Drought Spreads, World Famine to Follow

By David L. Brown

The drought in America not only isn’t getting better…it’s getting a lot worse. The combination of heat and lack of rain has put a large portion of the nation’s field crop prospects in severe jeopardy. The Associated Press today has an update, and the news is far from encouraging. (You can read the AP article, “Report: Drought Worsens in Key Farm States” here):

The latest statistics from reporting agencies reveal that the proportion of cropland in Iowa that’s in extreme or exceptional drought more than doubled just in the last week, from 30.74 percent to 69.14 percent now. In Illinois, the levels of extreme or exceptional drought rose to 81.18 percent. And in Nebraska, the percentage of land in those categories rose by another 8 percentage points to 91.2 percent of the total.

It’s hard to grasp just how serious the implications of such catastrophic figures are for our future, and the degree to which the situation has worsened in just since the last weekly report is ominous to say the least. Overall, more than one-half of the nation’s corn crop is rated poor to very poor.

The conditions in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska are particularly serious. You may think, well those are only three states so can it really matter that much? Well, first, they’re not the only states that are in trouble, but there’s something special about those three, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. That special thing is that they are generally our nation’s three largest producers of corn. Let’s look at last year as a benchmark. According to a USDA report issued in September, 2011, Iowa’s corn production was projected at 2,296,250,000 bushels. Illinois came in second at 1,980,300,000 bushels, and Nebraska was in third place at 1,544,000,000 bu. Between those three states alone a total of 5, 820,550,000 bushels were projected. That’s just under six billion bushels of corn.

How much was the entire nation projected to produce when the harvest was done? Good question, I’m glad you asked. The answer is 12,497,070,000 bushels. About 12.5 billion bushels, of which about 5.8 billion came from those three states of Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. Which means that those three states represent about 46.4 percent of America’s total corn crop as of 2011 and the other 47 states produced only 53.6 percent of the total (and just to make sure you understand, crops in many of those states are experiencing extreme drought stress).

Note also that the U.S. usually grows about 40 percent of all the corn in the world, and is the largest exporter by far. What all this means is that that old Nemesis Famine is about to stalk the planet. Drought is also being experienced in other parts of the world, including India and China with their huge populations that need to be fed. Some countries, such as Egypt with about 80 million people in a country that is 97 percent sandy desert, are almost totally reliant on imports of grains, including corn which is used to grow livestock and poultry for food. Other nations, such as Mexico with its need for tortillas, are also dependent upon imports of American corn.

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Seeing the Future Dimly

By David L. Brown

One of the news websites, Fox News (here), today featured excerpts from a number of predictions made 25 years ago by “science thinkers,” predicting conditions in our time of 2012. I recognize the names of most of these “science thinkers” and they are actually “science fiction writers,” but that’s okay because they’re in the business of imagining the future as much as anyone. I’ve always had a passing interest in futurism, the attempt to predict how things will be in future times. In general, these tend to be wildly inaccurate due to the many uncertainties and the phenomenon of straight line thinking. Too often futurists tend to look at what’s been happening recently and simply project a straight line into the future.

Even a cursory look at history will knock enough holes in this procedure to make Swiss cheeses look like solid objects. Imagine the application of straight line thinking to the U.S. economy in the summer of 1929, the likelihood of war in Europe in 1913, the future well-being of the little Roman village of Pompeii in 78 AD (Mount Vesuvius erupted the following year), and so many more examples of unexpected and unpredictable events that dramatically change the future.

One thing that struck me abut these predictions was that they were for the most part pessimistic, in contrast with the usual fol-de-rol about a Jetsons future with flying cars and an abundance of everything. Here are some excerpts with my comments:

Isaac Asimov: “Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet and widespread hunger.”

Isaac’s view was fairly accurate, even though he was a little on the high side on population (it’s actually just something over 7 billion). He was dead on about the looming hunger, hastened by this year’s worldwide drought.

Jack Williamson: “If we had a time-phone, now in 1987, we would beg you to forgive us. We have burdened you with impossible debts, wasted and polluted the planet that should have been your rich heritage, left you instead a dreadful legacy of ignorance, want, and war.”

