A future of drought, unless we invest now


California is currently suffering from a drought as severe as any we could imagine happening in such a developed country as the USA. Eighty percent of the entire state is estimated to be in ‘extreme’ drought conditions, with 36% in ‘exceptional’ drought, an even worse condition. Meanwhile, the hot and dry conditions have begun to cause wildfires – with one in the Napa Valley region currently requiring 1,000 firefighters to control it, and forcing the evacuation of 500 people from their homes. This isn’t a sudden development either – the entire state has been considered to be in severe drought since April.

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At times like this, the glamor of California slips away and the state begins to look increasingly unsustainable. Many people have long claimed that California’s enormous debt makes it economically unsustainable, but the natural physics of the area itself can be just as much of an impediment. There is a lot of seawater, but a relatively small amount of freshwater for such a large population; and as we are finding out now, the often-gorgeous weather can very quickly become brutal.

California is not the only place that will suffer in the coming years as climate change intensifies. The logic of settling much of the western part of America is now starting to look rather silly. Inland states like Arizona and Nevada are eventually going to run out of clean, fresh water to sustain their populations. They were already deserts when we built cities there, and they aren’t getting any closer to the necessary water sources – Las Vegas has recently suggested building a $15.5bn pipeline just to transport water from one of the few available aquifers in Nevada.

But we’re in this situation now, and we can’t really get out of it easily – the logic of trying to relocate millions of people from these drought-ridden states to more climatically friendly ones just doesn’t work on any level. The west must stay populated, and something else must be done to stem the crisis. What we can hope is that the increasing prevalence of these crises can have a positive stimulatory effect on the research and development of new technologies. In the next decade or two, we could well discover new, highly efficient techniques for water desalination and develop new models for water sharing and conservation, as well as seeing populations increasingly comfortable with the idea of restricting their own personal consumption. But all of this will only happen if the government commits to making it happen.

If the US government is bold enough to commit to such a program of technological development and behaviour change, there could be further knock-on effects. Such technology could and should be shared with people in other parts of the world where it could be of immense value – such as the Sahara and the Sahel, extremely dry places that could massively benefit from increased fresh water resources. In that way, the US could, over time, turn a crisis into an opportunity for improving lives around the world.

 Truly yours,

 Ana Shell

[ behaviour change, California’s enormous debt, climate change intensifies, climatically friendly states, developed country, drought f-ridden states, drought in California, dry conditions, economically unsustainable, evacuation of people, exceptional drought, extreme drought conditions, fresh water resources, highly efficient techniques, immense value, improving lives around the world, knock-on effects, large population, Napa Valley region, natural physics, new technologies, personal consumption, run out of fresh water, sustain populations, technological development, US government, water conservation, water desalination, water sharing, water sources ]

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Ignoring the past for our own convenience


We spend so much time focusing on the problems of the present day that it can be very easy for us to ignore the past, and to ignore the historical actions and events that have led us to the situation of inequality and injustice that we face today. But as the famous saying goes, ‘those who forget the past are destined to repeat it’, and there are many powerful people out there who would prefer we not explore what our ancestors did in order to maintain the current social structure that favors them.

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The crimes of the past are an issue all around the world, but in the ‘old world’ of Europe and Asia things are still a little closer to the surface and more easily visible – think about the ongoing tensions between the Turks and the Armenians stemming from the genocide of 1915, or the various complicated mixings of ethnicities and religions in the Middle East. These problems are ongoing, and will be for some time, but at least we cansee them in order to start addressing them.

In North America, things aren’t as clear. When the pilgrims arrived and built a society in the ‘new world’ they considered it as a clean break from the fighting and ideologies of the regions they had come from. Consequently, the conflict on which American society was founded is much more well-hidden. Take a look, for example, at the many independence monuments that scatter a city like Philadelphia. Philadelphia is extremely important to the American memory as the first capital of the new nation after its break from the UK, but much less known is that it was built on the site of the Lenape Indian village of Shackamaxon.

Read the plaques that adorn the monuments and the explanations in the museums, however, and you will barely ever see this mentioned. Instead, we simply read stories of groups of white men fighting each other, as if the land had been empty when they arrived. To some extent, that is the way it was considered at the time – the term terra nullius was often used by colonizers of Australia to suggest that the land belonged to nobody and was therefore ‘up for grabs’. Those exact words didn’t tend to be used in the colonizing of America, but the concept behind them was surely a part of the European mindset – and it continues to this day, where we very rarely acknowledge the former inhabitants of the continent.

