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Gwynne Dyer

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Vegetarians, Carnivores and Technology

“Right now, growing cells as meat instead of animals is a very expensive process,” said Yaakov Nahmias, founder and chief scientist of Israel-based startup Future Meat Technologies. But it will get cheaper, and it probably will be needed.

Global population is heading for 10 billion by 2050. (Current world population: 7.7 billion.) Average global incomes will triple in the same period, enabling more people to eat meat-rich diets.

“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before,” says Professor Tim Lang of the University of London, one of the 37 scientific co-authors from sixteen different countries who wrote the a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health that launches in Jakarta on Friday. But we’ve heard it all before.

It takes seven kilos of grain to grow one kilo of beef. 70% of the world’s fresh water is used to irrigate crops. We have appropriated three-quarters of the world’s fertile land for food production, and we’ll need the rest by 2050. The world’s stocks of seafood will have collapsed by 2050. It’s all true, but we’re sick of being nagged.

And still they bang on. The EAT-Lancet Commission even has a diet that will save the planet. Cut your beef consumption by 90% (i.e. one steak a month). Eat more beans and pulses (three times more) and more nuts and seeds (four times more). Going vegetarian or vegan will help even more. That’s all true too – but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Or at least, it’s not going to happen by everybody turning vegan, vegetarian, or just ‘flexitarian’. No doubt there will in due course be high taxes on meat and fish, and official propaganda campaigns to persuade people to change their eating habits, and some people will change.

Some people already have: the Vegan Society in Britain claims that the number of vegans in the country has quadrupled in the last four years. But not enough people will switch to a plant-based diet soon enough, or maybe ever. We need to bring the rest of the population along, and few things are more persistent than cultural dietary preferences. Like eating meat.

India is home to almost one-third for the world’s vegetarians, but the local variations are immense and deeply entrenched: 75% of people are vegetarians in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, but fewer than 2% are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

The most enthusiastic meat-eaters are in the richer countries, and as other countries join their club (like China), they start eating more meat too. So clearly there would be a huge market for real meat that didn’t come from cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, but tastes right, feels right in the mouth, and doesn’t trash the environment.

We’re not talking about the famous $325,000 hamburger patty made from beef cells immersed in a growth medium that was triumphantly cooked on television six years ago.

We’re talking about a proper steak with muscle and fat cells and the right shape, taste and texture – but not one produced by the familiar process that uses huge amounts of fertile land, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, and involves slaughtering live animals. That is Yaakov Nahmias’s goal, and he’s pretty close now.

Future Meat Technologies produces its ‘cell-based meat’ in bioreactors, growing it on lattices that give it shape and texture, but we’re not talking about giant vats in a lab. He plans to give small units to existing farmers, who might still be rearing some beef cattle too for the luxury end of the market.

“With these two plays–a more efficient bioreactor and a distributed manufacturing model–we can essentially drop the cost down to about $5 a kilogram [$2.27 a pound],” said Nahmias. Meat giant Tyson Foods recently put $2.2 million of seed money into his company, and a dozen other start-ups are chasing the same goal: Memphis Meat, JUST, Finless Foods,
Meatable – a total of 30 labs around the world.

How big a threat is this ‘cell-based meat’ to the traditional cattle industry? Big enough that the US Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the government to restrict the words ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ to products “derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered.” A tricky definition, since it would mean that wild deer are not made of meat, but the ranchers are clearly running scared.

Coming up behind cell-based meat there’s the even newer concept of ‘Solar Foods’: a Finnish company called just that is using electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water and produce hydrogen. The hydrogen is fed to bacteria, and the product is an edible food that is half carbohydrates, half fats and protein.