Of all the predictions, I nominate this one as the most accurate. I have expressed similar thoughts myself, many times. Anyone who looks around the world today with open eyes can recognize Williamson’s vision of our time.
Sheldon Glashow: “The American economy will have experienced a gentle yet relentless decline. Our children will not live such comfortable lives as we do. The spread between the rich and the poor will have grown, and crime will have become so prevalent as to threaten the social fabric. The rich and the poor will form 2 armed camps.”
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Mars Curiosity Rover Lands Safely

By David L. Brown

If you didn’t watch the live feed from the Jet Propulsion Lab last night as the new Mars Rover, Curiosity, made its entry and landing, you missed one of the great moments in space exploration history. The landing took place about 11:30 p.m. here in Mountain time, so it was pretty late for those in the East and Central time zones. But it was definitely a dramatic two hours I spent watching the action in the control room as the team followed the approach and landing.

Because it takes fourteen minutes for radio waves (and light) to travel from Mars in its present location, the rover’s landing had already taken place, either for good or bad, when the team saw it happening. But there was telemetry from the craft throughout the approach, which slowed the vehicle carrying the rover from about 13,000 miles per hour to a gentle set down at 2 m.p.h. seven minutes later. The entire process was pre-programmed—the complex system did it all by itself—using radar and other input to steer to the final landing place with incredible accuracy.

The process was amazing. First, the vehicle used atmospheric slowing such as the Space Shuttle does, using a heat shield. Since the Martian atmosphere is 100 times thinner than earth’s, that was sufficient only to slow the capsule to about 1000 m.p.h. Next a huge supersonic parachute was deployed, slowing it further to about 200 m.p.h. Again, due to Mars’s thin atmosphere, the parachute could only do so much, so a final third phase was deployed. In this case, a rocket powered module that flew the capsule sideways to clear the parachute, then as it approached the ground, lowered Curiosity on a cable “sky crane” to a gentle touchdown before flying away to crash at  safe distance. It was an engineering achievement of almost unbelievable complexity and with zero margin for error. If any single thing had gone wrong, and there were many crucial details during the descent and landing the scientists called “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the $2.5 billion project would have been a loss.

To really put the achievement into perspective, Curiosity is believed to have touched down just 262 meters from the planned landing spot, after traveling for about  350 million miles from earth. (For the metrically challenged, that’s less than three football fields away from the target.) As someone said, it’s like hitting a golf ball halfway around the world for a hole-in-one.

The scene in the control center at the JPL when Curiosity reported its safe landing was emotional to say the least. Hugs and high fives went on for about a half hour among the ecstatic scientists and engineers. As icing on the cake, within minutes Curiosity’s first pictures arrived from the surface of Mars. It was a night to remember, and a huge achievement for the U.S. space program. No other nation could even come close to achieving what NASA and JPL achieved yesterday with the landing of this huge and sophisticated rover on the Red Planet.

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Curious About Mars? Tomorrow’s the Big Day

By David L. Brown

Tomorrow the newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is set to land on the Red Planet. If all goes well, it will set down through an incredible series of engineering steps. In the final stage, the massive rover will be lowered from its berth on the delivery vehicle on cables while the vehicle supports them with rockets. Here’s an image from the Jet Propulsion Lab:

The landing process has several stages, beginning with a heat shield deceleration similar to that used by the Space Shuttle. After that there’s a deployment of a huge supersonic parachute, and finally the rocket-assisted delivery pictured above. with the “skycrane” delivery of the rover to the surface. To see an incredible animated video of the full entry and landing process, see here. If this looks like a Rube Goldberg approach to engineering, well, yeah. But it was required because you see Curiosity is a far larger payload than any previous Mars rovers. How much bigger? Below is a picture showing a model of the Curiosity rover (the big one at right) and the two previous landers. Compared with them, it’s huge. And, it will be able to operate much more aggressively because it’s powered by a nuclear battery instead of weak solar panels. It’s bigger, faster, and has more scientific packages.

But the question now is, will it succeed in making a safe landing? The entry and landing is being called “Seven Minutes of Terror” by the scientists and engineers who developed it. We’ll know tomorrow. Let’s hope it’s good news. If so, it will be perhaps the most incredible engineering feat in history.

If it’s successful, this feat will put America right back at the top in space achievement. If it fails, well, not so much.

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Putting Things In the Present

By David L. Brown

I’m a writer, as anyone who has followed this blog may have realized. In recent years I’ve gotten seriously into fiction. Of course, the novel The Star Phoenix was the inspiration for this blog (the original novel is now available as a two-book Kindle version on Amazon under the title “Promise of the Phoenix.” You can find them at bargain prices here and here). The Star Phoenix was written in the mid-90s, and a lot of liquid’s gone under the overpass since then.

