Dead zones

by Carl Dyke

I don’t want to stay on this downer too long or I’ll start to attract a disturbing flock of readers, but I do want to take a stab at Dan’s question about what sorts of sink scarcity have us in trouble. Here’s just one example from this morning’s paper (Raleigh News and Observer, p.4A; the source is AP, to whom I will not link due to their peculiar ideas about intellectual property on the ‘nets, so I have typed in this quotation myself in old-fashioned fair-use style, for purely educational purposes of course; AP is reporting on today’s issue of Science, who I doubt they’ve paid for the privilege):

Sea life strained as ocean chokes: Like a chronic disease spreading through the body, ‘dead zones’ with too little oxygen for life are expanding in the world’s oceans. … Pollution-fed algae, which deprive other marine life of oxygen, are the cause of most of the world’s dead zones [about 400]. Scientists mainly blame fertilizer and other farm runoff, sewage and the burning of fossil fuels.

This is actually old news as a general trend; the study in question is part of the ordinary scientific process of adding precision and robustness (note I did not say certainty, which science as an empiricism does not claim to offer).

The problem is not just the fact and scale of dead zones, but their ability to create tipping thresholds in dynamic ecological systems. When things are in dynamic balance (not equilibrium but ‘metastability’) as ecosystems are, change effects are not additive but chaotic. So you can roll a boulder along, sometimes for quite a way, but once you get to the cliff that n+1 bit of push is going to change things pretty dramatically and irreversibly.

The problem, of course, is that the world’s very, very large population has been made possible by the sort of high-intensity farming practices that dump large amounts of fertilizer into waterways; and that population generates lots of organic waste as a natural entropic throughput of converting the food the fertilizer grows into energy; and the waste has to go somewhere, so yet more algae food in the water. (Or you can dry and burn the poo, which gets us into the energy economy and global warming, as does the methane from the poo before you burn it or dump it.)

In the article linked in the last post Daly talks about charging ‘sink rents’ (payments to use global waste-absorbtive capacity) and wonders if OPEC might be in a good position to charge and enforce them with respect to petroleum use. I’m not sure how sink rents would work to discipline human organic waste, although I suppose we could imagine some pretty creative corking technologies being developed. I’m just sayin’.

Update: Thanks to Profacero for a fascinating reflection on various aspects of life in Lima, Peru including this arresting analysis:

Is Lima, then, a viable place to live? In the long term, no, because the smog and traffic will only worsen and with any small problem the city will run out of drinking water – studies have been done which show why. People do not realize this. A minister of the government recently announced that people in the country would just have to migrate to cities so as to have access to potable water (the streams and rivers having been polluted by mining and other activities), because the country cannot afford to put a source of potable water in each town. There are numerous problems with his statement but one of them is that concentration of people in cities is not a solution to the water problem.

It sure isn’t! Certainly not for the folks downstream, poo problem again, and certainly not when the drinking water runs out. Across the ocean Sydney, Australia is also in peril of running out of water due to overpopulation, pollution and climate change. No worries, mate, they’ll just ship it in from Tasmania.

12 Responses to “Dead zones”

  1. Being in Peru really makes me think about this because ecological devastation here is so painfully obvious. Meanwhile, of course, I have just happily received a medical prescription to eat more fish, my favorite food – while virtually every biological scientist I know has renounced it in favor of reviving the oceans. Hmmm … anyway, good post.

  2. Thanks for this, and your own good post on the situation in Lima. I’ve updated and linked above.

    Fortunately I can take or leave fish, so all of this does not affect me personally…

  3. Well, hi! That’s amazing about Australia. Of course, I am originally from Southern California, so I know all too much about shipping water in to the detriment of its place of origin. Meanwhile, it appears that one of the big motivations behind the new free trade agreement with Peru is to build a natural gas pipeline to the U.S.

    I should find out what is going on with the formerly proposed Bolivian natural gas pipeline, about which there was much protest a while ago (there was also a plan to privatize the water there, which last I heard had been successfully opposed). The current nationalist president is of course against much of this, but he is under a certain amount of fire.

