In his book When Disaster Strikes (Chelsea Green, 2011), author Matthew Stein outlines emergency preparedness strategies for a number of potential global catastrophes. Even if you don’t worry about the potential effects of climate change or peak oil, having more knowledge about how to protect your loved ones in the case of an emergency will be useful information.
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I suggest that you consider the following six trends that appear to be combining to form the perfect storm for global catastrophe, each of which is a potential civilization buster in its own right, if left unchecked. You may not agree with the scientific foundation for all of these trends, and it may turn out that scientists’ concerns about one or more of these trends are unfounded, but is it not prudent to plan for the potential that one or more of these trends might significantly damage or disrupt the complex global systems that we rely upon to keep ourselves comfortably fed, clothed, and sheltered? This is the ultimate in emergency preparedness.
Our global economy and culture are built largely upon a reliance on cheap oil. From the cars we drive, to the jets we fly, to the buildings we live in, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear—almost everything that encompasses the fabric of our modern life is either powered by oil, built from oil, or made/grown via machines powered by oil. When the price of oil rose above $140 a barrel in 2008, the world’s economy went into a tailspin — collapsing local economies, reducing consumption, and bringing the price of oil back down to a fraction of what it had been just a few months earlier. Global output of traditional crude oil peaked around 2005 to 2006 and is currently declining. Expensive alternative oil and oil-equivalent sources, like tar sands, deep ocean oil wells, and biofuels have taken up the slack for the time being, but these are limited resources and their utilization is not growing as quickly as necessary to fill in the gap caused by the shrinking output from the world’s mature oil fields. In 2008 the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated the decline of output from the world’s mature oil fields at a rate of 9.1 percent annually, with a drop to “only” 6.4 percent if huge capital investments are made to implement “enhanced oil recovery” technologies on a massive scale.
Without developing energy alternatives at warp speed, or discovering and developing an entire Saudi Arabia’s worth of oil every few years from now until eternity (an impossible fantasy), our world will be in a heap of trouble if and when the economy starts to pop back and supply once again falls short of demand, resulting in more oil price spikes followed by another round of financial declines (as of the fall of 2011, there are distinct signs that this is starting to occur). Even if the global economy never returns to its pre-2008 levels, we will still be in trouble as declining supplies are projected to fall short of the current demand in this rather depressed economy.
In the mid 1960s, when discoveries of new oil reserves reached their historical peak, we were discovering oil at a rate four times faster than we were consuming it. In recent years, the tables have turned. With technology that is miles beyond what was available in the 1960s, we are discovering about one-tenth as much oil each year as we did then, and consuming it at a rate five times faster than we discover it. That’s like charging $100,000 dollars on our credit cards each year, and only paying off $20,000! How long can we keep that up before we bankrupt the system? For years, governments have been official naysayers about the “Peak Oil theory.” However, in April of 2010 the U.S. military issued a report saying, “By 2012 surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach 10 million barrels per day”. Over the next few months, this report was followed by similar ones issued by both the British and German militaries.
“The outlook for global warming if the world continues its current path is a lot worse than it was just a few years ago, says new research from MIT, making it even more urgent to put in place strong policies to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The new MIT study, like all climate studies a sophisticated computer model, projects a median temperature rise of 5.2 degrees centigrade in 2100. That’s double the 2.4 degree increase projected in a 2003 study, MIT said. The range of temperature increases that are 90% likely stretches from 3.5 to 7.4 degrees centigrade [6.3F-13.3F].”
— “Climate Change: MIT Study Says Temperatures Could Rise Twice as Much,” Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2009
With a 90 percent degree of certainty, the world’s top scientists believe that our planet’s climate is changing at an accelerating pace, that these changes are caused by humankind, and will have increasingly severe consequences for our world. Naysayers stress the 10 percent scientific probability that man is not the cause of current climate changes, but would you board a plane if you were told it “only” had a 9 in 10 chance of crashing? It is a rare person over the age of thirty who will tell you that the weather is not quite different now from when they were a child; if nothing else, certainly far more erratic, though not always hotter.
In addition to mankind’s emissions of “greenhouse gasses,” good climatologists also look at a wide variety of contributing interwoven factors, such as solar fluctuations, orbital variations, volcanic ash, air pollution particulates, and so on. For example, in the winter of 2009–10, a combination of cooling effects from the Northern Hemisphere’s aerosol pollutants (smoke from coal power plants, industry, cars) and the sun being in a phase known as a “solar minimum” temporarily counteracted the warming effects of the greenhouse gasses across the central latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, helping to give many of those living in the heavily populated areas of Europe, North America, and Asia a winter that seemed like “the good old days.” This led many to breathe a sigh of relief, siding with the climate change deniers’ proclamations that global warming is a hoax foisted upon the peoples of the world by a huge conspiracy that managed to corral and censor the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists from countries around the world. However, global scientific weather data for that winter showed composite temperatures well above average in the far north as well as most of the Southern Hemisphere—areas not subject to the cooling effects from the bulk of the aerosol pollutants emitted by the industrial nations of the north, and this data was in agreement with scientific climate models. After analyzing temperature data for the entire world, scientists concluded that 2005 and 2010 ended up in a tie for the hottest year on record.
Recent estimates by a team of climate scientists, including a group from MIT, calculate that even if we implemented the most stringent greenhouse gas limits currently proposed by some of the world’s governments, our climate is likely to warm between 6.3°F and 13.3°F over the next century, leading to disastrous crop failures in most of the world’s productive farmlands and “breadbaskets”.