About two years ago I self-published my second novel, Quantum Cowboy (available as both print-on-demand trade paperback and eBook formats on Amazon and other sites. The $2.99 Kindle edition can be purchased here). At about the same time I published a non-fiction book titled Dead End Path: How Industrial Agriculture Has Stolen Our Future, also available at various online sites including here.) In the past year I’ve written another as-yet unpublished novel and am about three-quarters of the way through yet another. The first is a murder mystery and the current one is a science fiction novel.

Now you may wonder why I’m bringing all this up, and there’s a good reason. You see, I’ve had a kind of epiphany about my writing style and I wanted to share my discovery. You see, both of these newest books are written in the present tense. Yes, as if the action is taking place right now, not at some time in the past or in a galaxy far, far away.

Until recently, for the most part writing fiction in the present tense was considered a no-no. We’re all familiar with the common past tense format of nearly every story or novel we’ve ever read. It’s de rigour, it seems, to take the position of a storyteller relating something that happened once-upon-a-time. It’s interesting that even science fiction stories set in the far future are written in…wait for it…the past tense. Well, of course, because that’s just the way books are written.

But does that really make sense? Well, maybe not. After I started experimenting with the present tense in my murder mystery, Retirement Man, I soon learned to love telling a story that’s happening in the here and now, just as the story unfolds. It puts the reader right into the middle of the action, and I like it.

Now many old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud writers and critics have a problem with fiction in the present tense, and they’re quick to tell you why. It’s unnatural, they say. It doesn’t give the writer enough latitude, stuck in the present. It’s just not the way writing is done. To all of which I say bushwah and codswallop.

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Technology—Promise or Curse?

By David L. Brown

Historian Niall Ferguson in an article published in The Daily Beast raises a question that’s long interested me. He asks, in effect, which vision of the future we should embrace: The idea that technology will make the world a better place, or the vision of a world in catastrophic economic decline?

Here”s a brief excerpt from the beginning of his essay, titled “Don’t Believe the Techno-Utopian Hype” (you can read the whole thing here):

Are you a technoptimist or a depressimist? This is the question I have been pondering after a weekend hanging with some of the superstars of Silicon Valley.

I had never previously appreciated the immense gap that now exists between technological optimism, on the one hand, and economic pessimism, on the other. Silicon Valley sees a bright and beautiful future ahead. Wall Street and Washington see only storm clouds. The geeks think we’re on the verge of The Singularity. The wonks retort that we’re in the middle of a Depression.

Let’s start with the technoptimists. Last Saturday I listened with fascination as a panel of tech titans debated the question: “Will science and technology produce more dramatic changes in solving the world’s major problems over the next 25 years than have been produced over the last 25 years?”

They all thought so. We heard a description of what Google’s Project Glass, the Internet-enabled spectacles, can already do. (For example, the spectacles can be used to check if another speaker is lying.) Next up: a search engine inside the brain itself. We heard that within the next 25 years, it will be possible to take 1,000-mile journeys by being fired through tubes. We also heard that biotechnology will deliver genetic “photocopies” of human organs that need replacing. And we were promised genetically engineered bugs, capable of excreting clean fuel. The only note of pessimism came from an eminent neuroscientist, who conceded that a major breakthrough in the prevention of brain degeneration was unlikely in the next quarter century.

Ferguson,  a professor at Harvard and also associated with Oxford University in England and The Hoover Institution at Stanford, takes the same point of view that has always struck me as the right path. In effect, he asks: What is the value of technology that merely puts people out of work and provides wonderful whiz-bang stuff that has no real benefits for anyone. He points out that fifty years ago we were promised flying cars, and instead we have Twitter.

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One-way Trip to Mars Is Not ‘Suicide’

By David L. Brown

In the news today are headlines about a “suicide” mission to Mars being planned by a private company. Here is a link to an article at Fox News about the plans announced by the Dutch company Mars One.

Now I know a bit about the meaning of words, and suicide this is not. Suicide is when one kills one’s self outright or embarks on a course that will inevitably result in their death (think Kamikaze pilots and terrorist bombers). That is not at all what Mars One has in mind. In fact, their plan is to create a habitat on Mars and then send volunteers to actually live there and continue to build the base for further expansion. Yes, it is envisioned as a one-way trip, at least for the time being, but no suicide is intended. In fact, the idea is that the volunteers will live out their natural lives on Mars, or even possibly return to Earth later when advanced technology makes it possible. They may even reproduce and create new generations of Martians.

In short, the word ‘suicide’ should never have been applied to this plan (and I’m not saying the idea itself might be without danger). The correct terms are migration or colonization, the processes through which people permanently move to a different location, in this case on another planet

It’s not suicide when you decide to move to another city (although come to think of  it, it could amount to the same thing if one were to relocate to certain inner-city neighborhoods in Detroit, Philadelphia or East St. Louis), so why should one-way trips to the proposed Martian colony be described with that word?

