Sustainability’s Biggest Issue

Reading about all the different issues related to our ability to sustain life on Earth as we know it can become bewildering. One day we read about lead poisoning in our water systems and the next about failing power systems. It’s fair to ask, at some point, “What do I do about all this?”

In developing a Net Zero sustainable community, I’m finding that providing solar power involves little more than adding sufficient photovoltaic panels to our roofs – including power for cars. Rainwater harvesting has provided more than enough fresh water that, when filtered, satisfies all our needs. The one aspect of sustainability that in history has caused entire civilizations to vanish has been food. Here are two brief reports with forecasts.

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This summer’s extreme heat may just be the start of a super-hot stretch


James Temple

MIT Technology Review

15 August 2018


Climate change is almost certainly causing or exacerbating many extreme weather events by creating drier, hotter conditions and throwing off the polar jet stream. And, scientists continue to remind us, it’s all just getting started.

Going to extremes: A study in Nature Communications this week found that we may be entering a naturally warmer period, which could magnify the effects of human-influenced climate change. That could boost the odds of “extreme warm events” from now through 2022.

Approaching “Hothouse Earth”: Such natural fluctuations will continue, but climate research consistently points to a much warmer future over the long term. A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned there’s a “significant risk” of a “Hothouse Earth” scenario, in which crossing certain temperature thresholds could drive temperatures higher still by, for example, releasing carbon currently locked up in permafrost.

High costs and lost lives: Increasingly common extreme weather events could very quickly strain emergency funds, insurance reserves, and other resources for dealing with these disasters. Such events have already cost lives, and the toll is all but guaranteed to get worse.

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While the first report was from the technology people at MIT, the second report comes from a global news reporting service.

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Red Cross warns of food crisis in North Korea as crops fail in heat


Stephanie Nebehay

REUTERS World News

August 10, 2018


GENEVA (Reuters) – A heat wave in North Korea has led to rice, maize and other crops withering in the fields, “with potentially catastrophic effects”, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Friday.

The world’s largest disaster relief network warned of a risk of a “full-blown food security crisis” in the isolated country, where a famine in the mid-1990s killed up to three million people. It said the worrying situation had been exacerbated by international sanctions imposed due to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

In a statement issued in Geneva, the IFRC said there had been no rainfall since early July as temperatures soared to an average 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) across the country, whose official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The next rain was expected in mid-August.

The population of 25 million is already stressed and vulnerable with malnutrition among children that could worsen, stunting their growth, it said.

Joseph Muyamboit, the IFRC’s program manager in Pyongyang, said:


“This is not yet classified as a drought, but rice, maize

and other crops are already withering in the fields, with

potentially catastrophic effects for the people of DPRK.


“We cannot and must not let this situation become

a full-blown food security crisis. We know that

previous serious dry spells have disrupted

the food supply to a point where it has

caused serious health problems and

malnutrition across the country.”


North Korea called last week for an “all-out battle” against the record temperatures threatening crops, referring to an “unprecedented natural disaster”.

Drought and floods have long been a seasonal threat in North Korea, which lacks irrigation systems and other infrastructure to ward off natural disasters.

In Seoul, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it had no specific information on the situation in the north, but that the Red Cross had notified them of the heat wave last week.

The IFRC was helping the national Red Cross to support 13,700 of the most vulnerable people at risk, in South Hamgyong and South Pyongan provinces. It had deployed emergency response teams and 20 water pumps to irrigate fields in the hardest-hit areas, it said.

David Beasley, the head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), visited North Korea in May to look into boosting food distributions to hungry women and children, in the latest sign of an opening.

About 70 percent of North Koreans are “food insecure”, meaning they struggle to avoid hunger, and one in four children under five is stunted from chronic malnutrition, the WFP said at the time. A 2015 drought worsened the situation, it said.

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Well, none of this is pleasant. And widespread famine is increasing in areas other than North Korea.  China has been buying land in the more fertile regions of Africa and Southeast Asia because they can’t feed their people … and they’re the largest nation on Earth.

Several problems present themselves for us to consider.

First, if we’re short of power we can add PV panels to our roof within days. But if we’re short of food, creating an ample supply will take a lot longer.

Second, my skill in growing food is well outside of my professional training.  I can certainly try to have a vegetable garden at home.  But can I produce the quantity of food needed to provide me and those who live with me with an abundance of healthful food … no matter what?  Not likely.

Third, when – for all our lives – we’ve enjoyed supermarket shelves dripping over with an enormous array of foods from which to choose, it’s near impossible to believe that those shelves could be empty. It’s the ”It’ll never happen here” syndrome.  And I hope it never will happen here.  But … if we take steps now to guarantee a healthful abundance of food, then we’re in great shape … regardless.

A lack of food – or even the threat of a lack of food – seriously damages our quality of life experience. If you’re familiar with Maslow’s needs hierarchy, physiological needs come first.  Then needs for security – to ensure our physiological needs will be met in the future.  Then comes social, psychological and self-actualizing needs, which carry the greatest promise for the most fulfilling quality-of-life experience.  But food security comes first.

So … let’s see these reports – and the many others like them – as early warning signs, and take appropriate and convenient action … just in case … while we have the time to do so.

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