This is despite the huge list of problems that continue to face the remaining native Americans. Their land has disappeared to almost nothing. Indian reservations – that is, land which the US government graciously allows the native Americans to govern for themselves – comprises only 290,000 km2 of the US. The total size of America is around 9.37 million km2, meaning reservations take up only 3% of the entire country, the rest having all been stolen. Alcoholism remains a huge problem, even so long after Europeans introduced the substance, with 12% of all native American deaths estimated to be alcohol-related – four times more than the rest of the population. And unemployment is rampant – the average rate of unemployment on reservations is 14%, double that of the US as a whole.

It’s time for Americans to stop forgetting the past, and to stop repeating it on a daily basis. It must be accepted openly, as part of mainstream culture, that the land they live on was stolen. It is too late to change that now, but by acknowledging it we can take the first true steps towards improving things for those people whose land was taken.

 Truly yours,

 Ana Shell

[ alcohol-related deaths, alcoholism, American memory, American society, continent inhabitants, current social structure, European mindset, genocide of 1915, historical actions, ignoring the past, independence monuments, Indian reservations, injustice, Lenape Indian village, mainstream culture, mixings of ethnicities, Native Americans, new nation, new world, old world, pilgrims built society, powerful people, Shackamaxon, situation of inequality, terra nullius, unemployment in America, up for grabs, US government graciously ]

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Energy dependency is a problem for us all, not just Ukraine


The news from Ukraine these days just seems to get worse and worse for the country. Military planes are being shot from the sky by rebels, the eastern half of the country is still trying to secede (despite Russia not being quite so vocally supportive anymore), and the Crimean region seems to have been irreversibly lost to Putin at this point. Now, to top it all off, the Russian energy company Gazprom has turned off Ukraine’s gas supply, claiming that the country has not yet paid what it owes. The only vaguely positive spin on this is that at least it didn’t happen in the middle of the winter.

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Now of course this decision by Gazprom is political rather than financial. There has just been a new Ukrainian president elected, in an election that Russia essentially considers void because it doesn’t accept the recent revolution that kicked Yanukovych out of the country. And Russia has a desire to keep flexing its newfound muscle on the international stage, showing the world that it is once again a power that should not be messed with. After all, if countries were cut off for not immediately paying their debts, almost nowhere in the world would have any energy right now.

And that’s part of the problem. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, our global energy system is no longer working well. It’s based around widespread use of fossil fuels that are increasingly scarce and increasingly controlled by only a few countries around the world. If access to those fuels dries up, countries suddenly find themselves in a whole lot of trouble, often unable to provide even basic services to their people.

It is this energy system that is allowing Russia to bully Ukraine right now. It is also this energy system that led to the US decision to invade Iraq, in an attempt to rewrite the oil-rich Middle East region in their own image, and to gain control of enough fuel supplies to keep their unsustainable economy running for a long time. It is this energy system that allows the OPEC cartel to control prices for ordinary consumers around the world. And it is this energy system that causes us to continually dig for more and more fossil fuels in less and less conventional places – under the Arctic, in the tar sands, in Alaska, and so on.

Almost all countries in the world are far too dependent on oil and gas for their energy needs, and this leaves them far too dependent on one or two key suppliers. This fact is starkly illustrated by the fact that the Gazprom shutdown of Ukraine’s energy supply is worrying the EU, who are concerned that even their superpower bloc may not get access to enough fuel for this year unless the flow from Russia gets turned back on promptly. Instead of self-sufficiency and sustainability, which are the goals that all countries should be striving after, we have dependence on dirty fuels.

Many people make a lot of money from this system; the people who suffer the most from it are those who are already poor. They pay high prices at the gas pumps, or to heat their homes in the west. And in the developing world they suffer from the early effects of climate change, killing their crops, flooding their villages, destroying their livelihoods.

What the Ukraine incident shows is the need for greater self-sufficiency in energy sources for all countries, and the need to focus on alternative energy technologies. Rather than being reliant on Russian gas, Ukraine – and the rest of us – should be focusing on cleaner, greener, renewable technologies that are much more easily accessible throughout the world. In designing a new world energy system over the next few decades, these need to be priorities for the international community.

