fertilizer

Closed loop agriculture for environmental enhancement

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Published on FEASTA on April 26, 2016

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Returning biomass nutrients from humanure and urine to agriculture

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Introduction

Closed loop agriculture is farming practice that recycles all nutrients and organic matter material back to the soil that it grew in. This forms part of an agricultural practice that preserves the nutrient and carbon levels within the soil and allows farming to be carried out on a sustainable basis.

Current farming practice (as shown in Figure 1) relies heavily on imported nutrients to sustain high production. We eat the food; and then the nutrients and biomass from faeces and urine are flushed away via our toilets. The sewage is treated, to a greater or lesser extent, to limit its potential to cause water pollution, and then discarded to groundwater, rivers or the sea. This practice requires high fossil energy inputs for fertiliser manufacture, causes pollution to our waterways, and strips organic matter from the soil which in turn reduces productivity, overall soil health and structure.

Most of the sludge arising in the EU is of agricultural rather than human origin, and this is returned to the soil as part of standard farming practice. Biosolids (treated sewage sludge) are also increasingly returned to the land. However, the process of sewage treatment reduces the potential biomass and nutrient resource available for recycling, so current practice still essentially wastes these resources, while adding to the pollution of our waterways. By capturing the nutrients that currently make their way into sewage, we can feasibly eliminate water pollution from this source. By composting humanure (and farmyard manures) and converting it to humus before application to the fields, the soil can hold more moisture and withstand erosion more effectively than when artificial nutrients or even uncomposted slurry or manure are used. Also, by incorporating humus into the fields the filtering capacity of the soil is maximised. Thus we can dramatically reduce our water pollution from agriculture as well as from sewage.

Note that manures from animals comprise roughly nine times the quantity of potential humanure (human manure) in Ireland. The management of this farmyard manure and slurry can be improved for energy generation through anaerobic digestion or can be composted for greater carbon sequestration. Other regenerative agriculture techniques may also be used for greater soil building and sustainability. However for the purposes of this report, the focus is upon returning the biomass and nutrients from humanure and urine to agriculture.

From a climate change perspective, agriculture is the greatest single source of greenhouse gasses in Ireland. In order to meet our international greenhouse gas reduction targets we need to explore every angle possible, and adopt every measure that works to lower Irish greenhouse gas emissions. Closed loop agriculture not only stops the waste of nutrients to watercourses as pollution, it can also reduce the high energy inputs needed for artificial nitrogen production and could go a significant way towards reducing overall agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

hardy-fig-1
Figure 1. Conventional farming practice

hardy-fig-2
Figure 2. Closed loop farming practice.

Closed loop agriculture has direct benefits for biodiversity also, within the soil itself, in the aquatic environment, and within the context of climate change:

1. Soil ecosystems are amongst the most diverse on earth, hosting c.25% of all of the species on the planet1. A single gram of grassland soil may contain over one billion organisms with as many as ten thousand different species of bacteria and fungi2. Healthy soils are vital for biodiversity, human health and climate regulation. Our own species derives 95% of our food from the soil3, whether directly or indirectly. Closed loop agriculture can build a healthy soil ecology by reducing artificial nitrogen inputs and by returning soil organic matter.

2. The health of the aquatic environment and aquatic biodiversity in Ireland is directly related to protection from water pollution. Key indicator species such as the freshwater pearl mussel live only in high quality rivers and streams. High status water bodies have fallen in number from almost a third of all monitoring sites in the mid 1980s to under one fifth4. Clean water, free of pathogens and the chemicals added to kill them, is also vital for our own health and wellbeing. Closed loop agriculture can protect and enhance water quality by eliminating pollution from sewage and by returning agricultural nutrients to the land in a way that is bound up in humus, and thus more stable and resistant to erosion in field runoff.

3. Climate change has already had a significant impact on biodiversity. Many animal species on land, in rivers, lakes and seas have moved geographical ranges, changed seasonal activities and migration patterns and have altered abundances and species interactions5. The long term impacts on biodiversity may be devastating as temperature range movement outstrips the ability of plant species, small mammals and freshwater molluscs, for example, to migrate; as oceans face dropping oxygen levels and greater acidification; and as coastal and low-lying areas are lost to sea level rises (IPCC, 2014). Closed loop agriculture can help to reduce the degree of climate change by cutting back on energy intensive artificial nitrogen production as well as by sequestering carbon in the soil. It can also reduce the impact of climatic extremes by building healthy, humic rich soils which provide greater resilience to drought and flood conditions, both within the field scale for food production, and within the wider catchment scale for ameliorating flooding.

This report is set out in three sections, as follows:

Part 1 Nitrogen:
The impacts of artificial nitrogen manufacture on the climate, the impacts of its use on the soil, and the potential for closing the loop and reusing nutrients from human excreta to grow our food.
Part 2 Carbon:
The impacts of excess atmospheric carbon on the environment, the potential for sequestering carbon in our farms as soil organic matter, and the opportunities for adopting soil-building farm management practices.
Part 3 Implementation and Policy:
The methods of humanure and urine separation and recovery, overview of international best practice, current Irish policy and proposed policy amendments to facilitate closed loop agriculture in Ireland.

