Sunday, April 18, 2010

When the Wheels Fall Off Civilization's Bandwagon

The ongoing impacts of a volcanic eruption in Iceland demonstrate the astonishing vulnerability of the civilization we've created for ourselves. The eruption of a single volcano in Iceland (and not a huge one at that) has wreaked havoc across Europe and this could just be the beginning. The last time this particular volcano blew, it erupted for a year.

Throughout much of Europe, airports remain closed days after the eruption. The Guardian reports some 17,000 flights were cancelled yesterday alone. The backlog of stranded travellers is becoming serious. Many of these are holidayers or people off to visit relatives but there's also a disruption of business travel and air freight.

The disaster is estimated to be costing airlines $200 million a day, but the economic damage will roll through to farms, retail establishments and nearly any other business that depends on air cargo shipments. Fresh produce will spoil, and supermarkets in Europe, used to year-round supplies, will begin to run out.

But unless flights are disrupted for weeks, threatening factories’ supply chains, economists do not think the crisis will significantly affect gross domestic product.

If it really drags on another week that could be really serious,” said Peter Westaway, chief economist for Europe at the Nomura investment bank. The air travel shutdown could affect productivity, he said, if hundreds of thousands of people miss work or are not able to do business because they are stuck in limbo somewhere.

He would know. He was speaking by cellphone from Tokyo where he was watching British soccer on a barroom TV at 3 a.m. and waiting for news of when he might be able to get back to his office in London

We don’t understand how interconnected we are until you can’t do it anymore,” he said.

The shutdown has also affected American military operations. Military supplies for operations in Afghanistan have been disrupted, and a spokeswoman for the Pentagon said that all medical evacuation flights from Iraq and Afghanistan to Germany, where most injured soldiers are typically treated, were being diverted directly to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

There are invaluable lessons to be learned from what is going on in Europe today. One of them is that our civilization is not nearly as robust as we imagine. It is, in fact, quite fragile yet, despite the myriad of challenges we'll be facing this century, no one is in charge, we have no Plan "B". While our leaders natter on endlessly about trivialities, seeking to score points, nobody is leading.

Stephen Harper isn't a leader. He's an automaton, the closest thing yet to a breathing robot. In the fashion of the day, Harper treats Canada's challenges like they were a greasy diner menu and he wasn't particularly hungry. He picks at his plate, moves his food around with his fork, and declares himself finished.

Canadian society is facing great environmental, social and economic upheaval and this will probably land on your doorstep with a definite thud within a decade, two at the outside. When it does, you're going to wonder why nobody was doing anything about it years earlier. Why was nobody talking about it, why was nobody talking to us about these challenges? Why indeed.

How many of us know that Canada has a looming freshwater crisis? Yeah, that's right, Canada. And how many of us know that several governments, Conservative and Liberal, have been warned about this by their own environment ministry and simply ignored their warnings. Do you realize that we don't even have an inventory of our remaining groundwater reserves even though about 30% of us are fully dependent on groundwater.

Here are a few insights taken from Maude Barlow's excellent book "Blue Covenant":

...a Statistics Canada study called Human Activity and the Environment warned that the country's major glaciers,which hold 50% more water than the Great Lakes, are melting. Some 1,300 glaciers have lost between 25% and 75% of their mass since 1950 and all are predicted to disappear.

Important regional rivers, such as the Saskatchewan River, depend entirely on these glaciers for renewal. The British science journal 'Nature' notes that western cities such as Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon are at risk of losing the rivers upon which they are built in the next generation or two.

...the fastest-growing source of water loss and contamination in the country is coming from the mining operations in the tar sands of Northern Alberta. ...It takes between 2 and 4.5 barrels of water to produce a barrel of [Tar Sand] oil, says the Pembina Institute, and very little of that water is returned to the river. Most of it is dumped into some of the world's largest man-made dikes [visible to the naked eye from space] containing toxic waste and is lost to the lydrologic cycle forever. Fifty square kilometers of these toxic tailing ponds now cover what used to be wetland and boreal forest. [University of Alberta expert, Dr. David] Schindler says that this operation threatens the water security of two northern territories, three hundred thousand aboriginal people and Canada's largest watershed, the Mackenzie River Basin.

