Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Earth as an apple

I came accross this on the Endangered Spaces blog:

Cut an apple into quarters. Put aside three of those quarters. These slices represent the oceans of our world.

What is left is 1/4. Slice it in half. Set aside one of the halves. This is the part of the Earth on which people cannot live, the poles, deserts, swamps and high mountains.

What is left is 1/8. This is where the humans live, but not necessarily where they grow their food.

Slice your 1/8 piece into four sections. Put aside three of them. What is left is 1/32. The three pieces you set aside represent the places where the soil is too poor to farm--too rocky, wet, cold or steep. These also represent the cities, homes, highways, shopping malls, schools, parks, factories, parking lots and golf courses where people live play and work--but do not grow food.

Take the 1/32 piece that remains. Carefully peel it. Look at this tiny scrap of apple peel. This represents the surface topsoil of the planet that may be farmed. This thin skin represents the thin skin on the Earth's crust upon which humankind totally depends. This soil is less than 5 feet deep and is a fixed amount of food-producing land.

Eat the rest of your apple, but save that tiny piece of apple skin. Treat is as if your life depends on it.

For more information on using this as a teaching tool, please visit this website.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Nitrogen in the biosphere - a cliffhanger

In a recent report by Johan Rockström and many other leading scientists, Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity the nitrogen cycle is identified as one of three areas (together with climate regulation and biological diversity) where we have surpassed a threshold for stable development. Nitrogen is the most common compound in the air, which is composed of some 78 percent nitrogen. Most of the nitrogen is, however totally inert biologically. It can be converted into active forms, such as nitrate and ammonia through thunderstorms, fire and biological processes such as symbiotic nitrogen fixation (by Rhizobium bacteria in the roots of leguminous plants) or fixation by blue green algae, nowadays called cyanobacteria. Nitrogen is a main building block in proteins and amino acids as well as in nucleic acids like RNA and DNA. The changes in the nitrogen cycles are manifold more market than the changes in the carbon cycle. The quantity biologically active nitrogen in the biosphere has increased nine times in hundred years, most of the increase has occurred the last fifty years (see figure). Increased use of synthetic fertilizers is the dominating reason. The increase is also projected to continue from 165 million tones year 2000 to 270 millions year 2050 (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Locally we can see great effects of the release of all this Nitrogen, while the global impact is less certain, what is certain is that there will be an impact.

As mentioned above, nitrogen plays a critical role in life processes, and the short term effect of improved availability of Nitrogen is often improved growth, e.g. that the forests grow better. Nitrogen hungry plants are favored over those that don’t need so much nitrogen, e.g. grasses a re favored over herbs and over leguminous plants. Surplus of Nitrogen and Phosphorus are according to Millennium Ecosystem Assessment one of the single most important factor for changes in ecosystems. The effluent of Nitrogen to the sea has increased with 80 percent between 1860 and 1990. However, in some areas the effluent has been more or less constant while the North Sea and coasts off China and the USA receive up to 15 times as much nitrogen now compared to hundred and fifty years ago. This run-off leads to eutrophication with tremendous effects on the composition of species, and in particular it stimulate the bloom of algae and the therewith associated dead zones, such as part of the Mexican gulf and the Baltic Sea. The use of synthetic fertilizers has lead to higher and higher levels of nitrates in drinking waters. Nitrogen also plays a role in the formation of tropospheric ozone, which leads to damage on crops and plants (MEA 2005). Synthetic fertilizers cause losses of other important nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus as well as acidification of soils and waterway (IAASTD 2009). Finally, the production of Nitrogen fertilizers is very energy consuming and in addition it incurs great emissions of laughing gas, one of the greenhouse gases. Mono-cropping of grain which is rather closely associated to the use of synthetic fertilizers leads to a reduction of carbon in soils and thereby increase the green house gases.