Acknowledgements:
This project was facilitated with the financial support of the Irish Environmental Network under the Biodiversity Policy Funding package from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

Footnotes for introduction

1. European Commission (2010) The factory of life – why soil biodiversity is so important. European Commission, Luxembourg.
2. Richter A, R Cramer, D O’hUallacháin, E Doyle and N Clipson (2014) Soil microbial diversity: Does location matter? In: Teagasc Research, Vol. 9; No. 3, Autumn 2014
3 FAO (2015) Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, Italy.
4 Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (2015) Public Consultation Document – Significant Water Management Issues in Ireland. DECLG, Dublin.
5 IPCC (2014) Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, Switzerland.

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Featured image: Running water. Author: Lynn Haas. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/running-water-1196508

 

 

Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on July 13, 2015

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I am back from two days of full immersion in a meeting on something rather new for me: the world's food supply. I am still reeling from the impact. Whenever you go in some depth into anything; you see how immensely more complex things are in comparison to the pale shadow of the world that you perceive in the glittering screen of your TV. Everything is complex, and everything complex becomes wicked once you start seeing it as a problem. And wicked problems usually generate wicked solutions. (image from Wikipedia)

 

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Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see, e.g. here).

This said, let's get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world's food supply. I'll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one's hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.

First of all, should we say that the world's food supply is a "problem"? Yes, if you note that about half of the world's human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases – they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world's population is going to suffer from diabetes.

So, if we have a problem, is it really "wicked"? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors…… and more, including the fact that people don't just eat "calories", they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as "you can't do just one thing."

Once you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system – as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference – then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to "solve the problem". The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.

Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won't change as a consequence. It is the "look, it is simple" approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, "look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved". What is meant with "this" varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry "let's go GMOs!" (genetically modified organisms).

Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system – to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food's nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more fragile and less resilient, vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.

There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the "'look, it is simple" strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another "look, it is simple" approach is 'if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone'. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy "green food" in their supermarkets has little impact on the situation of the poor in the rest of the world. And then, some kind of "green" food are bulky and hence difficult to transport; also they spoil easily, and so you need refrigeration, and so on. Something similar holds for the "let's go local" strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to "solve the food supply problem."

A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the "look, it is simple" mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them? Sometimes, proposers of this approach seem to think that all what we need to do is to drop condoms on poor countries (at least it is better than dropping bombs). Not so easy, but suppose that you can reduce population in non traumatic ways, then you intervene into a system where "population" means a complex mix of different social and economic niches: you have urban, peri-urban, and rural population; a population reduction may mean shifting people from one sector to the other, it may involve losing producing capabilities in the rural areas, or, on the contrary, reduced capabilities of financing production if you could lower population in urban areas. Again, population reduction, alone, is a linear approach that won't work as it is supposed to do, even if it could be implemented.

Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp. You would have to be at the same time an expert in agriculture, in logistics, in nutrition, in finance, in population dynamics, and much more. One thing I noticed, as a modest expert in energy and fossil fuels, is how food experts normally don't realize that the availability of fossil fuels must necessarily go down in the near future. That will have enormous effects on agriculture: think of fertilizers, mechanization, transportation, refrigeration, and more. But I didn't see these effects taken into account in most models presented. Several researchers showed diagrams extrapolating current trends into the future as if oil production were to keep increasing for the rest of the century and more.

The same is true for climate change: I didn't see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet's subsystems (e.g. sea levels), but no models that could tell us how the agricultural system will react to shifting weather patterns, different temperatures, droughts or floods. Just think of how deeply agricultural yields in India are linked to the yearly monsoon pattern and you can only shiver at the thought of what might happen if climate change would affect that.

So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the level of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is "overshoot". That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food – measured in calories – for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.

But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics is a tool that could help a lot policy makers understanding the consequences of what they are doing. And, possibly, helping them device better ideas to "solve the food problem". That's more difficult than it seems: system dynamics is not for everyone and teaching it to bureaucrats is like teaching dogs to solve equations: it takes a lot of work and it doesn't work so well. Then, system dynamics practitioners are often victim of the "spaghetti diagram" syndrome, which consists in drawing complex models full of little arrows going from somewhere to somewhere else, and then watching the mess they created and nodding in a show of internal satisfaction. But it is also true that, at the conference, I saw a lot of good will among the various actors in the field to find a common language. This is a good thing, difficult, but promising.

In the end, what is the solution to the "food supply problem"? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: "in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation." As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can't solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.

Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.

H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome

Notes.

* Once you tackle the food problem, you can't ignore the "third world" situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, "linearizing" complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the "circular" approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don't have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.

