Tag Archives: Thomas Homer-Dixon

Future US megadroughts set to be the worst in 1,000 years

I believe Thomas Homer-Dixon was talking about this a decade ago.

“These future droughts are not only going to be bad compared to what we’ve experienced over the historical period, but also really bad compared to the past millennium,” says Benjamin Cook, a drought researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, who led the work. “It’s going to be a pretty much fundamental shift.”

Much of North America has a long and detailed climate history, thanks to tree rings that preserve records of temperature and rainfall. Many scientists have used these to piece together the story of decades-long droughts, like one that gripped the US Southwest in the thirteenth century and probably contributed to the disappearance of ancient Pueblo peoples. Others have used global climate models to study the region’s future, and found that it may already be transitioning to a fundamentally drier state.

Cook’s team aimed to bridge past and present. The scientists compared 1,000 years of North American climate history with future projections from 17 different climate models — “as many as we could get our hands on that gave us the data we needed”, Cook says.

Among other metrics, the researchers looked at a measure known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which is an indicator of soil moisture. Some scientists criticize the Palmer index because it can overestimate future drying if it is calculated on the basis of temperature projections alone. To get around this problem, Cook’s team used a different method of calculating the index, one that incorporates humidity and energy from sunlight.

Kevin Anchukaitis, a palaeoclimatologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says that the revised method gives a much more accurate projection of how dry things will really get. “This is the first convincing demonstration I’ve seen that it is both possible to seamlessly connect past, present and future, and to then be confident that they are on comparable scales,” he says.

Lake Mead Is Drying Up

This is bad and reminds me of what Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in The Ingenuity Gap when he was shocked that no one in Las Vegas was calculating projected droughts (which have arrived)

Lake mead nevada all time low fe

The water level at Lake Mead dropped to a new record low this week, but it hasn’t hit rock bottom—yet.

As of Tuesday, Lake Mead was at about 39 percent of its capacity. The drought has taken a toll on water resources, resulting in precautionary actions such as a decreased flow allowance into Hoover Dam to protect current distribution policies. 

The projected lake level is at about 1,082 feet above sea level, and officials say they can meet water obligations at least through next year without a key shortage declaration. But if the water level drops below the 1,075-foot trigger point, Arizona and Nevada will face water delivery cuts, according to the Washington Times.

The lake is currently storing 10.2 million acre-feet of water. Lake Powell, the reservoir managed in conjuction with Lake Mead and located farther up the Colorado River, is holding 12.7 million acre-feet of water—or 52 percent of its capacity.

A quarter of India’s land is turning into desert

India is in serious trouble

About a quarter of India’s land is turning to desert and degradation of agricultural areas is becoming a severe problem, the environment minister said, potentially threatening food security in the world’s second most populous country.

India occupies just 2 percent of the world’s territory but is home to 17 percent of its population, leading to over-use of land and excessive grazing. Along with changing rainfall patterns, these are the main causes of desertification.

“Land is becoming barren, degradation is happening,” said Prakash Javadekar, minister for environment, forests and climate change. “A lot of areas are on the verge of becoming deserts but it can be stopped.”

Land degradation – largely defined as loss of productivity – is estimated at 105 million hectares, constituting 32 percent of the total land.

According to the Indian Space Research Organisation that prepared a report on desertification in 2007, about 69 percent of land in the country is dry, making it vulnerable to water and wind erosion, salinization and water logging.

Before you jump to conclusions about global warming (although that is playing a factor), Indian farmers way over farm their plots.  As family plots are passed down, they are divided and then divided again to support families.  Eventually they become unsustainable and things like irrigation and fertilizer do more damage to the land then help it.

That is where much of the land is at right now.

Resolutions

Wendy posted her New Year’s Resolutions so I thought I would post mine.