Agriculture represent two thirds of the emissions of nitrous oxide, the third greenhouse gas of importance. These emissions are directly related to the nitrogen cycle. The increase of livestock and even the use of chemical fertilizers are key divers. The use of nitrogen fertilizers is extremely inefficient and a lot more nitrogen is added to the soil than what is taken away with the harvest. The rest of this nitrogen “gets lost”, some of it as nitrate run off some of it as emissions of nitrous gases. In addition, nitrogen fertilizers also consume a lot of energy for their production. Studies of grain production in Great Britain and Sweden shows an almost linear correlation between use of nitrogen fertilizers and GHG emissions (KRAV 2008). Reduced use of nitrogen fertilizer should be a main strategy for reduction of GHG emissions from agriculture.

In summary, there are good, and frightening, reasons to follow closely the development of the nitrogen cycle. We should not be surprised if we find effects and costs associated with disturbed nitrogen cycles as dramatic as those of the carbon cycle. Considering how farmers and farm lands have become “addicted” to the use of synthetic fertilizers it could become a real thriller to reduce nitrogen effluents. (Extract from Garden Earth)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Research Links Pesticides With ADHD In Children

CARLA K. JOHNSON, AP Medical Writer writes the 16 May 2o1o:
Children may be especially prone to the health risks of pesticides because they're still growing and they may consume more pesticide residue than adults relative to their body weight.
In the body, pesticides break down into compounds that can be measured in urine. Almost universally, the study found detectable levels: The compounds turned up in the urine of 94 percent of the children. The kids with higher levels had increased chances of having ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a common problem that causes students to have trouble in school. The findings were published Monday in Pediatrics. "Exposure is practically ubiquitous. We're all exposed," said lead author Maryse Bouchard of the University of Montreal.

She said people can limit their exposure by eating organic produce. Frozen blueberries, strawberries and celery had more pesticide residue than other foods in one government report.
A 2008 Emory University study found that in children who switched to organically grown fruits and vegetables, urine levels of pesticide compounds dropped to undetectable or close to undetectable levels.

Read more

Monday, May 3, 2010


Finally my book Trädgården Jorden (Garden Earth) was launched at an event at the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry in Stockholm.

The event was chaired by former minister of agriculture, Annika Åhnberg. The form of the launch was that I made a 20 minutes presentation and the Janken Myrdal, professor of agrarian history at the Agriculture University and Jacop Rutqvist from the (liberal) think tank FORES commented my book. After that the audience could ask question and debate. It was a nice event. Most participants also bought my book.

Below I give the English reader a taste of the book, a rough translation of the Swedish introduction. Now as the book is published in Swedish I will start in earnest to work with the English version , which will be more than just a translation.


The golden rule as formulated in the Bible is "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt.7:12). It is found in various forms in most religions and philosophies, e.g. in Hinduism: " One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma." (Mahabharata Section CXIII).

Can our - the rich countries’- lifestyle be applied by seven or even ten billion people and future generations, without harming the ecosystem and our own humanity in an irreversible way? It is one of the starting points of this book. One could call it a global golden rule. If the answer is no to the question, we can conclude that our lifestyle is not sustainable and we should take the consequences.

The human being is a great colonizer. She has spread and almost everywhere, she managed to find an ecological niche. In many of these niches her place was well-defined, her numbers were governed by the limitations of the natural environment, and she often had no opportunity to radically alter the terms thereof. Therefore, traditional communities who lived on the gathering, hunting and fishing remained relatively stable. With agriculture began a new phase. Man changed the ecosystems to a much wider extent than ever, it also led to changes in social organization with the introduction of the ruler and the slave. Agricultural society was in many ways more sensitive to disturbances, and the impact of natural phenomena could be dramatic for humanity. Soil degradation was a recurring reason for societies’ collapse or gradual decline. Plague, other epidemics and failures of key crops could suddenly throw masses of people into starvation.

