A Roadmap For This Discussion.

After reading Bill McKibben’s book “Eaarth”, I reviewed the ideas that I wanted to present and came to the conclusion that I was basically on the right track.  However, I saw some great opportunities to extend them, not so much longitudinally, but rather laterally. In other words, not the “what” but rather the “how”.  For instance, if we are going to have small, remote settlements scattered all over the country, the necessary communications infrastructure would be much as I had imagined them. However, the construction of the buildings, the food production methods, the community organisation and other matters would almost certainly display the McKibben influence. Whether this would materially affect the absolute maximum value of the sustainable population of Australia (the point of this blog) is yet to be explored, but I am sure that the lifestyle which would be dictate the maximum population Australia would accept will undoubtedly more demanding of resources than if Bill McKibben’s ideas were not  incorporated.

Another way in which Mr. McKibben is influencing this conversation, is that the land-use analysis which I discussed earlier is going to be an iterative process.  The reason is that many of the issues which I have been thinking about predicate research into food production methods, construction methods, water conservation methods and so on, all of which will feed back into the land-use profiles on which the development process is based.

This area of inquiry is expanding at such a rate that, in the interests of my own self-discipline (not wanting to bore readers by being too dilatory), I here set down some dot-points for future discussion. Essentially, they fall into two groups:

Infrastructure:

  • The nature of remote settlements.
  • Transportation (trains, lighter-than-air vehicles, cars, aircraft, commercial vehicles, bicycles).
  • Services (power, water, communications, waste disposal).
  • Construction methods for roads, housing and so forth.

Living in remote settlements:

  • Food production.
  • Services.
  • Working from home.
  • Distribution of Commercial Enterprises.
  • Taxation and other inducements.

This list is not complete or exclusive, but it will do for now. Also, the order of the topics will not necessarily be adhered to because, as is the way with blogs, commentary from readers so often raises new items of interest or prompts an extension of a previous post.

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Just Keeping Things Moving Along.

The various posts to this blog are based on sections of a discussion paper I had written.  I would have expected to have more material posted by this time.  However, I have been totally seduced by a book I have been reading called simply “Eaarth” (that’s right – 2 ‘a’s) by Bill McKibben.  Bill writes very persuasively about climate and other environment changes which will severely impact living conditions in the future and makes lots of interesting suggestions as to how we might cope with them.  I have therefore held off posting new material until I have had a chance to see how Bill’s stuff fits in with my own ideas.

I believe that this book is required reading for all of us who have views about climate change, sceptical or not.  What makes the book very persuasive is the way that Bill has cross-referenced events and data from all round the world, identifying patterns and similarities in such a way as to present them all in a very cohesive story.  From this information, he has constructed a picture of what day-to-day life in the future might be and suggests ways and means to make it as comfortable and sustainable as possible.

If you are a climate-change denier, by all means hold onto your views, but if you are ever going to discuss them with a reader of this book, make sure that you have all of your material organised and be prepared for a very challenging and hard-hitting response.

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Land Usage Mapping.

1. CREATING LAND USE PROFILES.

If we are going to produce a map showing all of the potential land usages in a given area, we must first create, for each type of land use, a set of parameters, such as slope, orientation to sun or prevailing winds, soil constituents, underlying minerals, water supply and many others that are necessary or desirable for the usage to be implemented on any tract of land under examination. Some parameters will be numerical, such as a slope flatter than 1 in 20. Some will be boolean (Yes/no values) indicating the presence or otherwise of desired minerals. Others will consist of one or more selections from an alphabetical list of numerical or alphabetic values. A profile can be drawn up for any given usage and it will list the relevant parameters and specify for each one the range of values appropriate for that usage. One could take this methodology further and create a number of profiles ranging from the optimal down to the point where the usage should not be considered at all for any land matching the profile, simply by varying the numerical values or ranges of the parameters. The sub-optimal profiles could be used in aggregating information about any parcel of land being analysed

2. IDENTIFYING LAND THAT MATCHES PARTICULAR PROFILES.

Because any particular tract of land may be suitable in varying degrees for several different usages and it is necessary to try and identify all possible locations for human involvement, a comprehensive set of statistics must be tabulated for the entire country. By scanning these statistics for the occurrence of combinations of parameter values which match usage profiles, a map of potential land usage may be obtained. The methodology may be refined by varying the required property values on a patterned or trial-and-error basis.

