Podcast

PeakProsperity.com

Lester Brown: The Sobering Facts on Global Resource Scarcity

Food & water supplies will be the weakest links
Monday, October 7, 2013, 12:02 PM

I have been wondering, is food the weak link in our modern civilization, too, as it was for these earlier civilizations? There was a time when I doubted that it could be. But now I think not only that it can be, but I think it likely will be the weak link. And if I were to pick one indicator to track that I think will tell us more about our future than any other, it would be the world price of grain.

Environmental analyst Lester Brown has made a lifetime career of tracking declining supplies of global resources. He is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization, both of which provide massive data sets on the precipitous drop in key natural resources as well as urgent policy recommendations for addressing them.

In today's podcast, Chris and Lester discuss the global depletion themes that concern Lester most greatly, including population growth, water usage, limits to food production, and climate changes. In many of these areas, the picture painted by the data is alarming.  Our future choices are quickly being limited to when these constraints will limit our way of life, not if.

About 40% of the world’s grain is being produced in countries where the yield has already reached what I call the ‘glass ceiling,’ the one that is imposed by the limits of photosynthesis.    

Once you remove the nutrient constraints on crop yields and once you remove the moisture constraints, either because you have adequate rainfall or because you irrigate, then the remaining constraint is the process of photosynthesis itself. And so, if you look at the countries with high rice yields – for example, in Japan, rice yields have not increased for at least 15 years. They have been flat, and this was after a century of rising rice yields, but they have sort of hit the glass ceiling, the one imposed by the limits of the process of photosynthesis itself.

Of more concern, China’s rice yields are not just a few percent below those in Japan. So China’s rice yields are about to level off, as well, and these two countries together account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest.

So we are looking at climate effects on food production. We are looking at the limits of photosynthesis that are imposed on food production, and this is one we cannot escape. No one has a process that is more efficient than photosynthesis for converting solar energy into biochemical energy that we and other living things can use.

So we have got a third major constraint we are facing that is going to make it very difficult if not impossible to double food production by 2050. Do you see the scarcity of water? Wherever you look now in the world where there is irrigated agriculture, whether it is in the western parts of the United States or in the North China Plains, or India, just to look at the big-three grain producers, we see serious trouble with water.

The water tables in the United States are falling in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, in western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska, and it is because they are drawing on an aquifer that is called the Ogallala Aquifer, which is an aquifer that was laid down eons ago in geological time. It does not recharge naturally. So once that is pumped out, then irrigated agriculture will come to an end in that area. And we have already seen a very substantial shrinkage of irrigated area in Kansas and Oklahoma and in the Texas panhandle, for example. China is going to see exactly the same thing. It is seeing the same thing under the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and one-third of its corn. And I should note that in the Arab countries in the Middle East, as we have settled them, the depletion of aquifers has led to substantial declines in grain production, in some countries 20-30%. In Saudi Arabia, agriculture is going to disappear entirely by 2016 because all of their underground water resources will have been depleted for irrigation.

So we are looking at very challenging issues on the technology side of expanding agricultural production, and also on the climate side.

These are difficult issues to deal with, and I think there is always the hope of those who are in office that the crisis will not come during their term, that it will be for the next guy, the next person in office, to worry about. But when you think about it, it is a real challenge to figure out how you deal with things like over-pumping aquifers, which is so commonplace in the world.

The failure to mesh water-resource availability and population policy, I think, when we look back historically, will be seen as one of the decisive factors leading to a potential breakdown in some societies.

But despite the seriousness of our global predicament, Brown believes there is much in our control to determine how hard we slam into these natural limits to growth. His books outline numerous stewardship policies and other solutions, several of which he discusses in this podcast. But swift implementation is necessary for them to make a difference. And whether enough societies will mobilize to adopt them in time is the critical unknown factor at this time.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Lester Brown (32m:29s):

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast, where we discuss information you cannot afford to live without. I am your host, Chris Martenson. The third E in our Crash Course series really ought to be the first E, if we were organizing them in terms of importance, and that is the Environment. Today we are going to dive into the environment by talking with one of the greatest and most influential thinkers, writers, and communicators on the environment, and that is Lester Brown.

After a variety of government positions in the 1960s, Lester founded the World Watch Institute in 1974. Along the way, he authored or co-authored over 50 books, won a MacArthur Grant, received 25 honorary degrees, and in 2012, was inducted into the Earth Hall of Fame in Kyoto. In 2001, he founded the Earth Policy Institute, which you can find at earth-policy.org as long as you place a dash between the words earth and policy.

I have been following his work for years, ofttimes while peering between gaps in my fingers, because he so factually chronicles the steady erosion of complexity and abundance from earth’s surface.

Welcome, Lester.

Lester Brown: My pleasure, Chris.

Chris Martenson: Let me start with a personal connection between us. Your book, Plan B 3.0, was drawn upon and cited heavily in my own book The Crash Course, helping me to fill out chapters on soil and water and oceanic depletion. However, the biggest surprise for me when I got the book was seeing that the top quote on the back cover, which reads, “From the most important voice of our time,” was by a woman named Judy Hyde, who also happens to be my mother. She was really excited to hear you were going to be on the show today.

Lester Brown: That is just amazing. I had no idea that she was your mother, and I have held her name in high regard for a long time.

Chris Martenson: Fantastic. So, listen. Let’s jump right in. You have been at this business for quite a while. What is your short summary of where humans are at this moment in time with respect to living in a sustainable fashion on the earth? What do you say when people ask you how we are doing?

Lester Brown: We are not doing very well. Regardless of the indicator they look at, we see signs of change and deterioration. We look at agriculture, for example, and the agricultural system that we definitely now have is one that evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability. And now, suddenly, we are seeing the climate system start to change. And this, as it changes, will be more and more out of sync with the agricultural systems. It is this changing relationship between the earth’s climatic system and its agricultural system that I am particularly concerned about. We know, for example, from crop ecologists that a one-degree rise in temperature, one degree Celsius, will lead to a 16% decline in grain yields.

We are also looking at rising sea levels because the ice sheets are melting. If all the ice on Greenland melts, for example, sea level rises 23 feet. But even a three-foot rise in sea levels would inundate much of the land in the rice-growing river deltas of Asia. Half of Bangladesh is within one meter of sea level, for example, so a one-meter sea level rise would wreak havoc with this country of 155 million people.

The same thing is true for the delta in Vietnam. A one-meter rise in sea level there would adversely affect tens of millions of people. So when we look at rising sea levels, we are looking at a threat in particular to Asia, because this is where so much of the rice is grown in river deltas. So this is just one example of the kind of change that we are facing in the world, and it is coming fast.

During the last century, sea level rose eight inches. During this century, it is expected to rise at least three feet and perhaps as much as six feet. And when it does that, it is going to be a very different world than the one that you and I have known. So that is just one dimension of climate change that I think is going to create some really difficult problems for us.

We are going to see, for example, the emergence of two real estate markets. One is low-lying coastal regions like the eastern coast of the United States, Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, for example, where real estate prices will be falling. But in the interior of the country, where people will be retreating to, real estate prices will be rising. So we are going to see the emergence of, in effect, two real estate markets: one very close to sea level, and the rest of the country. So these are just a few of the economic effects of climate change.

Chris Martenson: I was really shocked when I saw the recent UN projections for how much food we would need to grow to have an equitable harvest for the world. By 2050, they were talking about doubling food output. So I guess that is over the next 37 years.

And here is the sneaky thing about doublings, which you know – it means that in the next 37 years, we are going to try and grow and consume as much food as has been grown and consumed in all of human history, which is a rather startling feat. How likely is that in your mind?

Lester Brown: Well, I do not think it is going to happen, and there are a number of reasons why I think that. One is that as of 2013, about 40% of the world’s grain is being produced in countries where the yield has already reached what I call the ‘glass ceiling,’ the one that is imposed by the limits of photosynthesis.

Once you remove the nutrient constraints on crop yields and once you remove the moisture constraints, either because you have adequate rainfall or because you irrigate, then the remaining constraint is the process of photosynthesis itself. And so, if you look at the countries with high rice yields – for example, in Japan, rice yields have not increased for at least 15 years. They have been flat, and this was after a century of rising rice yields, but they have sort of hit the glass ceiling, the one imposed by the limits of the process of photosynthesis itself.

Of more concern, China’s rice yields are not just a few percent below those in Japan. So China’s rice yields are about to level off, as well, and these two countries together account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest.