** In the food system, the idea that "look, it is simple: just let's get rid of waste" is exactly parallel to the "zero waste" approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the "zero waste" idea simply can't work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn't mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can't build up a "zero waste" industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the "participatory management" approach, (see, e.g., the work of Prof. Gutberlet). It can be done with urban waste, but also with food waste and it is another way to increase the resilience of the system.

The Apex of Industrialization

Off the keyboard of Allan Stromfeldt Christensen

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on June 2, 2015

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Manufactured Fake Shit

A factory for the production of ammonia (NH3)
 

The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #2:

While it would be nice to think that in times before the industrial era that farming was a wholly benevolent practice, the truth of the matter is that similar to today, agriculture actually began with annual monocultures.

Nonetheless, there did emerge over the millennia various farming methods and practices of which were adapted to the unique and sometimes changing conditions of their particular places. Likewise, many different practices have been employed by many different cultures in order to maintain fertility of the land.

Those people of the Far East, as described by F.H. King in his (1911) book Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan, meticulously made efforts to return all organic materials back to the soil: food scraps, animal manures, straw, as well as night soil (human waste). As King put it,

when I asked my interpreter if it was not the custom of the city during the winter months to discharge its night soil into the sea, as a quicker and cheaper mode of disposal, his reply came quick and sharp, "No, that would be waste. We throw nothing away. It is worth too much money." In such public places as railway stations provision is made for saving, not for wasting, and even along the country roads screens invite the traveler to stop, primarily for profit to the owner, more than for personal convenience.

Similar-minded practices include growing certain crops with the specific intent of plowing them back into the ground to reinvigorate the land with organic materials, while others, to varying degrees, have drawn upon outside sources to supplement fertility.

The most enormous and ancient of these off-farm additions has been the annual flooding of the Nile River, carrying along with it nutrients emanating from far-off mountains and the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. These nutrients ended up adding to flood plains that farmers planted into as far away as Egypt, until, that is, the Aswan Dam came along and ruined that "free lunch."

Somewhat differently, many cultures have purposefully gone out of their way to collect various nearby materials to add to the fertility of the land. When WWOOFing in New Zealand 10 years ago I helped a friend collect huge wads of seaweed from the beach to be applied and added to the fertility of his garden (a practice partaken by those of the British Isles for centuries now), and I even WWOOFed with one couple who, believe it or not, claimed to collect roadkill to add to their compost piles.

But with a demographic shifting from rural areas to enlarging cities some 20 or so years ago due to various facets of the Industrial Revolution, a growing amount of mouths in cities needed to be fed by a shrinking amount of hands on the land. And with farming turning into more of a profit-seeking venture by absentee landlords than a way of life for those closer to the land, pressures were being put on the land for maximum extraction. In other words, the highest levels of efficiency were sought after, which has generally meant cutbacks on the costliest "input" – human labour.

Monumental changes were thus spurred to take place via the addition of industrial off-farm "inputs" – solidified bird excrement (guano) being the first – which enabled farming to transform away from the practice of nutrient recycling into that of nutrient importation, and which had the side-effect of making consumers out of farmers.

For it was over in South America that massive 10-50 metre deep deposits of guano existed on the Chincha islands off the coast of Peru, the result of a lack of rainfall which would have leached the nutrients out into the sea. As a result of the demands put upon the land by the new and unsavoury farming mentality, commercial shipments of this guano then began to be exported to the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries in the early 1840s, peaking at a rate of nearly 600,000 tonnes per year in the late 1860s.

Guano – aka, bird shit (photo: Steven Gough)

It is worthwhile to note however that while some farmers were eager to pay (and rather expensively) for this off-farm fertility, others, who had a responsible ethic leaning towards self-sufficiency, eschewed the guano and saw nothing wrong with the continued use of crop rotations as well as their labour intensive on-farm salvaging of manures from their own barns and pastures.

But regardless of those who made do without, what had been a resource used by Peruvians for thousands of years became plundered, exported, and exhausted in a mere six decades.

Furthermore, and with an uncanny resemblance to the atmosphere surrounding the present-day situation with oil, events quickly turned into a state of flux. As Vaclav Smil described it in his book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, there similarly existed

rising prices in an oligopolistic market, fears of resource exhaustion, attempts at price controls, the U.S. government getting involved in schemes of armed intervention, [and] American entrepreneurs… rushing to explore and exploit new deposits on tiny islands and reefs in the Caribbean and in the Pacific.

As the guano supplies inevitably began to dwindle, various other minor sources of industrial-scale fertilizer began to be utilized. However, all of these couldn't come near to meeting the growing demand that agriculture was increasingly becoming reliant on due to the new land practices, and incessantly growing urban populations.

It was in 1909 then that the German scientist Fritz Haber appreciably pulled off what William Crookes had been calling for a decade earlier (mentioned in my previous post), essentially the creation of fertility in the laboratory. With the process later adapted to a larger scale via the assistance of the BASF chemist Carl Bosch, what had been devised was a process whereby atmospheric nitrogen was combined with hydrogen derived from fossil fuels to create ammonia (NH3), roughly 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas (today's predominant feedstock) currently required to create one ton of fertilizer.