  1. Take the stairs to the top of The Lighthouse at least daily.  This seems like a really good idea now that building is only four stories but when the new tower is nine stories this summer, it could be a really bad idea.
  2. Carry less crap.  There are days when I go to work with my DSLR, a video camera, my notebook, a Moleskine, an iPod, and my cell phone.  Do I really need that much stuff?  Well considering that I have never used all of it in a single day, probably not.
  3. Ride my bike more.  Wendy has a Dave King inspired goal of riding 750 kms this year.  I think I will join her although none of those miles will be done at Ice Cycle which I still think is insane, no matter how many people enjoy cycling in –40 weather.
  4. books and more booksRead more books in 2012Darryl Dash has a post on how he wants his reading to more focused which I tend to go the other way.  I want to read and explore topics that I haven’t explored before, understand new things, and then figure out how they fit together later.  In the spirit of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book The Ingenuity Gap, I want to be a deep generalist.  Part of it is the column I write but part of it is cultivating a spirit of curiosity.  It may be because I am at a point of life when I have a lot to learn and I don’t have the need to be a specialist.
  5. Contribute more to the matrix of agencies that I am a part of as a staff member at The Lighthouse.  Some of those actions are proprietary but I can’t handle agencies that don’t play that well with others.  It comes from an atmosphere of fear and competition that doesn’t need to exist.  Hopefully we can model a different way.
  6. Spend more money locallySaskatoon Farmer’s Market, Souleio, Broadway Roastery, The Two Twenty, Collective Coffee… you know businesses that are Saskatoon born and bred.  Less Starbucks, Tim Horton’s, and fast food joints.
  7. Attend more University of Saskatchewan Huskies and Saskatoon Hilltops games.  The Huskies may have the best game day experience of any football team in Canada and the Hilltops because of what they did for Mark’s understanding of football in 2011.  That and all they do is win national championships.
  8. Post more photos.  Despite having a decent camera phone camera, a DSLR, and a pretty good compact camera, I took far too photos in 2011.  That needs to change in 2012.
  9. Keep losing weight in 2012.  I lost 40 pounds since my heart event this summer and I want to lose another 120.  I should have it lost by next Christmas.
  10. Listen to more music.  I love music but I rarely take time to listen to it.  It’s always a background activity and never a foreground one.

Those are my resolutions.  Good luck with yours.

Column: Oil prices will force changes

The StarPhoenixToday’s column in The StarPhoenix

Former CIBC economist Jeff Rubin was one of the first to say that oil would hit $100 a barrel, back when it was around $20. Now he is suggesting it could go to $200 in the next short while unless there’s another global recession.

While many call for more drilling and oil exploration, the world simply doesn’t have the capacity to keep up with demand.

Despite requests from U.S. presidents, OPEC has not been able to meet the supply demands. High oil prices don’t just impact us at the pump, but the previous price of $147 a barrel brought global economic growth to a halt and contributed to a banking collapse felt worldwide.

As prices climb, Barack Obama has authorized a 60-million barrel drawdown from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

He blames Libya, but it’s much more than that. If it were that simple, releasing oil from the reserve would make sense, just as it did after hurricanes Katrina and Ike.

This time the problem is that oil prices were higher than $100 before the fighting started in Libya, and global demand was already in excess of a record 87 million barrels a day. The fact is the world is running low on oil and we haven’t been able to find the capacity to meet the demand. The U.S. military recently expressed concerns that we could see a precipitous decline in worldwide production by 2015. England is looking at gas rationing as soon as 2020.

Despite what some write, the planet isn’t out of oil; we have just taken all the easy-to-get-at oil.

From now on, we will be spending more to reach harder-to-get oil while depleting reserves elsewhere.

A perfect example is the Alberta oilsands, which were not feasible at $20 but now are attracting billions in investments. Yes, we have reserves, but they are expensive to extract.

The good news is that Canada is a global exporter of crude oil. Like many other Canadian provinces throughout history, Alberta’s willingness to scar its natural landscape in the pursuit of resources will ensure there is significant oil for us for years to come. The bad news is that we both sell crude at world market prices, and 60 per cent goes to the United States.

Under NAFTA rules we can increase production; we just can’t stop shipping to the U.S. what’s already agreed upon. In other words, we export the bitumen, give the profits to foreign investors and then get to purchase the refined products. I am not sure that was thought out particularly well.

Saskatchewan has oil reserves – not enough to get invited to OPEC, but more than a billion barrels in the ground in active wells. But the proceeds are sold at market rates, so the scarcity in the world supply will mean tougher times for Saskatchewan residents even if it’s our own oil we are buying.

How much tougher? It affects different demographics differently. For some it will mean no more cheap golf weekends in Las Vegas. For others it means that they can’t put food on their plate or drive to work.

In 2008 Saskatoon saw rents skyrocket and food prices increase significantly. The shelter where I work has a food program largely paid for by the provincial government. It was designed to help families who had more month than they had pay check. In 2007, it served around 40,000 meals a year. In 2008, that number doubled. In 2009 and since then, it has served more than 100,000 meals a year.

A lot of the problem was high rent, but much of it was rising food prices. People kept saying apologetically, "I just can’t make it anymore." That was at $140 a barrel. What’s it going to be like at $200 a barrel?

Every city in North America is in this situation. Designed and conceptualized when fuel was cheap, we built this city to drive in. Circle Drive surrounds us (kind of); Idylwyld, 22nd Street and Eighth Street cut through us.