So we are looking at climate effects on food production. We are looking at the limits of photosynthesis that are imposed on food production, and this is one we cannot escape. No one has a process that is more efficient than photosynthesis for converting solar energy into biochemical energy that we and other living things can use.

So we have got a third major constraint we are facing that is going to make it very difficult if not impossible to double food production by 2050. Do you see the scarcity of water? Wherever you look now in the world where there is irrigated agriculture, whether it is in the western parts of the United States or in the North China Plains, or India, just to look at the big-three grain producers, we see serious trouble with water.

The water tables in the United States are falling in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, in western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska, and it is because they are drawing on an aquifer that is called the Ogallala Aquifer, which is an aquifer that was laid down eons ago in geological time. It does not recharge naturally. So once that is pumped out, then irrigated agriculture will come to an end in that area. And we have already seen a very substantial shrinkage of irrigated area in Kansas and Oklahoma and in the Texas panhandle, for example.

China is going to see exactly the same thing. It is seeing the same thing under the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and one-third of its corn.

So water constraints – and I should note that in the Arab countries in the Middle East, in some of them, the depletion of aquifers has led to substantial declines in grain production, in some countries 20-30%. In Saudi Arabia, agriculture is going to disappear entirely by 2016 because all of their underground water resources will have been depleted for irrigation.

So we are looking at, I think, some very challenging issues on the technology side of expanding agricultural production, and also on the climate side.

Chris Martenson: Did you just say that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is going to be without domestic food production substantially by 2016?

Lester Brown: Yes. Saudi Arabia is the first country to actually make projections of how an aquifer depletion will affect its food production, and they are projecting – and they have done this pretty carefully – that by 2016, they will be out of the business of producing food, because they will not have any water left with which to produce it. And in Saudi Arabia, if you do not have irrigation, you do not have agriculture.

Chris Martenson: I think that puts a little bit of a spin on certain geopolitical maneuverings that are going on over there. That has to be a very frightening statistic for any government when they face something like that.

As I scan the world and all the headlines, I see one where key resources are already materially depleted, and many of these are utterly nonrenewable unless you have a million-year or ten million-year time horizon.

First, do you agree that resource depletion is an important topic, and if so, why does it receive almost no attention from policy-makers?

Lester Brown: It is partially because these are difficult issues to deal with, and I think there is always the hope of those who are in office that the crisis will not come during their term, that it will be for the next guy, the next person in office, to worry about. So that is one of the things. But when you think about it, it is a real challenge to figure out how you deal with things like over-pumping aquifers, which is so commonplace in the world.

We look at India, for example, and we see a country where it has been very easy for years, decades now, to drill irrigation wells. The result is, the farmers in India have drilled 26 million irrigation wells, and they are pumping water on a scale that far exceeds the rate of recharge. As a result, water tables are falling and wells are going dry. And then this is in a country that is adding 18 million people a year.

So the failure to mesh water-resource availability and population policy, I think, when we look back historically, will be seen as one of the decisive factors leading to a potential breakdown in some societies.

Chris Martenson: It seems to me that there is just so much startling evidence that we are rapidly consuming the vital seed stock of our future. You mentioned burning through ancient aquifers. But certainly oceanic fish stocks, fossil fuel usage – I see signs everywhere. And the world just merrily chugs along, wishing for even more economic growth. That is what every headline screams at us, is that is what we need.

What is really blocking our ability to perceive these actual risks? And I mean as a culture, not as individuals. I know lots of caring individuals who are perfectly capable of looking at these tough topics, as you say, but not yet as a culture. So the question is, what do we need to do differently if our goal is to avert the ship away from the rocks?

Lester Brown: Well, our culture has evolved during historical periods when growth was the norm. When everything was growing, population was growing, food production was growing, industry was growing, the economy was expanding – everything was growing. But it is not always going to be that way. We are seeing already in some countries where agriculture is no longer growing; indeed, harvests are shrinking because of aquifer depletion. And we are going to see a lot more of that in the future.

What I have been asking myself recently as I analyze these situations and look back at earlier civilizations – the ones whose archeological sites we now study, like the Sumerians or the Mayans or what have you – for them, food was the weak link in their civilizations. It was food shortages that eventually brought them down.

In Mesopotamia, it was the buildup of salt in the soil because of a faulty design in the irrigation system that led to declining yields and the eventual decline of the civilization. With the Mayans, apparently it was deforestation and soil erosion that led to their decline.

And so I have been wondering, is food the weak link in our modern civilization, too, as it was for these earlier civilizations? There was a time when I doubted that it could be. But now I think not only that it can be, but I think it likely will be the weak link. And if I were to pick one indicator to track that I think will tell us more about our future than any other, it would be the world price of grain.

Chris Martenson: Well, that has certainly been an important indicator, if you were, say, living in a North African or a Middle Eastern country. Recently when food prices rise above about 40% of disposable income, social unrest seems to be a stepchild of that process.

So I know you have said that food is the new oil. I think that is the context for it. I am going to take the devil’s advocate side. I get these questions – a lot of people, people off of Norman Borlaug’s work, talk about the Green Revolution and say, We are going to “clever our way” through this somehow. We will somehow help plants have better photosynthesis or We will genetically engineer very drought-resistant crops. Talk to us about the role of such technological advances in the scheme of the challenges you see.

Lester Brown: During our lifetimes, at least in mine, we have seen an extraordinary revolution in agriculture. Corn yields in the United States today are four times what they were in 1940. But the interesting thing is that that growth cannot continue indefinitely because we are pushing against the limits of photosynthesis.

And if you look at corn yields in the United States in the last four, five, six years, there really has not been any increase. Our corn yields have plateaued. Just as rice yields plateaued in Japan, just as wheat yields plateaued in France and Germany and the United Kingdom, we are seeing a plateauing of corn yields here. And that is happening in more and more countries in the world as farmers hit this sort of glass ceiling that is imposed by the efficiency of the photosynthetic process itself.

Chris Martenson: Now, that increase of a factor of four-fold increase in yields, was that on average? Or does that mean if I took an acre of the very best Iowa topsoil that is available and grew corn on that in 1940 and then did it today, the yield would be up by a factor of four?

Or does this mean that we have just found ways to take marginal lands and irrigate them and put nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium on them? What is the real driver of that huge increase?

Lester Brown: That increase has been the systematic application of advancing technology, in some cases involving irrigation, but in this country, more often than not with rain-fed agriculture, it was breeding more productive varieties. It was applying fertilizer. We now use, in this country, 12, 15 million tons of fertilizer a year, maybe more than that now, to replace the nutrients that are lost in an urban society. That is happening around the world as we urbanize. We have to use more fertilizer because we have broken the original nutrients cycle.

When I was growing up on the farm in southern New Jersey back in the 1940s and the early 1950s, all the nutrients, the livestock manure, human waste, everything went back on the land. But that is not happening the same way now. People are concentrated in cities. Animals are concentrated in feedlots. So we have disrupted the nutrient cycle, and we try to compensate for that by applying fertilizer, chemical fertilizer, which takes a lot of energy. But we really do not have any choice now but to do that.

Chris Martenson: That is the linchpin of the story, for me, and where it connects over to that E into Energy. As the idea – when you say we put nutrients on, I am just thinking ‘energy’ the whole time, whether we are running a Haber-Bosch process in making nitrogen fertilizers, ammonia out of nitrogen from the atmosphere, or mining phosphate, or potash rock, and hauling it in. It is all just extraordinarily energy-intensive. And I have seen studies that show anywhere between ten and 19 calories of fossil fuel energy embedded in every calorie we consume, some of that going into the production process at the farm; some into distribution; some in the warehousing, cooling, and cooking processes. But when you add it all up, it is really an extraordinary subsidy.

Right now there is a pretty big push going on in the U.S. to convince ourselves that Peak Oil is no longer a realistic concern, because we have shale rocks that we can start to tap, and that this somehow negates the idea that we have to be careful stewards of energy resources. How do you respond to that?

Lester Brown: Well, It does take a lot of energy to produce food. As you indicated, much of that energy, actually – as I recall, only about a fifth of the energy used in the food system is used in agriculture itself. Most of it is in transporting, processing, marketing the food products and getting them to consumers.