    In any case, I really feel like turning into an eco warrior at this point.

    Other ecological notes – the taxis in Lima have got their engines doctored so as to run on natural gas. You can’t fit much baggage into their trunks because of the tanks. I am not sure what the net effect of this is on “the ecology.”

  4. P.S. Coastal Peru has a fish based cuisine, which is very good, but is now only available at great expense because of overfishing and according to me, pollution. Broasted chicken is now very popular and Arkansas style chicken factories will soon be on the rise, I predict.

    The entire coast, except way north and way south, is so industrial and polluted that a great deal of the earth is mixed with motor oil, like the ground at a mechanic’s shop, and even Peruvians, who are more used to this than I am and more willing to tolerate it because of the impression that it is the only way to generate income, say it is awful.

    There are these new asparagus fields around Trujillo which are producing a great deal of canned asparagus for export and making Trujillo rich. I am told that this is because of advances in irrigation techniques but – with what water? The glaciers are melting too fast because of global warming and farms which have been watered for centuries with glacial runoff are now failing, which turns farmers into internal migrants.

    I am also told that much of the “asparagus” is actually cocaine and pasta basica de cocaina, brought from the jungle and refined in the factories. I am not sure what ecological effect this may have but if the U.S. troops who are supposed to be in the hinterlands eradicating the coca crop meet with significant success it may be bad for the economy.

    Clearly, I should stop traveling and concentrate on saving up to put solar panels on my house *and my car*. There is apparently a backpack you can buy with solar panels that charge your laptop and your cell phone. But I am rambling, I am in eco-shock overload.

  5. Oh, yeah. Last thing. When I first moved to Louisiana years ago there was a train coming full of garbage from NY/NJ, because Louisiana landfills will, for a fee, accept items those states wouldn’t and/or didn’t have room for. But the train couldn’t get here because the states in between wouldn’t let such a toxic transport travel through them. They finally had to hire a barge to move this load, and if I remember right, it had to give most of the U.S. coastline a fairly wide berth.

  6. I went to school in So-Cal (San Diego) and lived up in No-Cal (Bay Area) so I know what you mean. Absolutely bizarre to put a couple million people in the middle of a desert and then look around to see where there might be water. More come in every day, and who can deny them this ‘right’? Or the guy in Golden Hill I watched stand for five minutes over a single leaf stubbornly stuck to his concrete driveway, wiggling a hose at full blast back and forth to get it unstuck while oily water sluiced down the storm drain and out to sea. As a proud homeowner and no doubt a Marine veteran he had a right to spare his knees and back the effort of bending over to pick it up and move it aside.

    On a more global scale it’s the same thing. Since the environment is a closed system and we appear to have maxed out its carrying capacity, the problem boils down roughly to way too many humans living in a way too resource-intensive way. Like, perhaps, the Maya. So we can either give up our civilization or we can stop breeding (and preferably stop making ourselves live so long). How well will either of those options go over in either the United States or Peru? No wonder there’s no political will to do much with the problem. Nature will take its course no matter what.

  7. My parents were Malthusian ZPG types, and I rebelled by saying it wasn’t a question of overpopulation but about overuse of resources and poor distribution of food. Now, though, I think it’s all of the above. Nature will take its course, but I hate to see so much desertification and all … AH WELL, what’s done is done, I suppose.
    I think I have about 50 years left to live and I am curious to see what the planet will be like at that point.

  8. Mankind is about to learn a really hard lesson isn’t it? Let’s hope we’re paying attention and that enough of us survive to remember it.

  9. Yup. But no worries. This sort of extreme contingency planning is well-established by the history of thermonuclear brinksmanship, e.g. Herman Kahn’s Thinking the Unthinkable and Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Parts of the Earth will remain (or newly become) habitable, and the rich and powerful will set up there and bravely carry on.

  10. How very brave of them. My only wish is that they get everything that’s coming to them. Sometimes I think this experiment with agriculture was perhaps a mistake. Ever read Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin? Good book.

  11. I love Le Guin, but I haven’t read that one. Thanks for the tip.


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