Posts filed under ‘Environment’

Flushing out the greenwash

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from the ThinkingShift blog but you can still find me on the DailyOxford and ChinchillaBluePhotography blogs as well as on Twitter. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on doing a special post for a ThinkingShift reader who asked me why is it that people aren’t concerned about privacy. I am doing that post dear reader but – the Christchurch earthquake got in my way, as well as huge winds that are a frequent occurrence in the Canterbury region. So I’m way behind but it will happen as they say.

My favourite media company contacted me recently and I must blog on this issue because it’s quite a compelling, if not disturbing, story. When you think about sustainability, saving the planet, recycling and so on – do you ever stop to think about toilet paper packaging? You would think that if the packaging says “100% recycled paper” or “sourced from sustainable plantations” that you are buying a product that is environmentally friendly. But perhaps not.

A Choice investigation has found that environmental claims on toilet paper packaging are sometimes vague, leading the consumer into the trap of believing they are buying a superior product that protects native forests and biodiversity. Choice sites the example of a new toilet paper on the market that claims to be made from bamboo, straw, reeds and cotton – but cotton is a water and chemical-intensive crop and should be avoided for a single-use product such as toilet paper.

And then there are some toilet paper products that display an eco-label, such as Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), but a number of conservation foundations and societies say that this particular eco-label is meaningless as PEFC lacks on-ground auditing of forests and meaningful stakeholder engagement. So the consumer cannot be confident that the fibres sourced for the toilet paper are in fact environmentally and socially sustainable. Choice also could not find any toilet paper products that carried the The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) global eco-label, which is supported by Greenpeace, ACF and The Wilderness Society. An FSC label would indicate that the product is made from certified virgin fibre sourced from sustainable forests.

The Choice investigation found that most toilet papers do not use an eco-label yet claim the fibre is sourced from sustainably managed forests. But when asked to verify the source of the fibre, the companies are vague or cannot back up claims. Most toilet papers claim to use a process known as “elemental chlorine-free bleaching”. Supposedly this is an environmentally-friendly bleaching process to whiten, but it uses chlorine. A far better choice is unbleached toilet paper because this is chlorine-free.

Another eye-opener is the triangular recycling symbol with the number four and LDPE acronym you often see on toilet paper packaging. It signifies that the product is low-density polyethylene. But Local Councils in Australia prohibit LDPE film in their recycling bins. The consumer is also led astray when it comes to logos of environmental organisations displayed on toilet paper packaging, saying that profits go to certain environmental projects. The problem here is that these environmental groups do not always audit environmental impacts or fibre source. Sadly, Choice concluded that most toilet paper manufacturers’ claims about sustainable forestry are unsubstantiated and those using the PEFC eco-label are not supported by some major environment groups.

So is there any particular toilet paper that the consumer can be confident is a sustainable product? Choice gave a 5-star rating to the following (in order of sustainability):

  • Coles Green Choice, which has 100% recycled content from used office paper;
  • Dandy Enviro Friend, which you can buy from Aldi. Funds environment groups and projects;
  • Envirosoft – elemental chlorine-free bleaching or unbleached;
  • Naturale – Wastepaper from process is recycled; and
  • Safe brand.

Singled out for favourable comment was Kleenex Cottonelle Toilet Tissue. Choice acknowledged this toilet paper for environmental innovation with its waste reduction strategy for kids. A puppy is printed on every three to four sheets, letting kids know when to tear off.

So next time you go to the supermarket, read the toilet paper packaging carefully and be a more informed consumer with the help of Choice.

October 13, 2010 at 4:01 am 3 comments

Green fields

The town officials of Camden, Maine and Greenwich, Connecticut USA are pretty smart if you ask me. They’ve thought about something that maybe you and I don’t give much thought to – the use of pesticides in public spaces, particularly parks where kids frolic and play. I remember growing up, I used to get bindi-eyes stuck in my feet. It was a rite of passage really. Bindi-eyes piercing your thongs and pricking your feet. Ouch. But then along came weed killer. Bindi-eyes are a weed and competes with grass so local councils and homeowners spray the little bastards with weed killer. Wouldn’t want bindis to spoil a lush green lawn now would we.

The use of weed killer and various pesticides can be harmful to humans, birds and animals. My grandmother used to knock off bindi-eyes with a very simple home remedy: 2 tablespoons of iron sulphate; 4.5 litres of water. That’s it. Mix it, shake it and spray it on the bindi-eyes. Even household vinegar can be used as an organic weed killer.

