Living Planet?

Biodiversity is the totality of all inherited variation in the life forms of Earth, of which we are one species. We study and save it to our great benefit. We ignore and degrade it to our great peril.” — E.O. Wilson

State of global biodiversity

Today the World Wildlife Fund - Living Planet Report 2014 - was released. This latest edition shows that since 1970 population sizes of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) have dropped by 52%. Many see this as yet another sign of that we might be in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. This post will therefore deal with the topic of biodiversity.

What is biodiversity?

Biological diversity (i.e. biodiversity) reflects the number, variety and variability of living organisms. It includes diversity within species, between species, and among ecosystems. The concept also covers how this diversity changes from one location to another and over time. Indicators such as the number of species in a given area can help in monitoring certain aspects of biodiversity. When one wants to understand the health of an entire ecosystem, however, some species may be more important than others in the sense that they provide a key function within the entire system. Ecologist often refer to such species as keystone species. Take for example the otter. They are considered a keystone species because of their critical importance to the health and stability of nearshore marine ecosystems. Otters eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp. Without sea otters, these grazing animals can destroy kelp forests and consequently the wide diversity of animals that depend upon kelp habitat for survival (Fig. 1). Additionally, kelp forests protect coastlines from storm surge and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Fig. 1 The difference in a marine ecosystem with and without Sea otters


Some of the main threats to biodiversity include: invasive species, climate change, nutrient loading and pollution, habitat change, and overexploitation. These are direct drivers of change, but there are also indirect drivers of change. Such as demographics, urbanization, transportation, agriculture, trade and many more. With higher interconnectivity on the planet, species loss may occur at a faster rate. In a recent study Lenzen et al. (2012) showed that some 30% of biodiversity threats could be attributed to international trade by mapping out supply chains around the globe (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Example of flow map of species threats caused by trade

Source: Lenzen et al. 2012

What defines a mass extinction?

Of the four billion species estimated to have evolved on the Earth over the last 3.5 billion years, some 99% died out (Novacek, 2001). Extinctions are common but normally it is balanced by speciation. Sometimes, however, the balance wavers such that extinction rates become elevated. Palaeontologists characterize mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than 75% of its species in a geologically short interval (due to e.g. super-eruptions, impacts of asteroids, global climate changes, continent drifts), as has happened only five times in the past 540 million years (Barnosky et al., 2011). Lately biologists have been suggesting that a sixth mass extinction may be under way. By comparing the rates and amounts of extinction during those earlier events with the range of species losses over the past few centuries in human times, scientist find a similar trend. According to evolutionists like E.O. Wilson and N. Eldredge we thus have evidence that humans are now causing a mass extinction. Through a mix of impacting activities such as habitat destruction, overpopulation, chemical pollution, overexploitation of resources etc. humans have produced the conditions for a serious biodiversity crisis. According to an article in Nature (2011), Earth could reach the mass extinction levels (75%) within just a few centuries if current threats to many species are not alleviated (Barnosky et al., 2011).

Fig. 3 Graphic illustration of threatened species globally
graphics biodiversity loss
Source: NYT graphics editor Bill Marsh


Here I want to make a case for the amphibians of the planet since they are some of the most vulnerable and endangered, and people generally ignore them. The latest figures from the International Union Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species show that there are nearly as many threatened species of amphibians (30%) as birds (12.5%) and mammals (20.6%) combined ( Most of the world’s amphibian species are located in tropical regions, especially the Amazon Rainforest (Fig. 4). In the past three decades declines in populations of amphibians have occurred worldwide due to for example: habitat destruction, pollution & pesticides, disease, and changing precipitation patterns.

Fig. 4 Global assessment (2004)

In Sweden all native amphibians and reptiles are protected by law (2007:845) with the conditions not to kill, harm, capture or destroy their habitat. Naturskyddsföreningen and SLU have nominated 2014 to be the year of the frog, focusing on collecting data on amphibians and educating the public. Many of our frogs in the South are critically endangered while others can be found nation wide.