It is just as good as soya as an animal food, and it uses no land at all. No greenhouse gas emissions either, and the first factory producing it opens in two years’ time. Technology alone can’t save us, but it can certainly shift the odds in our favour.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“India…Bengal”; and “How…scared”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The End of the American Adventure in Space

15 July 2011

The End of the American Adventure in Space

by Gwynne Dyer

The Sun always shines in space, so it was no surprise when Sir Paul McCartney called the crew of Atlantis, the last Space Shuttle, on Friday and sang “Good Day Sunshine” to them. Later in the day President Barack Obama called and told the astronauts that their mission “ushers in an exciting new era to push the frontiers of space exploration and human spaceflight.” Pity it was all happy-face lies.

The last Shuttle mission actually ushers in an era when the only hope of getting into space for the few remaining American astronauts will be to hitch a ride on a Russian or Chinese rocket. Most of them will have to find jobs elsewhere. And however brightly the Sun shines, the day when the United States finally gives up on manned space flight is not a good day.

US rockets will still put satellites into orbit. The older ones were built by the military or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); the newer models will be built by private companies that claim they can boost cargo into space at a much cheaper price. But they won’t be able to put a human being in orbit for a very long time, if ever.

This is not to say that the US should have kept the Shuttles going indefinitely. They weren’t safe: two of the four original Shuttles were lost, with fourteen crew, in a total of only 135 trips. They were not cost-effective either: they each flew on average only once a year during their thirty years of service.

NASA had perfectly sensible plans to replace the Shuttles. In 2004, former president George W Bush approved an ambitious NASA plan to build a new generation of powerful rockets to deliver people and materials into near-Earth orbit more cheaply, but also to put a permanent manned base on the Moon by 2020.

NASA calculated that the “Constellation” programme would cost about $8 billion a year until 2020 (the US defence budget burns through that much every five days). Maybe the cost would have risen considerably over time, but that’s not such a big deal: creating big, new technology always takes longer and costs more.

When President Obama cancelled the “Constellation” project in 2010, he talked about doing things in a “smarter way,” and how private enterprise would develop “space taxis” that would put people into orbit more cheaply. In reality, however, he was ending federal government support for manned space flight – though he did promise to invest a little more than a billion dollars a year in those “clever” private companies.

That is not serious money: the US defence budget gets through that much every twelve hours. Lacking federal financial support, the clever companies will concentrate on doing things that make a profit. Putting people into space does not make a profit. Not in the short run, anyway, and the bean-counters are notoriously uninterested in the very long run.

The space entrepreneurs – Virgin Galactic, Northrop Grumman, Interorbital Services, XCOR, Orbital Sciences Corp. and all their rivals – make well-honed pitches about how NASA was a bloated bureaucracy, and how private enterprise will do the same jobs more cheaply and more safely. Which may be true for launching communications satellites and the like, but is certainly not true for manned space flight and deep space exploration.

When Christopher Columbus had this idea for a new way to reach Asia, he did not talk to some Spanish fishermen about scaling up their voyages (making a profit at each stage) until eventually they would cross the entire ocean. He went to the Spanish court and got state support for his venture. Almost all of the early European voyages of discovery had state backing, because the profits were not going to flow for quite a while.

The analogy is less than perfect, but it is relevant. Building a permanent space station, establishing a human base on the Moon, designing and funding the first voyage to Mars – such things are not going to be undertaken by clever companies operating out of old hangars at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. They haven’t the resources, and it makes no commercial sense.

Does it make sense at all? That depends on whether you share the vision of the human future that Arthur C. Clarke brought to his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Back in 1968, most people assumed that that was indeed the future. It is much behind schedule, but many people still think it should be the future: that human beings should escape the confines of this single planet and get out into the universe.

That enterprise has not been abandoned. The Russians, who were the first into space, have not given up on manned space flight despite their relative lack of resources. The Chinese are catching up fast, and the Indians plan to put their first person into orbit in 2015. Even the Japanese are not to be counted out. It’s just the Americans who are quitting.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“US rockets…service”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

The Shuttle “Atlantis” returns to Earth for the last time on 20 July (weather permitting).

Risky Territory

16 June 2011

Risky Territory

by Gwynne Dyer

“We are getting into very risky territory,” said Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, last week. But she acknowledged that we may have to go there anyway.

