Sunday, June 28, 2009

Living roof and advanced recycling

Hi, wanted to share two pictures:

This is a boy in Uganda that has made a cap of small plastic containers in which the local liqour is sold. People throw them away and hey this coming guy makes a cap!

The picture below is of the living roof of the extension of our house. Isn't it beautiful? A living roof has a number of advantages such as:
- it keeps the heat in winter and the cool in summer
- it slows the runoff so there is less water to take care of/drain away - particularly important in cities
- it is beautiful, perhaps the most important criteria for us.

Living roofs can be made with a variety of materials, in this case it is sedum plants. It can also be grass and moss in our climate.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Plows into Swords and Swords into Plows

The links - and the competition - between food production and war is an old one and mentioned already in the Bible.

Reuters report April 20 that Algeria is suffering a potato shortage because officials have imposed strict controls on the use of fertiliser to stop al Qaeda militants using it as a bomb-making ingredient, farmers said. Security experts say ammonia, used by farmers to improve crop yields, has also been found in bombs detonated by Algerian militants affiliated to al Qaeda.State security forces in this North African country have cracked down hard on the insurgents but farmers say there has been an unforeseen consequence: a kilo of potatoes in the capital now costs more than three times what it used to.

In India the collapse of the Mughal empire lead to a lot of fighting. When Ahmed Shah Durrani invaded India 1759 the demand for buffaloes and oxen for transport of armies increased so much that their price rose five times, clearly reducing the agriculture production seriously.

In Sweden, France and Germany in the 16th to 18th century farmers were forced to deliver nitrates to the governments for the making of gunbpowder. That nitrate was extracted from the manure and meant that large quantities of nutrients were taken from farming and virtually exploaded into the air. Obviously with detrimental effects on farm production.

Peru and Bolivia even fought a long war with Chile over nitrate resources 1879 to 1883 (Chile won)

Nitrogen production got the biggest boost from World War II developments. Nitrogen is, of course, one of the main ingredients in explosives. During the 1930s, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars researching how to produce nitrogen from the air we breathe. That process requires a lot of electricity, so some of the first plants were built near hydroelectric dams in the TVA. The nitrogen produced took the chemical form of ammonia.

When World War II started, the government constructed 10 new plants to produce ammonia for munitions. All were located in the interior of the country. Several of the plants were built alongside natural gas pipelines so they could use the gas as raw material for their production. By the end of the war, these new plants and the old ones were producing 730,000 tons of ammonia each year, and had the capacity of producing 1.6 million tons.When the nitrogen was no longer needed for bombs, what were they going to do with all this capacity? The answer was, use the nitrogen-rich ammonia for fertilizing the nation's crops.

Other examples of the relationship is the immense deforestation of certain parts of the world for (war) ship building a deforestation that caused erosion and local climate change.

All through history wars have affected farming, and even today consumers in Algeria have to pay a triple price for their spuds because of war. When will this end?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Time for a soil convention!

The topsoil is one of the most fundamental assets we have, a natural capital. Soil formation is slow, to build up a cm takes centuries. To destroy it takes just a few years. Many civilizations have been ruined by their lack of care for the soil. It is high time that an international convention for protection of soils is signed and implemented. Not that I have any high expectations that such a convention will deliver so much. Changing the habits of a billion farmers is not easy, and changing the habit of cities and citizens to swallow fertile lands for infrastructure is also very hard. Nevertheless a soil convention would highlight the issues.

Not only soil eroision is problematic but also the transformation of soils into urban infrastructure, dams etc. Here global statistics are pretty wobbly, figures from 3 to 9 percent of land transformed to infrastructures appear. In fairly densly populated Denmark almost 20 percent of the land is used for human infrastructure.

Most of cities, houses and roads are built on arable land. In China approximately 600.000 hectares per year are transformed to human infrastructure. In Sweden 345.000 hectares are covered with roads, that corresponds to more than ten percent of the arable land (not all of it is of course built on arable land).

It is ironic that people are upset about land use for biofuel while they gladly drive their petrol driven cars on top of the ruined soil.
(Yes, I think that government subsidised bio fuels is dubious, no, I don't think it is ethical to take food from the poor and drive cars, yes, I think biofuels are a lot better than petrol if properly made, yes, I think high prices for agricultural products are good)

It is high time for a Soil Convention. Is UNEP the one taking the lead? Which country will suggest it?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Who said that?

"Freedom exists in the space between what there is and what is possible"
Have you heard that expression? Who said it (I don't think i did...)?
I try to trace it. It is formulated well. Or is it too obvious, self-evident?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sobering words from Keynes

I wish that world leaders - and people in common would consider Keynes words at the time of the last depression, and perhaps look more inte the real problems of this world:

"But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!"

Keynes, John Maynard, 1930, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren

The full paper can be found at

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More people, less nature

One doesn't have to be an economist to realise that we value something higher that is in short supply than something that is abundant. For a long time nature was seen as unlimited, just for us to exploit as we saw fit. Up to the industrial revolution exploitation was fairly proportionate to the growing population. With the industrial revolution we expand exploitation through the application of energy and technology at a raging pace. But we can see that resources are depleted and that we need to take better care of them. At the same time our population has exploded.

Not that I think we should compare humans and trees but to put it a bit provocatively: As we have more and more people and less and less nature, we have to value nature higher and people less, or at least human labour less."Saving" nature must have priority over saving labour. A question is how we make a system of regulations and incentives to cater for that, a system that doesn't erode respect for human rights and human values?

Or is there another logic here?