To this day the ammonia provided by the Haber-Bosch method accounts for 99 percent of all synthetic nitrogen fertilizers added to our soils every year – some 150 million tons, equal to that of all naturally derived sources – which means that roughly 40 percent of humanity (about 3 billion people) owe their continued survival to the process (and which is why some call it the most important invention of the twentieth century). Along with mined phosphorous and potassium, these products make up the bags of petrochemical NPK fertilizer that one sees on store shelves with the three digit combinations (10-1-5 for instance) and which end up on our suburban lawns and golf courses, and in a greater scale, on our crop fields under the guise of "plant food."

However, just as there are limits to growth, limits to oil extraction levels, and so forth, there are limits to petrochemical fertilizers. A time will come when, much as occurred with guano, supplies will reach their peaks and other means of fertilizing the land will be required. There is, however, no next bonanza of easily sourced fertilizer supplements to tap into.

In other words, if the land is to be expected to bear food, then ecological means of maintaining its fertility will be required. This includes, but is not restricted to, crop rotations, the application of composted food scraps, and, very un-21st century-like, the application of livestock manures and human wastes to the land.

Since animals in the industrial agricultural system are raised on CAFOs (concentrated animal feedlot operations), this means that their manures are too concentrated in individual locations to have any economically viable chance of being spread across the land far and wide. This implies that small mixed farms will have to become the norm, where manures will generally only need to fall a few feet before they reach their required end-point.

As if that weren't daunting enough of a transition, the return of nutrients to the land via human wastes is a whole other issue. With the current corralling of people into ever more crowded and packed urban centres, it might be said that our modern cities are the human equivalent of CAFOs. Nonetheless, it would be nice if the question was simply: How do we get all those human wastes to the land? But that's far from the case, particularly when it's not only hard enough to broach the topic of industrial collapse amongst polite company, but when talk of human feces is generally taboo.

Whatever then can we do?

Well, I hate to say it, but could it be that the dark arts of advertising may come to our rescue? Back in 1928, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, published his controversial book Propaganda, his treatise on "the scientific technique of shaping and manipulating public opinion." In it, Bernays recounted that

in the manufacture of American silk, markets are developed by going to Paris for inspiration. Paris can give American silk a stamp of authority which will aid it to achieve definite position in the United States.

Did it work? You betcha!

The result of this… was that prominent department stores in New York, Chicago, and other cities… tried to mold the public taste in conformity with the idea which had the approval of Paris. The silks… gained a place in public esteem.

One can't help then but wonder – could Paris do for American shit what it did for American silk?

Vive la (One-Straw) Révolution!

Regardless of the chances of that happening, we need to begin to realize the importance of returning human wastes to the land. And for that to happen, a reimagining of the saying "money makes the world go round" might be a good place to start.

As explained in a previous post of mine, money is a proxy for energy. Therefore, it might be closer to the truth to say then that it is actually energy that makes the world go round.

However, as we are not simply energetic beings but rather corporal beings of a biological nature, it can perhaps be said then that not even energy makes the world go round. For us humans who require sustenance – not simply energy – to feed ourselves, to grow, etc.; and since the maintenance of the land – and thus manure – is required to allow for the conditions for that possibility, it might be more useful if we got down to the nitty gritty of it all and called a spade a spade. And by that I mean one thing and one thing only:

Shit makes the world go round.

Attack of the Zombie Plants: World War A

From the keyboard of Thomas Lewis
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Just when you think it’s safe to go near the water, you start feeling dizzy. Thanks, algae. (Photo by Dave Shefer/Flickr)

Just when you think it’s safe to go near the water, you start feeling dizzy. Thanks, algae. (Photo by Dave Shefer/Flickr)

First published at The Daily Impact  September 3, 2014

 

Along most of its coastline, in its bays and estuaries, and in many of its rivers and lakes, America is under mounting attack by another enemy of its own making — toxic green algae. It’s like a bad horror movie, with the slime sprawling across vast reaches of water (so much that it’s visible from space), eventually covering beaches and burping a neurotoxin that is deadly to earthlings. As a movie, it wouldn’t get past a concept lunch in Hollywood today (Hey, Arnie! It’s been done, okay?) but it is raising real dread — not the fake movie kind — from California to Florida, from the coast of Washington to the coast of Ohio. Yes, Ohio.

First let’s be clear about the primary cause of algae blooms. It is the excessive and incautious use of fertilizer by industrial agriculture, compounded by the excessive erosion that results from industrial practices. The Big Ag lobby has browbeaten almost everybody into mentioning, when they talk about algae blooms, the contribution of city lawns, insufficient sewage treatment and storm runoff. But the size and extent of the blooms, nationwide, tracks over many years with the increasing “consumption” of fertilizer. Actually, if it was consumed, by the plants it is intended for, there would be no problem. But when too much is applied, or it’s applied at the wrong time of year, it washes off, and is consumed by algae instead.