The next major change was when man began to harness fossil fuels. This freed her from basically depending on her own metabolism and biomass which she took from others in nature; she could now bring incredible resources to work. Ecosystems were reshaped in an unprecedented extent. This coincided with the industrialization and the introduction of a capitalist market economy. Industrialization increased human control of nature, in principle, to all corners of the globe. We go further, climb and fly higher, dive and drill deeper, all in order to find more resources to exploit. This lead to a marked expansion of the areas in direct service of man, particularly forests and oceans. Industrialism also provided new force to the farming man. In the first stage power and tools to expand arable land (iron plows), but over time also more and more machines which increase the work performed per person. This was followed by a sharp increase in the input of energy, so that agriculture from being a net producer of energy becomes a net consumer of energy.

Our modern society has freed man from old chains and limitations and has created enormous wealth. It has meant an ever-increasing labor productivity; we can produce more per hour worked. Old prejudices and oppression have been broken down, and freedom and human rights have risen sharply. This was very direct and welcome for serfs and oppressed people. The idea of equal worth of all people is - at least in theory - universally accepted. There are several components in our modern society, which all contributed to this development. Central are political democracy, capitalism, the great use of external energy, mainly in the form of fossil fuels, great use of other natural resources and industrialization with a far-reaching division of labor.

But we have reached a point where the system exhibits a strong reduction in marginal utility, or in some cases diminishing returns. What previously was a positive force, the restless search for new countries, new areas to colonize, the liberation of man from tradition, affirmation of the individual over community, a far-reaching division of labor and that everything can be bought and sold on a market, all these contribute to destruction now. More capitalism, more oil and coal, more chimneys were perhaps great slogans during the 1800s, they were probably still good in many parts of the world during the 1900s, but today, fewer and fewer areas need it. Since 1950, oil production tenfold, and the overall economic activity in the world increased six times. Meanwhile, carbon emissions quadrupled, world population has become 2.5 times larger, and the economic gap between the 20% poorest and the richest 20% more than doubled. The global socio-economic and ecological system is thus rapidly changing and the pace of change is increasing constantly. This means that we live in an unstable system (Helmfrid and Haden 2006).

My intention is to illustrate this further, but also to make a clearer link between the ecological crisis, our well-being, our society and the economic system, capitalism. I summarize the most critical points below:

1. Our relationship to nature is characterized by over-exploitation of raw materials and natural resources. Certainly history shows that we have a remarkable capacity to overcome the limitations of our natural environment, but nevertheless, our use of both mineral resources and all the living resources with its origin in photosynthesis, are now at a level that simply can not be sustained. It can be expressed in different ways as we are soon reaching the "peak oil”, that our ecological footprint is already one and half soil and that we are already taking nearly half of the entire biosphere in direct use.

2. We have unleashed 100 000 chemicals, but we have no idea how they affect us. We take medicines and eat food additives and pesticides we spray on our food. We have very little knowledge about the long term impact on us by the cocktail of chemicals we disseminate, and still less do we know how it affects our living environment.

3. The greatest ecological challenge is the impact we have on the services we have, until now completely free, by nature, so-called ecosystem services. We know that our release of greenhouse gases, largely an effect of extraction of fossil fuels and degradation of natural resources, will lead to marked changes in climate, with great human and material costs as a result. In addition, we have caused severe reduction of biological diversity, the very web of life on earth. We are manipulating other life processes, such as the nitrogen cycle, in a scale and in such a way that it will lead to sudden crises.

4. The production and productivity revolution, which we explain with entrepreneurship, the superiority of capitalism and the individual's strive for personal gain can be equally interpreted as the result of one thing: access to external sources of energy, primarily fossil fuel. But the energy source are drying up and use of energy is the cause of other problems, most obviously the greenhouse effect. At least equally serious is that energy is the engine itself in almost any other resource consumption and degradation of ecosystem services.

5. The system does not have sufficient self-correcting feedback loops to keep income inequality in check; the only thing that can keep it running is a constant economic growth so that those at the bottom, after all, will be a little better off every year. This is not primarily an economic problem but a social and moral problem. The difference between reality and a rhetoric in which all are said to be equal and have the same opportunities is simply too great.

