities and colleges can be places comprising thousands of staff and students focused on enhancing our understanding of the natural world, human health and social justice. They often take up large plots of land and require large quantities of resources (especially water and electricity). They can also be large sources of pollution and chemical use (eg. waste, various gases, radiation, etc).
If they are not asking themselves, ‘How could we be more efficient in the use of X?’ or ‘How could we reduce the waste of Y?’ well they are not making use of the cluster of thinkers and doers at their disposal. Likewise, if they are not asking themselves, ‘How can we improve well-being within a community?’ and applying various social experiments within their (often vast) community (or subsets within their community), well, again they are missing a unique opportunity.
Too often we cry that the government should do something about problem B, however – and this touches on the point I was making in my previous article – most often there isn’t an acceptable example of the contrary locally. Take, for instance, old growth forest loss or the recent noise around the carbon tax in Australia.
In the former, what are the alternatives? White Australia is heavily culturally coupled to logging as it is the sheep industry (which too is unsustainable). Examples of countries that do otherwise are countries that live different with different cultural values. Look at Japan for instance. The protection of their woodlands does relate strongly to other cultural options – such as limited (if at all) land meat production and much higher urban density to that “expected” within white Australian culture. Germany is another country with a strong focus woodland protection and even though it is, like white Australian culture, western European, it is still a different way of life to ours and the two hundred years of ‘a sunburnt country’ mentality.
Likewise the carbon tax plays on a fear that our politicians are relentlessly screaming wolf about; it’ll ruin the economy. This is very much a cultural value. Most people in Australia hold the right to free enterprise as one of the highest virtues. We’re probably not unlike our counterparts in the US in that we praise the success of others who were able to secure a large chunk of wealth for themselves. Look at Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart. Both are, in general, viewed as “go-getters” (although, this is far from universal).
The carbon tax is seen as an attack on this cultural value (as is the mining tax, and the goods and services tax etc). A “big fat tax on everyone”, as Abbott drilled into the public is an affront to a prime cultural value held by most Australians. So foreign is the contrary position, it may feel that it’s not unlikely one would hear comparisons to socialism or communism. Fears of an Orwellian state run rampant.
Yet, within our own communities, we have large sub-communities, with a large amount of assorted resources and a drive for knowledge. From these communities, we could (or should) have a playground for testing local cultural values, under the guise of resource management and social well-being (that is to say, improvement in these fields would be the quest). The medical schools already do this – so why is it too much to expect third year or post-grad students to be asking questions like, ‘How can we make the campus more biophilic?’ or ‘How can we lead to lower stress and improved learning rates within the students?’ or ‘What can be done to manage X resource more efficiently within the campus?’
Such answers could be profound as it would not be restricted simply to factual answers, but also within a cultural context. It could be thus more easily applied within the wider community than, say, expecting Australians to adopt practices from abroad simply because they are more efficient.
The one thing to be wary of however, is the potential grounds for xenophobia that is created if we put too much emphasis in culture. Again, I feel that tertiary education provides a good tool. They are, in Australia, multicultural communities. Posing questions and developing answers within this sub-group could reflect Australia, as a whole, and thus present answers to a wide range of problems – within that cultural context discussed above.
I started this article by saying that, from what I’ve witnessed, universities are doing this and proudly sharing this fact via various media. I would like to see more of it – especially aimed at student project development and across a wider scope than I am aware of occurring so far.
It would also be useful for the students of natural science as it would give their studies a social aspect that is sometimes lacking (not always, as I am aware with the natural resource management components of my own degree) and hopefully an awareness of the impacts their future careers could have on politics and their local communities. It could also provide an avenue for learning science communication to such students. Most importantly, it would help to couple facts, or at least greater certainty, to cultural values that could be more readily applied to the greater community beyond the campus boundary.
Seeing as many are now getting tired of the old argument of, “you can’t attribute an extreme weather event to climate change,” now that we have experienced year after year of extreme heat waves, wildfires, unprecedented floods, cyclones and monsoons, I figured it was worth sharing again the parody I did some time ago, adapted from the first page of War of the Worlds:
Few would have believed in the last decades of the twentieth century that this world was being ever increasingly warmed, slowly but surely by forces greater than man’s and yet more subtle than his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were assisting and fuelling change, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a drainpipe might pollute the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a body of water, that in turn feed the fish that support his very existence.
With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over this environment. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same with limited resources. Few gave a thought to the invisible, presumably harmless CO2 emissions as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of human induced climate change as impossible or improbable.
It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men with larger cars and factories, perhaps superior to their own and readily welcomed the chance for larger industrial enterprise. Yet across the passage of time, molecules that are to our minds the result of a healthy, industrious society, trapped heat and warmed atmosphere, with no regarded for this earth with it’s ecological equilibrium, and slowly and surely shifted the climate against us. And early in the twenty first century came the great disillusionment.
Perhaps the disillusionment has hit us. Continual weather of this nature is not longer “freak”, “unprecedented” or “extreme” but rather the new norm.
Fair well sweet Holocene whom carried us from fringing bands of wanderers scraping out a hard existence from a harsh cool landscape and cared for us with mild stability while we learnt how to domesticate species for improved food security and production. Hello, with certainty, the Anthropocene, whom we are unfamiliar with and will likely demand we start again to develop a package of skills and tools to define a population like that we already tend to take for granted.
If anything, it would be great if we could be a little more proactive as communities…