We have several functioning bridges at any given time. In some ways, at the moment when it feels like we got the answers right, oil and energy prices could change the picture fundamentally.

The good news is that we aren’t the first city that has had to face a reinvention moment. The bad news is not many handled it correctly.

Some more reading if you are interested

Column: Looking at some bigger issues

Tomorrow I woke up to a steady stream of email and tweets coming into my Blackberry about my first column appearing today in The StarPhoenix.  It’s an introductory column so there wasn’t a lot of original research put into it (I knew the topic pretty well).  While today the column appeared on A3, it is moving to the Forum for it’s regular rotation.  As a friend joked, “You’ve been demoted and pushed back already.  In a month you’ll be in the Classified ads.”

Writing for print is a lot different than writing online.  Word Limits and a lack of hyperlinks.  Regular readers of this site know I tend to ramble on and on and on.  I can turn something better said on Twitter into 1000 words with no problem and that’s not a virtue.  That has been dealt with by giving a limit on the number of words which means that literally hundreds of passive unnecessary words will be stripped from the article before you get a chance to read it.  As Martha Stewart says, “That’s a good thing.”

The second issue is the lack of footnotes and hyperlinks to document what I say.  That is a big issue for me because while I have strong opinions, I like to believe they come from fact and an honest search for the truth.  For right now, each column will be greeted with a background sidebar here.  It will have links to sources, more information, and even dissenting opinions that I used to create the column.  While you will make up your own mind regardless of what I say, hopefully this will make that a little easier.

Some of the email and comments I got in this morning asked about my political leanings.  I don’t know which way I lean.  I don’t know if I am right wing or left wing anymore and to be honest, I grow tired of populist politicians.  I grew up as a Red Tory but I lost my partisanship (and I think my party) along the way.  I wish I could be to the left or the right of where I am as I think it would make for quicker writing, the ability to dismiss my critics with a label, and I am pretty sure both Heather Mallick and Ezra Levant both make more money than I do.  I do enjoy politics.  On my staff and among my friends I have partisans on both sides of where I am at.  It makes for great discussions but in the end I find myself somewhere in the middle.  Like I said, I care more about policy then I do politics.  More than a political ideology, I have been influenced by several thinkers, James Howard Kunstler, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell, David Simon/Ed Burns and Thomas Homer-Dixon. While they all look at the world in a different way, the one thing they have in common is their ability to dissect and take apart an issue in their search for understanding.  That’s what I hope to do.

Before it gets swallowed up by the PostMedia server where many articles go to die, I’ll archive it here.

The StarPhoenix's old mastheadThe StarPhoenix is introducing a new columnist, Jordon Cooper. He writes about urban issues, public policy and its impact on the lives of those at the margins of society. He wasn’t born in Saskatoon but was raised here. He is the residential coordinator for The Salvation Army Community Services. His column will usually appear on the Forum page.

I was in Starbucks trying to figure out how they make their coffee so hot and still have it remain liquid when I got the offer to write this column for The StarPhoenix. When discussing my first column, it was suggested I introduce myself to the masses, something that is more awkward to do than one would think. I guess I could have refused but it’s not as if I have a volume of columns or vast fame to fall back on. My name recognition is even lower than that guy who runs the Saskatchewan Liberal party.

Some quick research shows that I moved here in 1984 from Calgary and with the exception of one year, I have lived here. It pains me to write this, but I do make Sarah Palin look well-travelled (and I didn’t even have to protect the United States from Soviet attack). For the last five years I have been employed by The Salvation Army Community Services. I have worked at a couple of different positions there and am currently the men’s residential co-ordinator, which means that I coordinate the team of people who keep the men’s shelter open and functioning. They are also the staff who provide front-line support and monitoring of The Salvation Army’s halfway house – which is not nearly as exciting as it seems. From midnight until the Ministry of Social Services awakens from its nightly slumber at 8 a.m., they provide emergency support to those in crisis.

During that time we have seen some crazy things: Dial-a-dopes, a couple having sex in the middle of Avenue C South when it was -30 C; letting one guy bring his half-dog, half-toothless coyote into the shelter to get her and her owner off the street (the centre has no policy that prohibits toothless coyotes from staying here). There have been the stories that stick with you; the prostitutes beaten up by johns who come in during the night – they aren’t looking for medical help but for assistance in getting their money back (outside of our mandate); the teen girls working the streets during school break because of a lack of food; a mother prostituting out her mentally impaired daughter, listening on one end of the phone to a girl being beaten by her mother and her boyfriend on the other end. There is also the insane loss in human potential that comes from children using drugs at a young age and seeing their emotional development stop forever.

