Ponzi redux: Scientific American asks “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?”

We desperately need a new way of thinking, a new mind-set. The thinking that got us into this bind will not get us out. When Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker, asked energy guru Amory Lovins about thinking outside the box, Lovins responded: “There is no box.”

There is no box. That is the mind-set we need if civilization is to survive.

It’s not news that Lester Brown is warning about our unsustainable approach to feeding the planet.  But it is news that Scientific American has run a major article by him on how “The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse.”

Brown’s “Key Concepts”:

  • Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos.
  • Such “failed states” can export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees.
  • Water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from global warming are placing severe limits on food production.
  • Without massive and rapid intervention to address these three environmental factors, the author argues, a series of government collapses could threaten the world order.

Brown’s warnings, ignored for too long, are now being repeated at the highest levels.  For instance, I previously blogged on the UK government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, who laid out something very close to this collapse scenario in his speech yesterday to the government’s Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster (see “When the global Ponzi scheme collapses (circa 2030), the only jobs left will be green“):

You can see the catastrophic decline in those [food] reserves, over the last five years or so, indicates that we actually have a problem; we’re not growing enough food, we’re not able to put stuff into the reserves”¦.

I am going to look at 2030 because that’s when a whole series of events come together….

I will leave you with some key questions. Can nine billion people be fed? Can we cope with the demands in the future on water? Can we provide enough energy? Can we do it, all that, while mitigating and adapting to climate change? And can we do all that in 21 years time? That’s when these things are going to start hitting in a really big way. We need to act now. We need investment in science and technology, and all the other ways of treating very seriously these major problems. 2030 is not very far away.

Brown’s whole piece is worth reading.  I’ll excerpt the key points, trends and quotable facts here:

Failing states are of international concern because they are a source of terrorists, drugs, weapons and refugees, threatening political stability everywhere. Somalia, number one on the 2008 list of failing states, has become a base for piracy. Iraq, number five, is a hotbed for terrorist training. Afghanistan, number seven, is the world’s leading supplier of heroin. Following the massive genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, refugees from that troubled state, thousands of armed soldiers among them, helped to destabilize neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (number six).

Here is the full list of 20 countries in the world that are closest to collapse, from worst to better, ranked in 2007 by the Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based on “12 social, economic, political and military indicators of national well-being.”

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ivory Coast
Central African Republic
Burma (Myanmar)
North Korea
Sri Lanka

Brown continues:

… the recent surge in world grain prices is trend-driven, making it unlikely to reverse without a reversal in the trends themselves. On the demand side, those trends include the ongoing addition of more than 70 million people a year; a growing number of people wanting to move up the food chain to consume highly grain-intensive livestock products; and the massive diversion of U.S. grain to ethanol-fuel distilleries.

The extra demand for grain associated with rising affluence varies widely among countries. People in low-income countries where grain supplies 60 percent of calories, such as India, directly consume a bit more than a pound of grain a day. In affluent countries such as the U.S. and Canada, grain consumption per person is nearly four times that much, though perhaps 90 percent of it is consumed indirectly as meat, milk and eggs from grain-fed animals.

The potential for further grain consumption as incomes rise among low-income consumers is huge. But that potential pales beside the insatiable demand for crop-based automotive fuels. A fourth of this year’s U.S. grain harvest””enough to feed 125 million Americans or half a billion Indians at current consumption levels””will go to fuel cars.

And then there’s water:

… the spread of water shortages poses the most immediate threat. The biggest challenge here is irrigation, which consumes 70 percent of the world’s freshwater. Millions of irrigation wells in many countries are now pumping water out of underground sources faster than rainfall can recharge them. The result is falling water tables in countries populated by half the world’s people, including the three big grain producers””China, India and the U.S….

In China the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. Overpumping has used up most of the water in a shallow aquifer there, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable. A report by the World Bank foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.

As water tables have fallen and irrigation wells have gone dry, China’s wheat crop, the world’s largest, has declined by 8 percent since it peaked at 123 million tons in 1997. In that same period China’s rice production dropped 4 percent. The world’s most populous nation may soon be importing massive quantities of grain.