 Truly yours,

 Ana Shell

[ basic services, control prices, Crimean region, dependent on oil and gas, destroying livelihoods, developing world, dirty fuels, early effects of climate change, energy dependency, energy right, energy sources, energy system, flooding villages, fossil fuels, fuel supplies, gas pumps, gas supply, Gazprom, global energy system, international community, invade Iraq, key suppliers, killing crops, military planes, new Ukrainian president, oil-rich Middle East region, on international stage, OPEC cartel, ordinary consumers, recent revolution, renewable technologies, Russian energy company, Russian gas, superpower bloc, Ukraine energy needs, Ukraine incident, Ukraine’s energy supply, unsustainable economy, Yanukovych ]

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Time to change our oil culture


The latest figures coming out of the US suggest that the previous exultation of shale gas may have been severely premature. Shale has been promoted as the answer to the question of US energy independence, with claims that there would be up to 17bn barrels of fuel underneath California alone – enough to keep business-as-usual going on for a very long time, and enough to totally destroy any chance we might have of avoiding catastrophic climate change. There was also the small matter that extracting the shale gas requires the incredibly destructive technique known as fracking, which damages land and water supplies.
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However, these new figures suggest that those numbers may have to be cut – by 96%. Yes, the actual amount of shale gas underneath California is likely to be a mere fraction of what was previously being imagined by oil industry executives and climate change denialists. This shows the optimism that often surrounds new fossil fuel discoveries, from the tar sands, to the arctic oil, to the California shale gas deposits. Every time, we hear from people who believe we have solved the problem of peak oil, and every time it eventually turns out that we have merely discovered a way to delay it for a few years while further trashing our environment.
Of course, fracking was never a good idea even before this re-evaluation of the shale reserves. The film Gaslandfamously showed how the contamination caused by fracking for shale could pollute water so badly that you could set it on fire. Fracking has also been accused of responsibility for earthquakes in the area around Blackpool in the northwest of England, and there is an increasingly popular and vociferous campaign against this destructive technique taking place across the UK right now -as we have previously discussed on this blog. You would think that the combination of these facts, along with the new discovery that there is actually not that much shale gas to extract anyway, would put an end to fracking – but it will almost certainly go ahead anyway because our culture seems to be hardwired to choose fossil fuel options ahead of cleaner alternatives.
We need to start addressing this cultural problem urgently. Why do we immediately defer to fossil fuels whenever they become available to us? Why do we seem to have such difficulty accepting that infinite energy sources exist all around us, in the wind, the sun, and the water that keep us alive? There is perhaps a view that alternative technologies are not ‘macho’ enough – a ridiculous proposition of course, but one which seems to have a strange power over decision makers. Or perhaps it is simply a case of the entrenched interests of the oil and gas industry that don’t want us to move on the next technology – even though that is what humankind has done throughout its history.
Whatever the reason, these new figures on shale should be part of the culture-wide jolt that we need to start moving away from fossil fuels. We need to finally understand – truly understand – that there simply isn’t enough oil and gas left in the planet for us to keep up this lifestyle indefinitely. That means we either need to change our lifestyle from the current focus on consumption and comfort, which seems unlikely to happen, or we need to start seriously exploring alternative energy sources rather than wasting our time and money on shale gas and other damaging schemes. This will mean cooperation between nations, it will mean convincing people that fossil fuels are not special, and it will mean making brave policy decision. But it can be done – in fact, it needs to be done, if our other option is the tiny amount of shale that lies in a few rocks under America.
Truly yours,
Ana Shell
arctic oil, Blackpool, California shale gas deposits, catastrophic climate change, climate change denialists, damage land and water supplies, destructive technique, exultation of shale gas, film Gasland famously, fossil fuel discoveries, fossil fuel options, fracking, fracking for shale, fuel underneath California, infinite energy sources, northwest of England, oil and gas industry, oil culture, oil industry, oil industry executives, peak oil, policy decision, pollute water, responsibility for earthquakes, shale gas, shale reserves, tar sands, trash environment, US energy independence
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Aid for the poor or for the rich?