And it seems that town officials in Camden and Greenwich have woken up to the environmental hazards of spraying weed killers and pesticides. Here’s a photo of a public park in Camden:

A healthy lawn boasting gorgeous lush green grass. No chemicals, pesticides or weed killers used. Camden town officials have adopted a new policy, which you can read here in full.  Apparently, a group of concerned citizens (Citizens for a Green Camden) put the pressure on authorities to eliminate toxic pesticides and weed killers from public parks and fields. And here’s a section of the policy:

All pesticides are toxic to some degree and the widespread use of pesticides is both a major environmental problem and a public health issues. Federal regulations of pesticides is no guarantee of safety. Camden recognizes that the use of pesticides may have profound effects upon indigenous plants, surface water and ground water, as well as unintended effects upon people, birds and other animals in the vicinity of treated areas. Camden recognizes that all citizens, particularly children, have a right to protection from exposure to hazardous chemicals and pesticides”.

Of the thirty most commonly used lawn pesticides ,14 are probable or possible carcinogens, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 15 with neurotoxicity, 26 with liver or kidney damage and 27 are sensitizers and/or irritants. So it’s essential that local councils adopt a pesticide free policy.

I use this collection of simple, organic recipes when out and about in the garden to control insects and bugs. No nasty toxic stuff. There’s absolutely no need to use chemicals. You don’t want to end up like this poor dude. With no nasty sprays, you’ll find birds and butterflies happily returning to your garden.

Image credit: Irregular Times.

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April 18, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Sugar, sugar

I’ve been monitoring with interest a court case going on in the good old US of A because it could have serious implications for the food we ingest. I am not a fan of genetically-modified (GM) foods due to the unknown long-term effects of gene-mixing, possible creation of super-viruses and antibiotic resistance, potential toxins, allergens and carcinogens. Basically, introducing changes into the DNA of plants and crops and producing transgenic products is an unnatural process IMHO. GM foods (so we’re told) enhance desired traits within crops and plants, such as increased resistance to herbicides, or they offer improved nutritional content. And with an exploding world population, GM crops are designed to be pest and disease-resistant; they can tolerate cold or harsh climates and droughts. So on the surface, GM foods make sense. But scratch beneath the surface and you start to worry.

The court case I’ve had my eye is a cat-fight between Monsanto and the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds and the Sierra Club, amongst others. The coalition of plaintiffs were seeking a temporary ban on genetically-modified Roundup Ready sugar beets and sugar beet seeds developed by Monsanto. The cat-fight goes like this:

  • the coalition argues that the US Department of Agriculture approved the glyphosate-resistant sugar beets (commercially known as “Roundup Ready) without properly determining socioeconomic and environmental impacts. The approval dates back to the Bush administration.
  • the coalition is arguing the possibility of genetic contamination of organic and conventional crops such as Swiss chard and red table beets.
  • they are asking for a temporary ban on the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds until the US federal government does an environmental and health impact study.
  • and they are arguing that both farmers and consumers will be forced to grow or buy GM sugar beets because of limited choice.

So really the legal argument is that federal regulators wrongly approved the commercialization of GM sugar beets. The US Department of Agriculture deregulated genetically engineered RoundUp Ready sugar beets in 2004. And in September 2009, the federal district court for the Northern District of California ruled that the Bush administration had unlawfully approved the GM sugar beets. You can read the court order here. Naturally, Monsanto wasn’t taking this lying down and appealed.

Federal district Judge, Jeffrey White, has just denied the coalition group’s preliminary injunction but has left the door open for permanent relief when he says:

The parties should not assume that the court’s decision to deny a preliminary injunction is indicative of its views on a permanent injunction pending the full environmental review that [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] is required to do“.

I think the denial of the injunction means that farmers can go ahead in April 2010 and plant sugar beets. The coalition group is seeking a permanent injunction and will be back in court to fight it out with Monsanto in July 2010. To gain perspective as to why this will be a huge cat fight – 1 million acres of Roundup Ready sugar beets have been planted in 10 US States and in two Canadian provinces. That’s a whole lot of sugar beets and they account for more than half of the United States’ sugar production. And of course contamination from GM sugar beet seeds would be devastating for farmers planting organic seeds, making their crops pretty much worthless.