“Experts on invertebrates have expressed ‘profound shock’ over a government report showing a decline in zooplankton of more than 70% since the 1960s. The tiny animals are an important food for fish, mammals and crustaceans. . . . ‘But, despite this experience, we were profoundly shocked to read that zooplankton abundance has declined by about 73% since 1960 and about 50% since 1990. This is a biodiversity disaster of enormous proportions.’ "
—“Fall in Tiny Animals a Disaster,” BBC News, July 10, 2008
With eleven out of fifteen of the world’s major fisheries either in collapse, or in danger of collapse, our world’s oceans are in serious trouble. The ocean’s planktons form the bottom of both the food chain and the bulk of the carbon-oxygen cycle for our planet. According to a recent British government report, the oceans have lost 73 percent of their zooplankton since 1960, and over 50 percent of this decline has been since 1990, and the phytoplanktons are also in serious decline.
Unfortunately, the coral reefs aren’t doing much better than the planktons. By 2004, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs had been destroyed (up from just 11 percent in 2000), an additional 24 percent were close to collapse, and another 26 percent were under long-term threat of collapse. The oceans’ roll in sequestering atmospheric CO2 and maintaining a breathable concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere is even more vital to our planet’s health than the rainforests, but perhaps because the damage is occurring out of sight beneath the surface, we appear to be less concerned with what we are doing to the oceans.
“The rainforests of the Amazon, the Congo basin and Indonesia are thought of as the lungs of the planet. But the destruction of those forests will in the next four years alone, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern, pump more CO2 into the atmosphere than every flight in the history of aviation to at least 2025.”
—Daniel Howden, “Deforestation: The Hidden Cause of Global Warming,” Independent, May 14, 2007
Over 50 percent of the world’s forests have already disappeared, and much of the rest are threatened. Deforestation contributes approximately 25 percent of all global greenhouse gasses, nearly double the 14 percent that transportation and industry sectors each contribute. Additionally, the forests of the world are a critical part of the weather cycle as well as the carbon-oxygen cycle. Each large mature tree acts as a giant water pump, recycling millions of gallons of water back into the atmosphere via evaporation from its leaves or needles. It has been estimated that a single large rainforest or coniferous tree has an evaporative surface area roughly equal to a 40-acre lake. When the trees are decimated in a region, a process called “desertification” tends to occur downwind because the trees are no longer there to pump groundwater back into the atmosphere to fall back to earth as additional rainfall at some downwind location.
"World food prices have risen 45 percent in the last nine months and there are serious shortages of rice, wheat and [corn]," Jacques Diouf, head of the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said at a major conference in New Delhi yesterday. . . . World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick said earlier this month that nearly three dozen countries face social unrest because of surging food and fuel prices. For the countries most at risk, "there is no margin for survival," he said.
— David R. Sands, “Global Food Riots Turn Deadly,” Washington Times, April 10, 2008
For the first time since the “green revolution” started, our world is producing less food each year, yet its population continues to rise as we lose more topsoil, arable land, and have less water for irrigation. Climate change is currently contributing more to losses than technology is to gains. In 2008 and 2009, food riots threatened the stability of many governments. In 2010 extended droughts in the breadbaskets of both China and India threatened the food supply for over one-third of the world’s population.
Sometime around 2050, there are going to be nine billion people roaming this planet—two billion more than there are today. It's a safe bet that all those folks will want to eat. And that's . . . an incredibly daunting prospect. Right now, an estimated one billion people go hungry each day. So add two billion more people, a limited supply of arable land, plus the fact that rising incomes will boost demand for meat and dairy products, plus the fact that many key natural resources (fisheries, say) are already being overexploited . . . and it's hard to see the situation getting better. And that's before we get into the fact that the planet's heating up, which is expected to wreak havoc on agricultural yields.
—Brad Plumer, “Is There Enough Food Out There for Nine Billion People?” New Republic, February 3, 2010
Overpopulation is the elephant in the room that few are talking about. In the last decade, we have added more people to the planet than were added between the births of Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. Around the year 1980, our world first overshot its capacity to provide for its human population, yet this population continues to grow, and we continue to live on borrowed time (Global Footprint Network 2010). One thousand years after Jesus walked the earth, human population was around ½ billion. It took another 800 years to double this population to 1 billion. It took only 130 more years for the next doubling to 2 billion in 1930. When I was a kid in 1960, world population hit 3 billion people, and it only took another 40 years to double to 6 billion in the year 2000.
The world’s population reached 7 billion around the end of October in the year 2011, meaning that between the start of the year 2000 and the end of 2011, we added more people to the population of our world than lived on the entire planet just two hundred years ago! There is simply no way we can achieve a sustainable future unless our population stops growing and starts shrinking. Either Nature will do this for us, with starvation and plagues spreading across the planet as our natural and manmade systems fall apart, or mankind will use its intelligence and free will to proactively implement positive solutions to these issues.
This is serious stuff, but don’t take it too seriously. Make a plan, set some goals, and create a timeline that includes several milestones. Each time you reach a new milestone, reward yourself with a break and a breather. All work and no play will be hard on your friends and family, plus it will make your job of enlisting the “buy in” of others that much more difficult. No one likes a “stick in the mud.” Your disaster prep, plans and training are much more likely to succeed if you are part of a group with common goals and values, than if you are a survival team composed of me, myself, and I. The present moment is all you can ever truly have, so don’t forget to take time to live and experience those precious moments between now and the time spent on future plans and preparations.
In closing, I urge everyone to do your best to change the world, and do your best to be ready for the changes in the world!
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from When Disaster Strikes by Matthew Stein, published by Chelsea Green, 2011.
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