In years gone by, recording the physical characteristics of a tract of countryside required the presence on the ground of many human beings such as surveyors, geologists and the like. Any research on the lines outlined above would be an impossibly expensive undertaking. With the development of satellite imaging, however, a wealth of data is now available for investigation as any visit to Google Earth will testify. There is also much software around to examine this data and extract the values for particular parameters. Where the required software does not exist, there is great scope for research and development of new products.

It is suggested that a grid of (say) 1 km square be laid over the entire land mass of Australia and each grid element be identified uniquely by GPS co-ordinates. The values of all parameters observed in each grid element should be noted and tabulated. For any given land usage, the tables should be scanned for combinations of parameter ranges which fit within the profile(s) of that usage. This should result in a list of land usages appropriate for the grid element. If multiple profiles are available, the various usages in the list can be ranked (Note 1).

3. IDENTIFYING SETTLEMENT LOCATIONS.

If clusters of grid elements can be identified where multiple types of land usage are close to optimal levels, they may be considered “hot spots” suitable for consideration as locations for human settlements. If they are near an existing settlement, it may be investigated to see whether returns from the optimal usage of the land (assuming usage is currently sub-optimal) would either support the settlement in its current configuration or generate a return justifying the upgrading of the land usage and the expansion of that settlement.

4. NOTES.

Note 1.

In the 1970s, while working for a highly-regarded town planning consultancy, I was involved in a master plan for the Molonglo Valley in the ACT. An analysis of the Valley was conducted, using a limited version of the methodology suggested here. Remarkably, it was carried out on a desktop microcomputer with 16 Kbytes (!) of memory and two audio cassettes for program and data storage. The programming language was a version of BASIC. Fortunately, the machine was quite sophisticated in that code not required immediately could be overlaid with other code, so that quite a large program could be processed.

A grid was laid over various maps of the Valley and a team of university students computed the values of the various parameters within each element and entered them on marked-sense cards (similar to punched cards, but where boxes were marked in pencil to assign binary values). These were then processed and a plotter was used to cross-hatch each element in the grid with a pattern identifying the optimal usage for the land. The grids were then laid over the maps and the underlying land assigned the appropriate zoning codes.

The scale of the analytical work required is, of course, much greater than the modest project which I undertook (which was undoubtedly more interesting in its analytic sophistication than its scale), but there are avenues for marshalling the number of people required to participate. To name only one example, “Re-engineering Australia” at rea.org.au finds projects to interest senior school pupils in engineering and scientific careers and may be able to set up some teams of analysts. I have no connection to this organisation, though I have now become a follower. The choice of name for our activities was entirely accidental, though perhaps serendipitious if this all comes to fruition

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INTRODUCTION

This discussion looks at a number of environmental issues of world-wide importance and suggests some radical action that can be taken in Australia to help alleviate them.

Why Australia ? Well, it is the sixth largest country in the world, but with a population of only 22 million (3 persons per square km) it is also one of the most sparsely populated. It is an arid country, with a very uneven distribution of water. Much of the soil has been significantly damaged and has lost value for growing food. Forests have been degraded by clear-felling. Many plant and animal species are endangered due to loss of habitat. Power supplies are mainly derived from coal (some of it the dirtiest coal in the world from the point of view of CO2 production) or oil. It has physical features which are similar to those found in parts of Saharan Africa and Central Asia. However, unlike many of these countries, it is relatively wealthy, has a very stable government and is an island.