Why it matters

Biodiversity underpins ecosystem functioning and the provision of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services such as water purification, pollination, storm protection, nutrient cycling, and climate regulation are essential for human well-being. Undermining diversity of life on Earth thus implies undermining our own well-being. Moreover, according to some studies (e.g. TEEB, 2010) there is a strong link between biodiversity loss and poverty. Why? Because the world’s poor, especially subsistence farmers and pastoralists are the first to suffer from the loss of free services provided by ecosystems and biodiversity. In rich countries people substitute natural nutrient cycling, pest control and pollination by buying expensive fertilizers, pesticides and renting bees/pollinating by hand. Because we don't value the services nature provides for us we often end up in a position where we have to pay more to restore ecosystems than if we had used preventive measures from the beginning. This is the case with the Baltic Sea which is today home to seven of the world's 10 largest marine dead zones due to eutrophication and overfishing leading to hypoxia. Trying to restore parts of the Baltic Sea to it's former conditions is a complex issue and attempts have yet to succeed. And for those who think Sweden is such a environmentally sound country, perhaps you should read the Living Planet Report (2014) which states that Sweden climbed from place 13 to 10 on the list over countries average ecological footprint in the world. Now Swedes need 3,7 planets to satisfy their lifestyle.

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UN Climate Summit - What's at stake?

Climate Summit

Today, representatives from around the world are meeting in New York to start a one year long process around negotiations for a new climate treaty. The treaty is due by the end of 2015. This is probably the last chance for a binding agreement to be implemented and have an actual impact on global emissions. We are already committed to 2-3 degrees warming according to most experts. The issue now is trying to avoid a 4 or 6 degrees warmer world by 2100. Which is critical of course since we don't even know if such a world could host 7-10 billion people. From the period during which humans first developed agriculture until now we have only experienced +/- 1 degree change. And think about this, if you have a child in Sweden today with a life expectancy of 86 years (average for men is 82 and women 84), that child will experience 2100.  

Source: Collage based on UN, NASA, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA)

The main obstacle to a binding treaty is of course the division between richer and poorer nations on how to proceed, specifically which countries ought to bear most of the burden? This is fundamentally a international justice issue since most of the cumulative carbon emissions and massive resource use originates from the wealthiest people on the planet (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Historical cumulative carbon emissions by country
rich nations have largest emissions
Source: global carbon project
Trying to get governments, especially the US, EU and China, to commit to substantial carbon emission reductions will be very difficult as such action definitely will have a direct impact on the their economies i.e. initially costly but beneficial in the long-term. Professor in physics Chris Williams says "a solution to the climate crisis requires a restructuring of the global economy, but when the last opportunity to do so came after the 2008-09 financial crisis, wold leaders saved the banks instead" (The Real News)

Aware of the tension between economic growth and carbon emission reductions many organisations have this time around adapted their material to match the language of economics, making cost-benefit analyses of adopting "green" technologies etc. One example is the new report called "The new climate economy" of which the Swedish minster of Environment, Lena Ek, was an initiator. The key message of the report is basically that we can have economic growth and save the environment too. My guess is that it's a political attempt to get more nations aboard signing a binding treaty. So the intent is good and probably smart but it depends on what kind of growth western nations are asking for - material or knowledge based? Another example is a recent Oxfam report stating that climate-related disasters (e.g. droughts, extreme temperatures, wildfires, storms, floods) have cost the world almost 500 billion dollars since 2010. To put numbers on losses in natural and social capital have thus become a new standard practice. And will perhaps lead to more action from politicians. In any case, it will be interesting to see what 2014-2015 will bring in terms of climate debate, demonstrations, treaty and much more. I'm hoping that talks will go beyond arguments about carbon markets and blame games. Civil society organizations and businesses attending the conference play an important role in reminding government officials that what is good for the planet, is also good for the people and for business.

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Fishy Business


Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic plants. At the moment aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world. From 1990 to 2010 cultivation of fish and shellfish in terrestrial and marine systems grew at an annual rate of 7.8% worldwide, a much higher rate than any other food commodity. Although there are many potential benefits to farming aquatic organisms such as increases in food and fuel supply there are also many potential drawbacks. In this post I will go through some of the latest scientific findings regarding the pros and cons of aquaculture from a global food security perspective.

Fig.1 Map over societies dependence (%) on fish for nutrition (2008)
Source: Mark Nowlin, Seattle Times (2013)

Aquaculture’s role in the global food system?

