Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What does one Trillion dollars look like?

What does one TRILLION dollars look like?

All this talk about "stimulus packages" and "bailouts"...

A billion dollars...

A hundred billion dollars...

Eight hundred billion dollars...

One TRILLION dollars...

What does that look like? I mean, these various numbers are tossed around like so many doggie treats, so I thought I'd take Google Sketchup out for a test drive and try to get a sense of what exactly a trillion dollars looks like.

We'll start with a $100 dollar bill. Currently the largest U.S. denomination in general circulation. Most everyone has seen them, slighty fewer have owned them. Guaranteed to make friends wherever they go.


A packet of one hundred $100 bills is less than 1/2" thick and contains $10,000. Fits in your pocket easily and is more than enough for week or two of shamefully decadent fun.


Believe it or not, this next little pile is $1 million dollars (100 packets of $10,000). You could stuff that into a grocery bag and walk around with it.

$1,000,000 (one million dollars)

While a measly $1 million looked a little unimpressive, $100 million is a little more respectable. It fits neatly on a standard pallet...

$100,000,000 (one hundred million dollars)

And $1 BILLION dollars... now we're really getting somewhere...

$1,000,000,000 (one billion dollars)

Next we'll look at ONE TRILLION dollars. This is that number we've been hearing so much about. What is a trillion dollars? Well, it's a million million. It's a thousand billion. It's a one followed by 12 zeros.

You ready for this?

It's pretty surprising.

Go ahead...

Scroll down...

Ladies and gentlemen... I give you $1 trillion dollars...

$1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion dollars)

Notice those pallets are double stacked.
...and remember those are $100 bills.

So the next time you hear someone toss around the phrase "trillion dollars"... that's what they're talking about.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Food security and global warming

Food security and global warming: Monsanto versus organic

Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures

Posted by Meredith Niles (Guest Contributor) at 1:57 PM on 16 Jan 2009

This week Science published research ($ub. req'd) detailing the vast, global food-security implications of warming temperatures. The colored graphics are nothing short of terrifying when you realize the blotches of red and orange covering the better part of the globe indicate significantly warmer summers in coming decades.

The implications of the article are clear -- we need to be utilizing agricultural methods and crops that can withstand the potential myriad impacts of global climate change, especially warmer temperatures. The article significantly notes, "The probability exceeds 90 percent that by the end of the century, the summer average temperature will exceed the hottest summer on record throughout the tropics and subtropics. Because these regions are home to about half of the world's population, the human consequences of global climate change could be enormous."

Whether you believe global warming is part of a "natural cycle" or a man-made phenomenon is irrelevant. The bottom line is that our earth is rapidly warming, and this is going to drastically affect our food supply. We must undertake both the enormous task of reducing our carbon emissions now to avert the worst, while at the same time adapting our society to the vast and multitudinous effects of unavoidable global climate change. Failing to do either will, as the Science article indicates, have dire effects on a large portion of our world's population.

Determining the best course of action for ensuring food security in the face of global climate change remains a challenging task. Recognizing that climate change is slated to affect developing countries and small-scale farmers the most is a crucial point. Such understanding enables people to realize that viable solutions must be accessible, affordable, and relevant to the billions of small-scale farmers in the developing world. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the solutions on the table fail to meet these criteria.

Last week, Monsanto made a big public relations splash by filing documents with the FDA regarding a drought-tolerant GM corn variety it is developing with a German company, BASF. Monsanto claims that in field trials, the corn got 6-10 percent higher yields in drought-prone areas last year, but the release is extremely short on details. Regardless of the reality, Monsanto is presenting the corn as a way to help improve on-farm productivity in other parts of the world, notably Africa.

Yet, absent from the media hype were the many technical and social problems with Monsanto's corn.

A little over a year ago, the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics held a conference specific to drought and drought-tolerant crops. As a follow up, the Australian government's Grains Research and Development Corporation published a piece detailing the research shared and lessons learned from the conference. One topic addressed was the potential of GM drought-tolerant varieties. In the analysis stated, "The most notable and problematic (effect) is the tendency of drought-tolerant GM lines to not perform as well under favourable conditions. This appears to be the case for CIMMYT's GM wheat and Monsanto's GM corn. The flaw is a profound one. It amounts to shifting the yield losses experienced in dry seasons onto the good years." In essence, farmers might get a small bump in yield during droughts, but will suffer yield losses when conditions are favorable. Considering that climate scientists continually point to increased erratic weather patterns as a symptom of global warming, this reality is clearly disastrous. Surely there must be better solutions that increase production under all weather conditions

One promising solution appeared in an article published in BioScience in 2005. The authors outlined the Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial, a long-term comparison of organic and conventional farming systems conducted between 1981 and 2002. Significantly, the trials found that organic production yielded equivalently to conventional systems after a transition period. Yet even more importantly, Rodale found that in drought conditions in which rainfall was 30 percent less than normal, organic systems yielded 28 to 34 percent higher than conventional systems. Rodale equates the yield gain to increased water retention as a result of higher soil organic carbon. Water volumes percolating through the various systems were 15-20 percent higher in the organic systems as compared with the conventional systems over the 12 year period.