Good news for once! British foreign aid has finally reached the 0.7% mark! As you will no doubt know, there has been a longstanding target encouraged by the UN Development Programme to encourage rich countries to give 0.7% of their GDP as foreign aid to help poorer countries overcome their disadvantages and improve the lives of their citizens. Until recently, only the Scandinavian countries and a few others had managed to achieve this fairly small sum, but now Britain can join the club and hold its head up high in the international community (although not so much at home, where this success has been barely mentioned for fear of annoying the xenophobes who believe no money should be given to help anyone outside of the country).
Unfortunately, before we start celebrating too wildly, there is a problem – and it is the rather major one of where most of the money is actually going to. We like to think that aid money goes directly into vaccination campaigns, building schools, providing emergency medical supplies, and so on. In actual fact, a lot of it goes into private developments and projects that aim at generating a profit (for local capitalists and in many cases British corporations as well) rather than achieving many social benefits.
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Much of the money is placed into financial corporations, who then choose where to invest it for the good of everyone. This is part of the ideology that the government has no ability to run things competently, and that we should all rely on the private sector to look out for our best interests. Of course, this completely ignores the private sector’s insatiable drive for more and more money, and consequently much of the aid money ends up going into things that will be unambiguously profitable – private apartment buildings, hotels, shopping centres, and so on. The idea is that by making certain local businesses rich on the profits of these investments, the money will eventually ‘trickle down’ to the general population. That this has not worked anywhere in the world seems to be ignored; the idea of simply giving the money directly to the things that poor people need is not entertained.
Other controversial schemes involve agriculture. In some African countries, agricultural aid is only being given if governments agree to strict requirements – in particular, not to restrict exports under any circumstances. This means that even if a famine hits East Africa again, exports of food for foreign markets will still take priority over feeding the local population. Cash crops like coffee and chocolate are also more likely to receive aid money, despite being of almost no use to local people; as are transport and infrastructure links to ports, allowing these crops to get onto the world market quickly and efficiently. These schemes benefit the country providing the aid money as much as the country receiving it, but many poorer governments feel they have no choice but to accept these requirements in order to get enough money to do something for their own people.
Essentially, these schemes prove what we have long known – that aid is often a way to extract resources from poor countries and to prop up the structural inequalities in the global economy that keep them in poverty, rather than a means to truly help the wretched of the earth. It makes governments look good (at least to some people), while not requiring them to do anything really unpopular or detrimental to the needs and desires of the corporations from their countries. Consequently, until we devise a new and fairer aid policy that actually aims to help poor people rather than businesses, there is perhaps not too much to celebrate about finally hitting that tiny 0.7% target.
Truly yours,
Ana Shell
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In the US, class privilege is in the air


Recent research in the US has shown that, in simple terms, white people breathe better quality air than black people. When written as bluntly as that it sounds like a joke, almost like the kind of headline you would read in The Onion. But it’s actually a perfectly serious phenomena – areas of the US where the population are predominantly white consistently have better air quality than in areas that are mostly black. Considering the effects of air quality on our day-to-day life and on our life expectancy, this discovery has a lot of potential implications.
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These findings are being painted as a racial issue, and of course they are to some extent. But they also take in an element of our lives that the media doesn’t often like to talk about – that of class. These results could very easily be written out in a different way from how they have if the emphasis were changed – we could then say that poor people tend to breathe worse air than rich people, and it just so happens that more black people are poor than white people.
From there we would have to explore the many reasons why black people are over-represented in the poverty statistics of America, but to begin with we can also ask why poor people of any color are suffering from bad air quality in comparison to the rich. The reason is a concept more familiar to academic geographers than newspaper writers – that of spatial segregation. The rich of America are, almost always, spatially separated from the poor to a very high degree. If we look at a map of any major city in America, we can identify areas in which the rich live, and areas in which the poor live – and if we were to visit those areas we would clearly see the difference in the built environment and the quality of the air.
Areas where the poor live have lower tax incomes; they are less likely to be able to afford services and amenities that might help deal with air pollution, such as parks and hospitals; they are given much less consideration in city planning meetings, meaning the majority of major freeways in the US go through the poor areas of towns; and due to high rates of unemployment and marginalization, they find themselves desperate to accept the possibility of jobs from polluting industries that richer areas have the choice and power to turn away – hence why the vast majority of factories, manufacturing depots, and wastegrounds in America are found in poor areas.
Once this kind of cycle has been started it becomes hard to stop – real estate prices go down because of the poor quality of the environment, and as prices go up in other areas of town more poor and unemployed people are pushed into the zone. The fact that the majority of these poor people are also black is yet another scandal to be added on top of this. The whole thing seems to show that while the free-market dream of America works very well for the winners, it produces far too many losers, and far too negative effects on those losers.
And yet it is beginning to seem that things will have to get much worse before they begin to improve. Levels of inequality in the US have been increasing for some time now, after they were reset to a certain extent by the prosperity of the 20th century. Now the US is becoming dominated by corporate power and the interests of the rich again, much as it was back in the 19th century. The issue of air quality and the spatial segregation that causes it is but one symptom of that – and it is a symptom that should alert us to the need for urgent change if we are to start equalizing the relationships between the winners and losers in American capitalism again.
Truly yours,
Ana Shell
academic geographers, air pollution, American capitalism, bad air quality, black people, breathe worse air, built environment, city planning meetings, class privilege, corporate power, effects of air quality, free-market dream, high rates of unemployment, levels of inequality, lower tax incomes, manufacturing depots, marginalization, newspaper writers, polluting industries, poor areas, poor areas of towns, poor people, potential implications, poverty statistics, quality air, quality of environment, real estate prices go, rich people, spatial segregation, The Onion, unemployed people, wastegrounds in America
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Banking on hunger