...A leaked 2005 Environment Canada assessment of the state of Canada's water for then environment minister Stephane Dion was a scathing indictment of the government's water policies. "Clean, Safe and Secure Water: The Need for Federal Leadership", meant only for the minister's eyes, said that a water crisis in Canada was looming, but that no one is in charge...

"No one is in charge." Precisely. Yet despite the ecological devastation wreaked by the Tar Sands (leave greenhouse gases aside), the Conservative and Liberal parties are led by Tar Sands boosters. That is nothing short of astonishing and an indictment of both supposed leaders. It's one reason why I believe that Canada will be ill-served with either of them as prime minister. We're running out of time. Canada and the Canadian people cannot afford their sort of leadership any longer.

Serious as Canada's freshwater problems are, they are vastly worse and rapidly worsening in most other parts of the world. We need to realize that, without adequate, secure freshwater there is no global economy. Without adequate, safe and secure freshwater, there is no global security. We are so utterly dependent - not just for our prosperity but for our very survival - on a fragile resource we have blithely taken for granted and abusively exploited at every turn.

Barlow asserts that the global freshwater crisis is every bit as serious as the global warming problem but much more immediate. India and China are particularly threatened just as they step up to become economic superpowers. It's going to take real genius and some very costly goodwill just to shave the sharp edges off what's coming. Unfortunately, "no one is in charge."

When it comes to knocking the wheels off our own civilization's bandwagon, we don' need no steenking volcano.


Northern PoV said...

Check out Baxter's Evolution:

in a very plausible and not too distant future human history ends after a huge volcanic event - that is in itself just the final tipping point to a anthropogenic climate change scenario

The Mound of Sound said...

I checked out that link. thanks. I feel we have enough immediate concerns to forego sci-fi for now. Yet I wonder if Baxter's hypothesis isn't coming true - that we're already so seriously screwed that no political leadership can even acknowledge the problems. Vision has become extinct since Paul Martin's ambitious policy platform. Today it's not about leading but administering - a very monochromatic and terribly incomplete approach to governing Canada.

Anyong said...

Just think about all the tonns of CO2 not ejected into the atmosphere from aeroplanes nor vapour trails which help cause global dimming. I bet Dr. David Travis is out there taking note of what is happening at the moment with so many planes grounded as he did during the three day no flights over the US during 9/11.

Anyong said...

That link again.

LMA said...

I don't understand how anyone who cares about the environment, clean air and clean water could vote for any party that supports the development of the Tar Sands.

The Mound of Sound said...

LMA, perhaps I can help you understand. For many, perhaps most, people it truly is "out of sight, out of mind." Many of my peers are practising professionals with extremely busy careers. Most of them are virtually oblivious to environmental issues. Beyond work, they hardly have time for their families. These are highly educated, sophisticated people - and they don't get it.

This is exactly why I have argued that Ottawa needs to get out the same sort of climate change information the Brits and, more recently even the Americans, are getting to their people. Put it on the record, put it in front of people's faces, get them informed, get them engaged with the problem and the challenges to be met.

Without connecting the public to the problem through an awareness campaign, the issue can be effectively put on the back burner. That allows the status quo to be maintained for the benefit of those reaping fortunes from the status quo and their political water-carriers.

Ottawa is awash in rank political cowardice and the pursuit of self-interest. These miscreants weigh things like the Tar Sands not from the perspective of a threat to the country and our fellow countrymen but in the context of the role it can play in their personal political advancement. To a man, they're cowards - self-serving cowards.

LMA said...

Yes, our current leaders have no passion for environmental issues as Dion did. To win votes, they continue to ignore what lies ahead and don't have the guts to lay the facts before the public. I am reminded of Ignatieff's statements that the Tar Sands will be a national treasure for the next century. To me, they are more like a national curse. What is worse, Liberal supporters and bloggers who should know better continue to press for environmental feel good policy statements from Ignatieff with nary a word about shutting down the Tar Sands. Bad idea economically, we need the oil, blah, blah, blah! Very disheartening.