6. The capitalist model of development was most successful in countries which industrialized first, followed by countries which had different comparative advantages in certain development stages. But large parts of humanity are outside of the development, both the individuals who are left behind in industrialized countries and those whole countries which have no comparative advantages to exploit. Just as not all communities could make the transition from gathering and hunting to farming communities, many communities today can not make the transition to a capitalist society because they lack the right conditions.

7. The values, attitudes and the mechanisms which form the foundation of capitalism, is in contrast to the harmonious development of society. Competition is promoted at the expense of cooperation; self-interest instead of solidarity and commitment to others, private property against the interests of society; individualism above consideration of others; exploitation rather than management or nursing. Yes, the whole of society must obey the, supposedly value-free and thus objective and fair, market, rather than being guided by subjective and emotional values. We get a society whose role is to serve the market and a market whose role is to serve individuals' short-term interests.

8. It is certainly within the human nature to be a little dissatisfied, wanting more, to explore new opportunities. Without those properties, we had probably never become human beings in the first place. It is in society's nature to contain these desires so that they continue to benefit us all. With the capitalist takeover of society, these restrictions don’t work anymore, and we are all trapped in a treadmill of ever-increasing consumption. This consumption, driven by several of the factors above, has made us healthier, wiser, more beautiful and more happy to begin with, but it has long crossed a line after which more things does not mean more wellbeing.

By and large, you can see capitalism, both the economic system and the values on which it builds and advocates as a system and an ideology of colonization. It's about colonization in the classical sense, i.e. conquest of other cultures and countries, but it is as much about the colonization of larger and larger parts of nature. Our exploitation of nature is now nearly complete, and not only that, we are reducing the capital, the stocks, of raw materials the bio-geosphere built up over millions of years, so that we become poorer by the year. Contrary to the prevailing opinion, the so-called invisible hand can’t manage the economic system, let alone the ecological and social systems that are even more important for our survival.

Now we are there. We have reached the end of the road. There is nothing left to colonize. Therefore, we must replace the mechanisms and the logic that drove us here with new ways of thinking that is more suited to where we are now. Many of the required changes have already begun, albeit often on a small scale. A regime change or shift in our paradigms usually occur after small gradual changes, even those changes that sometimes manifested by sudden events, as Rome's surrender for invading Vandals year 455, the French revolution in 1789, or the fall of the Berlin wall two hundred years later. Some fifty countries have now stabilized, or even declining, populations, many of these exhibits also very moderate economic growth, and in particular growth which is not so resource materially resource intensive. Organic farming, passive heating, electric bicycles and solar energy represent some technologies which are better adapted to a resource-efficient society. The wild has found new ways to coexist with humans (the Peregrine falcon breeds in London) and humans have found new ways to coexist with the wild. Interest in local communities and direct democracy and participatory organizational forms is growing. On the international scene, we see much more dynamism and development of civil society platforms for cooperation than in the frameworks of nation states co-operation. Finally, a change of values have started, more and more people want to jump off the treadmill and focus on what gives real well-being. The change in values is reinforced by changes in population age structure. It is not about by command creating a zero-growth society or forcing people to live in subsistence villages, it is about releasing man's creative power from an idea that has done much good but which has nothing to offer us for the future.

While the rich world would do well to tighten the belt a notch or two, many people still live in poverty without the most basic amenities. More important than anything else is that Ethiopia's rural poor can control their land; that they get electric lights; clean water and effective sanitation arrangements; that the Chinese peasant can say what he wants and live where he wants without risking punishment, that the Afghan girl does not have to wear the burka and can work with what she wants and marry whoever she wants and that Brazilian landless may take part of the country's vast resources.

