Mike Magee

In our first session, the focus was on the basics of water – how it arrived on the planet, its temporal association with life, its centrality to cycles of interdependency, its chemical nature, and the fragile role in the future of Earth and all its inhabitants.

Building on these basics, this week’s session will feature ten basic truths about water: They are:

  1. Water is essential to human life.
  2. Ground water is vital and vulnerable.
  3. Ocean waters are vital and vulnerable.
  4. There are competing uses for water.
  5. Human dietary choices have an evolutionary history.
  6. Choice of food must consider consumption of resources and environmental impact.
  7. Human consumption of water includes water consumed producing food.
  8. Global warming has altered weather patterns and placed humans at risk.
  9. Global warming creates reinforcing cycles of risk.
  10. Technology has partially ameliorated global food scarcity.

While water on this planet seems endlessly abundant, much is unusable or unreachable by humans. 97% of our water exists in our oceans. This water is infused with sodium chloride and a range of other salts making the water deadly to humans if consumed in quantity. An additional 2% exists in frozen form in ice, snow and glaciers. While ocean water (through desalination) and frozen water (through melting along with mining, melting, and transporting) could theoretically be accessed for humans, the costs are prohibitive at the moment.

This leaves us with 1% of our water, most of which exists in fresh water rivers, lakes and ponds as “surface water,” or in caverns of space beneath the ground as “ground water.” All life forms are predominantly water. Plants are generally 80 to 90% water; fish, 80%. Animals are 65% to 90% water. Humans are on the lower end of the spectrum, about 65%. If we lose 1% through dehydration, we become thirsty. A 5% loss results in a mild fever. If water content drops by 10%, humans are immobilized, and if 12%, we are likely to die.

So it should be no surprise that water is our most precious resource. Not only is it essential to our bodily functions, but it also plays a crucial role in human development, both material and spiritual,  and the creation of human societies. Water must be shared. Worldwide, 70% of our water is consumed in agriculture to support crops and livestock. Another 19% is used to support our industrial infrastructure, aiding transport, energy, cooling and manufacturing of goods. Finally 12% is categorized as “domestic use” including drinking, cleansing, food preparation and recreation.

The sharing percentages for water use vary depending on the geography and economy of users in any region. In general, low-income and rural communities can consume close to 90% of their water in creating food through agriculture. This leaves precious little to support human needs, and practically none for manufacturing infrastructure. In contrast, high-income nations consume most of their water in support of vast manufacturing industries and lesser amounts in agriculture.

A Masai warrior can survive on 4.2 liters of water per day for all of his needs, while an average American consumes 378 liters (excluding an additional 182 liters water that was consumed creating his food) for a total of 560 liters per day.

In areas like Los Angeles, water conservation efforts are paying off through peer pressure and regulation. But America’s consumption of water through dietary choices remains a major problem. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated in its 2023 dietary report, “Fruits and vegetables have barely budged, the cheese craze shows no signs of slowing down, and we’re eating 450 calories more per day than we did in 1970. Yes, there are some signs of improvement. We’re cutting back on sugars, shortening, beef, whole milk, and white flour. And we’re eating more chicken and yogurt. But we’re moving slowly.”

When it comes to water consumption, both quantity and quality play significant roles. For example, it takes 1.5 cubic meters of water to produce 1 kg of wheat, but 6 cubic meters of water to produce a1 kg of chicken. But that’s a bargain compared to beef where 1 kg production consumes 15 cubic meters of water.

Environmentalists are quick to remind us that diet affects more than just water consumption. Other factors include chemical pollution with nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers, habitat destruction with fences, walls, clear cutting of forests, and human settlements. And finally greenhouse gases, where our love of beef emits huge amounts of methane, the most destructive greenhouse gas. On the whole, plant based foods maintain a distinct advantage over both meat and fish when it comes to environmental impact.

A recent MIT Review amplified these concerns saying, “Alternative meats (plant based), in general, reduce land use and deforestation, protect biodiversity, produce less air and water pollution, mitigate the risks of antibiotic resistance and zoonotic pandemics, lower public health burdens associated with red-meat consumption, and reduce concerns about animal welfare.”

