Every time there is a disaster arising from man-made causes, my instinct is to look at the lessons we can learn from it and estimate the probabilities of avoiding the same types of disasters in the future. I suppose it is a way I can make myself sleep better. But over the years, it has become saddeningly clear there may have been significant miscalculations on my part.
The recent report in Nature Climate Change about the inevitability of a pronounced loss of Amazon rainforest resilience is such a miscalculation. Normally, one expects degradation of huge environments to be slow-acting events and therefore there is a human tendency to kick the issue down the road for some future generation to fix. But that is not how mathematics and real-life work.
Analysis of satellite data taken over decades have indicated conclusively that the largest rainforest left in the world is fast approaching a tipping point and this will happen within our lifetimes. The Amazon Forest (the “lungs of our planet”) is today on the thin balancing point of swinging from being a net carbon “sink” to being a carbon “source” as there is now “direct empirical evidence that the Amazon rainforest is losing resilience, risking dieback with profound implications for biodiversity, carbon storage and climate change at a global scale”.
In short, the unrestricted burning and destruction of the forests of the Amazon to convert them into livestock (mainly cattle) production lands is causing the entire ecology of the Amazon Forest to collapse.
And the main produce of the Amazon in the future will not be oxygen for our planet, but potentially billions of tins of corned beef. Even as it produces more and more beef, Brazil has not the infrastructure to export quality fresh or frozen beef, hence much of it will end up tinned. Such an oversupply of tinned beef can only mean such products will only collapse in price sooner or later. There is only a limited capacity for the world to buy and eat salty, nitrite-laden, processed beef.
Which brings me to some rather odd laws based loosely on mathematics and how some of them may be translated to explain real-life situations. A classic example may be Schopenhauer’s Law of Entropy, which states bluntly the following:
“If you put a spoonful of wine in a barrel full of sewage, you get sewage. And if you put a spoonful of sewage in a barrel full of wine, you get sewage.”
In summary, where a contaminant is noxious enough, even a very small amount of such a contaminant is enough to spoil a good product. The problem of course is that greedy, senseless people are pouring gallons of sewage into the wine barrel of the Amazon.
The immediate impact of the unjust war forced upon Ukraine by Russia is the sudden jump in energy prices around the world. Less known is the coming impact on food prices. Ukraine and Russia (which is now under sanctions) produce between 25%-29% of the wheat consumed annually by the world.
Ukraine exports even more corn by metric tonnage, though much of this is used for animal feed. Soon the amounts exported will diminish very significantly due to the war. Historically, a shortfall of such proportions seldom happens except in severe droughts or other extreme events, so there will be a serious impact on consumer food prices around the world.
Compounding this is the shortage of fertilisers produced in Russia, which meets 13% of the world’s needs. Brazil, for example, gets 22% of its fertilisers from Russia and were facing a shortage even before the Ukraine war began. So, we have an ironic situation where fertile, fecund forests are being cut down in the Amazon to be replaced by barren land as the farmers there cannot plant new crops.
This may be seen as confirmation of Pudder’s Law, which states simply: “Anything that begins well, ends badly. Anything that begins badly ends worse.”
I am totally against hoarding as this is very unfair to other people, but if by chance there is an offer in a supermarket for pasta or wheat flour, then it may be an idea to get an extra pack or two to store in the larder. But, please, no more than that.
In earlier articles, I have suggested that the world has gotten off relatively lightly with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is of little comfort to people who have lost friends and family, but it really could have been much, much worse. And of course, typically of Howe’s Law, many governments around the world are dropping their guard against Covid-19.
This is led by Britain, the country with the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Western Europe. Not only that, but Britain has also stopped offering free tests on top of dropping all preventative measures. It is as if the pandemic is over there.
Except that it is not over at all. The likelihood of new variants is 100%, and the probability of a new deadlier variant than Omicron is only somewhat lower. But that is a chance some governments are willing to take with their citizens’ lives, even as more side effects of Covid-19 are known, such as a brain shrinkage of between 0.2% to 2% for survivors of the coronavirus, or a brain degeneration rate three times faster than normal. This applies even for mild cases of Covid-19. Currently, there are no models to estimate the health, social and economic impact of such conditions.
So, what is Howe’s Law? Simply stated it is “Everyone has (or can devise) a scheme which will not work”. It is related to an old truism in mathematics, which goes, “For every complex problem, there is always a simple, elegant solution which is completely wrong”.
But whatever one says about the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, it should be a good wake-up warning to the world to stop messing with the environment. But of course, the world did nothing of the sort, apart from banning wildlife meat markets in China.
The latest study in Nature published last month indicated that the most likely vectors of the coronavirus transmission to humans were probably wild raccoon dogs acting as intermediaries. They were routinely sold at the Wuhan wet market which is long suspected as the source of the original outbreaks.
One had also hoped that there would be more of a focus on other uniquely man-made epidemics, such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR) due to consumption of farmed livestock fed with human antibiotics. While there was some stronger focus on AMR before the pandemic, the pressure seemed to have eased off since then, possibly because humans seem to be able to focus only on one disaster at a time. To put this in perspective, in just over two years, Covid-19 has resulted in 6 million known deaths (although it is certain that the real toll is higher). In 2019, AMR killed some 700,000 people with an estimate of around 10 million deaths per year by 2050.
This is not including people sickened (or in some cases killed) by contaminants such as pathogens, carcinogens, and toxins in their foods. Around one in six people in the USA (48 million) were affected by such factors in 2019. The WHO estimated 600 million cases and 420,000 deaths globally for the same year. As expected, the people most affected are usually the poorest in society.
I doubt very much everyone will agree that a perfect storm regarding our current human existence may already be starting to brew. Not enough in our lives has changed yet, even as the odds suggest that the eventual outcomes may be severe in terms of impacts on our lifestyles and perhaps even our freedoms.
A man-made war in Ukraine will soon provide us a glimpse of what happens during a major, sudden disruption of food supplies, although this has already been going on in slower motion for years in many countries hit by drought and/or flooding.
An avoidable pandemic is still around us, and unless the underlying causes are remedied, this portends future trends in our health, life expectancy, and lifestyles.
Climatic change disrupting our homes and infrastructure is also already occurring regularly. Once-in-a-century weather events (floods, droughts, forest fires, etc) are happening almost annually.
Imagine if the wheat crisis during Ukraine’s current war happens also in the same year as severe weather events in China, India and Indonesia affecting rice production. And so on. A perfect storm in a shaky, disrupted, unbalanced ecological system is not hard to achieve.
Hence, we as a people may be rowing out to sea on a flimsy raft heading for the worst storm in our history. We can always consider turning the raft around and heading back to shore to find some shelter. That would be observing Berliner’s Law which states, “Don’t worry about what people think of you. They don’t”. However, the raft is usually commanded by governments who tend to subscribe to Baruch’s Observation: “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”
The cost of doing something positive now is still acceptably minimal. As a simple example, cutting down on eating animal protein, especially beef, can make a difference if enough of us do it together (and if we had started just 20-30 years earlier, the Amazon may not be collapsing today).
Supporting organic food producers is another step in the right direction. Reducing dependency on hydrocarbons (fuel, plastics, chemicals, etc) and cutting waste of all kinds are also good moves. I am sure you can think of other ways to stop our raft relentlessly pushing out to sea.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.