Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Poverty is telling you something: your turn is coming.

For my part of Blog Action Day I would like to discuss poverty and sustainable development. We live in a world gone mad. By the hour, the ranks of the starving are swelling. Whilst we stare into an abyss of depleting mineral and ecological resources, pushed from behind by population pressures and the voracious needs of the economic machinery we call business as usual, all we can talk about is how to get more money into our system. Let’s just take a few seconds’ time out from this insanity to look at sustainable development. Is sustainable development a solution for poverty?

Let’s start by giving you my view of sustainable development - a simple subject really. Take a geographically defined territory and look at its ecosystem – how the energy from the sun is captured by plants and how the animals live and how water and nutrients cycle around. Next, look more closely at how the animal population is doing, maybe analyzing their behaviour and their interaction with its surroundings. These basic observations will give you some idea of how likely the population will fare as time goes on.

Nature tends to develop towards mature eco-systems. The main characteristics of mature eco-systems are:

* Retention of nutrients and water in the area
* Maximised energy capture from sunlight
* More or less stable populations
* Wide diversity of flora and fauna

Suppose we were to look at an area of forest and the apes living there.

Numbers. The population is breeding rapidly, numbers are rising exponentially.

Trees. Hmmm the forest is being depleted faster than it is managing to grow back.
The state of the population. The apes seem to be doing OK, or are they? Closer examination reveals 15% are in a bad way, they are starving. Even more, 17% or one sixth are frequently sick due to drinking infected water. An even greater percentage are overweight.

Nutrients. The area is leaking water, phosphorus and other essential minerals.

You don’t need to have a degree in advanced systems ecology to see the population of apes will soon start to die off. The forest they rely on is shrinking, and loosing nutrients; they already cannot feed themselves. With our sustainable development glasses on, we take a look at the behaviour of the population for some clues as to what is happening:

* The hungry ones breed more
* The well-fed ones destroy the trees when moving around
* They are incapable of distributing food so all are at a healthy weight

In some ways, this behaviour makes sense: a stressed, hungry population will breed more, perhaps sending its offspring away in the hope they will find a better place to survive in. And the well fed population destroying the very trees it lives off - if there are many, many trees and very few apes it probably would not make any difference. And it makes no sense, from a survival point of view, if they all starve.

Anyway, the outlook for the ape population does not look good. Unless there is some kind of intervention, a radical interruption to the growth they are undergoing, and a rapid behaviour change, we are likely to see a population crash. This would be typified by a rapid drop in numbers to a mere single digit percentage of the original population.

And now to poverty. Poverty is typically defined as having two or less dollars a day to live on. But from a sustainability point of view, we define it as not having adequate shelter, clothing and food to have the capability to develop towards prosperity.

Now we turn our attention to the status of the population of the world. Of the 6,7 billion on the Earth, estimates say 880 million are undernourished (13%) and 1.4 billion (20%) are without adequate food supply. (1.1 million are overweight.)

Our own eco system is under pressure: we are losing forests, water supplies and fertile soil by the day, not to mention that carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere possibly destabilizing our climate system.

The mineral sources we rely on are also depleting. Some estimates say we have used half of all recoverable oil (the easy half at that) and more than a half of coal. Phosphorus, essential for fertilizers has 30 years left.

Behaviour: it seems man’s attention is turned elsewhere; to making money. While ecosystems and minerals deplete, money is growing.

(Strangely enough, although money is growing the poor are getting poorer.)

Faced with choices, we can either aim to preserve minerals and ecosystems or not. Based on our view of man we can aim to provide a standard of living for all or not. This gives us four basic aims. Sadly, current behaviour points to destroying ecosystems and not being able to feed everyone anyway.