Fish is an important food commodity and more than 3 billion people obtain ⅕ of their animal protein from fish. Some societies are more dependent on fish as a source of nutrition than others (Fig. 1). In 2012 the global fish market was valued at 129 billion dollars. However, global wild fish catches peaked around 2002-2003 and is now at a plateau (Fig. 2a and b), thus, there is an sense of urgency in the scientific and public policy community to match the gap in food needed with sustainable options.The international community's interest in aquaculture has thus become ever more present. And business is booming, roughly half of the fish consumed worldwide now comes from aquaculture and its share is expected to increase in the future as wild fisheries exceed their sustainable limits (Troell et al. 2014). Freshwater fish comprise the majority of aquaculture production today. These fish are raised in ponds, lakes, canals, cages and benefit from a wide range of inputs, technology and management.

Common environmental problems                 

global fish catch peak
Fig. 2 A) Global Wild Fish Peak Catch
The most common environmental problems include pollution of marine ecosystems, destruction of coastal habitats, enhanced disease and parasite transmission between farmed and wild fish populations, introduction of invasive species, increased stress on freshwater resources, and overfishing of wild fish stocks to feed farm fish. The use of wild fish in feeds can also have food security implications for low-income households that depend on low-trophic level fish as a key source for nutrition.
world fisheries extraction
Fig.2 (b) World fish production (million tons) Source: World Resources Institute


- Provides year-round fish supplies and incomes
- Can provide ecosystem services remediation: habitat structure, relieving fishing pressure on wild fish stocks and rebuilding of wild populations


- Can severely degrade aquatic ecosystems
- Poses health risks to consumers
- Can cause diminishing food supply for low-income households that depend on smaller fish species

A risk perspective

Since there are both major benefits and risks to aquaculture one way to make a risk analysis is to use a portfolio approach. The basic idea is to invest in a suite of assets or activities that collectively has lower risk relative to that of any individual asset. This will yield trade-off options between risk and returns and the trick is to diversify the asset bundle. The degree of risk depends on correlations between assets’ returns. When applying this approach to the global food systems one could think of the targeted return as the aggregate output of food commodities needed to meet human demands. Risks, then, involve temporary and irreversible declines in productivity captured by the variation and trend in food production and prices. Furthermore, the degree of food price volatility is indicative of the global food system’s resilience (or robustness) against a wide range of stressors such as pests, extreme weather events, climate variability and other market shocks related to changes in the energy and financial sectors. A pattern of higher and more variable prices over time would then suggest deteriorating resilience of global food supplies whilst a pattern of stable prices would indicate a more robust and resilient food system.

Fig. 3 Shows relative fluctuations in price for different food sectors (1990-2013)
global food prices
Source: Troell et al. (2014)
In the price index (Fig. 3) we can see that cereal and oilseed prices have shown much stronger variation than prices for meat, aquaculture and capture fisheries. Lower volatility in fish and meat suggest higher substitution potential. Moreover, aquaculture prices have been less variable than other food commodities and thus appear to add some degree of stability to the global food system. The fact that prices in crops, livestock, and fish products move closely together indicates that the markets are highly integrated. Adding a robust aquaculture sector could improve the robustness of the world’s food system as long as it does not deplete resources or severely undermine the environment in which we produce food e.g. through pollution. 

Diversify, diversify, diversify

Today 95% of human calorie needs originate from crop species of which only four (rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes) make up around ⅔ of total needs. The meat sector is comprised of around 20 different animal species of which only a handful are dominant (cattle, poultry, swine and goat). Aquaculture on the other hand currently involve more than 600 different freshwater and marine animal species. However, there is a trend towards concentration similar to that of the crop and meat sectors. The cultivation of fish and shellfish is now dominated by 35 species that together account for 90% of total global production.


Sustainable development is always about tradeoffs. This case exemplifies one way of assessing the potential benefits and risks of a certain future development. This could help improve future planning and guidelines regarding aquaculture and ecosystem stewardship for industry and society at large. The present diversity of aquaculture systems contributes stability to the world's food system. However, if not well managed to minimize the environmental damages and social injustices, aquaculture is likely to make the global food system less resilient.