This is an important case because Roundup Ready sugar beets are genetically-engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup glyphosate-based herbicide and this results in the creation of Roundup-resistant “super weeds”. To overcome resistance, farmers often resort to nasty, nasty herbicides like 2,4-D, the active ingredient in Agent Orange. Apart from this horror scenario, the sugar produced from Roundup Ready sugar beet crops have greatly elevated levels of the herbicide glyphosphate, which may end up in the products we consume ranging from breakfast cereals to bread.

March 21, 2010 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Water conflicts

Did you read my post about water barons and how multinational companies or private individuals are spotting the opportunities to make a profit from an increasingly dwindling supply of fresh water?  I told you about how we will be slugged with substantially increased water rates, contaminated water supplies or poor service delivery when water scarcity hits us.

Australia of course is the driest continent on the planet and has one of the highest levels of water use per capita – so what happens when an area or region runs out of water? It’s what I’ve been saying – illegal water carriers swoop like vultures to the carcass. The Upper Hunter region in New South Wales has been in the grip of drought. Dams, tanks, bores and streams have been running dry from Cessnock to Murrurundi and thousands of families in this mainly rural area are being forced to buy water for drinking, washing, bathing and stock such as cattle.  Bores in the village of Wingen are dry for the first time in years and I saw a TV show the other night where the publican was being interviewed – he was saying they fear it when people who come to his pub go to the toilet (because it means litres of water being used to flush the toilet and more expense for him).

Water carters are charging between AU $100 and $160 for residential loads. Water loads vary from 9000 litres up to 28,000 litres but the average load seems to be about 12,000 litres. That sounds a lot but remember these people are farmers mainly, so they have stock and soaring temperatures to contend with. Beef farmers are apparently weaning calves four months early due to the lack of water.

And in the midst of this water crisis, you get the opportunists, the water privateers – who are illegally supplying water and causing damage to water mains and hydrants because they are not licensed and not accessing water supplies in the approved manner (which is via a credit card-like key).

I suspect this is our future – a world that will see increasing skirmishes over water and opportunists who will sell us water (a basic human right) at exorbitant costs.

Since the late 1980s, the Pacific Institute has been studying the connections between water resources, water systems and international security and conflict in an effort to track and categorise events related to water and conflict. Their water conflict chronology will freak you out but it’s a reality we must face.  You can view the chronology in a number of different ways, from a timeline to interactive Google Earth water conflict maps. You can filter the timeline to show when conflicts over water occurred by region, conflict type and date range. There’s also a list of conflicts over water starting in 3000 BC with extensive descriptive notes.

Australia is not the only country facing water scarcity. American readers should read this article on water issues challenging the US, including inter-state water battles. If you live in Oklahoma, might be time to consider getting out before corn and soybean yields decrease by 30 to 46% due to the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains of the United States (including important parts of Oklahoma) experiencing a 20% decrease in recharge. And of course when you get crops failing around the world due to water scarcity…you get food scarcity…you get skirmishes and death.

India has already witnessed deaths and injuries over water shortages and Nigeria has recently seen thousands of people protesting over dwindling water supplies. Water covers three-quarters of the planet’s surface but most of this is undrinkable. Less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh and drinkable. Lloyd‘s are already talking of “water bankruptcy” being our future and pointing out that 55% of the world’s population will be dependent on food imports as a result of insufficient domestic water by 2030. That is just 20 years from now.

December 29, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Water barons

I’ve blogged many times about a future world facing water and food scarcity, along with skirmishes over access to water and food. Go here and here for a refresher.

I recently said that water will be the oil of the 21st Century and that private companies are increasingly buying rights to water. I even suggested you search the names of two French companies – Suez Lyonnaise des eaux and Vivendi Environnement – did you do that? No? Search now. I’ll wait.

You might have found that these two companies alone supply water to 230 million people around the world (and this includes the US). They have quietly assumed control over the water supplied to millions of people. Scary. Think about a future when every time you flush the toilet or turn on the tap/faucet, you are pouring profit into private water companies.

American readers: you may have heard of T.Boone Pickens – corporate raider and oilman – he owns more water than any other individual in the U.S. and is aiming to control more. And he is planning on selling 65 billion gallons a year to thirsty Americans. Have you heard of Dr William Turner and the WaterBank?  Turner is from New Mexico and is a new breed of professional – an Internet water-rights broker – who lists water rights for sale or lease and trades in the water marketplace.

