by Julian Jones, a water expert providing technical support for Water21.
The human footprint on our planet has been catastrophic—more like the carnage caused by a vast beast rampaging blindly across our landscapes. However, by looking at the effects of this monster on the water cycle, we may identify some empirical means to resolve this destruction.
‘Climate change’ represents a more recent recognition of this damage—but the wider social and ecological costs are evident through the thousands of years of human intervention on the biosphere, long pre-dating the use of fossil fuels and agrochemicals. Our basic needs—energy, food and water (all exploited unsustainably)—are now seen only by their scarcity across vast areas of the globe; the accumulated result of human excesses over the generations.
Consequently, 60% of the land surface of our normally beautiful blue green planet is now scarred and desertified; much still being so by ongoing human activity. It need not be like this. It could be made verdant and sustainably productive once again; if only we better manage land and water to tackle ecocide and reverse wider economic and ecological damage.
Of all components of global ecosystems, the water cycle has arguably suffered the most severe degradation. And, as with all ecocide, much of this degradation is caused by exploitative actions for short term gains, with the long term costs ignored, externalised, suppressed or otherwise unaccounted for. Just some of the earliest examples are deforestation, eradication of keystone species that maintain ecosystems, and slash and burn agriculture. It’s to our greater cost and detriment that our species’ awareness extends no further than the collective ‘ends of our noses’. Yet these costs can be quantified empirically.
Exploitation of the planet’s resources has had some great benefits for a few, but we have now reached an economic tipping point. Now, the living standards of the majority in the prosperous Western nations seem to have peaked and are wilting – owing largely to the competitive pressures of globalisation, plus the cumulative effects of these externalised environmental costs.
‘Think global, act local’ runs the well-known ecological saying; but as EU & US living standards peak, an unpleasant side of local self-interest is now arising, currently focused on immigration pressure. Yet this new politics fails to properly consider that the immigration burdens at home are mainly driven by corporate lobbying and the cumulative consequences of our exploitive actions overseas. These break down the indigenous economies and cultures of the immigrating peoples – just another example of our externalised ecocide returning to us as socio-economic ‘blowback’.
A completely free market is simply no longer sustainable, nor ever really should have been, but the planning required here should be based upon ecological determinants. Our planet with its growing population has a limited carrying capacity with restricting ecological factors that require restraint and responsibility. Yet there is little proper corporate or even governmental recognition that we all must live within such finite natural constrictions; which, furthermore, can and should be defined empirically in a wholly non-partisan manner.
This is well evidenced in the UK, where half a century of largely unregulated agrochemical farming practice has so degraded soil carbon (humus), and thus also contaminated water aquifers, that the public now have to bear significantly increased costs for flood insurance and water charges. These are both very specific proxy measures that combine economic factors with ecological ones, brought into focus by soil and water cycle mismanagement. Use of agrochemicals destroys soil water retaining and infiltrating properties; chemicals become concentrated in ground water, while rain water runs off much more quickly.
In both cases of mismanagement, the less well-off suffer. Those forced to live in low cost flood-blighted properties are so often also those unable to afford the inflation-busting charges from water companies, arising from the ever escalating costs of removing agrochemicals from the water supply; yet society as a whole has also to pay to subsidize all this in many different ways. Just one insight into the true non-wealth producing nature of our way of life; unnecessary social and economic complexity without logical rationale.
In less well-off countries, similar effects of ecocide are often terminally catastrophic for those affected. And often just described as the effects of climate change; which grossly over simplifies the problem, and actually obscures effective action to resolve the direct causes here, or even also the dire issue of atmospheric greenhouse gases.
Myopic governmental policies are often based on flawed and incomplete science, or even just wishful thinking. After more than a decade of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) in the UK, 69% have shown no improvement in groundwater nitrate levels, with 31% getting worse – and apparently the government ministry involved has no idea why.
Loss of soil carbon has only recently been recognised as a key issue in ‘developed’ nations – but has long been an implicit consideration in traditional agriculture, from the indigenous Terra Preta of pre-Columbian Amazonia to the traditional European methods still maintained by Biodynamic practices. Such ‘Carbon Farming’ is now growing in popularity with fresh thinking contributed by a range of other techniques (Permaculture, Mob Grazing, Nature Farming/Effective Microorganisms etc ).
Holistic farming attempts to consider the whole ecological cycle in its practices, protecting the soil and thus also protecting the water cycle. The holistic consideration also extends to within these practices and their implementation—so different from the prescriptive agrochemical methods that can only maintain an illusion of greater productivity either by way of hefty subsidies, or by implicitly hidden subsidising of the presently unaccounted for ecological consequences.
By maintaining or increasing soil carbon, not only the causes but also effects of climate change are moderated. The major processes that enable this are microbial and very sensitive. A combination of management techniques are required to achieve this – the right microbes must be present and encouraged to sequestrate atmospheric CO2, producing humus and water via the Calvin Cycle.
A variety of criteria are involved – the correct nutrients (compost or other biological fertilisers); the correct plant cultivars that can host the appropriate microbial activity; the correct cultivation or grazing practices. All are only possible by largely avoiding agrochemicals; and therein is the obstacle – the vast inertia of corporate lobbying which prevents governmental support of such non-ecocidal agriculture, or even sound empirical science.
Avoidance by governmental regulation of even such simple metrics as building soil carbon in our farmland is a shocking deficiency in our struggle with climate change, quite apart from protecting the public interest and spending but it is for obvious reasons of vested interests and corruption.
Most people are uninterested in and disengaged with these issues, yet often still complain about the circumstances they find themselves in. Inept politicians, either ignorant or corrupted, not just allowing but often actually promoting all this; yet now suffering at the ballot box. The wider public are still mostly unaware of the phony science (and worse) that underpins their lifestyle, yet voters are now suspicious that things are not as they should be. Correctly so, as the degraded economic and ecological systems now in toto only creating wealth for a few, while impoverishing the majority.
The principle of reciprocity is quite central here; in terms of how we view others—who very often might be suffering the consequences of our demands; this might be in terms of the effects of our purchasing decisions; for apparently cheap food or energy, or any other goods. And also quite literally (certainly in terms of water availability and links with soil carbon), ‘reaping the effects of what we have sown’. Ethics and science should be considered together here in resolving ecocide.
Fracking and nuclear power are simply the latest racketeering projects of this continually degrading system of collective irresponsibility; both promoted and implemented on the basis of flawed and incomplete accounting of their true costs, that extend into future generations, and are clearly identifiable by their huge effects on water.
Nuclear power is wholly spurious in its claimed benefits for tackling global warming; just another concentrated thermal energy source that warms vast quantities of water around its environs, and uranium mining causing a huge legacy of acidic and radioactive water contamination in many areas. It’s much the same for other hydrocarbon energy sources—coal, gas and oil.
Similarly, fracking is another demand on limited water availability, also then dosed with toxic chemicals. The huge intelligence and defence-industry costs of meeting our demands of these energy supplies, petrochemicals and minerals are never accounted for in the true comparative costs against renewable energy sources; quite apart from additional costs in human lives, liberties, and well-being.
The social, economic and ecological Beast that we have created can only be tamed by a global agreement and legislation to end all this ecocide. Defining what is—or is not, ecocidal is an important part of this process. The measures to control ecocide can best determined by the effects of any activity or undertaking on the water cycle. These can all be clearly and empirically defined in terms of eco-toxicity, soil carbon and water availability benefits, thermal effects, biodiversity, and wider social gains. This would set a new course for humanity, of abundance and harmony with each other and our environment.