As a contrast to the capitalist ideology, I offer Garden Earth. Garden Earth expresses that we consider the globe as a garden that we take care of. We simply have to go back to Eden. But we can no longer do so as the innocent creatures we were when we were driven out. We can no longer be there as equals with the giraffe, the carrots and the lamb. Whether we like it or not, the future of the Earth, of Eden, is entirely dependent on us, and not just our own fate but also the other species' fates in our hands. We will have to intensify parts of the use of "our" parts of Garden Earth, if we do not, we will not “afford” to let other areas used less intensively. But intensification does not mean that we must destroy more resources. On the contrary, we shall intensify across the board, and cyclical resource loops will be the guiding principle. Just as we create different rooms in a garden, we will do it in the Garden Earth. Some spaces are our urban environment, it should be dense and intense. Other places are "wild", where we keep a low profile, but we must intervene here and there to correct things that nature can no longer manage. Between these two extremes is a range of different types and degrees and human stewardship. There are extensive, semi-wild farming systems, which do not produce so much food, but many ecosystem services. There are forests not only producing timber but also forest mushrooms, berries, game and other things we use on sustainable basis and a variety of ecosystem services. There are also intensively cultivated fields, more like gardening, some of which under greenhouses. These are near the cities and is characterized by intensive, but wise and efficient, use of resources and an intensive exchange of resources with the city.

The book is organized like this.
Part 1 provides a brief description of human development. One should not discuss the current situation or the future without a perspective back. We are still by and large a product of our history and even if we want to think of ourselves as modern, it is significant how stuck we are in the conventions regarding both our thinking and how we live. My description of the history acknowledges that economic incentives have played a small role in the development of mankind and that markets and money were marginal phenomenon until the medieval city-states, while the ecological conditions, the technical progress and social conditions were crucial, both for society at large and for the individual's behavior and values. With the introduction of agriculture followed private property, elites, oppression, the state, religion and a number of other institutions which characterized the world for a long time. Later on capitalism came with an enormous liberation of man from the shackles of the past, but she was subjected to a new, simpler, but no less cruel logic, "produce or die". With capitalism, not only the distribution of goods is built around a market, but that market will eventually, in many small and some big steps take over the entire society. Instead of the market serving society and mankind as a whole the society serves the market.

The importance of fossil fuels for the last two hundred years of development can not be stressed enough. It is unlikely that anything even close to the developments we have seen could have been done as a result of capitalism or industrialization without fossil fuels. Just as the earlier civilizations could not have developed without agriculture. The easiest way we might understand the importance is by translating the energy levels we have at our disposal to human labor units. And with that approach, we have 200 billion slaves working for us - but the good thing is that we do not have to feed them all. Industrialism is the way this energy is used to, like sailing ships for a long time was the main way to use wind energy, and the open fire for cooking is still in our day the most common way to use bio-energy.

Leo Tolstoy writes in the introduction to Anna Karenina (Tolstoy 1925) that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". From this literary achievement is formulated the Anna Karenina principle, which in general means that for things to be good, a whole series of conditions must be met, while for something to be bad just one factor wrong is enough. We can apply this principle also when discussing the development of society. I part 2 and 3 of Garden Earth I discuss the various factors which are critical to our existence and our well-being.

Part 2 describes many of the environmental and provisioning challenges that humanity faces. These challenges can be broadly grouped into over-exploitation of resources; poisoning of ourselves and nature, and the pressures on entire ecosystems and the services they do us. As fuel in all the processes that cause these challenges are fossil fuels and our own population. Agriculture is dealt with in detail because of the central role of agriculture for our survival; agriculture takes up much of the planet's surface and how we run it is very important for many critical processes, and services delivered by the nature that was there before the fields must be replaced. Agriculture is also very sensitive to the disruption of major ecological cycles (with the climate as a very clear example) and agricultural produce our food, but must also increasingly produce bio-energy and ecosystem services. The aim is not to be complete; there are numerous challenges which are not described, for example, ozone layer depletion and deforestation; over-fishing is just dealt with in passing.
I also introduce the view of nature that guides me, a vision which is in opposition to the capitalist view of nature as a source of raw materials and waste dump, but also in opposition to “deep ecology” ideas that man is an animal like any other and the idea that nature regulates itself in a way that is "good".