In most countries, the State owns the water resources. But the infrastructure to run the water supply (eg dams, filtration and supply systems, the charging process) is one more Government activity that is being increasingly run by private water utility companies who argue that they are cheaper and more efficient than public works.

Because I think this is such a serious issue, I am going to provide you with some stuff to read and follow up, so you can educate yourself. And think about how to secure your access to a basic human right – water.

  • CBC News Canada report on water privatisation in South Africa
  • in fact check out the whole series by CBC Canada on water privatisation
  • US companies raid Aussie water
  • The Center for Public Integrity’s in-depth investigation into the water barons
  • The Jakarta Post – taking on the water barons
  • World Economic Forum report that warns we will face water bankruptcy in less than 20 years
  • World Vision report (audio) Water Wars
  • World Water Wars– website for exchange of ideas and information about water privatisation and exploitation
  • series of videos featuring Datta Desai and the protest over water privatisation in Maharashtra, India.

There are two interweaving factors at play here: the world is running out of fresh water, FAST and multinational companies and private individuals are spotting the opportunities to make a profit. You and I will not reap the benefits of these profits. No. We will be slugged with substantially increased water rates; contaminated water supplies; poor service delivery. Don’t believe me? Then read this and this.  If you ask me, very soon “www” will not stand for World Wide Web. It will signify World Water Wars.

December 8, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments


I’m being asked more and more to review products and books. I guess due to the emphasis of this blog on topics like frugal living, sustainability, anti-The Brands, organic products and so on.  I should point out that any product review I do involves two things: not being paid for it and putting the product through its paces. The review I do will be an honest assessment.

So….I was contacted by a Sydney-based PR company who asked if I’d heard of Weleda products and if I’d like to receive some samples to try and perhaps do a review. I received a generous selection of products and put them through what I consider a pretty gruelling test. More about the test later.

But first – you can check out the Weleda website here in Australia and here internationally. I have seen Weleda products in various health food stores over the years but never tried them. So I checked them out and can tell you that they produce organic skin & body care and what’s really interesting is that the finest ingredients are sourced from specially selected biodynamic and organic farms and gardens. There’s no nasty chemicals, colourings, synthetics – the natural ingredients are often wild-harvested (meaning that the plants have grown in the wild) and have been picked in a sustainable way.

The company’s heritage was a surprise – going back to 1921, Dr Rudolph Steiner and the movement known as anthroposophy.  I know a bit about anthroposophy because my mother was a bit of a health nut who followed the teaching of Gaylord Hauser. Anthroposophy is about seeing the body, mind and spirit as linked to the world and part of a holistic system. So Steiner, along with Dr. Ita Wegman, developed Weleda products using natural ingredients that holistically work with and support the body’s healing tendencies. “Weleda” is the Celtic goddess of wisdom and healing, so they chose a pretty apt name.

Anyway, I was sent some products from the Almond range for sensitive skin, toothpaste and some smaller sample products. Here’s what I received:

Now to the test. I have the world’s weirdest skin. Being of mixed Welsh and Russian origin, I have VERY fair skin that is prone to going berserk over the slightest thing. Heat and wind in the face can send it bright red. I simply cannot (and will not) tan, so any slight skin imperfection is front and centre. I also travel a fair bit and constantly find products leaking all over the place.

So I need a skin care product that is super gentle and for sensitive skin. And preferably products in tubes that don’t leak and take up too much space in my toiletry travel bag. Since giving up The Brands, I have been using organic skin care, my favourite being Avalon Organics’ Vitamin C range. I’ve been sticking to this for well over a year now. And I prefer natural ingredients.