We didn’t call it suicide when John Glenn soared into space, or when Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon. Of course, we hoped they would survive and they did. We will hope the Mars colonists will, too, if any should ever arrive there. I’m not optimistic about the prospects for human habitation in space, but let’s not put the wrong labels on new ideas. It would be a wonderful achievement to see a permanent presence on the Red Planet.

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A Tragedy in the Making

By David L. Brown

As drought and heat continue to destroy a significant portion of the US crop, a large tranche of corn continues to be mandated for use in ethanol production. The purpose of this is to enrich farmers and channel money to corn producing states in order to secure votes. (It makes no kind of economic sense as a fuel source.) Now that the world faces more widespread famine (it’s already been a reality in many places for several years), it might make sense to shut down the ethanol plants for the time being, as this excerpt from an article today on WIRED (here) suggests (emphasis added):

“In the short run, USDA needs to figure out a way to remove the mandate on ethanol use from corn,” said Timmer [an agricultural economist]. “If we could free up 20 to 30 percent of the U.S. crop, reduced as it is, it would bring corn prices down very quickly.

New speculation limits are scheduled to be enacted by year’s end, but drought means that may be too late, said Bar-Yam [president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, a kind of scientific and technology think tank]. In the meantime, the USDA has rebuffed all requests to reduce corn biofuel allotments.

So it would make sense, but the USDA isn’t having any part of that. Well, duh because obviously farmers and ethanol barons are more important than 7 billion human beings and the reputation of the United States. Well, how is it going to fly when third world people are starving wholesale? They get to suffer and die horrible deaths while the U.S. in all the great wisdom of the USDA (headed by a rain-praying lawyer and professional politician) continues to turn huge amounts of corn into ethanol. Do we want to make America the Great Satan in fact as well as in name? If so, this will certainly do it. With hardly any effort at all we can make our country the most hated in the history of the world. When you open a future dictionary to the word “Evil” there will be a picture of Uncle Sam pointing at you. That’s what these idiots are doing.

Meanwhile, here’s a chart showing what happens when food prices rise. The numbers represent incidents of social unrest.

The Wired article suggests that “some think” food prices may have led to the so-called Arab Spring (it’s pretty plain that they did), and that therefore it was a “good thing.” Boy, if that’s good I’d hate to see what they consider bad. The idea that a bunch of raving lunatics taking over third world countries has something to do with “democracy” is totally nuts. It’s anarchy is what it is, followed by theocratic chaos, mayhem and murder. Somalia et al. are hardly models for Jeffersonian democracy. Incidentally, if you doubt the connection, note the number of incidents of food-related social unrest last year in the nations most affected by the Arab Spring: Tunisia 300+, Libya 10,000+, Egypt 800+, and now Syria 900+. Hmm, where there’s smoke and so forth.

One could assume that the 2008 and 2011 events (all centered on sharp rises in the UN’s FAO food index shown by the black dotted line) will be followed by similar events in spades when the presently developing food price spike gets its boots on (which is happening right now). Many of these represent small, insignificant countries (in Western eyes, at least although the indigenous peoples might beg to differ), but there are also some significant ones, including India with 1.5 billion mouths to feed. What happens if a major population subset such as India falls into out-and-out famine? India is presently suffering a reduced Monsoon so food shortages may be coming there soon, incidental to the crisis in world supplies which will severely limit or eliminate the possibility of filling production shortfalls with imports.

China doesn’t appear on the chart and I don’t understand why, because it also has been suffering something like 50,000 minor revolts and demonstrations each year, many of which must be food related. I guess it’s not on the list because the wise leaders of China say “nuh uh, it didn’t happen.” They must have legions of Winston Smiths busily rewriting history there in the Middle Kingdom. Northern China is also presently affected by drought. If India or China (or both) were to fall into widespread famine and anarchy It would be like Somalia X1000.

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‘Red Tide’ Strikes Texas Coast

By David L. Brown

“Red Tide.” It may sound like the title for the latest Tom Clancy novel, but it’s a very real phenomenon. I observed its effects today on the Texas Gulf Coast as evidenced by tens of thousands of dead fish littering the beaches of Padre Island.