Other things that are growing: number of economics prizes to honour the memory of Alfred Nobel , the number of trained economists, scientists, and the number of research papers on all topics including poverty. Interestingly enough, as more prizes in economics are awarded through the years, (39 so far, one was awarded yesterday) the higher the number of homeless grows in Stockholm city(3800, about one for ten) – a short distance from the site of the award ceremony. So poverty is telling you something: business as usual, with its celebrated and rewarded intellectual prowess, cannot be trusted to act as a responsible steward of eco systems. It can’t even feed and house all the people in developed countries.

As with our theoretical population of monkeys, the outlook is not good. There is nothing in our current behavior to give hope that poverty will alleviated and everyone will have food, water and shelter. Not only that, there is nothing in our behavior to show we have the capability to address the inevitable shortfalls due to population pressure on a finite planet. On the contrary, the current behavior is to concentrate on finding ways to increase the flow of money.

We may have already hit our first physical barrier: oil. Cheap oil supplies have peaked and been on a peak since 2005. But demand is continuing. In fact, without pumping large amounts of cheap energy into an economy, it cannot grow. There may be some small margin where efficiency gains compensate shortfalls, but how far can efficiency gains go? Increase in demand, scarcity of availability leads to increased prices, slowing down economic growth.

Population crash or rapid intervention? Try this for yourself, in either case you are probably looking at facing poverty in your life time. Look at where you are now and the way the world situation will affect you as population demands hit physical limits. Think. Where do you want to be? What might get in your way? What qualities and skills do you need to develop to be part of the change?

We need to put the brakes on and we need to do it soon. The monetary system has collapsed, the energy supply system is next, followed by food and water supply. What can you do today?

Blog action day

Friday, October 10, 2008

An entry to the Google contest

Google are running a contest on ideas to help humanity. This is my contribution below.

What one sentence best describes your idea? (maximum 150 characters)

Give charitable foundations who offer water, food and accommodation supply and systems, the possibility to use the unemployed (who get benefits and a bonus) to help.

Describe your idea in more depth. (maximum 300 words)

The idea is to adjust the status of approved charities to allow those providing housing, food etc, the basic necessities of security, to take on unemployed persons to help in their activities.
A basic agreement would be made between a government agency supervising the charity, and the charity, allowing the charity to utilize registered unemployed persons for 40 hours a week, allowing time for the unemployed person to pursue job seeking during working hours.
The charity would be required in turn to make available all or some basic services including food, water or accommodation to those in need and report on a regular basis to the authority.
For example, with extra people to help out, one charity offering meals might be able to set up a food growing project on local wasteland to increase the amount of food offered. Another might be able to offer more home repair services.
Unemployed people would be offered the normal benefit, plus some kind of bonus to assist with the extra costs involved in helping out (travel to work for example).
This is a very simple idea, using organizations already operational and set up to take on extra help. These organizations are also already registered and receiving state benefit in the form of tax relief, so all reporting structures are in place too.
The skills of creating food and accommodation systems increase the employability of the volunteers and also providing food and accommodation brings stability to areas of unrest.
What problem or issue does your idea address? (maximum 150 words)
  • Despite years of economic progress, food, water and accommodation are still not available to a large percentage of the world’s population and an embarrassingly large number of the inhabitants of rich countries.
  • The corporations set up to effectively provide these, need paying to make a profit and pay overheads and salaries. People needing these services the most are the ones least able to pay.
  • Although many believe in the power of market forces, the presence of the poor, hungry and homeless in any society creates an underlying feeling of insecurity and fear. Knowing you will, whatever situation you end up in, get a roof over your head and fed, gives the security people need to be creative and entrepreneurial, the true basis of prosperity. Insecurity breeds greed and crime.
  • The unemployed feel unable to contribute meaningfully to society.
  • Charities cannot attract helpers. Many are too busy with their work.