The Weleda products arrived just in time to take on the road to Taiwan. What a test!! The products would be stuffed into a toiletry bag, thrown around in a suitcase and tested on my skin for over a week, in a country with different climatic conditions (always a hassle for my skin). So I took all the products and here’s my review:

  • the Almond cleansing lotion and moisture cream. The Almond range is for sensitive and reactive skin – hello!! The cleanser is creamy, fragrance free and is packed with sweet almond oil that helps nourish and soothe sensitive skin.  Frankly, I expected the cleanser would not be not very effective at taking off my make-up or might leave my skin feeling tight but…nope. It was a pleasure to use and very little was needed to swipe off the make-up. As I also have skin that tends to be oily, the moisture cream was surprisingly light and didn’t leave me looking like an oil pit. Both these products I found to be extremely soothing on my skin, which often feels hot. So far so good!
  • the toothpaste I looked at with trepidation. I am used to the Colgates or whatever you get from the supermarket. The gel toothpaste is made from plants. Frankly, I thought it wouldn’t be very effective. After a week of using this toothpaste, I wouldn’t buy anything else. LOVE it. I have sensitive gums too and often find a toothpaste stings or is too full of mint or some other strong taste. This toothpaste is made from organic chamomile flower extract, along with myrrh and organic ratanhia (with mild disinfectant and astringent properties). The mouthwash was similar. Both are excellent products. It took me probably 3 or 4 days to get used to the toothpaste as it’s quite a different texture in the mouth.
  • After hours and hours of flying to Taiwan and back (and recent trips to New Zealand), I found Skin Food a wonderful problem solver for the rough and dry nasty bits. Skin Food is an intensively nourishing, hydrating cream made from organic pansy. I smacked it on the elbows, heels of the feet and any other bits that were a tad dry. I believe this is known as the “hero product” of the Weleda range and has been around since 1926.
  • The Sea Buckthorn Creamy Body Wash is super creamy, with a subtle, delightful smell of orange sea buckthorn berries. The Sea Buckthorn Body Oil I used alternately with the Skin Food for the rough bits. I was very happy that these two products didn’t have some awful fake smell (like so many of the vanilla-scented products around these days).
  • Pomegranate Hand Cream: I often forget about the hands, so after a week of using this hand cream, I reckon my hands are looking smoother. Organic pomegranate seed oil is naturally rich in antioxidants so this hand cream is going to help protect the hands from free radical damage.

I’ve been using the Weleda products for nearly two weeks now and can truly tell you that my skin has not done its usual thing – feeling hot, going red, breaking out as often, looking dull and so on. It’s calmer and more soothed. None of the products leaked in my suitcase. Most of them come in handy tubes that can get squished and thrown around without any leakage dramas. Obviously, Weleda puts thought into a product’s ingredients rather than giving you some fancy looking jar. The size of the products is good too for travel bags.

I guess the best thing I can say is that I will now be switching from Avalon Organics and going with Weleda products from now on. That’s how good I think the products are. I know that my fav health store doesn’t stock Weleda, so thank goodness I can purchase online. Thx to Katja at the PR company for asking me to test Weleda!

December 1, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Scientists behaving badly?

No doubt you’ve heard of the fracas going on over the global warming emails that were allegedly hacked from computers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Centre in the UK and leaked to the world on the Internet. Now known as Climate Gate, the leaked emails have been feasted on by global warming skeptics. Just in case you’ve been hitting the snooze button and missed the whole thing, you can search the emails on this handy website. If you want a potted version of the emails, Andrew Bolt  of the Herald Sun provides excerpts of the juicy bits.

Around 1079 emails and 72 documents supposedly show that scientists have been behaving badly by manipulating climate change data; colluding to suppress data that suggests there is no heating up of the planet happening; and darkly wishing to beat the crap out of scientists who are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). So the allegation is that a bunch of nerdy scientists are guilty of fraud and conspiring to cover up the warming theory. 

On the other side of the fence, there are those who are loudly suggesting that the emails have been taken out of context and that skeptics are “cherry picking” the emails, searching for words and phrases that spectactularly reveal some grand plan on the part of climate change scientists. I think this is an important point to ponder. We all know that email communication can often be blunt, direct, suggestive and misinterpreted by a recipient.  And I’d say that scientists are a pretty direct lot and heavily critique or criticize their peers’ work. Without contextual information, we can all jump to incorrect conclusions. And I’d suggest that’s what might be happening with Climate Gate. Here is a thoughtful analysis that provides some of the missing contextual information surrounding the emails.

Now, before you jump all over me, I’m not a climate scientist (nor are most of the climate change skeptics I’d say). But I am someone who likes to explore issues before jumping up and down, pointing the finger of blame. So I’ve now read many of the key emails skeptics have seized on and I’ve even taken the time to read a few of the original articles of the named scientists and I do think that things have been taken out of context.