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The Digital Revolution

The information Age

As a kid who grew up in the 1990s I have always seen myself as part of the first generation of kids who truly grew up with modern communications technology, with cell phones, home computers and the internet (world wide web) as an integral part of everyday life. I remember that computer science was the only subject in school that us kids knew much better than the teachers, to many grown ups frustration. In 1995 <1% of the world population had access to internet connection. It almost sounds ridiculously low and I now realize how fortunate I am to have come from a Swedish middle class home with a dad and an older brother who were (still are) both computer geeks. I'm not sure what year we first got a modem but I do remember how slow it was and how my mum yelled at my brother to disconnect so that she could use the phone. Much has happened since then. In 2000 the number of internet users globally was around 6.7%, five years later it reached one billion users. The second billion was reached in 2010 and the third billionth user is expected at the end of this year, then accounting for 40% of the global population (figure 1). As of 2013 Asia stands for almost 50% of internet users globally (figure 2).  

          Fig. 1 Internet users globally                    

Fig. 2 Internet users by region

graph of internet users
Source:Internet live stats
Economy 4.0
We are now in the middle of a third industrial revolution - the information age. The invention of the steam engine turned agricultural society (economy 1.0) into industrial society (economy 2.0) and wide-spread education turned it into the service society (economy 3.0). Now, the invention of computers, the internet, the world wide web and social media are transforming service societies into digital societies (economy 4.0). With computers reaching the level of human brainpower in perhaps 10 years, with intelligent service robots, and Big data some 50 % of jobs in the industrial and service sectors could be lost within the next 20 years (Helbing, 2013). Example of changes in different sectors include: 
- Education: Massice Open Online Courses (MOOCS)
- Research: Big Data Analytics
- Transportation: self-driving cars, drone transportation of goods
- Shopping: online stores for example Amazon, eBay
- Production: robots, 3D printers
- Health care: personalized medicine
- Politics: citizen participation
- Financial: crypto currencies, algorithmic trade, online co-funding platforms 
- Military: drones, cyber warfare 

Governing the masses?
Some believe that we need more government resources to watch over all these new activities, however, it might not be plausible. Because the amount of data doubles every year and the complexity of networked systems is growing even faster (see figure 3) top-down control will become less and less effective. Moreover, many of the industrialized nations already have record high public debt levels of 100 to 200 % of their annual productivity. How should we be able to pay for this? or even more regulation?
Fig. 3 Data evolution
big data
Source: Helbing, 2013
One logical answer is bottom-up self control. While this vision has not worked well in the past due to coordination and market failures there is strong evidence from complexity research that smaller but connected units of decision-making make for stronger resilience of the overall system. Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom have demonstrated that guided self-organization can produce desirable outcomes in a flexible and more efficient way. One example of such organization is the self-ruling of Swedish municipalities, within the framework of national policy. In a rapidly changing world, feedback processes must enable the system to adapt in a flexible manner to local conditions and needs. In the recent Swedish election we experienced a growing disconnect between national politics and local needs and opinions. Political feedback processes, from the local to the national, have been ignored or broken down. Perhaps real time data could help in this matter by providing a more direct link between citizens and politicians. 

What about the future economy?
We know from environmental science that market failures and coordination problems are two of the main reasons why we are degrading our planet in such a rapid pace. However, we also know that top-down control seldom works well in protecting local peoples and habitats. Therefore one could argue that there needs to be some kind of mix between both self-regulation and top down enforcement of rules and regulations. In any case, it seems like a new economy is already underway whether we like it or not. A participatory market society is on the rise. As the 20th century was an era of democratization of consumption the 21st century can become an era of democratization of production. Social media platforms make it possible to bring ideas and skilled workers together. This could complement large-scale industrial production by creating more diverse production, tailored to individual needs. Thus, while computers will replace old manufacturing jobs we might have an opportunity to replace such jobs with more creative activities. 

New challenges

Information is everywhere and instantly available in ways that dissolves borders. Secrets will be very hard to keep. Changes will come with extreme speed, so much so that our knowledge will likely be outdated by the time we make decisions. We therefore need the help of smart devices that can keep us up to date. The more connected different systems are the higher the complexity and less controllable they become. Increased bureaucracy will not help solve this issue, but simple bottom-up solutions will. As data volume grows, data becomes cheaper but also harder to interpret and can lead to information overload. Designing algorithms that can mine the data therefore becomes more important and profitable. 

To think about

At the moment no country in the world seems to be well prepared for the latter part of the digital era. Countries who recognize these new challenges and can turn them into their advantage will fare much better than those who don't adapt to these new realities. Therefore it is key to invest in digital infrastructure, adopt policies that foster small-scale businesses and digital innovations and modernize the education system with increased digital literacy and interactive ways of learning. Moreover, institutions and legal frameworks will be needed to protect the integrity of citizens. A third party organization could ensure transparency and consent in regards to data collection, and thus establish stronger trust between governments and their citizens. As data is a artificially unlimited resource increased consumption and production of data will not degrade the environment as is the case in others sectors. However, energy supply is vital so thinking about renewable ways of supplying households with energy will also be key to a sound future development. 