A 2021 UN supported analysis of food trends reported: “…poultry to be the main driver of increasing total meat consumption, while beef and sheep meat consumption generally decreased. Increase in GDP was associated with change in total meat consumption in many countries…The 1950s were dominated by pork and beef, followed by poultry, which remained stable until 1980. The amount of beef produced globally increased dramatically between 1950 and 1990, with no significant expansion afterwards, while poultry surged, overtaking beef in 1997…”

Into the 1700s, 80% of the European diet consisted of grains in for form of cakes and ales. And there are indications that the popularity of meat is at its peak, and about to decline. 25% of Americans say they’ve eaten less meat in the past year. And yet cash sales prove we still purchase three times more per capita than any nation in the world. But alternatives like the “impossible burger” and other Faux Meats valued at $85 billion in sales by 2030 are on the rise. Food darling magazine, Epicurious phased out beef as an ingredient in their recipes in 2020.

To some, however, meat (notable beef) is more than a food. As meat historian, Kyoto Hamada, recently wrote in the New York Times, “MEAT IS PRIMAL, or so some of us think: that humans have always eaten it; that it is the anchor of a meal, the central dish around which other foods revolve, like courtiers around a king; that only outliers have ever refused it. But today, those imagined outliers are multiplying…”

Meat eating goes back 2 million years to hominoids. But as Hamada writes, “we lack the great yawning jaws and blade like teeth that enable true predators to kill with a bite and then tear raw flesh straight off the bone. To get at that flesh, we had to learn to make weapons and tools, which required using our brains… others credit the discovery of fire and the introduction of cooking, which made it easier and quicker for us to digest meat and plants alike and thus allowed the gastrointestinal tract to shrink, freeing up energy to fuel a bigger brain. …So meat was both sustenance and symbol. To eat it was to announce one’s mastery of the world…” 

Anthropologists like Rosa Ficek say meat eating was a form of land control and fueled “Manifest Testing.” She writes, “By occupying the vast spaces between population centers, cattle helped secure colonial control of more and more territory.” Technology fueled the process allowing the animals to be transported to meatpacking centers like Chicago, where machine supported industrial assembly lines converted live animals to steaks and chops, which could once again be transported by rail to markets efficiently.

While for most of human history, most humans ate little meat, it remains big business now. The US produces 13 million metric tons of beef a year worth $72 billion, 1/3 more than #2 producer, Brazil. But if you take a deep dive into cow land, there is plenty to criticize. There are about 10 million of the animals in the U.S. Cow methane gas, in the form of burps (from their voluminous stomachs), and manure and gas releases, is a greenhouse gas 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide. By the way, the average cow produces 82 pounds of waste a day. 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from cow methane. 70% of the cows are factory farmed, with phosphorous and nitrogen laced grain manure runoff a major water contaminant.  All of this is to say that eating a pound of beef is equivalent to burning a gallon of gas when it comes to global warming.

Latest projections suggest that developed nations year over year consumption of meat is slowing, now set at .24% per year. But developing nations consumption continues to grow and is now at .8% per year. Where in the past a great portion of that meat would have been imported from nations like the US and Brazil, Asia has rapidly gained ground. For example, China ’s production of meat was only 1/2 that of the US in 1980. But by 2018, it had grown four times over. Who is eating all that meat? The Chinese people themselves. And the rest of Asia is doing the same. As of now, the continent is responsible for 45% of the planets meat production.

This reflects what is known as “Bennet’s Law” – defining a relationship between standard of living and dietary choices. The experts say – “The relationship between GDP and calorie production is remarkably tight, allowing likely pressures on the food system to be estimated based on assumptions about population and economic growth. Making reasonable assumptions about these trends, Tilman et al. estimate that demand-side pressures will increase by approximately 100% by midcentury. Is this increase in demand-side pressures inevitable? Although population growth is responsible for a sizeable fraction of this 100%, much is a result of the workings of what economists call Bennett’s Law: as people become wealthier, they switch from simple starchy plant-dominated diets to a more varied food input that includes a range of vegetables, fruit, dairy products, and especially meat.”