But water shortages are even more worrying in India. There the margin between food consumption and survival is more precarious. Millions of irrigation wells have dropped water tables in almost every state. As Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist:

Half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer [3,300 feet].

A World Bank study reports that 15 percent of India’s food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million.

Finally, there’s global warming:

The third and perhaps most pervasive environmental threat to food security””rising surface temperature””can affect crop yields everywhere. In many countries crops are grown at or near their thermal optimum, so even a minor temperature rise during the growing season can shrink the harvest. A study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has confirmed a rule of thumb among crop ecologists: for every rise of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the norm, wheat, rice and corn yields fall by 10 percent.

That’s an especially chilling statistic when you consider that we are facing warming of 4°C to 5°C or more this century on the business as usual emissions path.

Is there another techno-fix to the global food problem?  Brown says, not likely.

In the past, most famously when the innovations in the use of fertilizer, irrigation and high-yield varieties of wheat and rice created the “green revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, the response to the growing demand for food was the successful application of scientific agriculture: the technological fix. This time, regrettably, many of the most productive advances in agricultural technology have already been put into practice, and so the long-term rise in land productivity is slowing down. Between 1950 and 1990 the world’s farmers increased the grain yield per acre by more than 2 percent a year, exceeding the growth of population. But since then, the annual growth in yield has slowed to slightly more than 1 percent. In some countries the yields appear to be near their practical limits, including rice yields in Japan and China.

Some commentators point to genetically modified crop strains as a way out of our predicament. Unfortunately, however, no genetically modified crops have led to dramatically higher yields, comparable to the doubling or tripling of wheat and rice yields that took place during the green revolution. Nor do they seem likely to do so, simply because conventional plant-breeding techniques have already tapped most of the potential for raising crop yields.

You can get Brown’s detailed solution, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, at  I’ve discussed at length the energy and climate strategies in this blog.  Here is his short discussion of some other key measures:

The fourth component, restoring the earth’s natural systems and resources, incorporates a worldwide initiative to arrest the fall in water tables by raising water productivity: the useful activity that can be wrung from each drop. That implies shifting to more efficient irrigation systems and to more water-efficient crops. In some countries, it implies growing (and eating) more wheat and less rice, a water-intensive crop. And for industries and cities, it implies doing what some are doing already, namely, continuously recycling water.

At the same time, we must launch a worldwide effort to conserve soil, similar to the U.S. response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Terracing the ground, planting trees as shelterbelts against windblown soil erosion, and practicing minimum tillage””in which the soil is not plowed and crop residues are left on the field””are among the most important soil-conservation measures.

But as always, the first step is to realize that there is no silver bullet and there is no quick escape from the Ponzi scheme.  Brown ends with a terrific quote about thinking outside the box from my old boss Amory, which bears repeating, :

Lovins responded: “There is no box.”

There is no box. That is the mind-set we need if civilization is to survive.

19 Responses to Ponzi redux: Scientific American asks “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?”

  1. Phillip Huggan says:

    My 2002 data sources don’t list Iraq as a failed state and claims Iraq had zero terrorists.
    How doesn’t Israel make the list? Palestinians are rightfully in position to form government there. They will soon have 150 nukes.

  2. paulm says:

    HI Joe, Is there some reason why I am not able to post comments?

    [JR: No. Same rules as everyone.]

  3. paulm says:

    Isn’t it odd that food production seems to be peaking just at the time oil has peaked. I know there is climate change as well, but there’s a link there too.

    Did he mention Pakistan! They are on the verge of collapse and they have nukes!

  4. Gail says:

    Don’t read the comments to Paul Krugman’s column today unless you want your head to explode! The ignorance is mind-boggling, riddled with the usual claims that the scientific consensus is meaningless. At least one letter writer claimed extra CO2 will increase agricultural production, clearly refuted in this CP post.

    Okay now I am going to go feed kitchen scraps to my chickens.

