Response to “The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out”

My husband recently directed me to the article The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out written in the Wall Street Journal on April 25th, by Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist. He is a fan of that book, but knows I am not. This recent article was so obviously full of the faults I found with the book that it even swayed my husband into thinking the Rational Optimist is a little too optimistic and a little less rational then he should be.

I have to confess, I have not read The Rational Optimist, only excerpts my husband pointed out to me. Excerpts he chose to try and win me over to Dr. Ridley’s point of view, which they failed to do. That point of view is that things always get better. Society is progressing in an upward fashion, leading to better lives for people. This point is very true. Think about what life was like 2000, 200, or even just 20 years ago. Things are generally getting better. Technology and trade have helped the human race reach almost unthinkable progress. But that is not the whole story.

My issue is not with the upward trend of society. It’s the ignoring of the significant downward swings in that progress graph and what motivates us to make progress in the first place. Take the discovery that cholera was spread through contaminated water by John Snow in 1854. This was only discovered as a result of massive cholera outbreaks in London in the 1800s. Before large cities, cholera outbreaks didn’t warrant enough attention for anyone to bother solving the problem. It was only out of great tragedy that great progress was born.

The article in the Wall Street Journal claims much the same message; there’s no need to be alarmist about natural resources like oil running about because we’re always developing new technologies to either get more of that resource or we develop new resources. And yes, we have. We have developed fracking to help us get previously unreachable resources out of the earth. But failing to address any of the possible environmental concerns, like contaminated drinking water, is taking the rose-coloured glasses too far. Dr. Ridley seems to present the view that all technological advancements are beneficial. We once thought that about DDT. A great technological advancement that now we wish we had never used so liberally because of the environmental devastation that resulted.

Fertilizer is touted as saving grace by Dr. Ridley, bumping up food production in concert with pesticides and more intensive farming. The ill effects of all of these agricultural practices are completely absent from the argument. Fertilizer runoff is polluting waterways all over the world, chocking out aquatic life and shutting down fisheries. Pesticide poisoning lowers the life span of farmers in countries where safe practices are not used. Agriculture intensification causes soil degradation and a loss of natural biodiversity. These problems are happening now, and we can’t ignore the ill effects simply because they are an advancement and they increase crop production. Both sides of the coin must be augured.

Despite Dr. Ridley’s background as an ecologist, he points out his lack of understanding on what ecologists actually do by constantly referring to the scientists making claims of resource over-use and the consequences of those actions as simply ‘ecologists’. The science that Dr. Ridley brings up in his article is done by ecologists, geologists, climate scientists, marine biologists, agricultural scientists, entomologists, and more. Once again I found myself grimacing at his over simplification of the problem. His dismissal of the large body of scientists crying out for action is disturbing.

I too believe that humans will find a way to deal with some of the coming (and already here) problems, but I think great tragedy will have to happen first to motivate people to progress. And in some ways it already is. Crop failures caused by extreme weather are driving up food prices and causing riots in some countries. Antibiotics are becoming less effective and we have no alternative in the pipes. Residents in Alberta can’t drink their water because of a chemical leak from a nearby gas plant. And if I, as a scientist, want to try to help humans avoid some of the coming tragedies, I will, because that’s my job and that’s why I became a scientist.

Oh Canada, more like Oh, how embarrassing

There’s a new round of climate talks taking place in South Africa. A bit of a surprise yesterday when China called for a binding agreement. Let’s let that sink in for a mintue.


China wants binding emissions targets. What does Canada want? To stick it’s head in the sand, the Tar Sands to be precise.

Last week’s Quirks and Quarks had a segment on the talks in Durban and a little recap about how we’re all doing with Kyoto. Did you know Canada’s emissions rose by 17% from 1990 levels (the 1990 levels were the baseline for Kyoto, we were actually supposed to decrease from that)? Did you know the US only went up 7%? Yup, we’re worse than the US. We’re basically the worst climate offender in the world.

Overall developed countries actually did decrease their emissions, mostly due to European counties. This was partly due to the economic downturn but Germany seems to be doing OK and also lowering it’s emissions, caused in a large part to government initiatives.

So Canada failed Kyoto and now it’s poo-pooing on the very thought of a new agreement. It’s past whines include “The US isn’t doing it, why do I have to?”. Basically Canada says some of the largest emitters (US, China, Brazil) aren’t covered by Kyoto so it’s useless. Right, because we wouldn’t want Canada to set a progressive example, or do our part to reduce global emission anyway, maybe just because it’s the right thing to do. And now China’s on board and Canada still poo-poos it!

All the Canadian government wants is to work the Tar Sands for all they’re worth and leave the rest of the world with the consequences. We all knew this going into the last elections and yet we still gave Harper a majority government. So shame on Harper for not recognizing what climate change really means, but also shame on Canadian voters for doing the exact same thing. Get informed.

“Fake meat answer to food shortages?”