It is easy to be critical of the downside of factory farming – its massive clear tracking of forests, use of runoff prone fertilizers, and massive consumption of water. Where water is scarce, low-tech innovative strategies such as the image of plants being “individually feed with reusable intravenous bottles” in South Asia can work. But such strategies are difficult to “scale up” to feed the world. Conservative estimates suggest that without the agricultural advances during the 20th century, we would be able to feed less than 1 billion of the world’s 8 billion population. 

Food scarcity is most significant in arid developing nations in Asia and Africa. Over the past five years the global population has grown from 7.7 billion to 8.1 billion, and food scarce citizens have increased from 768 million (10%) to 858 million (10.6%). Five of the six most water stressed areas are in the Middle East and Africa. Balancing the competing needs of human health and the planet’s health (especially as nations evolve and raise their standards of living), demands the wise use of technology and innovation. Feeding the world without consuming our limited supply of water and destroying the environment remains a delicate balancing act.

This challenge is further complicated by erratic and violent weather patterns fueled by global warming. Its been two decades since Al Gore warned that we would ultimately reach a “tipping point” where carbon emissions would trigger self-reinforcing cycles of global warming that would be difficult to reverse. That point was 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere. In 2023 we reached 424 ppm, a dramatic upswing from our 1995 level of 360 ppm.

During this period leaders – from religion to science – have defined and agreed on the sources of the problem, and at least begun to take action.

In 2015, climate expert and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Crutzan, was Pope Francis’s right arm when the Catholic leader, who had purposefully chosen the name of the Patron Saint of Ecology as his own, was briefed on the pending climatery disaster. Crutzen had christened a label five years earlier, the Anthropocene Epoch that we’ll discuss more in session three, to draw attention to the human role in our planetary problems.

Crutzen was one of 74 scientists from 27 nations and Taiwan who formed the elite Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2015. Those selected were a Who’s Who of the world’s scientific All-Stars including 14 Nobel recipients, and notables like Microbiologist Werner Arber, physicist Michael Heller, geneticist Beatrice Mintz, biochemist Maxine Singer, and astronomer Martin Rees.

On May 24, 2015, they delivered their climate conclusions to the Pope, face to face. The Pope heard these words, “We have a collection of experts from around the world who are concerned about climate change. The changes are already happening and getting worse, and the worst consequences will be felt by the world’s 3 billion poor people.”

The next month, with his release of the encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis began by embracing science, but amplified the warning that we were fast approaching a point of no return. Laudato Si and the Pope’s personal intervention in climate deliberations in 2015 are widely credited for the successful December 12, 2015 draft Paris Agreement. The final draft was signed four months later by 126 parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21).

Now eight years have passed, and Pope Francis has decided that “enough is enough.”  In October, 2023, he released a condensed update of the original 180-page Environmental Encyclical, now just a 12-page apostolic exhortation. In the piece, titled Laudate Deum, Pope Francis was especially critical of the U.S. and other developed nations. Specifically he sees humankind, now amplifying our mistakes with new AI technology, in dangerous territory. Specifically, to “increase human power beyond anything imaginable,” he says, is “a failure of conscience and responsibility.”

As we learned in Session I, 70% of the Earth’s surfaces are covered with water, and are oceans are largely interconnected. Six major rivers carry 1/3 of all fresh water runoff and some 50 billion tons of sediment as well. These waters are dynamic and support vast human populations who have historically chosen to congregate along coastal waters.

The interface between air and water is chemically dynamic. Our air is predominantly a combination of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen atoms which form molecules N2, O2, Co2, CH4 and H2O. These molecules drop into the oceans in the form of precipitation, and return to the atmosphere through evaporation. Two of these molecules, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), absorb and reflect ultra violet rays, vibrating and generating heat. In the process, they heat and expand surface water, raise water temperatures and elevate sea levels especially in coastal areas, where sea levels are expected to rise 15 inches by 2100.