  5. Phillip Huggan says:

    …my point was that the list isn’t homogenous. A solution for decapitating Mugabe and croniess and slaughtering their militants won’t work for N.Korea (a dictatorship like Iraq was, not an exporter of terrorists like Iraq is). Nation-building the former merely pisses off the corrupt African Union while the latter probably sees 30000 pieces of artillary trained on Soeul, Dresden the city.
    Haiti is tiny so non-USA actors could conceivably intervene while Nigeria has oil; will likely be a USA must over non-oil actors.
    The China loss of water is more important than the whole list combined; doesn’t make the list. China is rapidly losing future water reserves; could just the whole list and report this fact to them in one sentence, and do more good (they will need to invade Russia at some point if they continue to unleash AGW).

  6. ZS says:

    Hi Joe,

    Just a quick note to let you know your link to Brown’s Plan B 3.0 is broken. You have an extra space in the link.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    “Water, water everywhere
    nor any drop to drink.”

    Most urgently, more than the impending shortage of phosphorus, is the water shortage. There is plenty in the oceans, but desalinzation and pumping takes lots of plain, raw energy. Solar and wind, maybe?

  8. Gail says:

    David B. Benson, I was thinking about this today, since for the 4th day this week heavy rains were forecast but didn’t materialize (I know, weather does not equal climate!). So forgive me for going all anecdotal, but I’ve noticed for over a year now that we are getting far less rain than is forecast, pretty consistently. And I’ve been wondering if meteorologists are using models that are outdated and they haven’t figured it out yet. In other words, they look at whatever data they use – clouds, temperature, pressure etc – to extrapolate a certain amount of precipitation based on weather events from the past record, only, it’s no longer predictive.

    So anyway, what I was thinking is that, in addition to ramping up clean energy production, we should be throwing a lot of research money at desalinization.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Gail — It may be that ABC aerosols are causing less rain than in the days before the norhtern hemisphere had so much from China.

    By all means encourage some further research regarding desalinization, but don’t expect more than a very few percent gain in efficiency; even that would help. Do encourage pilot and demonstration projects using current technology.

  10. Gail says:

    oh well looking up ABC aerosols I found this, thanks, David B. Benson! Have a nice weekend….

    But seriously. I know this will out me as a tinfoil hatted koolaid slurping pathetically desperate guilt-ridden hysteric, but…

    The very sky and air have changed. The boisterous background of nature has diminished. My very dear friend who grew up in Lapland eating herring and not much else, but has lived in NJ for 30 years now, calls our current predicament, “hollow”.

    When I moved here, almost 30 years ago as well, I was woken before dawn every day in the spring and summer because the orchestra of birdsongs was immense. It was beautiful and humbling. There were so many voices, and so many varied calls and trills, it was indescribably lush.

    The past few years, that cacophony has been reduced to isolated, abbreviated songs, easily distinguished as being from individual birds. More like a soloist or at most a string quartet than the full orchestra.

    We are losing so much that is of value in our ignorant pursuit of useless stuff.

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thanks for spotlighting Lester Brown.

    He should be read (especially Plan B 3.0) and listened to – by everyone.

  12. Lester talks about a lot of these themes in a short audio interview at recorded after he spoke on Capitol Hill late last year.

  13. Greg Robie says:

    In the April 19, 2009 NYT Magazine, “The Green Mind,” an article “Why Isn’t The Brain Green,” by Jon Gertner states “At the moment, about 98 percent of the federal financing for climate-change research goes to the physical and natural sciences, with the remainder apportioned to the social sciences.” This (mis?)allocation of funds suggests a certain veracity for the complaint raised by climate change deniers that the aforementioned sciences are warning about climate change to chase research dollars.