Just to use an extreme example, if you buy a loaf of bread for three dollars in the local supermarket, probably not more than 15 cents of that three dollars was actually spent on the wheat that goes into the loaf. It seems the rest of it is transportation, processing, and marketing, etc. So it is an energy-intensive system, and the more urbanized we become, the more energy-intensive the food system is. That is a difficult one now.

In a world that is highly urbanized, to escape the reality, it is going to take a lot of energy to keep this food system going and we will have to get it from someplace. If it does not come from fossil fuels, then we will probably be harnessing wind energy and other sources. Wind produces electricity. You can use electricity for almost anything from producing fertilizer to powering transportation systems, for example.

Chris Martenson: Right, right. So as you look over the next ten years, say, what do you think would be the most likely threat to our way of life at this point in time? Is food the first thing that crops up? Or is it actually climate change?

If we finally take that seriously – as you well know, to take it seriously would be to seriously reduce our carbon emissions today, not in 50 years or something, and that would be an extraordinary battle to try and get such a thing pushed through. That would certainly be fairly disruptive to our current modus operandi.

What do you think is going to come along, if anything, first or foremost in the next ten years to possibly cause a course correction here?

Lester Brown: If I were to pick one thing, it would probably be more extreme climate events. We have seen a really pronounced uptick in the number and the destructiveness of climate events in the last few decades, and I think that is going to continue. At some point we may wake up one morning and we will have passed the tipping point and say, Wait a minute; this is getting to be a bit much, and we are going to have to make some changes. Let’s get started. That is one possibility.

Another possibility is that food prices will keep rising and creating so much social instability in the world that we will begin to realize that we have got to rethink our future, and that simply continuing what we have been doing in the past is no longer a viable option.

Chris Martenson: All right. Now you have been at this for a long time, chronicling, by your own words, this is a difficult topic. These are difficult subjects. And along the way, things seem maybe to getting worse in certain quarters, not better. How do you keep going? How do you personally keep moving? I have great admiration for the amount of work that you have done and the persistence. So it is a very serious question. How do you keep doing what you do?

Lester Brown: Well, there are some encouraging things happening in the world today. On the climate change front, I think the most exciting thing that is happening is the closing of coal-fired power plants in the United States. We have now – I say we; it has mostly been the work of the Sierra Club, with some other environmental groups supporting it – we have closed, I think it is, 132 coal-fired power plants. This was out of an original 500 and something. So it is moving in the right direction. Whether it is going to move fast enough, I am not sure.

But it is interesting to see how effective the Sierra Club has been. Their goal is to close every coal plant in the United States. I think they are going to succeed. It is going to take them a while, and we have to keep developing alternatives. Every time they identify a coal plant they want to close, they work with the community to develop alternative energy sources and jobs and so forth so that they can continue without having their lives disrupted by the closure of the coal plants. So that is one of the exciting things that is happening.

Another one is the emergence of bike-sharing as a means of transportation in cities. Living in Washington, D.C., we now have more than 100 bike stands around the city in this bike-share program, and indeed it may be getting close to 200 now. So wherever you are, you are never more than two or three blocks away from a bike stand. And if you are not making a really long trip, the bike is probably ideal way to do it.

Chris Martenson: And have you been tracking at all the re-emergence of small-scale farming? I know a lot of people in their 20s and 30s seem to be very excited about and using very elegant and sophisticated methodologies to permaculture design and fairly sophisticated approaches that require a deep knowledge and a relationship with the land. That is something I personally have been very encouraged by. I am wondering if you have a chance to see what is going on there as well.

Lester Brown: It is an interesting and I think a very healthy development. As I recall, the number of farmers markets in this country now, where local farmers market directly to consumers, exceeds 10,000. Now, it still accounts for only a small share of the food that is consumed in this country, but it is moving in the right direction, and people are rediscovering what fresh produce actually tastes like after having relied on supermarket produce, some of which has traveled thousands of miles before it gets to the consumer. So farmers markets I view as a healthy sign in the same way that I view the bike-sharing program. It is a healthy development. It is not that the bike-sharing program is going to eliminate all the carbon emissions generated by our transport system, but it begins to restructure it and to offer an alternative. That, I think, is a very healthy development.

Chris Martenson: Speaking of good alternative and healthy developments, I am wondering – you talk about macro things. In my final question, I am wondering – these are very large macro forces you are talking about. At the micro, very micro, level, what do you counsel to individuals who are listening? What should they be doing to get themselves more resilient in the face of the potential things that you have articulated? But most importantly, to align their current actions with the realities of the limits of the world we live in? What should individuals be doing?

Lester Brown: Well, there are a lot of things we can do individually to simplify our lifestyles. One is, we need to ask ourselves, Do I really need a car? And more often than not today, people do not really need cars. The public transportation system, the bike-sharing programs, and so forth are sufficiently well developed that life without a car may be a lot simpler. I have not had a car for 40-some years now.

I do not feel deprived at all, but I live in a town where I can walk almost everywhere I want to go, and there is a very good Metro system and the bike-share program, as well. So it is easy for me to live without a car. This does not work for everyone, but it is an example.

Another example is, we think – in the summertime, particularly here in Washington, D.C. – we have to have air conditioning. What I have discovered is that in my apartment, what I have is that I look out over Rock Creek Park, and I happen to be on the top floor of the apartment building. I can do very well without air conditioning just by opening the windows and turning on the ceiling fans in each of the four rooms in my apartment. The fans use only a fraction of the electricity that air conditioners use, for example.

So I just like those as examples of how we can shift and not in any way be penalized for it or experience a fallen level of living or anything of that sort. There are a lot of these things that we can do if we just think about them, but we have not really systematically thought about them because we have not had to in the past.

Chris Martenson: I do note that in Europe, they live on about half the energy per capita that we do in the U.S. So it seems to me that you can have pretty large changes in your energy consumption profile while still having a very materially excellent life with no differences really that I can detect that are significant. So there is certainly lots that we can do. I guess it comes down to being the change you want to see, and the little things really do count.

Lester Brown: I just wanted to mention one other very encouraging sign, and that is that the young people in this country do not seem to be part of the car culture in the way that your generation or my generation were. When we were growing up in the 1940s and 1950s and getting a driver’s license when you were 17 and had something to drive and especially living in a rural community was a rite of passage.

But young people today do not think about cars in the same way. They are much more interested in cell phones and socializing on the Internet than using a car for socializing.

Chris Martenson: Well, my micro-contribution to that is, my own daughter is 19, and she has no interest in getting a car. We live in a fairly rural area, but she gets by. It was unthinkable to me to not have a car at her age, but for her it is a whole different shift in culture. And on the macro, if we look at the numbers of vehicle miles driven, it has been trimming down for a number of years now, for a variety of reasons. But maybe one of them is people being less car-centric at the younger end of things. So I know that in my own life, and I think it is a very encouraging trend.

Lester Brown: It is. And one of the consequences of that is that the U.S. automobile fleet has been shrinking now for several years. It has been getting smaller and smaller. People are driving each car less. And the fuel efficiency of the new cars is much higher than the older ones. So we are cutting back on oil use and reducing carbon emissions in a significant way – I do not think fast enough, yet, but we are at least heading in the right direction now.

Chris Martenson: That is encouraging. And with that, I want to thank you for your time. And also, if people want to follow your work more closely, where would they do that?

Lester Brown: At earth-policy.org, and much of our work is online and can be downloaded free of charge. I do have a new autobiography entitled, Breaking New Ground that will be officially published on the twenty-first of this month.

Chris Martenson: Breaking New Ground. Excellent. And the book right before that was?

Lester Brown: Let us see. What was the last one? Oh. Full Planet, Empty Plates, on the world prospect.

Chris Martenson: Excellent book there, as well. So thank you so much for your time, and thank you so much for the work you have been doing.

Lester Brown: Chris, thank you for the interview. I have enjoyed it.

Chris Martenson: My pleasure.

About the guest

Lester Brown

Lester Russel Brown (born March 28, 1934) is a United States environmental analyst, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. BBC Radio commentator Peter Day calls him "one of the great pioneer environmentalists."

Brown is the author or co-author of over 50 books on global environmental issues and his works have been translated into more than forty languages. His most recent book is Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, which was released in September of 2012.