Garden variety algae is one kind of problem. Toxic algae is another. Generally, algae turns toxic — begins to emit a deadly neurotoxin — when three things happen to an algae bloom. It gets very large, very warm, and is infused with an extra-large amount of nutrients. Once upon a time those things didn’t happen very often. Now they do. Everywhere.

Along California’s Central Coast, dozens of beached, convulsing sea lions, many of which die, are being seen every day. Pelicans, having scooped up a beakful of contaminated fish, are falling dead from the sky. Many fisheries have been closed since April, when high levels of toxin were first detected — this year. “These blooms are getting more frequent and larger every year and affecting more and more animals,” according to Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

A half million residents of Toledo, Ohio were told not to even touch their tap water for two days this month after an algal toxin was discovered to be present. An algae bloom had occurred near the city’s water intake in Lake Erie, miles from the shore. Officials sounded the all clear two days later, even though the algae bloom is still there. Algae typically cover enough of Lake Erie in recent years to be clearly visible from space.

Just off the west coast of Florida. the biggest red tide in ten years stretches over 4000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, to a depth of 100 feet. A red tide is just another color of algae bloom, and like the others when it gets big enough and warm enough it starts oozing poison. This one has killed fish by the tens of thousands, and as it comes ashore its colorless and odorless toxin threatens larger animals including humans.

The Chesapeake Bay this year has one of the largest dead zones on record. A dead zone is a volume of water stripped of its oxygen by decomposing algae, which has flourished because of an oversupply of nutrients. This year, the 34th successful year in the war on pollution in the Chesapeake, the dead zone comprises a cubic mile of water in which nothing can live.

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River is also one of the largest this year, dwarfing the Chesapeake’s problem at 5,000 square miles.

This problem is not caused by climate change, although climate change makes it worse by providing the algae with warmer water for longer periods of the year. The cause of this problem and of climate change are the same: rampant pollution by industrial interests that governments cannot or will not restrain.

The much-touted efforts to “solve” the problem of agricultural runoff — you will see estimates that billions have been spent in the effort — consist mainly of puffery: signs that say “you are now polluting an important watershed” and resolutions about voluntary programs (“you could stop polluting this watershed if you wanted to.”)

Meanwhile the slime spreads, and dies, and spreads some more, killing when it’s alive and killing after it’s dead. Until the people who stimulate algae blooms start going to jail for it, the algae will continue to poison America. Don’t hold your breath.

 

***

 

Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.

 

 

The Week That Was in Doom May 19, 2013

From the Keyboard of Surly1

Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on May 19, 2013

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Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.

 In which we walk around the weekly cultural signifiers that indicate that we are, week by week, proudly and confidently approaching the zero point with the same cheery sense of self-assurance with which lemmings are said to approach a cliff.  The Week That Was In Doom, might otherwise be known “as things that make you want to guzzle antifreeze,” with apologies and a tip o’ the Surly Crown of Thorns to Charlie Pierce. Pass the Prestone, hold the ice. And see what the rest of the crew will have, will ya barkeep?

 “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” –H. “Rap” Brown

We started out the week by celebrating Mother’s Day in traditional American fashion, meaning blowing the shit out of a bunch of people with guns.

Nineteen people have been wounded in a shooting at a Mother’s Day parade in the US city of New Orleans, police say. The victims included two children who were grazed by bullets. Police say most injuries are not life-threatening. It is unclear what sparked the shooting in the city’s 7th Ward on Sunday afternoon. Police say three suspects were seen fleeing the area. The incident happened at about 14:00 (19:00 GMT) at the intersection of Frenchmen and Villere streets. “Shots were fired with different guns,” a police statement said. “Immediately after the shooting our officers saw three suspects running from the scene.” The statement said 10 men, seven women, a 10-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl were wounded by gunfire. FBI spokeswoman Mary Beth Romig said they had “no reason to believe it was an act of terror, just street violence”.

 

For my money, Rising Hegemon’s rising snark sums up the whole proceedings just fine.

What could be more American  

Than this headline?

It is unclear what sparked the shooting, which happened in the city’s 7th Ward on Sunday afternoon. Police say two or three suspects were seen fleeing the area. Police said that, as well as the 12 people with gunshot wounds, one person was injured in the ensuing panic.

It is all part of a typical week of gun incidents in this country, which the NRA would like to have you completely ignore. Cue Lee Greenwood.

By the end of the week, two brothers with gang ties and a history of drug offenses had been arrested for the deed, the narrative in place, the crime scene tape pulled up, so everything is hunky-dory again, right?

Two brothers with a history of drug arrests and suspected ties to a neighborhood gang each face 20 counts of attempted second-degree murder in a shooting spree that brought a sudden bloody end to a neighborhood Mother’s Day parade.

Right?

________________________________________________________________

 Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.    ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

How really depraved are we? Really? (h/t Joe P.) Earlier in the week I found myself arguing that the story could not possibly be true, but I discoved that the only problem here is my own paucity of imagination.