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Ebola and Ecology

Emerging infectious diseases

Emerging infectious diseases (EID) may have a lot to do with changing environmental conditions and human-wildlife interaction. EID are either new types of pathogens or old ones that have mutated to become novel, as the flue does every year. Most known human EID are shared with animals meaning they are zoonotic. There is an excellent map over hot spots for EIDs in the world that was published in the New York Times back in 2012 that can be found here. While the research field, ecology-infectious diseases, is relatively new and crosses disciplinary boundaries I believe it should get more attention. Especially since it may tell us more about why EIDs have become so prevalent over the last couple of decades.

While Ebola is a really scary disease because of its high fatality rate (50-90 %) its just one of nearly 1,000 known human diseases that have originated from animals. The specific source of the Ebola outbreak is not known, however, Ebola is thought to be naturally harboured in some species of bats. Initial transmission to humans may thus have come about via butchering or consuming bats or other infected species. VICE News made a great short documentary about bushmeat in the time of Ebola. While Ebola has had a devastating impact in west African countries it is unlikely that Ebola becomes a global pandemic since the infection pathway requires direct contact with bodily fluids. That said, the illegal bushmeat trade could potentially act as a transfer of the disease in to other countries around the world. Anyway, the Ebola outbreak serves as a reminder of the linkages between disrupted ecosystems and human illness.

The more we humans expand our footprint and population, altering habitats and moving animals (and the pathogens they carry), the greater potential for infection and spread of pathogens novel to humans. For example, overfishing in an area could lead to an increase in bushmeat consumption due to subsistence standards which in turn could increase the prevalence of EIDs. Similarly deforestation forces animals to move into closer proximity to humans leading to closer contact, conflicts and loss of biological diversity. Moreover warming temperatures due to climate change may also change habitats and create new ones suitable for species and their pathogens. Examples range from mosquitoes to fruit bats.

Ebola Outbreak
Source: Future Earth
Some international groups such as WHO, Future Earth, Diversitas have come together and created the ecoHEALTH project, bringing together researchers from different fields to investigate connections between health and environmental change to generate policy outputs. Hopefully this crisis may shed some new light on prevention methods that include a better care for the worlds ecosystems and biodiversity. For example; combating illegal wildlife trade, improving sanitation, halting deforestation and securing more eco-friendly food production. At the moment many international help organizations are are instead struggling to keep up with all the emerging health crises. Doctors without borders (MSF) have their work cut out for them, combating both disease outbreaks and humanitarian crises, from outbreaks of MERS, Ebola and the Avian Flue to conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria. The organisations spokesperson begged the UN for more resources to combat the Ebola Outbreak, as many countries have not responded quickly enough to the crisis. One should understand that these are costly ways of trying to handling public health issues, much more can be done and to a lower cost on the side of prevention. We have the tools, now we only need foresight.

The complex dynamics of EID has become a hot topic. Hopefully more countries will start taking into account the overlapping drivers of disease and environmental change. Thinking of human health as separate from animal health and their determinants should be a thing of the past. Understanding the underlying parameters, such as human-wildlife proximity and habitat change, of disease outbreak could help organizations set up global monitoring services and look for early warnings of new outbreaks.

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3D mapping forest ecosystems from space

NASA will be monitoring the world's forests

And now to some good news. In four years or so NASA will be monitoring the world's forests by creating 3D maps from laser pulses sent out from the ISS. The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) lidar will be a great new resource for studying Earths vegetation (forest biomass) and the carbon cycle. Since it is not well known how much carbon trees actually absorb and store it is not possible to date to determine how much carbon would be released if a forest were destroyed. NASA and partners at the University of Maryland hope that this new instrument can help reveal some new information on this issue. GEDI will sample all of the land between 50 degrees north latitude and 50 degrees south latitude covering most tropical and temperate forests. "GEDI lidar will have a tremendous impact on our ability to monitor forest degradation, adding to the critical data needed to mitigate the effects of climate change," Patrick O'Shea - University of Maryland Vice President (Nature World News)