Related content

45 Comments

Mark_BC's picture
Mark_BC
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 30 2010
Posts: 248
Good article. Not only

Good article. Not only doubling food production seems unreasonable, but even just bringing the third world up to a western diet will be impossible. Because westerners eat lots more meat, which requires about 10 calories of plant food to produce for every one calorie of meat, it turns out that to provide everyone with the same dietary meat intake as westerners would require harvesting pretty much the majority of the total Net Primary Production of the planet, when you factor everything into it. And the total NPP of the planet has actually gone down 10% despite the Green Revolution.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, most of their domestic water now comes form desalination, which is powered by the waste heat from their thermal electricity generating stations burning ... fossil fuels. Talk about ecological overshoot. I really hope they can develop their solar infrastructure in time, but I have seen numbers showing that it will not be enough to avoid huge problems.

Interestingly, at work we are designing a big copper port in South America. Basically, we will desalinate in probably one of the 50 biggest desalination plants in the world, enough water to fill a 1 meter diameter pipe and send it 150 km up into the Andes, to basically supply the same amount of water that an average stream would provide for free elsewhere. Then the copper slurry comes back down through another pipeline to get loaded onto ships.

This process of desalinating water is very expensive, and combined with pumping it up to 4000 m elevation, is very energy intense (the electricity comes from coal of course). And all of this is to simply provide a stream of water. There is nothing simple about this whole process and the fact that it is economical speaks to how low the remaining copper ores have become.

HughK's picture
HughK
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 6 2012
Posts: 367
Thanks, Chris, and a visual comparison of oil use

Thanks very much, Chris, for bringing Lester Brown onto PeakProsperity.  I found the interview to be very interesting and motivating, and I will listen to it again on Wednesday, after a busy day at work tomorrow.

Also, thanks Mark from BC for the sobering example of desalinating seawater and then pumping it up to 4000 meters for a copper operation.  What a dramatic picture!  I'll be sure to pass that along.

Chris noted that Europeans use about half the amount of energy as do Americans.  For anyone who would like a visual perspective on the differences in oil use around the world, here are some pictures that my students took on that topic.

I'll add four here, but there are more at that link.

Cheers,

Hugh

All of the images found on this poster are here.

digging's picture
digging
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 13 2010
Posts: 20
For myself the best point was
  • For myself the best point was the one Chris made about the doubling problem for the needed increases for food production in the next 37 years, that we'll need to grow the same total amount as what has ever been grown in human history.....that is a very, very telling comment which has been sitting in my heart all day causing me to reconsider all the planned projects for this up coming year to make sure I'm not wasting my time and that I'll be on the best track as possible.

Digging

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 2748
digging wrote: For myself the

digging wrote:
  • For myself the best point was the one Chris made about the doubling problem for the needed increases for food production in the next 37 years, that we'll need to grow the same total amount as what has ever been grown in human history.....that is a very, very telling comment which has been sitting in my heart all day causing me to reconsider all the planned projects for this up coming year to make sure I'm not wasting my time and that I'll be on the best track as possible.

Digging

To add that this point, I recently viewed a video that Mr. Brown made in which he commented that organic farming is nice, but you can't feed the world with it.

Doug

Swampmama3's picture
Swampmama3
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 28 2009
Posts: 50
If you can't feed the world

If you can't feed the world with organic farming, then how was the world fed before 1940, when pretty much all there was was organic farming?  In my opinion, the move away from organic farming is what caused this whole mess.  We upped production to an unnatural level with unnatural fertilizers and methods.  So, with abundant food, we did like any species does.   The natural limits to our population, our metabolic debt ceiling, if you will, was raised, so we grew our population to where it is now, in overshoot. 

After we use up what is available and affordable, there will be nothing left except organic farming.  To which our population will have to adjust during very unpleasant times.  Can you think of a non-organic method of growing food which is sustainable?  I can't.

Mark_BC's picture
Mark_BC
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 30 2010
Posts: 248
Organic farming could

Organic farming could possibly work if we spread our sewage back over the land, but we aren't in any way set up to do that. So we have to replace, using unsustainable fertilizer inputs, what we take from the site via the harvest and flush down or sewers and throw into the landfills.

But if we could use solar energy to make nitrogen fertilizers that could be sustainable. However, phosphorus depletion is a serious problem since there seem to be no other sources available besides the mining supply.

jdye51's picture
jdye51
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 17 2011
Posts: 157
Something Missing

So the thing that I didn't hear in the podcast was the nitty -gritty of the loss of land, crops and water on the human population. Civil unrest was mentioned but when I project my imagination into the future, not only increasing violence but famine on a huge scale comes to mind. We're talking many millions of people who will migrate in search of food and water that doesn't exist, placing enormous stresses on those areas that still have them. What will countries do when climate refugees come pouring in just looking to survive? How will already unstable governments handle it? My guess is that countries will start out by closing their borders and the interlopers will be persecuted and thrown out or killed. See Greece.

I read Mr. Brown's book "Plan 3.0" and he does a good job of laying things out. It certainly taught me a great deal about resource depletion. But the big elephant in the room in this podcast to me was the real affect on real people. Riding bikes and such are great but they aren't doing enough to change the trajectory we're on. Energy conservation isn't enough. Too many tipping points have been reached. Maybe that is a topic for another podcast. But I am frustrated by cerebral discussions about the situation. Where is our grief when we imagine our brothers and sisters starving to death? The lives disrupted and lost. How can we talk so objectively about the loss of so much - and not only human life? Humans appear to be causing a Sixth Great Extinction event - 2000 species disappearing every day. You can bet that any wild game will go quickly, endangered or not, when it is the difference between starving and living another day. We will devour the planet. There are enormously difficult situations facing the human race and most don't even know they exist. Most assume we'll muddle through somehow because we always have. But there are planetary limits that we're reaching that say otherwise. The future looks catastrophic to me, not even including the insanity of Fukushima. I am continually amazed at the lack of a sense of urgency except for a relatively small group who are willing to see.

I guess I needed to vent, and I don't mean any disrespect towards Mr. Brown. It's the situation I'm angry about. Om . . . . breathe.

Joyce

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 4 2010
Posts: 2436
Prime Real Estate on the High Ground.

Yeah. I get it.

So why do we not talk of a solution? Too Hard? You don't know the meaning of Hard. You will. Hard is burying your kids.

When I was a kid I was always with the losers in sport. I was forever cheering them on. Pushing a piece of string. I am still doing it. Losers.

Swampmama3's picture
Swampmama3
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 28 2009
Posts: 50
Nasty as it may sound, we

Nasty as it may sound, we will need to get to the point where our own waste isn't so toxic that we can't return it to the place we got the food from.  China has done it for a few thousand years now, I think.  But as long as we live over crowded and spread disease, and pickle ourselves with pharmaceuticals, our waste won't be suitable to re-use.  We will need to close the loop.  And it doesn't need to be with human waste.  My chickens produce wonderful fertilizer with the right nutrient balance to feed the garden. 

Organic practices fed humanity from the beginning.  We have no choice but to eventually go back to that.  Nature runs on a closed loop system.  Until we learn to close that loop again, we'll be struggling against pollution, resource scarcity, and inefficiency losses.

Part of our failure is our arrogance to think that we can exist outside of the nature that grew us. 

digging's picture
digging
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 13 2010
Posts: 20
It's seems that the UN is

It's seems that the UN is saying the only way we have a change to feed the world going forwards is to convert to organic holistic farming methods. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-09-23/new-un-report-calls-for-transformation-in-agriculture

digging

digging's picture
digging
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 13 2010
Posts: 20
I soooo hear you Joyce, I

I soooo hear you Joyce,

I believe Mr Brown chooses to make points that can give people some kind of hope or power to act. He knows how bad it reallyyyy is.....

We need to start finding ways to cooperate to build replacement systems, as simple and basic as possible that can be replicated fairly easily. Look at this clip of what Michael Pollan said about the Polyface farm, yes we can receive from the earth all that we need while the system increases in vitality.

Digging

DrtFrmr's picture
DrtFrmr
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 21 2011
Posts: 9
Organic

There are two fairly recent developments in agriculture that give me hope. One is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) where yields are increased significantly ( 50-100%) using low tech cultural methods (including organic). Contact Erika Styger, Cornell Univ.

The second is a shift away from a chemical analysis of the soil to a microbiological one. For farmers/researchers see the work of Dr Elaine Ingham, Rodale Inst. For gardeners, read "Teaming With Microbes". This is the science behind why organic agriculture works. 

ao's picture
ao
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 4 2009
Posts: 2220
DrtFrmr wrote: There are two

DrtFrmr wrote:

There are two fairly recent developments in agriculture that give me hope. One is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) where yields are increased significantly ( 50-100%) using low tech cultural methods (including organic). Contact Erika Styger, Cornell Univ.

