Saturday, September 3, 2022

On my mind

This is the third of four posts giving an update of what’s going on in my life and mind.

From a communications perspective I ponder over how I can improve my efforts to explain why profit, competition and increased labor productivity, essential parts of capitalism, are the main factors driving increased resource use, and that economic value (not financial value) is created by the use of resources including human labor. With a constant population there can’t be economic growth without increased resource use.

Linked to that is also the need to debunk the consumerist perspective of markets, the notion that markets are “consumer-driven” and thus that the key to any change is consumer behavior. For me, it is apparent that markets and production methods are not consumer driven even if it is equally apparent that if no consumer buy a product it will cease to be produced.  The myth of that the consumer is in command is an essential part of the justification of capitalism. It portrays the market as a democratic institution which people can control by “voting with their wallets”. And, as markets are democratic the best is to let markets take care of as much as possible – so the story goes. Regardless of the fact that some people have many more dollars in their wallet than others, it gives a distorted view of how markets work. Steve Jobs said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them” and proved it with the iPhone. It is true also on a much larger scale in time and place.

The food and agriculture system, where my main area of expertise is, provides ample evidence for that production methods, competition and government policies are all much more important than consumer choice. Almost everything people eat are made from a limited number of commodities that our ancestors domesticated, an individual consumer can’t change that, she can just refuse to eat some of them. That people eat enormous quantities of chicken and almost no magpies or starlings is not the result of consumer preferences but of the fact the hens were domesticated many thousand years ago and that from the 1930s and onwards industrial processes of chicken production were developed. In addition the food industry and restaurants like chicken as it is always tender and tasteless so you can give it any taste you want. All this together has transformed chicken from luxury food to a poor man’s staple food.

Even on a mega scale in time and space it is apparent that population growth is a result of increased production rather than the other way round – something I am busy studying at the moment. This matters quite a lot as the dominating narrative in agriculture is that “we have to produce more to feed a growing population”, but in my view it is rather “the population is growing because we exploit more and more resources”. Of course it is slightly simplistic, there are underlying factors - energy and capitalism – driving both agriculture production and population.

Two other technical matters I contemplate are the net emissions from man-made landscapes and mapping the main flows in the biological carbon cycles.

Today, all emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture (or other man made landscapes) are classified as anthropogenic as opposed to natural in IPCC terminology. But also natural landscapes emit carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Wetlands, for example, emit more methane than all the anthropogenic sources together. If we drain a wet land and grow rice in it, all methane emissions from the rice production is classified as anthropogenic despite the fact that the land emitted methane also before (this could be more or less depending on the conditions). Equally, when a wet land is drained for dryland farming, the land normally will lose carbon as well as nitrous oxide. These emissions will be called anthropogenic but the reduction of methane will not be counted as a reduction in emissions. It seems to me that it would be more fair and accurate to contrast agriculture’s emissions to the emissions of the same land in its more pristine form. Does it matter? Well for the climate it doesn’t as it is not our categories of classifications that are changing the climate. But for climate policy and all the incentives and disincentives which are now developed, it can make a lot of difference.

To some extent, this is linked to the second matter, the flows of the biological carbon cycle. There are many proposals about tree planting or restoration of eco-systems as means to mitigate climate change. But people tend to look at these things in isolation and not from a system’s perspective. The total flow of carbon in the biological systems surpass the emissions from fossil fuels and the stocks in the biosphere are huge. Most of the carbon in the annual flow just circulates in the biosphere and the speed of the circulation can be very rapid, even plants themselves exhale carbon dioxide at night time.  Some of the circulation is slow, like the one tied up in tree trunks or other long lived organisms (whales and humans). But even for trees a substantial part of the carbon that is assimilated is not bound into the wood itself but is exchanged with fungi, or falling to the ground as leafs or needles, or eaten by insects. Some of the wood burns and the carbon is released rapidly. The average Swede eats 100 kg of carbon each year while the body contains some 12 kg, the stock (the body) is therefore much smaller than the flow.

But there is no good overview or flow chart of the paths that all this carbon takes.  I am convinced that such a mapping would be useful. I guess most of you have seen the graph that shows that 70% of all mammals on the planet are domestic livestock and most of the rest are humans, with only 4% wild mammals. It is of course a sad fact that we have killed or destroyed the habitat of so many wild mammals. I believe that the rest of the same research is even more interesting, but unfortunately little publicized. To realize that there is much more fish in the ocean than all mammals together and that arthropods (insects etc.) weigh more than 10 times all the cattle and that all the bacteria weigh 35 times more than all animals taken together. And that there are 200 times more fungi than humans. Plants dwarfs everything and make up some 90% of the biomass. It makes you feel a lot less important, doesn't it?

This also leads to another topic – rewilding. We explore that to some extent in The hippos of Pablo Escobar. These days we continue to dig a bit deeper into the topic and realize that rewilding is not so well defined and encompass very different approaches. There are many conflicts also for rewilding and humans have to manage rewilding to a very large extent, which is a bit contradictory. Rewilding sounds like primitivism, leading us back to a pure past of foraging, but in reality most of the pundits are ecomodernists (some are just rich people seeking a playground) who put humans outside of nature instead of being nature.

Most of the topics mentioned above will be discussed in some post later on, when the ground is covered in snow....

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