Monday, September 19, 2016

Limits to growth, planetary boundaries, and planetary health

Limits to growth, planetary boundaries, and planetary health

Draft paper here: comments welcome

This paper presents an overview of the “Limits to Growth” debate, from Malthus to Planetary Boundaries and the Planetary Health Commission. It argues that a combination of vested interests, inequalities, and cognitive impediments disguise the critical proximity to limits. Cognitive factors include an increasingly urbanized population with declining exposure to nature, incompletely substituted by the rise of simulated and filmed reality.

Following prominence in the 1960s and early 1970s, fears of Limits to Growth diminished as the oil price declined and as the Green Revolution greatly expanded agricultural productivity. While public health catastrophes have occurred which can be conceptualised as arising from the exceeding of local boundaries, including that of tolerance (e.g. the 1994 Rwandan genocide), these have mostly been considered temporary aberrations, of limited significance.

Another example is the devastating Syrian civil war. However, rather than an outlier, this conflict can be analysed as an example of interacting eco-social causes, related to aspects of limits to growth, including from climate change and aquifer depletion. To view the “root causes” of the Syrian tragedy as overwhelmingly or even exclusively social leaves civilization vulnerable to many additional disasters, including in the Sahel, elsewhere in the Middle East, and perhaps, within decades, globally.

An aspect of the Limits to Growth debate that was briefly prominent was “peak oil”. Fear of this has fallen with the oil price. But this does not mean that Limits to Growth are fanciful or will apply only in the far future, even if (which seems unlikely) the oil price remains low. The proximity of dangerous climate change is the starkest example of an imminent environmental limit; other examples include declining reserves of phosphorus and rare elements. Crucially, human responses have the capacity to accelerate or delay the consequences of these limits. 

Greater understanding of these issues is vital for enduring global population health.

Keywords: Anthropocene, civilization collapse, climate change, conflict, environmental determinism, human carrying capacity

Friday, June 17, 2016

An open letter to Hydro Tasmania

Dear Hydro-Tasmania management,

You are far more aware than I of the energy crisis in Tasmania, compounded by flooding in June 2016, aggravated by unusually warm water in the Tasman Sea, and possibly worsened by cloud seeding (which was undertake by Hydro despite the flood warning).

I am concerned that there might have been other mismanagement, not only concerning the selling of power to the mainland and possible risk to the integrity of Basslink (see below) but also the selection of reservoirs to disproportionately drain. 

Basslink integrity and turbine safety
In an article in the Saturday paper, called "Tasmania's power crisis" Luke Crowley, spokesman for the union representing high-level hydro workers in Tasmania, Professionals Australia, is reported to have said: "the problem, .. has been coming for a long time and is not just due to lack of rain or the cable break. .. He says switching from such high levels of export back to import put more stress on the cable and, he says, may have contributed to the breakage. He says such profligacy with the hydroelectric resource not only has “fried” the cable but led to levels in the dams that are so low – and have been compounded by the lowest recorded annual rainfall in the past year – that the actual physical infrastructure of the dams themselves is being threatened."

Luke Crowley also warns of "a whirlpool effect where air gets into the turbines due to the low water levels and then gets compressed and expands and explodes. He says engineers are telling him that, with no rain, many of the turbines would be unsafe to operate within two months."

The pattern of reservoir drainage

Despite the recent flooding, some of the biggest reservoirs are still very low. For example, today (June 18, 2016) Great Lake is still 16m below the dam wall, and Lake Gordon is an incredible 40m below its dam. Yet, the levels for the 5 dams on the Mersey Forth are either spilling or almost spilling. In the recent floods water not only spilled over the spillway of the Cethana dam, but I am told, was so high for a while that it almost spilled over the Cethana dam wall.

Since the 5 dams on the Mersey Forth system were all spilling simultaneously should these reservoirs have been drawn down far more than Lake Gordon etc? Flooding of this system significantly harmed the towns of Latrobe and Forth, as you know.

The case for much more prudence in supplying the Australian mainland with hydro power

Of even more significance, my opinion is that Tasmania should be far more frugal exporting its power to the mainland than it has been, even if there was a carbon tax and even if no El Niño is forecast. Instead, it should be using its carbon friendly power to attract skilled job-intensive enterprises to the state, similar but more biased to people than to big business, than your old policy of "hydro-industrialisation". 

There is an obvious exception to being frugal with the export of hydro-power. Such power can be safely exported not only if the dams are spilling, but also also if the dams are near full with rain forecast; especially if towns vulnerable to flooding lie downstream.

About the author
I am Australia's first IPCC contributor to have been arrested for civil disobedience concerning climate change (2014). I was also arrested for civil disobedience in 1983 protesting the policies of Hydro Tas, concerning its proposed dam on the Franklin River, following the loss of Lake Pedder. The flaws in your policies were clearly apparent, at that time, on economic grounds apart from anything else.

I have lived in Tasmania, intermittently, since 1974, and I have owned land in the catchment to Lake Cethana since 1978; I still own this.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Bob Such Memorial Lecture, 2016: Forests, nature and the interacting global crises

Keynote talk, Adelaide, September 1, 2016 Treenet


The world faces multiple crisis. High income nations feel besieged by refugees and asylum seekers. A large number of low income nations are wracked by insurgency, division, and in some cases open war. The two spheres interact, generating xenophobia, fences, walls and detention camps at the barriers. At the same time, the climate is inexorably warming and wilding, as humanity treats the atmosphere as a sewer, oblivious to the harm we are doing it as our predecessors were to the filth they poured in the river Thames. These two issues are related; we are a species of primate, descended from trees, but so entranced with our technological progress that too many of us think we no longer need Nature.

On the whole, in the last ten thousand years (the Holocene) Nature has been benign, forgiving and abundant. Humanity has flourished. However, unless we quickly alter our path, on a scale that today seems almost unimaginable, we well leave this sweet spot behind. Future Nature will not be so benign. We risk a new Dark Age.

In this context, it is imperative that we value and protect Nature that remains, including our forests. Australians have, in recent decades, almost led the world as carbon criminals. Our record on biodiversity is also poor. This behaviour has to change, from the bottom up and the middle out. Politicians like Bob Such are unfortunately rare, but even the lawyers and unionists who dominate our parliaments, and who largely appear indifferent to Nature, will listen to people if we show we care enough. As the multiple global crises deepen, this is the only chance we have.

Professor Colin Butler

Colin is Professor of Public Health at the University of Canberra and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. He qualified in medicine from the University of Newcastle, NSW, in 1986. His academic work has, for many years, principally involved interactions between society, health and the environment. In 2009 Colin was named as one of a hundred doctors for the planet. Colin has published about 130 articles and book chapters and given over 70 invited talks internationally. He is sole editor of “Climate Change and Global Health” and senior editor of “Health of People, Places and Planet”.

Colin has twice been arrested defending the environment, first at the campaign to protect the Franklin river in Tasmania from flooding in 1983, and again in 2014, near the Maules Creek coal mine in NSW, to protest the lack of high level Australian leadership over climate change. In doing so, Colin became the first Australian contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be arrested for climate disobedience, and one of very few, globally.