For example, Phil Jones (Director of the Climate Research Centre) in a 1999 email said (about temperature reconstructions):

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

Yep, on the face of it, not looking too good for old Phil. It does read as though he’s been up to some tricky stuff, manipulating data. But…I took the time to track the original article (referenced as “Mike’s Nature trick). It appears to be from a 1998 article in Nature, entitled “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries” by Mann, Bradley and Hughes (the dudes of Hockey Stick fame) Nature 392, 779-787 (23 April 1998). I actually waded my way through it. I’m no pointy-headed scientist (although I do have a Masters in Complexity) and I confess to not understanding some of it because it deals with Paleoclimatology – but seems to me that Jones is using language commonly employed by scientists (let’s remember that every profession has its own language) and he means bag of tricks or a technique to resolve a problem.

In this case, as I understand the article, Jones is referring to a divergence problem. Briefly, proxy data (such as tree rings and ice cores) – going back thousands of years but ending in 1980 – were examined and appeared to diverge from modern instrumental temperature records post-1960. The authors were trying to construct long-term (centuries to millennia) temperature records. Instrumental records from the late 20th Century were pointing to global warming but reconstructed temperatures from trees were showing cooling or no change. Hence, a divergence problem. I read somewhere (I’m hoping to find the reference) that climate change itself could very well be affecting trees, so they don’t grow as they once did and therefore don’t provide useful proxy data. The “trick” that Jones mentioned in his email is the technique of plotting recent instrumental data along with the reconstructed data  – not to “hide” a decline – but because the scientists understood that the tree-ring data was suspect due to global warming (which is shown by the instrumental records). In his words:

“.. they’re talking about two different things here. They’re talking about the instrumental data which is unaltered – but they’re talking about proxy data going further back in time, a thousand years, and it’s just about how you add on the last few years, because when you get proxy data you sample things like tree rings and ice cores, and they don’t always have the last few years. So one way is to add on the instrumental data for the last few years.”

The future of our planet depends on whether or not anthropogenic global warming is a reality. For non-scientists and conspiracy theorists to pounce like wolves on a series of emails and cry “fraud” is itself suspect. IMHO we all need to go back to the original sources, the articles, the science itself and have a whole lot of PhDs after our names before we can even remotely begin to comment.

If you want a conspiracy theory, how about this – no hacking of computers or emails took place (by Russians it’s suggested). It was an inside job. Someone or a group of shadowy dudes, who want to discredit climate change scientists and knew what they were looking for, leaked the material. Because let’s be honest, there are a range of vested interests that would like to smack AGW in the chops and see the whole issue fade away.

For a good laugh: read this….brilliant.

November 27, 2009 at 3:10 am Leave a comment

Thankfully Aussies are good swimmers

My last post brought you rather depressing news about future water wars and food insecurity. Well, there’s more worrying news I’m afraid, especially if you’re an Aussie. No doubt you’ve heard about the latest climate change report that focuses on Australia: Climate Change Risks to Australia’s Coasts. The report is now up on the Department of Climate Change’s website – go here.

If you can’t be bothered wading your way through this meaty report, I’ll give you the bad news:

  • Australia has become a coastal society. Around 85% of the population now live along the coastline and it is of immense economic, social and environmental importance to the nation;
  • all Australian state capital cities are located within the coastal zone;
  • airports, sea ports and almost a quarter of a million residential homes on Australia’s coastline are at risk of disappearing under rising sea levels by 2100, if climate change continues unchecked;
  • up to AU$63 billion of existing residential buildings are potentially at risk of inundation from a 1.1 metre sea-level rise;
  • 157,000 to 247,600 existing residential buildings will be at risk from sea inundation by 2100, under a sea-level rise scenario of 1.1m;
  • basically if you have a house along the coastline, you’re toast and will have real hassles selling;
  • the report offers 47 recommendations such as reviewing evacuation plans (yep, I’d get these plans ready fast) and overhauling building codes to ensure sturdier homes.

Basically dear Aussies, our number is up. Our beach way of life, lazying on the beach, swimming and surfing, golden sand squishing between the toes – all the stuff that makes up our national identity – is threatened by climate change. We’d all better adapt to living away from the coastline and get used to far hotter weather and wilder weather patterns. Insurance companies are already refusing to insure coastal homes and are now tallying up the potential costs (AU$150 billion and counting).