When I go home at the end of the day, I often have more questions than answers about the system and how it affects the people who rely on it. It’s not just the social safety net that I have questions about; it is the larger context of the city we call home and the planet that shapes us. As Thomas Friedman put it in the June 7 New York Times, we are at a point “when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all – and ask ourselves: what were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/ climate/natural resource/ population red lines all at once?” While I silently grumble as I fill my car with fuel and I notice that my beloved three-cheese Kraft Dinner is a little more expensive this week than it was last week, the changes that we are seeing globally have a much more dramatic impact on those who have no margins in their lives and that’s going to be the most significant challenge we have as a society going forward. Handle it right, and we see a vast opportunity for prosperity for all of us. Handle it incorrectly, and we start to look more and more like a Detroit or a Buffalo, N.Y.

In the end, I want to talk about policy, not politics. I enjoy the theatre we call question period as much as anyone, but others do a good job of talking about that. I want to tackle some of the big-picture changes that will affect our daily lives and what we can do about them.

For a decade now I have been exploring different ideas online. Writing online makes it easier to point to other ideas and sources. The problem with print is that you can click all you want on the paper edition of The StarPhoenix and it isn’t taking you anywhere. If you want to read more, check my sources for yourself or discuss anything I write further, you can track it down at www.jordoncooper.com or find me at twitter.com/ jordoncooper.

June 20th, 2011

Finally, for those of you who have been used to me posting here for almost a decade, things will remain the same.  There will just be 800 words heading to The StarPhoenix every Monday.

What’s Next?

A couple of weeks ago now I resigned by job.  Like any life decision like that there are a lot of reasons but in the end I was feeling really tired and in some ways burned out.  Wendy’s depression is worse now than it has ever been and that takes a toll on the entire family (she’s making an ugly, ugly transition to yet another stronger anti-depressant without being weaned off the old one right now).  While the job wasn’t burning my out, life was taking a toll on all of us and we have a very hard time getting treatment in Saskatchewan, heck, we can’t even get her old clinic to transfer her medical files to the new doctor

After I made it public that I was looking for a new challenge, several serious job offers came in and we looked at some opportunities that would change our financial position substantially and one in particular that would give me and the family an opportunity to travel and live abroad.  Another offer was a great job in a particularly evil company.  Not quite big tobacco or working for the GOP but evil enough that I am sure that all go for supper together.  I have lived in the prairies my entire life and the opportunity to raise Mark and Oliver in a different culture and worldview was something that I wanted to do since Mark was born.  I am also getting to the age where I think a little more about retirement each year and this would give us a chance to retire with a little more money in the bank.  While the Salvation Army treats me quite fairly, as a non-profit, it can’t compare to the compensation of evil publically traded companies.  Whatever my job decision was going to be, I had planned to wrap up work here last Wednesday and start at my new job in late September.  I was asked to reconsider my decision and stay here as well but at the time, I was at peace with moving on to new challenges.

It wasn’t a easy decision to make as we balanced Wendy’s access to treatment, what was good for the boys, what our goals were as a family, and also some pretty strong ties to Saskatoon, particularly the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon.  During this time of evaluation, there was a murder (more) that bothered me deeply.  I know both the victim and the accused from work and while I was processing that death, we had a death at work.  After hours of questioning by the police, crime scene investigators and major crimes (don’t worry, it was a death from natural causes), I drove our former chaplain up to St. Paul’s Hospital as he was off to see a dying friend.  While I tend to drive up 19th Street to avoid the traffic on 20th, I drove back down 20th Street that night.  I have never seen 20th Street like that.  I counted 14 girls clearly working the stroll.  Three of them looked to be underage.  Guys were on the street corners as I watched 2 drug deals go down.  I know that isn’t typical for 20th Street and was like that because the Saskatoon Exhibition was in town which brings in a lot of out of town customers.  As I left the Centre that night around 10:00 p.m., I turned back up 19th and as I was turning the corner, I watched a taxi complete a brazen dial-a-dope transaction at the phone booth across the street from the Centre.  Of course the prostitutes were on 33rd Street that night (Wendy later told me that there has been as many as four in the Safeway parking lot on shift).  I got home, grabbed a Diet Coke, grabbed my Moleskine and started to jot down some notes for how things had changed since I started working at the Salvation Army in Riversdale and on the west side.

What we do at the Salvation Army Community Services is both really simple in concept and really complex in how it is executed.  The concepts are pretty easy.  We provide meals, food, budget management help, and emergency assistance to those that need it.  The nuances of distributing those goods, paying for it, being paid for it, determining need and the appropriate response is what is so complex.  It takes a lot of staff, volunteers, officers, and money to make it happen.