Water is able to hold more heat than air or land, up to a point. As industrialization has proceeded, the temperature of the top 2300 feet of ocean water has risen 1.5 degrees F in the past century. That extra heat has triggered large changes in the amount and speed of water evaporating into the atmosphere. More water in the air in turn has resulted in increasingly violent weather patterns. Storms are already more frequent and severe, and abrupt raging downpours from “atmospheric rivers” are becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Reinforcing these changes, what were occasional heat waves have increased markedly in seasonality, duration, frequency and intensity. All are becoming familiar with new weather phenomenom, like the “atmospheric river,” and “heat domes” – “a weather phenomenon in which an area experiences stifling heat when a system of high pressure pushes very warm air downward and keeps it trapped as if in a bubble.”

In the single month of July, 2023, weather services recorded 2,400 new historically high temperatures. This included 119 in Phoenix, AZ. with 44 consecutive days of 100+ temperatures. That was mild compared to 128 in Death Valley or 119 in Sardinia, Italy. But it also injected a high level of unpredictability into weather forecasting – popularly known as “global weirding.” 

California has been both the victim and beneficiary of these patterns over the past few years. A multi-year drought had left the agricultural rich land gasping for air with dry river beds and severe regulatory restrictions on water usage. But “atmospheric rivers” dropped historic amounts of water, in the form of snow, on the Sierras. When that snowpack melted this past Spring, empty reservoirs not only filled, but placed the dams and tributary infrastructure at risk of failing.

Much of the water infrastructure nationwide is aging and routinely fails, requiring expensive repairs. Sadly lead-laden pipes like in Flint, Michigan, are not the exception, but the rule in many communities across the land. A larger issue, however, is that newer infrastructure, engineered to withstand historic water forces, now find themselves stressed by widely different predictive volumes, flows and intensity of precipitation.

Human behaviors have had to be adjusted in real-time. After roofers died building housing in Eagle Pass, Texas, new hours and breaks for enforced hydration had to be implemented. Deadly and historic rainfall with flash flooding resulted in loss of life from India to Vermont. Florida sea water temperatures topped 100 degrees for the first time ever, and Antarctic ice levels reached their lowest point since recording began. Finally, deadly fires, first in Rhodes, Greece, and then dramatically in Maui, Hawaii, illustrated that poor surface water management, combined with drought induced brittle vegation and wild wind storms could result in loss of life on a major scale.

While these events may feel episodic and unrelated, trend lines prove this not to be the case. For example, take the case of sea levels in Pensacola, Florida. Between 2010 and 2022, the coastal water level rose as much as it had in the prior 85 years. From Louisiana, all the way up the Eastern seaboard, seas are rising alarmingly as land masses in the region are sinking, in part because of excess drawing of ground water for agricultural, manufacturing and domestic consumption. To look at a map of vulnerable areas, one has to go all the way to Southeast Asia to find vulnerable conditions similar to our southern and eastern seaboards. The list of the fastest sinking U.S. cities includes Corpus Christie, Houston, Biloxi, Mobile, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Hampton, Annapolis, Philadelphia, and New York.

Carbonated oceans are decidedly unruly. Turbulent waters stir up the ocean floors, where absorbed carbon has settled for hundreds of thousands of years. Once disturbed, the carbon resurfaces and causes peaks of heat and volume expansion raising sea levels. These problems are only reinforced by polar ice melt.

One last note about ocean health and our own, as we industrialized and digitized, we laid hundreds of thousands of fibre-optic cables on the ocean floors, on which our globally interconnected economies now rely. Increasingly, these communication channels are at risk.

Next week, we will focus in greater detail on man’s footprint on water, and the range of interconnected measures of planetary health that now must be addressed. Collectively, these nine measures are known as “Planetary Boundaries,” and represent the analytic tools being used by policy makers to put their arms around this brave new world that Earth Scientists call “The Anthropocene Epoch.”