The second is a shift away from a chemical analysis of the soil to a microbiological one. For farmers/researchers see the work of Dr Elaine Ingham, Rodale Inst. For gardeners, read "Teaming With Microbes". This is the science behind why organic agriculture works. 

We used the concepts from Teaming With Microbes this summer, and seemed to have a healthier garden and definitely had improved soil quality.  I think Wendy recommended the book here but I can't recall for sure.

green_achers's picture
green_achers
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 3 2009
Posts: 203
digging wrote:For myself the

Deleted to do some math.

green_achers's picture
green_achers
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 3 2009
Posts: 203
Sorry, math makes my head hurt.

This is a continuation of the comment I deleted because I needed to think it out a little more.  I believe Digging and I may have misunderstood Chris's comment about doubling.

I believe the statement cited for the UN means we will need to double the annual yield between now and 2050, or the next 37 years.  I don't believe that means we would need to produce a cumulative amount over that time period equal to the total cumulative production for the last 10-15,000 years.  Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that would only hold if the rate of production had been doubling at a steady rate for the entire time being considered. In other words, the rate doubling in equal time increments over the whole timeline.

Instead, I'm pretty sure the curve would have a very long tail followed by the hockey stick shape we're all familiar with.  The area under the curve for the entire time period up to now could be a lot larger than the area under the curve for the time period between now and 2050.

Anyway, I'm just making the comment because it looked like a couple of people had pretty strong emotional reaction to that idea.

Not that doubling annual production over the next 37 years is likely, either, but it's at least in the realm of the imaginable.

digging's picture
digging
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 13 2010
Posts: 20
Hopefully Chris could comment

Hopefully Chris could comment on that but I think that still could be right because it is only very recently the human race has been over 1 billion and heading to 9 billion?

Digging

Rector's picture
Rector
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 8 2010
Posts: 343
Expiration

All,

All of these observations as well as Chris's excellent summation in TCC book, are an accurate representation of the truth and our future.  We are, in fact, running on fumes in many critical areas, poisoning our own environment, and ignoring the problem.  Just as the data suggests, we WILL run into a wall and collapse.  Some of us have known it all along because it was made plain.  No data necessary.

I believe people are being poor stewards of the resources we have been given, and there is no excuse for the waste and destructive manner in which we have chosen to live.  Conservation and sustainable living is part of the natural design and should be our personal aspiration and example.  However, there is nothing mankind can do to stop our decline and destruction.  

We have an expiration date as a species and these observations are simply external confirmation of that fact.  Like rats in a cave, we are heading towards an eventual die-off that has been known from the beginning.  Exponential growth, and the eventual depletion of resources is a law, and if you think about it, can at best be delayed, never stopped cold.  The system was designed to run for a period of time and no longer.  Our purpose here is NOT to figure out how to exist in perpetuity, but something more meaningful.  We should number our days, because they have a number.

Consider:  if the universe has always existed, why is it still in motion, and still full of energy?

We all know the laws of thermodynamics: an infinite past should have tended toward disorder entirely by this point, right?  With an infinite amount of time behind us, why hasn't all the energy in the system achieved thermodynamic equilibrium?  It has not, because we do not have an infinite amount of time in our past.  The universe had a beginning.

So, nothing existed, and then something existed. How did that happen?  What does that mean?

The answer to that question will provide a "lens" that allows one to understand the fact that we cannot and will not go forever on this planet; people will not do the right thing for the planet, and the end is nigh.

If you think I've gone off the deep end are a worried about my health, feel free to send me a PM.  I will tell you all about it.  You may also exhale sharply, and move onto the next comment.

Rector

thc0655's picture
thc0655
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 27 2010
Posts: 591
Expiration

I'm 100% with you Rector in your big picture perspective (the really big perspective!). I've often wondered if what we're doing to ourselves is like what the Easter Islanders did. I always wondered what they were thinking as the trees on their little island were all being cut down. And what did they think/do when they cut down the last one. Now I think I know, because we're going through the same thing, just on a bigger scale. We're just as self blind and self destructive and short sighted. And I fear we'll have the same results. Future people , if there are any, will wonder about us "How  could they be so short sighted? What were they thinking?"

Quercus bicolor's picture
Quercus bicolor
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 19 2008
Posts: 239
Short term vs. big picture

I'm also with you Rector and thc in terms of the big picture.  The universe we inhabit began at some point. But were there/ will there be other universes?  Humans most certainly do have an appointment with extinction at some point in the future.  I'm guessing that what I'm about to say here you both agree with , but haven't stated.

The Easter Islanders carried on with reduced numbers even after the impact of deforestation had run its course.  While near term extinction is certainly not out of the question, my gut tells me it would take the combined effects of several not-so-likely worst case scenarios to reduce our numbers below the threshold for a viable population.  A more likely scenario is that our numbers will be reduced substantially (let's say 90%).  In that case, most of us will not have surviving descendants, kind of like a little extinction for our bloodline.  Getting from here to that reduced population is likely to be very unpleasant for most people too.  Of course this scenario comes in many shapes and sizes with smaller adjustments generally associated with less pain.

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 7 2007
Posts: 3439
Doubling food production

green_achers wrote:

(...)

Instead, I'm pretty sure the curve would have a very long tail followed by the hockey stick shape we're all familiar with.  The area under the curve for the entire time period up to now could be a lot larger than the area under the curve for the time period between now and 2050.

Anyway, I'm just making the comment because it looked like a couple of people had pretty strong emotional reaction to that idea.

The nature of doublings is independent of the time function...as long as the rate is relatively constant.

Imagine that we are back to putting 2x the number of grains of rice on the chessboard, our classic doubling visualizer.

If the grains go 1, 2, 4, 8, 16...we can see that each new board square gets more grains on it than exist on all of the previous squares combined.

But what if humans went from 1 unit of food production to 2 over the course of a year, but then held that constant for 100 years, and then suddenly jumped to 4?  Then we'd be comparing 1 + 2(100) = 201 to 4, which doesn't work, does it?

But there are two things that make the statement about "more than in all of human history" stand up, more or less.

The first is that food production has been, more or less, rather steadily chugging along, as it has been a function of population.  The second is that the long, fat tail is thin and puny compared to the post-fossil-fuels explosion in population.  

So even if there was a thousand years of chugging along at a million tons of annual food production, that will be matched in quantity by a single year of a billion tons of food production.

Using grains as a proxy for food production, consider that between 1960 and 2010, annual world grain production jumped from 643 million tons to 2.2 billion tons.  

So taking 37 years to go from ~2.2 billion tons to 4.4 billion tons is a big, huge, gigantic pile of food tonnage, which I can pretty easily mentally visualize as matching cumulative world output over time.  Of course, we could also drop this into a spreadsheet and prove it all out using reasonable assumptions, but just noting the increase from 1960 to 2010 gives a good approximation....

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 7 2007
Posts: 3439
Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification is the thing that concerns me the most about increasing CO2 levels...

This ~9 min video is well worth watching because it shows that acidification is not a future concern, it is happening right now and could well alter the entire balance of life in the ocean.

http://apps.seattletimes.com/reports/sea-change/2013/sep/11/pacific-ocean-perilous-turn-overview/?prmid=4939

Such things are hard to really internalize because they are so faceless and so enormous, but to those able to really sit with the information, it merely says we have to either begin doing things very differently, right now, or accept that we may well trigger changes that are utterly beyond our control and comprehension.

It is against such a backdrop that the stock market's wiggles and jiggles just fade into complete noise for me...

digging's picture
digging
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 13 2010
Posts: 20
Since some very deep thoughts

Since some very deep thoughts and opinions have been shared here, I would like to share one myself. There is an old history book that mentions these very thing happening, life in the sea dying(ocean acidification?), as well as the sun scorching men with fierce heat (climate change?)...I have to admit to myself it seems rather amazing that someone a few 1000's years ago could even dream up such facts?

Now what I find even MORE amazing is the account links these events to the actions of people....

"and they did not repent of their deeds"

When I read the whole account and read between the lines I see it saying that all of these calamities are consequences of our acted upon choices.

I firmly believe it is soooo time for us to truly and completely 'repent' from our collective destructive life style.

I don't believe advanced organized civilization can be saved....but I do hold to the hope that LIFE can be saved, most likely greatly reduced in numbers for a time, but as the living systems of the earth heal perhaps mankind could heal as well from the 'nature' that has lead him to bring life to this brink in the first place...