Rich Manhattan moms hire

handicapped tour guides so kids can

cut lines at Disney World

The “black-market Disney guides” run $130 an hour, or $1,040 for an eight-hour day. “My daughter waited one minute to get on ‘It’s a Small World’ — the other kids had to wait 2 1/2 hours,” crowed one mom, who hired a disabled guide through Dream Tours Florida.

“You can’t go to Disney without a tour concierge,’’ she sniffed. “This is how the 1 percent does Disney.”

The woman said she hired a Dream Tours guide to escort her, her husband and their 1-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter through the park in a motorized scooter with a “handicapped” sign on it. The group was sent straight to an auxiliary entrance at the front of each attraction.

Someone on Facebook observed that at least this gave some occasional employment to the handicapped.  Sometimes we are left without words. And sometimes the news comes pre-loaded with its own layer of snark.

________________________________________________________________

 

Those paying attention to continued congressional treason and the incompetence and misfeasance of the Obama administration were treated to The Benghazi Dumb Show and Obama’s IRS shooting itself in the foot. Charlie Pierce’s take:

Obama’s IRS answer probably won’t satisfy Republicans demanding a public apology from the president and insisting the story indicates Obama’s White House is run like Nixon’s. But the president put himself on the same page with elected officials of all political stripes Monday who demanded to know more about what happened at the IRS and the firing of those responsible for any malfeasance. No. It won’t satisfy them. He could have climbed up on a cross and driven nails into his own palms and that wouldn’t have satisfied them. Why is that the point? The media has no affirmative obligation to decide that a “political circus” has broken out and that it has no job left except to write play-by-play on what the monkeys are doing. Obama’s White House is not like Nixon’s any more than it is like the court of Robert The Bruce. Because some Republicans are still carrying old Watergate grudges around like goiters in their consciences is no reason for smart people to play along with it. Nixon’s IRS did not call out its own mistakes. Nixon’s IRS did not apologize. Nixon did not call a press conference and denounce the IRS for what it did, and this was because Nixon ordered the IRS to do what it did, and not even Nixon was a rancid enough bag of old sins to do something like that. So what is the purpose of throwing his name in there at all? Because the Republicans used it? That’s not good enough. In 2004, the NAACP actually got audited in the wake of its having been critical of the then-reigning Avignon Presidency. Remember how that dominated the Sunday Showz for months and led to endless hearings in both houses of Congress?

***
Dept. of Now They Notice. Funny how AP notices what many of us have been bitching about for about for a fking decade, governmental investigative overreach and the metatastized surveillance state,  when it’s their titty caught in a wringer:
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news. The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.
Now there is some debate as to whether or not the seizure was justified,  on grounds of the ever-useful “national security” reason. Meanwhile, we are treated to the spectacle of editors drawing themselves up to their full Lilliputian stature and solemnly intoning on how the seizure of AP phone records is an insult to an independent press. How quaint. Actually it is the current state of the press that is an insult to an independent press.  you’ll recall that nobody said a damn thing when Eric Holder’s Justice Department took numerous mulligans on investigating white-collar financial crime. In the so-called independent press had very little to say when “Homeland Security” (sic) and its federalized local thugs employed overwhelming force against unarmed Occupy protesters.  But then that was somebody else’s titty, wasn’t it?
Again, Charlie Pierce’s take:

This is what got people sent to jail in the mid-1970s. This is the Plumbers, all over again, except slightly more formal this time, and laundered, disgracefully, even more directly through the Department Of Justice. And of course, this is not nearly good enough. And even if you point out, as you should, that the AP is hyping this story a little — The government “secretly” obtained the records? Doesn’t that imply that nobody knew the records had been seized? Wasn’t there a subpoena? The phone companies knew. — the ignoble clumsiness of this more than obviates those particular quibbles.

No Charlie, no subpoena, thanks to the quick work of our friends at Verizon Wireless.

When the feds came knocking for AP journalists’ call records last year, Verizon apparently turned the data over with no questions asked. The New York Times, citing an AP employee,reported Tuesday that at least two of the reporters’ personal cellphone records “were provided to the government by Verizon Wireless without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena.”

Customers of Verizon Wireless, take comfort in the knowledge that your company passed AP reporters’ phone records to the feds. Remember, muppets, “It’s The Network™.”

________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

In other news, we learn that many of the troglodyte members of the House of Representatives, the mouth-breathing consensus who yearn so dearly for the opportunity to lay a dollop of tar on presumed 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with the Benghazi flap as the tar-laden cudgel, can’t even locate Benghazi on a map. Hilarity ensues.

 

________________________________________________________________

And  in less amusing news,  the results of the preliminary investigation into the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas came in. Or not.

Robert Champion, the ATF special agent in charge, said investigators have ruled out the possibility of an earlier fire, spontaneous ignition, smoking, weather or a 480 volt electrical system. He said investigators have not ruled foul play, or a problem with a 120 volt electrical system. The officials would not discuss the arrest of Bryce Reed, a volunteer paramedic and one of the first on the scene, who was arrested last week for possession of bomb making materials. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates the damage to surrounding homes and businesses will exceed $100 million.