She was talking about geo-engineering, the manipulation of the world’s climate to avoid catastrophic warming. Nobody actually wants to do that, because we don’t understand the climate system well enough to foresee all the possible side-effects. But a large number of people think that in the end we’ll have to do it anyway, because we’re not going to get the warming under control in time without it.

Geo-engineering might involve putting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (to reflect some incoming sunlight), spraying fine droplets of seawater into low-lying marine clouds to thicken them up (and reflect more sunlight), or painting the world’s roads and roofs white. There are also proposed techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for slowing the acidification of the oceans. In fact, there are dozens of proposals in all.

The topic is now on the table because sixty scientific experts are meeting in Peru on 20 June to begin an exploration of geo-engineering options that will probably end up in the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. This has caused outrage in some sections of the environmental movement, and 125 organisations wrote an open letter to the IPCC head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, condemning the whole concept.

“The IPCC…must take great care not to squander its credibility on geo-engineering, a topic that is gathering steam precisely when there is no real progress on mitigation and adaptation,” said the letter. “International peasant organizations, indigenous peoples, and social movements have all expressed outright opposition to such measures as a false solution to the climate crisis.”

Then came a sly suggestion that scientists in this field are a bunch of greedy frauds: “Asking a group of geo-engineering scientists if more research should be done on the topic is like asking a group of hungry bears if they would like honey.” This is clearly a subject that inspires passionate opposition on the left, although the geo-engineers themselves spread right across the political spectrum.

The overwhelming majority of the open letter’s signatories are organisations you have never heard of – Terra-1530 Moldova, the Dogwood Alliance of North Carolina, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for example – but they include a few well-known organisations like Friends of the Earth International. Their goal is not just to ban large-scale geo-engineering. It is to ban even small-scale experiments in geo-engineering. Why so angry?

Part of the problem is that there has indeed been “ no real progress on mitigation and adaptation” in recent years, and the enemies of geo-engineering are afraid that efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions will be abandoned in favour of just trying to hold the temperature down artificially. I have never met a geo-engineer who thought that would work, but there is profound suspicion of them among the Greens.

There has been a remarkable reversal of roles in environmental issues over the past century. The old left loved industry, modernity, man “conquering” nature, whereas the old right believed in tradition, conservation and preserving nature. The new left, or large parts of it, hugs trees and romanticises peasants, while the new right, at least in the United States, denies climate change outright.

They are both wrong, and it is not an ideological issue at all. The problem the scientists see, and many other people too, is that an industrialising world of seven billion people poses a grave threat to the very environment it depends on, notably in terms of changing the climate.

Ending greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing population, and adopting sustainable patterns of consumption are the necessary long-term responses to the threat of runaway warming, but they are not happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic changes and mass death. At the moment, in fact, they are not happening at all. So we had better come up with some stopgap measures that give us more time to make the long-term changes.

That is what geo-engineering is about: holding the global average temperature down below the tipping point at 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F) higher after which we get runaway heating, while we work frantically to get our emissions down and restore the self-regulating, comfortable climate that we have already destabilised. We have not yet begun to work on that agenda seriously, let alone frantically.

On our current course, according a study released by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research eighteen months ago, the average global temperature will be 4 degrees C (7 degrees F) higher by 2060. If that happens, billions will probably die. If it stays below 2 degrees C hotter, on the other hand, most of them will probably live.

So do the research on geo-engineering now: what works, what doesn’t; what are the side-effects? Do it on a small scale, in local areas, as safely as possible. Because when we are passing through plus two degrees C and the famines are spreading, there will be overwhelming demands to DO SOMETHING NOW to halt the warming.

At that point, we had better already know the answers to those questions, because the technologies will then be deployed, ready or not.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Then…angry”)

An updated version of Gwynne Dyer’s book “Climate Wars” is distributed worldwide by Oneworld.