Digging

Phaedrus the younger's picture
Phaedrus the younger
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 21 2013
Posts: 32
Taboo subject?

Overpopulation is generally a taboo subject for most because of the extremely difficult questions it raises, and deep moral issues attached.  It makes the problem solving monumental when you can't even name the problem in a meaningful way!

Easter Island is an interesting case study, but it strikes me as only partially helpful.  The island is small enough that the events probably unfolded in a homogenous way.   In an earth-scaled overshoot, it seems likely that the impact will manifest itself unevenly and over a longer time scale. Geography and differences in self-sufficiency at a country/region level would exacerbate the impact of the crisis and the time horizon of the consequences.

So the tough question: we collectively believe in building resiliency in our communities; how do we respond in a crisis if a neighbouring community isn't prepared or has bad luck and comes to our community for aid?

ps From the fictional and nonfictional stories, in my experience the narrative usually divides the participants into 2 philosophical camps:  the 'share the limited resources equally and try to save everyone' camp (good) and the 'consolidate the resources to maximize the chances a few survive' camp (evil).  It seems the rare exception that someone is well regarded after having to make an extremely tough call. 

digging's picture
digging
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 13 2010
Posts: 20
"If a man doesn't want to

"If a man doesn't want to work than neither should he expect to eat"

I believe we will have to make these kinds of choices in the future so thinking about it now is a good idea. Thus the quote above, myself I wouldn't have a problem helping anyone who was also willing to fully contribute to the efforts. How many people have seen the movie "Alive"? The man they saved ended up saving them all.

Digging

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 4 2010
Posts: 2436
Iron Ore.

Counter trend (Backwater eddy).

Esperance ports shipped 8% more iron ore out than last year. And still the ships keep coming. I thought it was because the Chinese were converting $US for commodities, but it cannot be that because PM Julia Gillard trades iron ore for Yuan.

Tentative conclusion: The Chinese have decided to print Yuan, just like the US. They do not value their own paper. I wonder if we would ship as much Iron Ore if we asked for Rare Earths in exchange.

I think that we have "Muggins" tattooed on our foreheads.

digging's picture
digging
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 13 2010
Posts: 20
please translate I don't

please translate I don't understand the point you are making?

Digging

HughK's picture
HughK
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 6 2012
Posts: 367
Ocean acidification and keeping it real

cmartenson wrote:

Ocean acidification is the thing that concerns me the most about increasing CO2 levels...

Such things are hard to really internalize because they are so faceless and so enormous, but to those able to really sit with the information, it merely says we have to either begin doing things very differently, right now, or accept that we may well trigger changes that are utterly beyond our control and comprehension.

It is against such a backdrop that the stock market's wiggles and jiggles just fade into complete noise for me...

Chris,

There is certainly a strong argument for ocean acidification having more immediate large-scale consequences than global warming.  Since both are triggered by the same carbon dioxide emissions of our industrial civilization, I agree that ocean acidification might be a better entry point than climate change for understanding these very large destabilizing shifts in the third E.   Recently, on PP's climate change thread, there have not been any refutations of the problem of ocean acidification caused by human-emitted CO2 releases, at least not since this topic was brought up there last week.  So, for those people that are still hesitant to recognize anthropogenic global warming, ocean acidification might be a worthwhile problem to ponder, and it does seem that the latter's consequences are likely to be more immediate.

But whether we're talking about climate change or ocean acidification, these are global problems that the free market cannot solve by itself, and that makes a lot of people, including the Ludwig von Mises Institute, uncomfortable.  Von Mises' perspective has many great points when it come to free markets and monetary debasement, and I certainly appreciate the insight this offers into our current fiscal and monetary endgame.  But just as Austrian economists are right to challenge current applications (or misapplications) of Keynesian fiscal stimulus and Friedmanite monetarism, those concerned about the global environmental problems such as Lester Brown have a very good point when they say that markets alone cannot solve these problems.  The pursuit of individual interest works very well on some levels, but it does seem to be a major contributing factor to the very rapid series of depletion and degradation dynamics that are happening all across the third E.  How to best respond to global problems, such as human-emitted carbon dioxide leading to ocean acidification, is a harder question.  But it does seem that unless we engage in some coordinated action, we're looking at some very big environmental collapses that, as you say, would make even a fairly large fall in stock prices fairly insignificant in comparison.  What I do hope is that any policy responses towards CO2 emissions will take into account the fact that humans are at lease semi-rational economic actors.  A fee and dividend policy on carbon emissions seems to try to use a free market approach.

I can find no example in the paleoclimate record of another time when so much CO2 was released this quickly: The atmosphere has increased from about 290 to almost 400 ppm in about 100 years.  Does anyone else at PP know of a time in geologic history when CO2 levels increased by over 30% in 100 years?  Before humans were around, natural CO2 releases of this magnitude took thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years.  For more on the speed of our current climate shift, check out James Hansen's Storms of My Granchildren.

But this all might be pretty overwhelming , especially if one wishes to focus on personal responses.  Why even talk about such big shifts when ultra-loose monetary policy and hard limits to growth imposed by passing the oil peak provide enough cause for concern and action?  

Chris, I respect your answer to this question.  Recently, one of my teacher-mentor's gave me the article When Words Decide in which author Barry Schwartz cites a number of studies that suggest that the way people think about things can be influenced in significant ways depending on how a topic is framed, or a question is asked.  Schwartz, for example, cites Tversky, who people here at PP might appreciate for his work on the money illusion and why people have such a hard time understanding the costs of inflation.  But he also cites Dan Ariely's Try It, You'll Like It, a study of people's preferences for doctored beer.  And, one of the last parts of the article cites Cass Sunstein's concept of libertarian paternalism, which may sound like just plain paternalism to those concerned about the official story of 9/11 and Sunstein's apparent recommendation of cognitive infiltration.

Since you also also integrate Dan Ariely in your approach, Chris, I spent some time thinking about the presentation of the three E's and paths to resilience here at PP.  It may be that framing the issues in a way recommended by Ariely's cognitive psychology is the best approach here at PP, and perhaps elsewhere.

Nonetheless, one of the most powerful aspects of your analysis is your generalist approach and your ability to get real when analyzing a problem, by which I mean, your ability to clear away the superficial and identify the independent variables driving the destabilizing shifts within the economy and energy systems.  For example, you astutely teach us that no matter what Bernanke says or does, he can't print the US into prosperity, and you show us the evidence behind that.  In some ways, Bernanke's zero interest rate policy and his QE are a type of language, trying to trump reality.  After all, the only reason that the Fed can delay the almost inevitable dollar decline is because people believe in the dollar, and Bernanke's words and actions are part of this fiat illusion.  The same is true for energy.  While human beings have all kinds of great ideas and new technologies, you point out that none of these new ideas has really solved the problem of needing ever-expanding oil production to keep our growth-based industrial capitalism going.  Again, in this case conventional wisdom tells us that human ideas - not quite the same as language, but thought and language are both human creations - in the form of technological innovation can solve the problem, but people like you, Robert Hirsch, and Charles Hall tell us that much more of this issue is about energy as opposed to technology, and that means that we're really going to feel it when the oil decline begins in earnest.  The real again trumps words.

The same is true for ocean acidification.  In the end, the pH of the oceans won't really care what we say or think, and they won't care how questions are framed.  I don't mean to suggest that there is no value to using Ariely's or Tversky's insights when teaching things to people.  They seem to be very valuable, and if they have informed your masterful teaching approach here at Peak Prosperity, then they clearly have many beneficial aspects. But it does seem likely that facing some of the large third E shifts, including ocean acidification, needs to be part of the picture as well.  And hopefully people can respond to these large shifts in all sorts of individual ways, such as the family that is changing the way they are seeding and catching oysters in the video you linked.

For that reason, I think I will continue to have my students look at the extent to which  CO2 and other GHG emissions that drive both ocean acidification and climate change is the core and the keystone of the third and largest shift in civilization, what we call here at PP the third E.  Having said that, I think I could stand to learn a lot from your approach to presenting this information in a way that encourages people to feel empowered and in control of their own lives, as opposed to overwhelmed.  Perhaps I need to set aside a whole month at the end of the year, dedicated to solutions, whether on the micro or macro level.  I can still rearrange my course to achieve that second semester.