Apparently the GEDI is expected to be completed and launched by 2018, something to look forward to!
illustration of 3D mapping
Illustration of 3D map of forest. Source: NASA

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Election Special

The Swedish Election 14 September

This post will deal with the upcoming Swedish election. For those who are unaware there is an election in Sweden on Sunday. There are a few key things that make this election somewhat exciting and controversial:

1. the center left social democrats (S) and the green party (MP) may get more votes than the center right liberals (M), (C), (FP) which would mean a change in government and party coalitions.
2. the anti-immigration party (SD) is probably going to get around 10 % of votes from dissatisfied Swedes who seems to believe "everything was better in the good old days". 
3. a small upcoming left party called feministic initiative (Fi) will maybe get into the government since many young city dwellers vote for them as a way to give voice to gender questions and gay rights.

Although Swedes seem to panic about political correctness these days, especially if you read the two largest daily newspapers, many Swedes actually vote "with their wallet" when it comes to down to it. Meaning that taxation and job creation issues are still the two main topics people care most deeply about. That is also why the center right has now been in power for 8 years because they promised to improve the Swedish economy and lower taxation. However, people now seem ready for some change. Most Swedes belong to a wealthy middle class which prioritize education and health care just as much as one percent more or less in taxes.   
party sympathies
Source: DN

Internationally the Reinfeldt, Bildt and Borg (M) government has become known for mainly their economic policies and the fact that Sweden did not suffer as much as many other countries after the 2008 financial crisis. However, while (M) certainly increased the governments budget surplus during their time in government private indebtedness has soared, especially in relation to the housing market which is now severely overheated. So while ordinary people have gotten lower taxes and more shopping malls they also have larger private debts. Moreover the attempt to open up thousands of new private schools has led to a big difference in education levels noticed in international tests. So while the center right may have done a lot for businesses and government budget not everyone feel too happy about their school and health reforms. And in the case of environmental policies a recent report showed that the  government had failed to meet 14 of 16 of the environmental goals they had set. 

Its funny to read NY Times analysis of the upcoming election. It mostly focuses on the issue of the Swedish economy and  business climate but also a bit on immigration. While the reporter isn't totally wrong i find it sad that the same argumentation goes on in every country where a right wing party claims that "businesses will flee do to increased taxation if the center left wins" which of course is totally relative and in the case of Sweden most large companies such as IKEA and HM already have shell companies located in international tax havens. Also why is no reporter questioning the assumed belief that politics should serve businesses in larger extent than the people? Large companies always complain about taxation no matter what but that does not mean that lower taxation is better for the people in terms of getting more jobs. Most large companies have totally mechanized most of the work being done in factories anyway. Also in Sweden most people work in the public sector and in small and medium companies (SMC). Moreover, one does not have to lower taxes to make it easier for SMC to hire people, one could instead make a tax shift from labor to for example heavy, extractive and polluting industries. 

Voter sympathies from 1967 to 2014, parties (top) and coalitions (below). Source: SVD

Anyway, the election campaigns so far have been more confusing than reassuring to most Swedes and the national radio broadcasting network SR reported that as of today 1/3 of Swedes are still undecided. Neither prime minister candidates have much charisma and (M) and (S) are basically so alike that people cannot tell their policies apart any longer. The smaller parties evoke more excitement from the public but also gets scrutinized harder by the media since there are some nut jobs the parties tries to get rid of just before election day. Most of the frenzy is of course about the SD party members since some have shady backgrounds in xenophobic organizations. Due to recent wars and conflicts (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan) Sweden is likely to accept an even larger number of immigrants in the future (Sweden has one of the highest immigration numbers in the whole EU) which the SD party uses to scare people to vote for them, promising "all problems will go away when immigration numbers go down". Which is of course nuts! But segregation is a real problem that neither party has handled very well so more and more voters seem to vote for SD out of general dissatisfaction. However, one should not be fooled just because the party has cleaned up their act somewhat, they are still against most sound democratic things such as immigration, gay rights and abortion rights. 

Many commentators believe the red (S) and greens (MP) will win the majority, but much indicates it will be a close call. No party has addressed the very important question of what to do with our nuclear power plants, which are now old (40 years or so), should we replace them or turn to more solar, wind, water? Also no party has made any real suggestions how to lower unemployment, maybe they want to have some unemployment to keep inflation down. Moreover many parties seem to promise reforms which they are not sure how to fund, poor math skills is something politicians are well known for unfortunately. And finally, Swedish politicians may talk green but we are starting to fall behind, for example in protecting biodiversity and establishing nature reserves.  