The BioScience article additionally noted that the organic systems used 28 to 32 percent fewer energy inputs, retained soil carbon and soil nitrogen better, and offered a higher profitability over conventional systems. What is so significant about this research is that it demonstrates the ability of organic agriculture to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions with fewer energy inputs and withstand climate change impacts like drought with greater efficacy.

Most importantly, it offers an economical and accessible form of agriculture for billions of small-scale farmers. Scaling up agricultural development in rural areas like Africa can be accomplished with organic methods like manure, compost, and cover crops. Even the United Nations recognized the opportunity presented by organic production in a report late last year. Conventional breeding and improved seeds are also part of the solution. Between 1939 and 2005, conventional breeding contributed significantly to an almost six-fold yield-gain in corn in the U.S.

This point is crucial, since the seeds Monsanto is planning to release will be owned by the company and sold at exorbitant prices. GMO seeds cost from two to over four times as much as conventional seed varieties, and the disparity is increasing. How will small-scale farmers pay for such seeds? How will they pay for the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers necessary for such production? Shouldn't we be looking for solutions that are viable and realistic for those people who are most food insecure? Monsanto does not have the answers here, but organic methods can and should be a big part of the solution.

The future of food security in the face of warming temperatures cannot be based on a system of profits and research that fails to address the needs of food-insecure farmers. We need real solutions that will enable farmers to maintain and increase yields with those materials and techniques already available to them with little extra cost: animal manure, increased irrigation opportunities, cover crops, compost, and integrated pest-management systems. Organic agriculture will reduce, mitigate, and adapt to climate change impacts and still remain accessible and economic to the billions of subsistence farmers around the world. If we really want to fight the food crisis, let's start investing in and promoting organic production today to ensure better climate adaptation in the future.

The Inflection Is Near?

The Inflection Is Near?

Sometimes the satirical newspaper The Onion is so right on, I can’t resist quoting from it. Consider this faux article from June 2005 about America’s addiction to Chinese exports:

FENGHUA, China — Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the “sheer amount of [garbage] Americans will buy. Often, when we’re assigned a new order for, say, ‘salad shooters,’ I will say to myself, ‘There’s no way that anyone will ever buy these.’ ... One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless [garbage]? I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said. “And I also hear that, when they no longer want an item, they simply throw it away. So wasteful and contemptible.”

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

“You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate ...’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

Over a billion people today suffer from water scarcity; deforestation in the tropics destroys an area the size of Greece every year — more than 25 million acres; more than half of the world’s fisheries are over-fished or fished at their limit.

“Just as a few lonely economists warned us we were living beyond our financial means and overdrawing our financial assets, scientists are warning us that we’re living beyond our ecological means and overdrawing our natural assets,” argues Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International. But, he cautioned, as environmentalists have pointed out: “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts.”

One of those who has been warning me of this for a long time is Paul Gilding, the Australian environmental business expert. He has a name for this moment — when both Mother Nature and Father Greed have hit the wall at once — “The Great Disruption.”

“We are taking a system operating past its capacity and driving it faster and harder,” he wrote me. “No matter how wonderful the system is, the laws of physics and biology still apply.” We must have growth, but we must grow in a different way. For starters, economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible. Let’s grow by creating flows rather than plundering more stocks.

Gilding says he’s actually an optimist. So am I. People are already using this economic slowdown to retool and reorient economies. Germany, Britain, China and the U.S. have all used stimulus bills to make huge new investments in clean power. South Korea’s new national paradigm for development is called: “Low carbon, green growth.” Who knew? People are realizing we need more than incremental changes — and we’re seeing the first stirrings of growth in smarter, more efficient, more responsible ways.

In the meantime, says Gilding, take notes: “When we look back, 2008 will be a momentous year in human history. Our children and grandchildren will ask us, ‘What was it like? What were you doing when it started to fall apart? What did you think? What did you do?’ Often in the middle of something momentous, we can’t see its significance. But for me there is no doubt: 2008 will be the marker — the year when ‘The Great Disruption’ began.”