Clearly, Texas investigators have also not ruled out attack by the Tsarniev Brothers, an alien energy death ray from a UFO, an attack by Al Qaeda, the Symbionese Liberation Army, or the work of a secret, “self-radicalizing” terrorist cabal led by Jimmy Hoffa and Judge Crater.  But never fear, the usual gaggle of self-righteous hypocrites are showing up for the cameras, squatting down and pinching off the expected pieties:

Gov. Rick Perry issued a statement Thursday evening expressing his appreciation to the investigators. “While the cause of the fire remains undetermined and the investigation continues, this tragedy has shown the world the definition of compassion, from volunteer firefighters across the state rushing to help their colleagues at the scene, to friends, neighbors and Texans stepping in to help those who lost so much in the blast,” he said. Texas U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz issued a joint statement thanking the investigators. “Our prayers remain with those struggling to recover and mourning the loss of loved ones. While the cause remains undetermined, it is our sincere hope that at the end of the investigation, the residents of West can find closure and begin to heal,” they said.

Thanks, investigolators, for the camera opportunity to flog a continued regime of deregulation. en, the Grey Lady herself took note  in the NY Times. Texas don’t need no stinking regulations:

Asked about the disaster, Mr. Perry responded that more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the nation’s worst industrial accidents in decades.

“Through their elected officials,” he said, Texans “clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.”

This antipathy toward regulations is shared by many residents here. Politicians and economists credit the stance with helping attract jobs and investment to Texas, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, and with winning the state a year-after-year ranking as the nation’s most business friendly.

Raymond J. Snokhous, a retired lawyer in West who lost two cousins — brothers who were volunteer firefighters — in the explosion, said, “There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations.”

Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.

But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012.

Have a good look at what deregulation looks like. The explosion in April of a fertilizer plant near West, Tex., was so powerful that it registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. McLennan, the county that includes West, has no fire code. Res ipsa loquitor. Awaiting the results earlier in the week, Pierce had it thus:

Whatever the investigators announce, the explosion will be linked to four decades of conservative-inspired deregulation, four decades of conservative-inspired corporate triumphalism, the deregulatory enthusiasm of every damn possible contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and Rick Perry’s entire political career are pretty damn long, I’m guessing. But give up the e-mails, Holder! Ten more people died here than died in Benghazi.

___________________________________________________________

Paluel-Nuclear-Power-Plant

In a development will be very satisfying to many readers of this page, particularly those who find room for cautious optimism in the growth of renewable energy and alternative fuels (thinking of you, AG), the nuclear industry had what by any measure has to be described is a pretty bad week.

Once touted as a successor, or at least a competitor, to carbon-based power, the nuclear sector has taken a beating as the momentum behind new projects stalls and enthusiasm for domestic fossil fuel production grows. Across the country, plans to build nuclear plants have hit roadblocks recently—a sharp turn for a sector that just a few years ago was looking forward to a renaissance. *** In recent weeks, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled against a proposed partnership between NRC Energy and Toshiba, citing a law that prohibits control of a U.S. plant by a foreign corporation. Elsewhere, Duke Energy scuttled plans to construct two nuclear reactors in North Carolina, while California officials warned that two damaged reactors could be shut down permanently if the NRC doesn’t take action to get the plants back online. The change in nuclear’s fortunes is staggering, given that the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power …. “Starting about four years ago, the industry felt it was in the middle of a renaissance” with applications for many new plants pending with the NRC, said Peter Bradford, a law professor and a former member of the commission. “They’ve gone from that high-water mark to a point at which … we’re actually seeing the closing of a few operating plants,which was unthinkable even a few years ago.”

 San Onofre, Palisades, Hanford, and even Shearon Harris near New Hill in Wake County, NC.    And none of this even includes anything new from Fukushima, where last week TEPCO engineers wanted to dump radioactive water right into the ocean.  Aging designs, expensive maintenance, which often turns into maintenance deferred, which in itself causes additional problems as corrosion builds up and makes restarting an idle plant even more problematic. Nuke plants are gifts that will continue to keep on giving; of that you may be sure.  Consider the implications when more local municipalities and utilities catch the virus Detroit has, of not having enough of the tax base and revenue stream to support infrastructure, and consider moving if you live within 50 miles of a nuke.

________________________________________________________________

Of course none of this may make much difference if the sun has its way with us. We are told that a large solar flare may be a prelude to an entire year of heavy sunspot/solar storm activity.