Libya: Running Out of Options

28 May 2011

Libya: Running Out of Options

by Gwynne Dyer

They swore blind that there would never be foreign “boots on the ground” in Libya, but as NATO’s campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime enters its third month it is getting a lot closer to the ground. It started with Tomahawk missiles fired from over the horizon; then it was fighter-bombers firing guided weapons from a safe height; now it’s helicopter gunships skimming the ground at zero altitude. They’re getting desperate.

In London on 25 May, Prime Minister David Cameron said that “the president and I agree we should be turning up the heat on Libya.” Standing beside him, President Barack Obama declared that, “given the progress that has been made over the last several weeks,” there will be no “let-up in the pressure that we are applying.”

And you have to ask, what progress? The front lines between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels are still approximately where they were two months ago, except around the city of Misrata, where the insurgents have pushed the besieging troops back some kilometres (miles).

Tripoli, the capital, is still firmly under Gaddafi’s control. There has been no overt defiance of the regime there for many weeks, and the city is not even suffering significant shortages except for fuel. Are Obama and Cameron deluding themselves, or are they just trying to fool everybody else?

Maybe both – and meanwhile they are cranking up the aerial campaign against Gaddafi in the hope that enough bombs may make their claims come true. They must have been told a dozen times by their military advisers that bombing alone almost never wins a war, but they have waded into the quagmire too far to turn back now, and they have no other military options that the United Nations resolution would allow them to use.

They are already acting beyond the limits set by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which on 17 March authorised the use of limited force to protect Libyan civilians. It has become a campaign to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, and they hardly even bother to deny it any more.

“I believe that we have built enough momentum that, as long as we sustain the course we are on, (Gaddafi) will step down,” said Obama in London. “Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime forces.” Well maybe so, and maybe not, but in either case that’s not what Resolution 1973 said. No wonder Russia condemned the latest air raids as a “gross violation” of the resolution.

Russia did not want to stand by and let Gaddafi massacre innocent civilians, which seemed imminent when the defences of the rebels in eastern Libya were collapsing in mid-March, so it let the resolution pass. So did China, India and Brazil, which would normally oppose any military intervention by western powers in a Third World country. But it was all decided in a weekend, and they did not think it through.

Neither did France, Britain, the United States, Canada and a few other NATO countries, which immediately committed their air forces to the task of saving the rebels. They destroyed Gaddafi’s tanks and saved the city of Benghazi, but then what? There was no plan, no “exit strategy”, and so they have ended up with a very unpleasant choice.

Either they stop the war and leave Gaddafi in control of the larger part of a partitioned Libya, or they escalate further in the hope that at some point Gaddafy’s supporters abandon him. The US Air Force had a name for this strategy during the Vietnam War: they were trying to find the North Vietnamese regime’s “threshold of pain.” They never did find it in Vietnam, but NATO is still looking for it in Libya.

We’ll never know if Gaddafi would really have slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians if Benghazi had fallen. He was making blood-curdling threats about what he would do when the city fell, and he has certainly killed lots of people in the past, but with the eyes of the whole world on him he might not have done it this time.

Nevertheless, that threat was what created the extraordinary (though temporary) consensus at the Security Council. It was, for the West as well as for the other major powers that backed the original resolution, a largely humanitarian action with little by the way of ulterior motives. (And don’t say “oil”; that’s just lazy thinking.)

Gaddafi has been playing by the rules for the last five years, renouncing terrorism and dismantling his fantasy “nuclear weapons programme.” He has been exporting all the oil he could pump. He wasn’t threatening Western interests, and yet NATO embarked on a military campaign that it KNEW was likely to end in tears in order to stop him.

Let us give NATO governments credit for letting their hearts overrule their heads. Let’s also acknowledge that they have been meticulous and largely successful in avoiding civilian casualties in their bombing campaign. But it isn’t working.

So what do they do now? They can escalate for a few more weeks, and hope that the strategy that has failed for the last two months will finally succeed. That might happen, but it’s not likely to. In which case the only remaining option will be to accept a cease-fire, and the partition of Libya between the Gaddafi regime and the “Transitional National Council” in Benghazi.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“We’ll…him”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.