Beach dunes along the Gulf of Mexico, Padre Island

So-called red tides are caused by blooms of algae that deplete oxygen and in some cases yield toxins that are fatal to fish, birds and other animals living in or near the water. According to locals, the present outbreak began about a month ago and is the first to strike the region in about four years. Red tides develop quickly and dissipate as the algae uses up existing nutrients and oxygen and proceeds to die off. Little is understood about the causes of the blooms, which are named for the discoloration in the water that sometimes takes place, often reddish but sometimes green or brown. Warnings had been posted against consuming oysters and other mollusks that could be contaminated with toxins produced by the algae.

Padre Island is a long barrier island extending along the Texas coast from Corpus Christi south to near the Mexican border. It is a favorite recreational area, and yet when I visited the Padre Island National Seashore headquarters today there were few tourists and a hostess told me it was as quiet as she had ever seen it.

I strolled along the beach observing tiny crabs scuttling for shelter as I approached and seabirds clustering at the water’s edge in search of their lunch. Arrayed in a band near what must have been the previous high water mark were thousands of dead fish of all sizes, from minnows to fairly large mullet. Here is a photo showing some of the dead fish I observed.

Dead fish resulting from red tide, Padre Island

Although algae blooms sometimes result from runoff of agricultural fertilizer, this is by no means the only cause. The phenomenon has been observed for thousands of years and appears in many parts of the world.

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Realism and Inevitability

By David L. Brown

Those who have followed this website over the past five-plus years know that a major theme of my ranting and posturing has been in relation to the very real dangers of economic, environmental, social and technological breakdowns that are looming over our civilization. A major theme has been climate change, which along with resource depletion lies at the heart of the threat.

As reported in earlier posts, I have made the transition from pessimist to realist and now accept that there is almost certainly nothing that can be done to effectively turn the tide of change that is dooming the planet to an uncertain future. As a realist I must view things as they really are, not as we might hope they could be. It is one thing to say that global warming can be reversed and the damage prevented. Yes, it is absolutely possible, as are many other things. But will it happen? Sadly, there isn’t a snowflake’s chance in Hades that it will.

Why, you may be thinking, there he goes back into pessimist mode. Not so. Any rational examination of the facts —human nature, history, the desire of people to avoid change, and the stark economic truth that human civilization is verging on insolvency — will reveal a multitude of reasons why those difficult steps that would be required to reverse global warming will not be taken.

Simply put, we don’t want to do it, we can’t afford to do it, and the harsh truth is that it is far too late to take effective steps without creating economic and social chaos. The coming change is inevitable and unstoppable.

So, what is the alternative? Obviously, to put our collective heads in the sand like the proverbial ostriches and pretend there is nothing wrong.

It is to me a rather extraordinary fact that during the past year a few minor blunders by climate change scientists have been blown into an enormous mountain of denial. Climate change has been declared as a scam and the deniers have won the day. It’s not real, never was, all a bunch of hokum cooked up by scientists in search of research grants, fame and fortune. Let’s all put our fingers in our ears and chant “La, La, La, I Can’t Hear You!” whenever anyone mentions the true facts of global change that face us.

Now in my realist view, this is a necessary condition. If we cannot reverse climate change, why should we make the sacrifices and accept the consequences of a failed attempt? Better to let things run their course. There is another “solution,” one that is far easier for humankind to accept because it requires no effort whatsoever. Left to her own initiative, Gaia (a.k.a. Mother Nature) will take care of this problem as she always has. She has kept the planet on course for several billion years, and there is no doubt she will continue to do so for many more. When she is done, the “problem” will not exist. Like the dinosaurs, the human race will likely be extinct and our civilizations mere ruins beneath the drifting sands.

Oh how  cynical we realists can be, when the facts create the near certainty of our coming troubles. And those facts are written large in the everyday news (although ignored or twisted by the deniers as they perform their necessary function of guiding our heads into the sand). Just the other day I read that England is experiencing the warmest November in 300 years. Nowhere did I see anyone suggest that is in any way related to the possibility of global warming. I live in the Southwest, where the past decade has seen almost unrelenting drought. Climate change? Nah, just, you know, natural variations and probably caused by the Sun.

It is interesting that in addition to denying the fact of climate change, deniers go out of their way to explain there is no connection between climate change and human activity. Hmm, want it both ways, not only doesn’t it exist, but we had nothing to do with it. It reminds me of a favorite quote from Bart Simpson, who famously said “I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it, and you can’t prove anything.” Indeed, that could be the motto of the climate change deniers.

For my own part, I plan to live out my life the best way I can. Like all creatures of nature, I face my own personal extinction. What the human race does for itself as a species is up to the future to tell, and is wholly in the hands of Gaia. She will not shirk her duties and as recounted in reports of her Old Testament persona, Her will shall be done.

 

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