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Welcome to Peak Resources

Approaching a state shift in Earth´s Biosphere. Source: Barnosky et al (2012).

Limits to Growth update 2014

This will be my first post on this blog and while it is a bit long I really hope people have the energy to read at least some of it. I think this is an appropriate first post since the blog is called peak resources and deals with a broad topic (or interdisciplinary field) that was really only first acknowledged with the arrival of the book Limits to Growth. The post will go through some old facts and new discussions recently posted in a Guardian op-ed

Short Background

In the book The Limits to Growth from 1972 a group of MIT scientists studied different scenarios and modeled likely outcomes in terms of population, food production and pollution etc. to gain insight to modern civilizations limiting factors for continued prosperity on planet Earth. The central argument of the book was simple: since the Earth is finite the quest for unlimited growth in population and material goods would eventually lead to a collapse (or breakdown) of society. In the "business as usual" (BAU) scenario the researchers assumed a growing population and demand for material wealth which in turn would lead to more industrial output, pollution and require ever increasing extraction of natural resources. Human civilization would then reach a first limiting factor at the point in time when resources started to become ever more expensive as they become harder to obtain (i.e. when it takes more energy/capital to extract the same amount of resources). Then, when more and more capital goes to resource extraction, industrial output per capita would start to fall. According to the book, following a business as usual scenario this could start occurring around 2015-2020. 

So, have we followed the trajectory of the business-as-usual scenario or sustinable development? Are there today any indications of hitting limits?

Well, this is what The Guardian op-ed by Turner and Alexander discusses. First of one should acknowledge that the authors of Limits to Growth updated their book in 1994 and 2004, comparing the scenarios with then up to date data for every parameter. Furthermore, G. Turner at CSIRO published a paper called "A comparison of 'The Limits to Growth' with Thirty Years of Reality" (2008), Hall and Day wrote "Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil" (2009), and U. Bardi (2011) and R. Heinberg (2011) have written books about Limits to Growth and its public reception. Updates or comparisons to the original study are nothing new to the academic world, but perhaps to the public. This could be the case since the original study was fiercely attacked by many economists who claimed that there could be no limit to human ingenuity and foresight and thus not to growth. Today there is still a general disliking of talking about limits to growth so many environmental scientists have rephrased the issue as "ensuring prosperity within a safe operating space" (Rockström et al. 2009).

Figure 1. BAU Scenario
limits to growth
 Source: Guardian
In any case, the study discussed in The Guardian is the one released by G. Turner (2014) calledIs Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSSI Research Paper No. 4. The study builds on Turners previous updates, but this time takes a step further by discussing the importance of peak oil and whether the Global Financial Crisis could be viewed as a first sign of hitting the limits to growth. Indeed as Turner writes in the op-ed "Limits to Growth checks out with reality" (fig.1) meaning that we are following the business-as-usual trajectory (just as previous studies mentioned above also have concluded). Okey, nothing really new so far. But then Turner goes on to write "the first stages of decline may already have started". Here the issue of peak oil is critical. Why? Because the global economy is intimately tied to cheap and abundant oil. Another important indicator is debt levels. Unsustainable levels of debt means that if there is a sudden increase in oil prices then gas and food prices becomes more expensive and people cannot afford to e.g. pay their mortgage which could result in massive defaults. Many independent researchers conclude that "easy" conventional oil production (e.g. not inlcuding shale and tar sands) has already peaked (2005-2008). Even the conservative IEA has warned about peak oil. Turner therefore argues that peak oil could be the catalyst for global economic downturn.

However, no one really knows what will actually happen when resources starts to constrain economic growth. Wars and civil unrest could break out, economic inequality could rise, or there could simply be a slowing down of western countries economic growth. Many other possible scenarios could come about as a consequence of limited resources but there is a risk that these crises mask the real underlying issue of ecosystem degradation and so many conventional solutions will not work. To prevent a severe downturn and dampen potential serious ecological consequences we need to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, relying less on fossil fuels and preserving critical ecosystem services and biodiversity for a resilient society in a future of abrupt change. This blog will deal with how to do this and the challenges we face. For more see topics.

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