Part 3 is devoted to the social organism we have created, the community or society. I introduce the society as part of the human organism; upbringing and culture as part of evolution, but something that lifts us above both genes’ and self-interests short-term-ness and nearsightedness. If we see our society as a "meta-human", as an extension of the individual, the eternal opposition between heredity and environment can disappear, our society is then a part of the people and culture; values and norms other environmental factors are like society's genetic code, which is passed from generation to generation.

Many of the challenges of our social system and economy have a strong relationship with, and show similarities with, the challenges we have in relation to nature. They include, for example, that our society has no self-regulatory mechanisms for vital functions. We experience recurrent economic crises. At the same time there are ongoing environmental and resource crises everywhere on earth. But their impact may not get as much attention when in fact they should be the focus of our actions. Isn’t the collapse of fisheries a greater tragedy than the sub-prime loan crisis? Our accounts reflect only the parameters that we have agreed to keep records for, and we have become so accustomed to see only the economic factors as those being important.
We rush through both work and leisure. Are we happier? There is actually nothing to suggest that. As with natural resources, human well-being is not accounted for. It is a bit of a residual item, something you can discuss when all economic discussions are finished.

Why is that? How did that happen? Even the most materialist of us love and want to be loved, enjoys a good book or music, sees beauty in the falling leaves, just to mention a few examples. In fact, these things are much more important than the purely material. To live in a society in a social context is crucial for all people and investment in social capital may be among the most effective in creating the foundations of happiness and well being. Capitalist economy and values, however, then to break down the social fabric.

Large parts of humanity, about 900 million, live in extreme poverty (less than a dollar a day), and 2 billion live on less than two dollars a day. Eight hundred and fifty million are malnourished. Average life expectancy is below 50 years in 32 countries. Broadly speaking, poverty is located in what we call developing countries, almost all of them colonies of European countries a century ago. There is remarkable poverty, however, even in countries like the United States. Despite all the rhetoric, the capitalist system has not managed to eradicate poverty. The differences in wealth do not appear to be diminish at all, but if anything increase, which, of course, is unsustainable in the long term. The sections on economics and how society works can be provocative in an age where capitalism's final victory has been declared, and all possible alternatives is discredited. Thirty years of environmental policies shows that, despite all the rhetoric about the green economy, capitalism as a social system does not have the ability to manage the fact that natural resources are limited. Fifty years of discussions, assistance and development measures also show that the global economy offers no easy path to success - and perhaps no way at all - for those countries which are lagging behind. I criticize the inflated self-image of capitalism, but that does not mean I agree with most of the anti-capitalist demagogy. Above all, I do not buy conspiracy theories, with obese men in top hats (perhaps gradually superseded by the slender, botoxed and top trimmed women in costume) knowingly destroying nature and abusing workers. Of course, such happens sometimes, but mostly it's just behavioral patterns and the rules of the game that makes it happening. I discuss globalization, and show the benefits and some problems, as it entails. For me, the issue of globalization, is first and foremost a freedom issue, the freedom to transcend the arbitrary boundaries that originate in authoritarian and warring nation-states. That freedom should not apply just goods and capital, but even more people.

Part 4 is a summary of conclusions and policy options. By now it should be clear that I doubt we can solve the challenges we have within the capitalist paradigm. I demonstrate a number of trends which are also pointing in the direction of change. Particularly important are the demographic changes and the changes in the values attributed to them. I point to the importance of society for human welfare. It is in the organization of society we shall find the keys to how we organize ourselves in the future. Of the four spheres of the market, government, civil society and the private, capitalism has strengthened the market and the private and changed the role of the state. The future is not to let the state take over the production and distribution, but to further develop various forms of local stewardship, to let communities and civil society play a larger role.
The political discourse is mostly about things like tax rates and marginal adjustments to existing mechanisms. But the great challenges are to change the self-reinforcing processes, the positive feedback loops that exist, and even more to challenge the entire system of thought that are the basis for our view of society. I distrust utopias, but I give at least some ideas about how a radically different system would look like. That is a work in progress, which hopefully can grow stronger through the reactions I get from readers of the book.