Cheers,

Hugh

Bankers Slave's picture
Bankers Slave
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 26 2012
Posts: 203
Hollywood propaganda machine tells the truth

LesPhelps's picture
LesPhelps
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 30 2009
Posts: 259
Phaedrus the younger

Phaedrus the younger wrote:

Overpopulation is generally a taboo subject for most because of the extremely difficult questions it raises, and deep moral issues attached.

In an earth-scaled overshoot, it seems likely that the impact will manifest itself unevenly and over a longer time scale. Geography and differences in self-sufficiency at a country/region level would exacerbate the impact of the crisis and the time horizon of the consequences. 

Overpopulation is a taboo subject.  I bring it up from time to time.  I get some responses, but mostly people prefer to talk about the effects of overpopulation as if they were separate issues.  The moral issue I see with population is the "sin" of bringing a child into this world that you have no reasonable hope of supporting.  The second even less popular "sin," in my lonely opinion, is increasing the current already insane population with a house full of children.  I hold the unpopular view that having a slew of children is the moral equivalent of commuting to work in a Hummer H2, perhaps worse.

2X2X2X2 = 16  4X4X4X4 = 256

Second, your comments imply overshoot is a future event.  I argue that a lot of the 3E topics we focus on here are clear indications that we are well and truly into overshoot already.

Speaking of Hummers, yesterday I was filling the tank on my 80+ mpg scooter, parked beside a man filling a 1 ton diesel dually pickup.  Of course he left his engine running the entire time he was parked.  I'm guessing he is a member of what my wife and I refer to as the 10 mpg crowd.  There were no obvious accessories on the truck that would imply it was set up to perform heavy duty work.  As a species, we are so misguided.  Taking the human race as a whole, I don't see any obvious evidence that we are behaving any more intelligently than an algae bloom created by an abundant food supply.

Les

jgritter's picture
jgritter
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2011
Posts: 140
Solutions

Hugh,

When you speak of seeking solutions are you referring to mitigating anthropogenic environmental degradation or averting human extinction?

For my part, I think we've long passed the "separate the recyclables and change the light bulbs" phase and are now in the "can any part of the human species survive?" phase.

Recognizing that we are on the brink of a singularity, any thoughts on what the survivors of the transition might expect and how to respond?

John G

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 2748
Since you brought it up...

...there are global implications to what I'm about to describe, but we each have to balance the practicality of our actions against those implications.

I recently discovered there is a gas station near where I live that sells gas without ethanol.  The nominal price is more expensive, but improved mpg makes it cheaper than ethanol gasoline.  Also, I store gas at home for the various machines I still rely on.  If you don't know, ethanol infused gas separates out into water and gas, a lot of water, which fouls any engine it fuels.  It led to constant problems with my machinery.  I am using the non-ethanol exclusively for my home machinery, but trade off based on convenience for our cars.

I suppose I rationalize my view on this subject, but I fail to see the advantage to subsidizing Iowa corn farmers over using oil based fuel when they burn far more fuel than I do, and their product results in so many headaches for me.

Let the crucifying begin.

Doug

HughK's picture
HughK
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 6 2012
Posts: 367
I'm just getting to that point, and I have no idea.

Hi John,

I am not sure if we're in danger of extinction or not.  Maybe you're right to frame the question this way.  I agree with you that we're past the "separate our recyclables phase."  (He he....)  A co-worker recommended a recently published book on population and Earth's sustainable carrying capacity for humans today called Countdown by Alan Weisman.  Here's an LA Times review. And, we don't have to be anywhere near extinction for it to get very hard, even without consequences related to increases in atmospheric CO2.

I'm still on the, "let's learn about the three E's" phase, quite honestly.  My wife is not really focused on these issues right now, and I'm not trying to get her to do so because it doesn't seem like the right time.  As far as what to expect going forward, I try to stay optimistic about my ability to be happy and grounded even in a very hard world.  I'm not preparing in most of the ways that some people are here due to my my work and financial situation.  Basically, the best way I can prepare right now is to generate as much income as possible and turn it into some type of asset that is still likely to be valuable in a harder future, as well as to deepen my relationship in a community where in many ways I remain very foreign, since I live in a Swiss-French town but work and reside in an English-speaking boarding school.  (OK, I concede that I could be doing more...)

But in a recent post, Arthur said something to the effect of, you don't know how bad things get until you see your children go hungry.  (Sorry if I've mis-attributed such a statement, Arthur.)  I think that's a fair way off for most of us in the developed world, but honestly, I have no idea what our future holds.  Doesn't Chris say something to the effect of, all battle plans are great until the first engagement with the enemy?

In terms of specieis bottlenecks, it does seem that we made it through the Toba Catastrophe, though.  smiley  Although, the term "we" only works on the downstream side of the bottleneck.  On the upstream side of the Toba species bottleneck, if such an event actually occurred, then most of "us," by which I mean most homo sapiens, didn't make it.  Only a few families made it, and we're all the offspring of those families.

Cheers,

Hugh

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1535
keeping change local

...if you buy a loaf of bread for three dollars in the local supermarket, probably not more than 15 cents of that three dollars was actually spent on the wheat that goes into the loaf.

Even if you add in the energy to bake it and other ingredients, a loaf of bread costs me about 30 cents USD to bake. No ad campaigns. No trucking. And it's healthier. We have been sold such a bill of lying goods as a culture: cheap store-bought food and convenience over nutrition and sustainability. Well, it's not going to be cheap much longer. A debased currency, here in America and elsewhere (try India this week), overshot population and the limits of modern agriculture--all of which your podcast covered beautifully--will make food incredibly expensive.

The 12 pints of of home-grown pickles I canned yesterday might seem a quaint time-wasting hobby while one could buy the equivalent amount of pickles on sale for $21 dollars. I'm doing such things anticipating a time when food will be scarce.

Phaedrus the younger? Nobody talks much about the overpopulation elephant in the room here because the community at PeakProsperity.com is trying to light candles rather than curse the darkness. We know. Believe me, we know. We just put our energy into the few small things we can do to solve whatever personal, family and maybe community things we can change. As for the very real possibilities for mass starvation, famines, wars over food and water, and human (and other species) die-offs due to extreme weather, pollution, climate change...our awareness is under the surface, fueling our preparations.

I, at least, try not to stress myself over things I cannot change. Can I get my neighbors to even stop spraying Round -up weed killer on their lawns when there is a apiary a block away? No, and I have even less control over Fukushima. Can I stop the corruption of the banking cartels doing things like manipulating the precious metals market or re-hypothicating funds? No, all I can do is put my assets in hard goods like a well, a garden, canning supplies, seeds, and a paid off house. Can I change my government and its response to the 3Es? Not really. Maybe locally, a bit, but the power politics at the federal level seem out of control, and I have even less control (i.e. none) over other countries. You have no power "over there," either, and less in your home country than you think.

Does that mean I don't write my senators and complain, or work on campaigns? I used to, but the form letters from people like Senator Hillary Clinton (when I was in NY) and Senator Lindsey Graham kept thanking me for writing and then explained why they were going to do whatever the hell they wanted. The last local campaign I worked on ended with my idealistic and qualified candidate losing to monied interests. I vote anyhow, carefully trying to find the least toxic persons for the jobs.

Change will only come when people are in enough pain to be jolted out of their ruts. There is a world of pain coming, and we can ultimately only deal with those we live near and are responsible for. Concentrate on becoming the change you want to see. When others ask you for help, they'll finally be ready to listen. Sadly, for many of them that time may never come, or come too late.

jgritter's picture
jgritter
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2011
Posts: 140
Wow!

Wendy, you nailed it.  I wish I could give you more thumbs up.

John G

Grover's picture
Grover
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 16 2011
Posts: 507
Don't Fret. Be Happy.

Doug wrote:

...there are global implications to what I'm about to describe, but we each have to balance the practicality of our actions against those implications.

I recently discovered there is a gas station near where I live that sells gas without ethanol.  The nominal price is more expensive, but improved mpg makes it cheaper than ethanol gasoline.  Also, I store gas at home for the various machines I still rely on.  If you don't know, ethanol infused gas separates out into water and gas, a lot of water, which fouls any engine it fuels.  It led to constant problems with my machinery.  I am using the non-ethanol exclusively for my home machinery, but trade off based on convenience for our cars.

I suppose I rationalize my view on this subject, but I fail to see the advantage to subsidizing Iowa corn farmers over using oil based fuel when they burn far more fuel than I do, and their product results in so many headaches for me.