If your idea were to become a reality, who would benefit the most and how? (maximum 150 words)
  1. Firstly, Hungry and homeless would be fed and accommodated. Getting in more helpers would leverage the effectiveness of existing charities, making donating to them more effective. For example, calculations show one good farmer can support 50 families a year with food.
  2. Secondly, the unemployed would have a meaningful occupation.
  3. Thirdly, society in general benefits as well fed and secure people are better able to manage their own situation and develop their entrepreneurship, so prosperity grows.
  4. Skills learnt in e.g. urban gardening or local water treatment would be transferred to many, increasing the potential for new businesses to spring up.
  5. Organizations which are strong in delivering this kind of security also bring the potential of peace, and could work alongside the military.

What are the initial steps required to get this idea off the ground? (maximum 150 words)
  • Initially, work on defining the requirements on a charity. Then, setting up the inspection, reporting and bonus system. Some pilot schemes should be tried with selective charities and local authorities.
  • The authority should try ways to encourage charities to cooperate. Using internet based tools to coordinate the work to quickly find volunteers, connect charities with new potential aid receivers, to aid reporting etc, would assist the speed of development.
  • Areas which solved local problems could be encouraged to find ways to export their services to other regions.

Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be selected and successfully implemented. How would you measure it? (maximum 150 words)

Once implemented, in a city for example, the scheme should reduce the number of hungry people to zero at the same time as the number unemployed without a meaningful place to go to dwindles.
The number of people involuntarily without registered accommodation should drop to zero in time.
Measures: increase/decrease % per month of people hungry. increase/decrease % per month of people homeless. : increase/decrease % per month of people unemployed and engaged in the scheme.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What do drinking water and the environment have to do with each other

What gets me is that we are spending more and more money on cleaning up water to ready it for drinking. Medicines, herbicides etc, are slipping though the purification plants (which themselves require huge amounts of chemicals and energy).

The reason we are spending more and more is because we are polluting more and more. In most places you cannot even drink rainwater. It would make much greater sense if no business or other organisation were allowed to emit either directly or as a consequence of the use of their products, anything that could compromise drinking water sources.We are also seeing in parts of the world such a lack of water that severe restrictions are in place. Again, no business or other organisation should be allowed to use such quantities of water (or introduce technology that uses quantities of water) that the supply of drinking water is compromised.

On the face of it, it seems a simple task for governments to regulate. Ensuring drinking water would decrease health care costs and increase the supply of healthy workers. It would probably stimulate the development of cleantech at the same time it would be a good export earner.

There are a few other connections between water and the environment. Firstly, bottled water. The environmental burden that comes from transport, processing and the use of plastic containers has been well documented in other places.Tap water has less environmental impact. However, because it needs disinfecting, large amounts of chlorine are used to kill bacteria in the distribution network.

We have the choice between bottled water and its environmental burden, and piped water with its long term negative health impacts and sometimes outbreaks of bacterial contamination.The main health problems from tapwater come from chlorine, trihalomethanes and aluminum. Chlorine is a very efficient poison. In normal cases it kills all bacteria and virus in your tap water. In order to be on the safe side and in order to make the chlorine last until the end of the system, water utilities may sometimes add too much chlorine. That is not healthy.

Trihalomethanes: When chlorine breaks down bacteria, trihalomethanes, such as chloroform, trichloroethylene, bromoform, dibromochloromethane, and bromodichloromethane, result. The American authorities have set the limit of trihalomethanes to 100 micrograms per liter. In tap water, the amount of trihalomethanes is normally below 50 microgram per liter, but there are examples of tap water containing up to 1000 micrograms per liter. As long as the water purification plants continue to use chlorine in order to fight bacteria, there is going to be some trihalomethanes in the drinking water.

Aluminum: Scientific studies, in the USA, Guam, Norway and England, have shown a connection between an the amount of aluminum in drinking water and the number of neural disorders. One of these disorders is Alzheimer’s disease, a serious kind of senility which begins with loss of memory and confusion and ends with death. Aluminum is also suspected of increasing the number of “normal” senile dementia and Parkinson’s.

In my book "Inventing for the Sustainable Planet" I envisage a sustainable society living off naturally distilled water: rainwater.

The blog post on the subject is on this link.
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