The cat fight I reckon will be over the big question: who’s going to pay? Will owners of beachfront homes get compensation from local councils or State governments? Have State and local authorities got it together yet? – what are their plans for protecting coastal areas and citizens, coastal buildings, public works etc? My bet is that State and local authorities will scramble to protect public buildings and fret over whether angry residents, with beachfront homes sliding into the sea due to soil erosion or inundation, will create public safety issues. They won’t give a toss about the thousands of home owners who will see the value of their expensive beach front homes go belly up. Call me cynical but that’s what I think will happen.

November 18, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

A plan to save civilization

This coming week, I’m in Taiwan but through the magic of auto-posts, ThinkingShift lives on. I hope to take heaps of shots with my new plastic fantastic Superheadz Pink Dress camera.

But today I’m bringing you a slide presentation you need to look at. Awhile back I told you about Lester Brown, the American environmentalist. His website, Earth Policy Institute, has just published a slideshow called Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Plan B refers to the response to the environmental challenges our planet now faces. The major challenges, as I’ve blogged about many times, are food insecurity and climate change. Here’s a summary of the slide show:

  • Earth’s average temperature will rise 1.1-6.4˚C (33.98 ºF-43.52 ºF) during the 21st century;
  • we are already outpacing these predictions;
  • crop yields drop by 10% for every 1˚C rise in temperature;
  • in an effort to ensure their own food security, some affluent food importing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea have begun buying or leasing land abroad to grow their own food. If you don’t believe that rich dude countries are leasing foreign land, then check out this – Pakistan is having a hissy fit that Saudi Arabia is planning to lease 202,342.8 hectares of farmland in Pakistan. I would have thought Pakistan had enough hungry people without leasing out precious land. And Libya is planning to grow wheat on 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) in Ukraine ;
  • historians have argued long and hard that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to food shortages and skirmishes over access to food (along with the Sumerian and Mayan civilisations). The fall of our own civilisation will be due to food shortages and battles over water. I’m now seeing articles about future water wars. My own view is that we’ll see the rise of water privateers. Here’s just one example I can give you of how the poor in developing countries (not to mention you and me) will get shafted by the privatisation of water. Water is going to be the oil of the 21st Century. Private companies will buy rights to water. Two French companies – Suez Lyonnaise des eaux and Vivendi Environnement – are the ones I think we need to watch. Just search for these two companies on the internet – go ahead, it will freak you out to find that these two companies alone supply water to 230 million people around the world (and this includes the US).

The slide show offers up some responses (Plan B):

  • a worldwide switch to highly-efficient lighting would cut electricity use 12%, equivalent to closing 705 coal-fired power plants;
  • the wind potential in North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas alone could satisfy U.S. energy needs.

There are heaps of ideas in the slide show to save the planet and our civilisation. There are also a ton of facts that will freak you out such as:

  • soaring food prices – from mid-2006 to mid-2008, world grain and soybean prices tripled;
  • since 1981, oil extraction has exceeded new discoveries by a widening margin. Most of the easily recovered oil is already pumped;
  • between 1950 and 2000, world water use tripled. Some 70% of water use is for irrigation. Over-extraction is leading to disappearing lakes and rivers failing to reach the sea. Aquifer depletion is causing water tables to fall and wells to go dry;
  • massive Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are melting at accelerating rates. Together hold enough water to raise sea level 12 meters (39 feet). A 10-meter rise in sea level today would inundate coastal areas home to more than 600 million people.

November 16, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Environmental boundaries to save Gaia

If you’re wondering whether humans are stupid enough to be the architects of civilisation’s collapse and will become extinct….read on. Twenty eight scientists have been asked how we are going as stewards of Planet Earth. Really, why bother with twenty eight scientists when I could have given the short answer: humans are wrecking the planet and we will all be kaput!

Anyway, the pointy-headed scientists have drawn up a list of nine “planetary boundaries” that we had better not transgress if we, as a species, want to hang around and not suffer disastrous consequences. Check out this article from Nature for full details but basically, I’ll give you the goss – and the bad news? We’ve already crossed three of the planetary boundaries. Our planet’s environment has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years. This stable period is known as the Holocene (aka The Long Summer) and has seen civilisations rise and fall. But since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been in a new period – the Anthropocene – and basically the signature of this period is human activity driving environmental change, which could push us beyond the stability of the Holocene and into abrupt, irreversible climate change. So here is the framework the scientists propose to keep us within safe boundaries:

(1) Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Human changes to atmospheric CO2 concentrations should not exceed 350 parts per million by volume (p.p.m.v.) but current CO2 concentration stands at 387 p.p.m.v. and climbing. The boundary of 350 p.p.m.v. ensures the continued existence of the large polar ice sheets (but as we know, these are rapidly melting). So we’re probably toast as we’ve crossed this climate boundary already. The article says that we are already seeing evidence that some of Earth’s subsystems are moving outside their stable Holocene state eg accelerating rates of sea-level rise during the past 10–15 years and the retreat of mountain glaciers around the world.

