Tuesday, May 21, 2013

China syndrome

Here's a startling statistic from the Financial Times this morning:

39 per cent of the water in China’s major rivers is too toxic to be fit for any contact with humans.
 (The FT is a notoriously bad source of links, but this one seems to go directly to the story.  Please let me know in comments, if you exist, whether the link works.)

We should all have some concerns about the food China grows, some of which is right this moment sitting on shelves in our local big-box discount retailer luring our friends and neighbors - and personally even my mother-in-law, whom I love dearly - into saving money.  And we should consider thoughtfully the possibility that the 39% number has been carefully vetted for Western consumption, so its likely much much higher.

And then we should try to calculate when possibility shades into probability.  If we just used our handy desktop calculators and assumed that all of the water in China was supposed to serve all of China's 1.3 billion people, ignoring the various animals, fish, insects and so forth that may be needed to stave off near-term ecological collapse on the regional landmass, it appears China only has enough water for about 780 million people.  The other 520 million people - which is like, what, the current population of North America? - have no water.  That's all of North America, from Alert to Oaxaca, with stops in between for Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, NYC, Washington DC, Fresno, Miami, Moore, Mexico City, none of whom have any water to drink or bathe in.

That's a lot of thirsty people.  That staggers the imagination.  And its all flowing into the oceans.

A lot of conclusions and implications jump to mind.  The one that first occurred to me was that the foundational principle of skepticism about global warming, that the Earth is just too big for us puny humans to make much of a dent in, is just clearly so much falsely rationalized humility.  Maybe the Earth is too big to make a noticeable dent, something you could spot from Mars, but that doesn't mean we can't scrape the paint off and destroy the resale value.

That metaphor really fails to capture what's been accomplished here. 

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