    Hasn’t it been since 1958 that the problem of AGW has been identified. In the intervening time has there been a comprehensive strategy developed for how to help humanity act rationally in the face of such terrifying information as a shared goal within the scientific community? If not, has this been, in part, because the physical and natural science community tends to be of a shared mindset as a subset of society with a limited moral view? As an earlier post by psychiatrist, Lise Van Susteren, shared, even in that field of study there is psychological disinterest in tackling the challenge. As Joe has mentioned many times, it has not been conceivable that, given the facts, society would fail to act [rationally]. Perhaps psychiatry despairs of humanity ever acting rationally (or accepts that it never will). In any event, had social sciences been funded on parity to the social problem AGW represents, geeks could have learned (again) why they are geeks, and why a preference to think and act rationally is not this specie’s strong suit.

    Regardless, all social subsets can be observed to systemically tend to have their area’s of non-rational behavior/moral systems/motivated reasoning. Isn’t the 2030 time frame for there to only be “green jobs” left, which is referenced in this post and used in Brown’s argument, examples of such? It seems logical to me that until the underlying capital is green, what is funded by capital can never be “green”/sustainable. Encumbering everything and everyone with debt to “create” capital systemically feeds the Ponzi scheme that must and will collapse (is collapsing). The dynamics of motivated reasoning can prevent those of us who piously feel we benefit from the hegemony of the Ponzi scheme from being able to critically examining the systemic relationships between what constitutes capital and what constitutes (and will thereby be valued) as jobs.

    Just as the physical and natural scientific community did not advocate for adequate funding for the research into how to socially market what was being discovered concerning AGW, there is a parallel in the economic “thinking”/feelings that are being brought to bear in assertions being made of what addressing AGW will “cost” our current sense of what is capital; what is the nature of wealth. Doesn’t a paradigm shift “costs” you everything from the old system, and hence why it is a paradigm shift?

  14. paulm says:

    Professor warns of global food riots
    There is a real threat of food riots around the world unless research into increasing crop yields is stepped up, a leading UK scientist said today.

    “We have seen already in Indonesia and Mexico riots because of food shortages and what is undeniable is that the amount of food we are going to need to produce to deal with the world’s population increases is an extra 50 per cent by 2030 and a doubling by 2050.

    “We are going to have to do it on the same amount of land, because there isn’t any more land, so we are going to have to increase agricultural yields.

    “We are going to have to do that without increasing the amount of oil-based fertilisers we put in because oil is a finite resource and of course produces greenhouse gases.

    “And we are going to have to use no more water because water is a resource in short supply as well.”

    He added: “Scientific research takes a long time to turn into applied fruits that are going to be of benefit to humanity

  15. Cynthia says:

    Gail, I know what you mean. When we moved here about 30 years ago, the winters were so harsh, we had to wear several layers of clothes and face mask. We had blizzards with snow covering up our cars. Now, we often see people out jogging with shorts on in the winter time, my Christmas wreath withers after a couple weeks on the door, and it seems like spring time, year round. Extremely upsetting! And no more fire flies at night, except a few, and hardly any bees! The trees have bug sacks all over them, drooping much of the time and withered… so disheartening!

  16. Lou Greub says:

    I forgot one important cause of food shortage and starvation in resource-deficient parts of the world – overpopulation.
    Lou Greub

  17. Lou Greub says:

    Why has my initial post of Oct. 16, 2009 been removed? I am sure I saw it here with others earlier.
    Lou Greub

  18. Lou Greub says:

    In reading the above article and comments I am amazed and appalled at some of the misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misrepresentation of information and “facts” presented. While many of the basic premises cited are true, the reasons given for them being true, the blame assigned for their existence, and some of the suggested or implied solutions are faulty. For example, the use of corn (Zea mays) to produce ethanol is represented as taking food out of the mouths of hungry people and thus a major cause of famine and starvation in the world. First of all, corn is NOT a major cereal crop directly feeding people here in the U.S. let alone starving people in Africa or some other agriculturally poor region of the world. We consume some corn flakes as cereal but if you go to any large, well-stocked cereal section in any super market or grocery retailer today you will probably find more rice-based, and certainly more wheat-based cereals, than anything made from corn. Probably the major use of corn in American diets is via the use of corn fructose, a sweetening agent produced from corn starch, and a use which many diet conscious people say is not in our best interests for good health. Read the label on most any confectionery, candy, or sweetened drink product and you will see corn fructose or a derivative of it listed. This sweetener, in most cases, could easily be replaced by sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets but the corn fructose industry has become solidly entrenched in supplying the need.