(2) Biodiversity loss. This is the second boundary we’ve crossed and/or screwed up. Species extinction is a natural occurrence but biodiversity loss in the Anthropocene has accelerated massively and many scientists say we are in the grip of a sixth great extinction event. In 1993, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is losing around 30,000 species per year (and this equates to three species per hour). Here’s a great site if you want to learn more about the mass extinction humans are causing. Today, the rate of extinction of species is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 times more than what could be considered natural.

(3) Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The rise of industrialised agriculture has thrown off Earth’s natural nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and we have pollution on land and in our water ways. We’ve passed the threshold with the nitrogen cycle because the planet and oceans simply can’t process the chemicals being dumped by humans obsessed with food production and cultivation of crops using chemicals. A major side-effect of nitrogen use is pollution of oceans – the Gulf of Mexico, for example, has a 5,800 square mile “dead zone” caused by nitrogen/fertilizer run off.

(4) Ozone. We haven’t stuffed this up because a 1987 ban on ozone-eating chemicals (being chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs) has resulted in atmospheric levels of ultraviolet radiation-blocking ozone now being at the safe level. Ozone depletion is a serious issue because it can lead to skin cancer, cataract and premature ageing of the skin.

(5) Freshwater use.  Demand for fresh water is soaring due to hygiene, sanitation, food production and industry. But planetary supplies of freshwater are dwindling. Current consumption for agricultural, for example, may expand from 2,600 cubic kilometers to 4,000 cubic kilometers in the future and this will lead to further environmental damage and water scarcity. Check out this freshwater scarcity map – it will freak you out:

Source: Scientific American

(6) Land use: I was reading the other day that Australia’s population growth is exploding (and given that we are the most arid continent on Earth, not sure this is smart). We will have 35 million by 2049 (current: 21,993,806 according to ABS). The world population is currently around 6.8 billion and is projected to surpass 9 billion by 2050. Just imagine: in 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion. To accommodate 9 billion people in 2050 you need land – so natural terrain, forests, fields and wetlands will most likely disappear to make way for cities and expanding suburbia. We’ll be lucky to spot a small shrub in the crowded concrete jungles of the future!

(7) Ocean acidification: Our civilisation oozes carbon dioxide and eventually it finds its way into waterways and oceans, raising their acidity levels. In acidic seawater coral, for example, have a tough time building their skeletons because the minerals they produce to build the skeletons quickly dissolve in acidic water. Apparently, oceans are now acidifying 100 times faster than at any time during the past 20 million years.

(8) Chemical pollution: I’m always saying that our era will be known as the “chemical generation” (that is if there are any humans left in the future).  We are chemical crazy. Go off and look at the ingredients in your shampoo…I’ll wait. Do you see Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Sodium Laurel Sulfate? If so, chuck it out now – these chemicals are known as surfectants and are basically foaming agents. They are known irritants and have also been linked to liver toxicity and may be carcinogenic. These chemicals also pop up in toothpaste, soap, mascara, laundry detergent, body wash, shave cream and so on. But you can get SLS-free products, go here for a list. Of course, nasty chemicals end up in our waterways and have been linked to genetic damage.

(9) Atmospheric aerosols. A volcano spewing forth its muck is likely to pollute the atmosphere but so are human-made sulfate aerosols created by the burning of coal and oil. Human-made sulfate aerosols are now thought to outweigh naturally produced sulfate aerosols such as desert dust and volcanic aerosols resulting from eruptions. Human-made sulfate aerosols are suspended in Earth’s atmosphere and actually have a cooling effect on climate but do not offset global warming.

Of the 9 planetary boundaries, we have crossed three. Below is the “planetary boundaries” table that shows the sorry state of affairs.

Click here for larger view (Source: Nature).

September 26, 2009 at 2:14 am Leave a comment

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