All of these features make Australia the best possible laboratory for developing techniques, processes and products for combatting the various environmental problems that the planet is faced with. Any investments we make in these fields will have a pay-back on any or all of three fronts; first world countries can buy them, third world countries can be given them as aid and finally, they will contain an insurance premium component, by helping to reduce the risk of catastrophic collapse of the environment which is essential for the survival of humanity.

The scientist James Lovelock worked for NASA on projects aimed at determining whether there was life on Mars and other planets. In the course of these, he looked at the ways in which life had evolved on earth and in particular, how it had been fostered by an extraordinarily stable environment over millions, indeed billions of years. His findings were published in many papers and at least one book in the 1970s. He reached the conclusion that the biosphere consisted of a huge number of processes which interacted in many ways, but in sum were held in balance. If some processes accelerated, threatening to narrow the boundaries of the livable environment, others would also accelerate, moving to counter them, so restoring the balance. In other words, it was a typical positive/negative feedback model. Because it was analogous to a single living organism, he named his theory the Gaia Hypothesis, after the old earth goddess Gaia. A good account of the Gaia hypothesis appears in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis).

In his publications, Lovelock pointed out that many human activities are either directly components in the Gaia model or they indirectly affect other, natural processes. In his latest book, “The Revenge Of Gaia”, Lovelock looks at these activities and draws the conclusion that those which foster Gaia’s positive feedback movements have effects which far outweigh any which operate in the opposite direction. From this he predicts that there will be catastrophic consequences for the (relatively) comfortable life we lead today. In particular, he believes that due to desertification, unreliable water supplies, declining food supplies and so forth, nations will be fighting for access to living room (and particularly that with agricultural capability), because humans are essentially a competitive species.

It is this last thought which has prompted the setting up of this blog. The current government policy in Australia is to limit the population to something like 35 million people (about 5 persons/sq km.). However, this is predicated on maintaining the lifestyle currently enjoyed by the vast majority of its citizens. Features of this lifestyle include; proximity to the coast, crowding together in a relatively few towns and cities, centralisation of commerce and services, importing much of our food (though we do export some food), emphasis on a service economy, and so on. The main exports which pay for this are minerals and fuels. Until the 1970s (give or take a decade), Australia had a thriving manufacturing industry, had initiatives in place to foster technical education of all sorts and had a world-class community of inventors and researchers. With the advent of global commerce, most of this has disappeared and we seem to have returned to the business model of pre-Second World War days, wryly known as Quarry Australia.

It may be that in the end, this policy is the best option. However, we will never know this until we have done the research which will establish the absolute maximum number of people the continent can house, the agricultural, commercial and service operations necessary to support an acceptable lifestyle, the costs of infrastructure and establishment and the likely returns on investment. If we find that the maximum is not affordable under any circumstances, then we can progressively reduce the target population, its activities and its support proportionately until we achieve a level that is. We may not be attracted to the lifestyle that the expenditures imply and may elect to adopt a population that is still lower, but this must be on the understanding that other, poorer countries may find the more modest lifestyle that we have rejected quite acceptable. We must then bring into the equation the cost of defending our territory against invasions of various kinds and scales, from refugees (called “boat people” in Australia) up to outright inter-nation war.

The creation of this blog was prompted by reading an article on the population debate by Tim Soutphommanes (The Australian, 21/04/2010) and another on global food production problems by Greg Hertzler (Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 21/04/2010). I was also intrigued by (1) an article by Leunig (Sunday Age 09/05/2010) which addressed what one might call the spiritual or emotional aspects of high-density living and (2) a review of a new book called Eaarth (sic) by Bill McKibben (A2, Saturday Age, 08/05/2010) which is now on my reading list.

In posts to follow, I will suggest a methodology for estimating the true population carrying capacity of the country, defining the infrastructure required to support that population and identifying whatever activities can produce the returns which will justify the investment.  I will also describe my own experiences as an engineer and IT practitioner to illustrate and justify some of the positions I have taken. This material will be set out in notes at the end of the relevant post. A brief professional CV also appears in my About page.

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