The operational side I have a firm grasp on, it is that simple stuff that was troubling me.  The Centre does a really good job at doing what we do but what haunted me as I went to bed that night was, are we doing the right things?

I came in and talked with some other managers about what I was thinking.  I think the Salvation Army Community Services does a lot of really good things but Riversdale has changed.  While getting the Mumford House ready for it’s opening, I drove a lot between the two locations and on every corner around the women’s shelter, there are girls working on the corners… at 8:30 a.m.  Even during the opening of the Mumford House I watched girls on the corner.  While I have been complaining night and day about prostitution in Mayfair, girls are working the streets in Confederation Park and even as far west as Pacific Heights.  90% of the girls on the streets are being trafficked by a variety of sources.  They are moving out of the stroll (women can be as territorial as the men and if they don’t come up with a new territory, they get beaten if they don’t bring him the money).

It’s just not the prostitution.  It’s the drugs, the increase in violence, and the sense of hopelessness from not being able to get ahead.  13.2% of residents in the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon don’t have a grade nine education.  (including 21.0% of those in Riversdale and 18.4 of those in Pleasant Hill).  While 11% of Saskatoon is made up of one parents families, 24 % of Riversdale households are single parents families.  Not to get all Dan Quayle on you or anything but Wendy and I have a hard time raising kids on two salaries and very little child care costs (we work opposite hours).  How much harder is it to go alone?  A sign of disenfranchisement many households feel, only 13% of Pleasant Hill residents turned out to vote in the last civic election (vs. 50% of voters in Briarwood).   Of course one doesn’t need to channel the spirit of Thomas Homer-Dixon to realize how problems can be even more complex than the combined statistical analysis… and believe me, the stats show a complex problem.

We are left with two alternatives.  During this time, I finished up an internal proposal to go to the Salvation Army for a new facility.  It’s no secret that Saskatoon needs more shelter beds.  In addition to more beds, it redesigns how we accommodate our residents so they are more comfortable and guys can have a better rest.  More youth rooms, more mental health rooms, a wing for grumpy old men, transitional rooms, a small half gym, computer facilities, a coffee shop/drop in space, and lots of green space for our guys.  It’s not perfect, I couldn’t figure out how to slide a go-cart track past the bureaucracy but will we see.

As I finished it up, I realized that what we were proposing a dam and levy system for many of our residents.  While they were at the Centre, they would be safe and secure and maybe even get ahead of the game but when many left, they get swamped by what is outside of the Centre.  There is value in creating safe spaces but eventually you have to leave and go out in the real world.  Too high of rent, too low of income, stuck in a flophouse, surrounded by drugs, forced to take a bad roommate, mental health and addiction problems and trapped in poverty.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that life should be hard at times but the obstacles confronting our clients are considerable.    So I was left with an architectural solution (increase the size of dorms to X number of dorm beds and even more private rooms for grumpy old men and then keep building and building and building) or we figure out a way to help our clients live back in the community amongst the alcohol, drugs, violence, and exploitation.  By doing so, we would also be changing the character of those neighbourhoods.  Of course of the two, the second option is a lot harder to do.

As I was thinking about this, I was at the Front Desk the other night when a women came in.  The Emergency After Hours worker was swamped with other clients and the women was upset and crying.  I took her into a room off the office, left the door open (and it’s on camera) and started to see what she needed.  She needed accommodation and I asked a couple of questions which she was quite forthcoming in answering.  The details aren’t that important but drugs, acquired brain injury, prostitution to make ends meet, a couple of bad tricks.  As the staff found a place for her at a local women’s shelter, I had two thoughts.  One this women in someone’s daughter and secondly as her face and neck had the signs of being beaten up by a john, will she escape this cycle first or will she end up being another statistic?

So what can I do?  What can we do?  I’ll get into this in a lot of detail later but there is a lot that we can do about this.  I think that is what kept me here, there is stuff that I can do as an individual, I can do within the organization, and we can do as an organization of other community based partners.    As Margaret Mead once said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. 

Other by Kester Brewin

Other by Kester BrewinKester Brewin released his latest book Other.  It’s only available in the U.K. right now but if you want to pay the Canadian government a lot of fees, you can get it shipped here (I paid more in taxes and fees for The Complex Christ than I did for the book but it was worth it).

I am pretty excited about this book because The Complex Christ forced me to rethink much of how I saw the world, looked at history, and read the Scriptures.  While Brewin writes theology, his writing extends my thinking beyond where it has gone before.  I rate him up with Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jared Diamond, Malcolm Gladwell, and Steven Johnson as people that have helped constantly reinvent my world view.  I can’t wait until my copy gets here (the fees alone should erase Canada’s deficit).