    Now could our largely excess corn production here in the U.S. be exported to feed starving people in other parts of the world even if they had the money to buy it? Maybe a tiny bit to Mexico but that would probably just put more subsistence farmers in Mexico out of business. What does the major part of the world’s population consume? Rice. Could we grow rice in our corn belt? Not without a major conversion of the rice species to a temperate region “dryland” crop. The second most widely used cereal crop is wheat, a crop that has very definite climatic and soil requirements. There are large areas of the U.S., Canada, Australia, and several other parts of the world that are well-suited to growing wheat and wheat shortages are most commonly tied to adverse weather conditions in specific wheat-growing regions.

    Most of the U.S. corn production, as correctly pointed out by one poster, is consumed indirectly as meat and milk. The price volatility sometimes seen in the corn market can be quite disruptive to the livestock producers, but even there I would submit that one of the major causes of the brief spike we saw in corn prices a year or more ago was due to speculators entering the grain market rather than the normal effects of supply and demand. Once some of the speculators got burned and got out of it, the price of corn has returned to a more market- and cost of production-determined price. Farmers simply cannot make any money with corn at $1.50 or even $2.00 a bushel. Even with higher prices the farmer’s share of the retail price is only a few cents per package of cereal. Most of the product cost is due to processing, transportation, and profits in the production and distribution system.

    Inadequate food supplies in critical parts of the world are due to: poor soil, inadequate rainfall and water supplies, inadequate infrastructure to support efficient agriculture (such as lack of sources of affordable credit, effective markets, etc.), corrupt government policies that do not promote agriculture and the education needed to successfully bring it about, overpopulation in areas of the world with inadequate resources, the profit motives of multinational corporations to sell and promote products and services that are not in the local farmers’ best interests, perhaps some Wall Street and World Trade practices, and cultures that sometimes simply do not see a need to change and try to move forward.

    Is climate change/global warming occurring? Yes. Will it affect agriculture and food production? Yes, but as one writer mentioned, increased levels of carbon dioxide will stimulate increased plant growth and crop yields. However, even with current CO2 levels the theoretical maximum yield of corn is over 600 bushels per acre compared with our current common high yields of around 200 bushels per acre.

    Is CO2 the major culprit in our global warming? I do not think so. Data from research at the Atmospheric Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicate that CO2 accounts for about 7% of the greenhouse gas warming. Water vapor is by far our biggest greenhouse gas that has a warming effect. What some scientists are saying and others do not want to talk about is that the Sun’s energy output is increasing which of course brings more energy into our atmosphere and contributes directly to greenhouse warming. NASA data and other sources indicate that the polar icecap on Mars has been decreasing over recent years. Wouldn’t this be another indication that maybe the Sun is involved?

    Over the 30 years that I measured the CO2 content in the atmosphere over western Wisconsin it went from 0.031 to 0.036% of the atmosphere by volume. I have yet to see a mathematical calculation using kinetic energy data proving how much temperature increase would be caused by the 0.005% increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. The high correlation often cited by Al Gore and others between CO2 levels in terms of parts per million (0.036% is 360 PPM) and increases in global temperature does not necessarily prove cause and effect. In fact, one can take that correlation and turn it around 180 degrees and claim that due to higher temperatures in our atmosphere, and therefore at the earth’s surface and in the soil, the rates of the decomposition reactions that break down organic matter (rotting reactions) are increasing and thus more CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Oceans which are a huge absorptive sink for CO2 also hold less of it as water temperatures increase.

    Our old earth has gone through a number of climate change cycles in its past. Why should we think that there will be no more other than what humans cause? Now I fully support reducing our energy use, converting to green energy sources, and conserving resources because it will make for a better environment here on our earth. But I think we have to be careful about who and what we blame for food shortages and changes in our climate that we may or may not be able to control.