That’s more or less the headline of a story that ran yesterday on the CBC news channel.

What? I didn’t know we had food shortages! But after a little searching, well there’s some bad stuff going down in the world.

7 people in Egypt died in a riot of people waiting to get bread.

People in Haiti are eating mud to get essential minerals.

Here in Canada wet weather is taking a bite out of crop harvesting in the prairies.

Eep. I didn’t realize things were so bad. There was a day when I couldn’t find spinach in any grocery store in Halifax, but other than that things haven’t really appeared on my radar. However, with extreme weather becoming more and more of a norm, we can only expect more of the same. Prices for food staples are going to continue to rise, especially on the things we eat (or our food eats) all the time, like flour and corn.

Is fake meat really the answer? I had written about fake meat before, but I never thought about this side of the issue. With the technology of growing meat tissue in a laboratory, can we feed the world’s population? Maybe. But do we need to? NO

Like I said, I haven’t noticed a food shortage. I don’t have to resort to standing in line for hours for bread or eating mud to survive. I have a lot of food in my cupboards. It sometimes goes bad and I have to throw it away.

People are eating mud and I’m throwing food away.

This is wrong. Why do I have so much and they don’t have anything? Because I can afford to pay for it? The way we perceive our food in the Western world needs to change. We eat way too much! We’re obese. We join gyms to counteract the very act of eating. We really could get by with eating a lot less as a society. One particular food item we eat too much of is meat. Why would we need to grow more of it in a lab?! North Americans have an extremely high protein diet. Our portions of meat are too big and our frequency of meat consumption is too high. If we start eating only what we need, we wouldn’t need so much food in the first place!

What you can do:

1) Know your portion sizes. One protein serving is about the size of a deck of cards. How big was the last steak you ate?

2) Only buy what you need. Are you always throwing out half a head of lettuce? Make a list of what you want to eat that week and know how much of each item you want to buy. Also, clean out the fridge regularly. That way you remember what’s in there and don’t let it go bad or buy doubles.

3) Think about all the money you’re saving and weight you’re not gaining. Like I’ve said before, it’s hard to care about a riot in Egypt but easy to care about things that hit close to home. So be selfish and do this for yourself!

We need to change the way we perceive food now, before the problems does hit close to home. Growing meat in a lab is not the answer we need right now.

The Downside of Irrationality

I was listening to Quirks and Quarks yesterday and they had an interesting segment with Dr. Dan Ariely, the author of The Upside of Irrationality. He does some cool experiments that basically show we’re not the rational animals we think we are (Sorry Aristotle).

When faced with a choice that involves short-term pain for long-term gain, we will often forgo the gain to avoid the pain. Why save money for retirement in 30 years when I can buy a TV now? Why do we waste time and energy on revenge when it’s much more productive for us to move on? He also said that mass disasters don’t get the same attention as individuals. When we see a mass disaster, say a genocide, we become emotionally ‘muted’, probably as a coping mechanism; but when we see one person suffering, our heart goes out to them (think The Blind Side).

Anyway, that was just to give you the gist of what he’s about. The point he brought up that I want to talk about is this: ‘If you were trying to design a problem that people would not care about it would look like climate change”.

Eep. It’s true  based on what he was talking about. It’s going to happen years down the the road (well, it’s getting sooner every day I think!), it’s going to happen to other people first (poor countries, island nations), we don’t see individuals suffering, and anything we do personally will be a drop in the bucket.

So how do we get people to care about climate change?

We have to reward them! He used the example of people who drive a Prius. They might think of themselves as being such a good person for driving a Prius. And when they drive around, they see all the people looking at them and thinking ‘what a good person, they’re driving a Prius’ (whether people looking at them are really thinking this is irrelevant, as long as the driver believes it).

EGO! That’s the answer. We have to use people’s ego’s to make them want to help the environment. i.e. If you help the environment you’re a better person! We all look up to you! Way to compost!

Do you part, and pat the next environmentalist you see on the back and tell them good job!

A Ray of Light!

This morning’s Chronicle Herald renewed my love of Canada, move specifically, Nova Scotia.

Darrell Dexter, premier of Nova Scotia, aims to decrease emissions 10% from 1990 levels by 2020. I do believe that’s 4% greater than Canada’s Kyoto target. Now he’s moved the date a bit farther away, but he has made this commitment regardless of any agreement made in Copenhagen, regardless of the US, China or anyone else. He says he won’t use “the failure of others as an excuse”.

It is comforting among all the buzz of failing climate talks to hear a politician talk about the need for action. He also sees the economic potential for renewable energy, and is currently in Copenhagen talking to investors about tidal power.

The federal Conservatives have set a 20% reduction by 2020 as their target, but they’re using 2003 as a base line, not 1990. Unfortunately our emissions rose quite a bit between those years, and that reduction won’t even get us back to 1990 levels.

Thanks Nova Scotia, for not looking like a shmuck!