The UK’s newspapers are notorious for the high levels of political bias in their reporting. This makes them rather unreliable sources for those of us who are trying to get objective information and facts about the happenings in one of the world’s richest countries, but it also means that they can provide a useful cultural barometer of the feelings of the population, especially in these days when the public can easily respond to what they read using social media tools like Twitter.
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A good example of this comes from a story this weekend in the Mail on Sunday, the sister paper of the famously right wing and vacuous Daily Mail – which, astonishingly enough, has built the most popular newspaper website on the internet through a mix of extreme politics, shock stories, and paparazzi pictures of celebrities. The Mail on Sunday sent investigative reporters to some of the UK’s food banks – charities that hand out free food to the  unemployed and unfortunate, the exploited and oppressed who have been left jobless and penniless by the ongoing recession that has affected countries across Europe.
These reporters told the food banks that they were unemployed, and lied about their situation to make themselves sound desperate and hungry. The food banks ran the few basic ID checks that they usually do, and then handed over some small food parcels. According to the Mail on Sunday, this is an outrage, and demonstrates that the recent figures that suggest that one million British people have had to use food banks in the past year are false. Many of the people using the food banks, they claimed, will just be ‘scroungers’ and chancers who are only looking for a free meal, just like the reporters were.
The response on Twitter and other social media has been primarily one of anger. People have pointed out the obvious logical flaw that just because people who work for the Mail on Sunday are willing to tell barefaced lies in exchange for food, it doesn’t mean the rest of us would do the same. But others have pointed out that even if there is a grain of truth to the story, it doesn’t actually matter. If even 20% of the food bank recipients are fake, that still leaves 800,000 people going hungry and requiring additional food packages just to get by. Many of these will be children. That figure, while not as symbolic as the one million mark that is often used, should still be a source of national shame in one of the richest countries in the world.
The UK continues to have one of the world’s highest GDPs, one of its most glittering and expensive cities in London, and has an elite class of businessmen, bankers, and politicians who are making huge amounts of money even in these times that are so tough for the ordinary man on the street. These rich elites have long encouraged an ideology in which people see those who need help as somehow unworthy of it – they’re not trying hard enough, or they don’t really want to work, they just want people to give them money for free. No mention of the fact that wages have stagnated for the majority of the population, or that jobs are not available, or that many recent graduates have the added burden of debt to deal with. Simply a ‘winner takes all’ capitalist philosophy which encourages the poor to tread on each other to get ahead.
It’s this kind of ideology that the Mail on Sunday was promoting with their food bank article. Luckily, the reaction against it, and the understanding that the need for food banks is the real problem, rather than the exact numbers of people using them, suggests that an increasing number of people might be waking up to the emptiness of this ideology. We must hope that this is the start of an increased class consciousness and a fightback against a political elite that has long scapegoated the very people it is keeping poor.
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