The Sun erupted with a large solar flare in the direction of Earth early Friday morning, causing potential disruption to radio signals in the coming days and serving as a prelude to a period of heavy solar activity. The mid-level flare, classified as an M6.5 solar flare, “was associated with an Earth-direction coronal mass ejection (CME), a solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of solar particles into space and can reach our planet days later,”according to Science World Report. While X-class solar flares are 10 times more powerful than Friday’s eruption, the radiation burst was the largest on record in 2013 and “caused an R2 radio blackout that has since subsided,” the site reported. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classifies radio blackouts caused by space weather on a scale from R1 to R5, with R5 being the strongest. Scientists expect more such solar flares this year, because the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle is approaching its peak, expected to arrive in the closing months of 2013, Science World Report noted.

And now were told that NASA is warning that solar storms are possible. The implications of such an event are difficult to fathom. Current sunspots are said to be the diameter of 6 Earths, and some sunspot activity can lead to significant eruptions of radiation.

The Sun is currently reaching the peak of its 11-year solar cycle. The Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched by NASA in 2010. The observatory spacecraft is just one of many alerting NASA to signs of solar flares, or coronal mass ejections. One of the biggest concerns surrounding solar flares is the ability the storms have to take down our antiquated power grid. If a massive solar flare is directed at Earth, the fiscal destruction could be legendary. Both NASA and NOAA experts estimate the potential damage of such a direct hit would be in the trillions. The last major solar flare to directly impact Earth was in 1859, the Carrington Event. Telegraph wires reportedly snapped in half and caused multiple blazes. The folks of the 1800s were far less impacted by the solar flare than we would be today. Due to the computerized equipment inside vehicles built after the 1950s, nearly anything on four wheels (or two) would come to a screeching halt.

Just let the implications of that one sink in for a moment. Imagine a Carrington-type of event on top of the current economic and social dislocations we have. The mind reels.  We could be facing “a world made by hand” sooner than even Kunstler imagines.

________________________________________________________________

According to Annalee Newitz,  We may be in for a disaster or set of disasters so profound they could kick off a series of mass extinctions. Of people this time,  in contrast to the mass extinctions that Homo sapiens has already caused for other species. Ms. new it’s has written a book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction,  that insists that human evolution has prepared us to survive future disasters.

Are we in the first act of a mass extinction that will end in the death of millions of plant and animal species across the planet, including us?

That’s what proponents of the “sixth extinction” theory believe. As the term suggests, our planet has been through five mass extinctions before. The dinosaur extinction was the most recent but hardly the most deadly: 65 million years ago, dinosaurs were among the 76 percent of all species on Earth that were extinguished after a series of natural disasters. But

185 million years before that, there was a mass extinction so devastating that paleontologists have nicknamed it the Great Dying. At that time, 95 percent of all species on the planet were wiped out over a span of roughly 100,000 years—most likely from megavolcanoes that erupted for centuries in Siberia, slowly turning the atmosphere to poison. And three more mass extinctions, some dating back over 400 million years, were caused by ice ages, invasive species, and radiation bombardment from space.

***

During the last million years of our evolution as a species, humans narrowly avoided extinction more than once. We lived through harsh conditions while another human group, the Neanderthals, did not. This isn’t just because we are lucky. It’s because as a species, we are extremely cunning when it comes to survival. If we want to survive for another million years, we should look to our history to find strategies that already worked. The title of this book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, is a distillation of these strategies. But it’s also a call to implement them in the future, by actively taking on the project of human survival as a social and scientific challenge.

So what promises to be another work of techno-optimism. Perhaps we will be smart enough, unselfish enough, and astute enough to employ strategies that will be necessary to save the bulk of humanity. Indeed, part of the mission statement of the Diner is to “Save as Many as you Can.” However my money is on the illuminati bunkering up and leaving a combination of disease, solar storms, acid rain and widespread dislocation to scour the Muppets from their earth.  Or so they think.

________________________________________________________________

And Just so you know, the truth about lemmings has nothing to do with them committing suicide en masse by leaping off cliffs. it turns out that a Disney film, “White Wilderness,” used selectively shot and staged scenes that showed lemmings leaping off a cliff into water, and from there swimming out to the ocean to their Doom. (The film is still available on YouTube, for the curious.)  Turns out that the demise of lemmings, a voracious little Arctic vole, has much more to do with stoats, fox, owls and other predators. Far more so than cliffs.

 And here, in all the news that doesn’t fit for this week are some other links gathered liking gleanings from the field, and for which I lack the time and attention to  comment. You may find it of interest.   One thing is reasonably sure: next week will bring even more.

Brandon Smith on  terror, circular logic and the debasement of language in the quest for power: http://www.alt-market.com/articles/1501-lions-and-tigers-and-terrorists-oh-my

GO’s article on vectors of human  extinction  

Personal extinction: Suicide rates in middle aged Americans- Mercola http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/05/16/suicide-rate.aspx?e_cid=20130516_DNL_ProdTest2_art_1&utm_source=dnl&utm_medium=email&utm_content=art1&utm_campaign=20130516ProdTest2

America’s first climate refugees– with a tip o’ the Surly Crown o’Thorns to JoeP: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/interactive/2013/may/13/newtok-alaska-climate-change-refugees

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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