Let the crucifying begin.

Doug

Doug,

There is no need to rationalize. Subsidizing Iowa farmers so we can have ethanol is a political decision, not an ecological decision. If it were such a good idea, it wouldn't need subsidizing. If Iowa wasn't first in line for electing a president, they wouldn't receive a subsidy.

I don't know the chemistry involved when ethanol is combined with gasoline, but alcohol and water are totally miscible (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscible) so adding ethanol to the gasoline should cause any water in your tank or lines to combine with the ethanol. That solves freezing line issues.

I haven't looked into the amount of CO2 that is emitted from an engine using a gallon of 10% ethanol blend versus a gallon of 100% gasoline. It may be lower, but there isn't as much energy contained in ethanol compared to gasoline, so you'll have to use more blend to accomplish the same goal. If anyone has these numbers handy, I would be interested to know what the real output difference is. I can't imagine that there would be a significant difference after adjusting for energy content.

There is simply too much energy contained in fossil fuels for them not to be used for economic advantage. As long as fossil fuels can be extracted and used as fuel profitably, humans will use them. It doesn't matter if it is burned in your lawnmower, Les' 80 MPG scooter, the 1 ton dually that gets 10 MPG, or a factory in China. It will be burned.

The problem is somewhat like a prisoner's dilemma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner's_Dilemma.) It is in everyone's interest if we all stop burning fossil fuels, but it is really better for me to accomplish my goals quicker by using machinery powered by fossil fuels. There is no immediate consequence of me burning fuel (other than my wallet feels the pinch,) so there isn't anything to keep this action in check.

Nature has a way of fixing stupid. The fossil fuels that we burn will increase the CO2 in the atmosphere. The Oceans will sense the difference and absorb the surplus CO2. We end up with a lower pH in the ocean. This will benefit some species and will harm others. As soon as it harms humanity sufficiently, the driving force will stop and eventually, balance will be restored.

It is almost surreal to view our plight this way, but there really isn't anything that can be done to stop it. (I'm open to suggestions.) Enjoy using your power tools while you still can.

Grover

Mark_BC's picture
Mark_BC
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 30 2010
Posts: 248
HughK wrote: There is

HughK wrote:

There is certainly a strong argument for ocean acidification having more immediate large-scale consequences than global warming.

I haven't looked into ocean acidification too too much but I have to admit I had some nagging questions about it. CO2 concs have been way higher in the not-too-distant past, so it's not like shellfish aren't going to be able to make shells anymore. But we could see major ecological upheavals as the concentrations change so fast.

I think it will be a long time before people are starving in N America due to a lack of food, we are the world's bread basket and coal will be around long enough to make fertilizers.

But we will have major economic disruptions here, and other parts of the world particularly Africa may experience famine. I think the greater risk is that a world war will start and that will cause massive loss of life, and a general downward spiral will start where social organization breaks down and never really recovers, and therefore the steps we need to take as a society to move to wards sustainability won't happen.

I believe that technically, we could change today towards a sustainable future. The energy is available via solar, and we could organize our societies around all this. But the problem is cultural, so few people actually understand the issues. It's amazing the kind of denial techniques I see from people to avoid having to acknowledge reality. They'd rather believe the BS from our political and economic leadership which is telling everyone to just keep on consuming. But our leadership doesn't have a clue either, and even if they did they are too corrupt to do anything about it.

This relates to the above anecdote of people seeming to pride themselves on how much gas their giant SUV's burn. There is a widespread confusion between the concepts of "production" and "consumption". It seems many people believe that if they just consume more stuff then this will be good for the economy because it will provide incentives, and therefore jobs, for people to "produce" that oil (this seems to be what modern Keynesian Economics is all about). Most people actually believe that oil is "produced", and even here in Canada the official organization promoting fossil fuel interests calls itself the "Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers". I'd sure be interested in learning how they "produce" oil.

There is a complete mismatch between the direction our energy systems are headed and where they need to go. Here in Canada, which has arguably a quarter of the world's remaining oil reserves in the oil sands, there is a monumental push to get this pipeline through to ship it to China, for "economic" reasons purportedly. Never mind that the entire reserve represents only 10 years of global oil consumption, and that N America already imports 1/3 of the oil it burns. Those unfortunate facts aren't relevant to our economists, because economics has never had anything to do with representing reality.

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 2748
Grover

Quote:
I don't know the chemistry involved when ethanol is combined with gasoline, but alcohol and water are totally miscible (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscible) so adding ethanol to the gasoline should cause any water in your tank or lines to combine with the ethanol. That solves freezing line issues.

It doesn't work like that.  Before I realized what was going on, I was having all kinds of problems, mostly with my garden tractor.  When I heard about the ethanol problem, I pumped a gallon plastic jug full from my partially filled 50 gal. tank just to see what it looked like.  The pump pumps from the bottom of the tank where separated water naturally settles.  Nearly the entire gallon was water.  Car guys tell me that's the way it always works.

Apparently there is enough mixing in a car's tank that the water doesn't settle out so easily.  Obtw, I haven't had any problems since using the ethanol free gas and have been getting nearly 20% better mpg when the car is filled with it.  I know that doesn't make intuitive sense when the fuel is only 10% ethanol, but my mileage is back where it was before ethanol was mandated, roughly 30 mpg, compared to slightly over 25 mpg with ethanol.

Doug

grandefille's picture
grandefille
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 11 2010
Posts: 30
you're both right.....

Doug and Grover-

There's truth in what each of you have written.  Water and ethanol are totally miscible, in all proportions, over a wide range of temperatures above 32F.  Water and gasoline are immiscible for practical purposes.  Having 10% ethanol in the gasoline would initially INCREASE the solubility of water in the mixture, but only to a point.  (ethanol "likes" both gasoline and water, so it makes them "dislike" each other less) But once too much water is added, and the critical point passed, then much of the ethanol will stay with water in a second liquid phase.  So the volume of the bottom phase will be larger than if no ethanol were present, but it's not ALL water.  The main ingredient in fuel stabilizers like Stabil, which prevent formation of the lower liquid layer due to water contamination, is isopropanol. Isopropanol is a three-carbon alcohol, very similar in structure to ethanol (a two-carbon alcohol).

Hope this helps clear things up!

Julie

Grover's picture
Grover
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 16 2011
Posts: 507
My results confirm your results

Doug wrote:

Apparently there is enough mixing in a car's tank that the water doesn't settle out so easily.  Obtw, I haven't had any problems since using the ethanol free gas and have been getting nearly 20% better mpg when the car is filled with it.  I know that doesn't make intuitive sense when the fuel is only 10% ethanol, but my mileage is back where it was before ethanol was mandated, roughly 30 mpg, compared to slightly over 25 mpg with ethanol.

The State where I live mandates 10% ethanol during the winter months. I used to have a Prius that averaged 54 MPG during the summer months and 46 MPG during the winter months. This happened year after year. I could always tell when the winter blend was being sold. I wish people understood that the total parts exhausted are more important than the parts per million.

As I said, I don't know the chemistry that well. Perhaps the ethanol isn't as miscible with gasoline when it has a high load of water. I'm wondering if the separation you are experiencing in your tank is due to oxidation effects. Do you use "Stabil" at all? How long was the fuel in the tank? Just curious.

Grover

Edit: I just read grandefille's reply that explains the phenomenon. Thanks Julie!

nigel's picture
nigel
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 15 2009
Posts: 90
Ethanol

We really should have a different thread for the side topic of fuels.

Ethanol burns differently to gasoline, and a mixture burns differently again. Each engine is designed to burn a specific fuel, generally given as an octane rating, this is set in the compression ratio of the engine. You can design an engine to burn only one of the three, modern engines such as in a prius will have a knock switch that will change the injection to suit the type of fuel and reduce the issues but the simple truth is run the fuel your manufacturer suggests. You will always get better mileage on the recommended fuel.

Doug your decision is entirely rational and I tend to agree with it.

Older engines will have issues mainly with rubber gaskets / fuel line and so on. You will also reduce the life span of older engines in particular valve seats and stems.

My experience is entirely practical on the subject. When I learnt about peak oil I pulled apart the engine on a Massey Ferguson 35 gasonline tractor and rebuilt it specifically to run on ethanol. I changed the fuel lines, filters, tank, put in hardened valve seats and stems and increased the compression ratio. Corn is a big local crop, and whilst I'm an amateur farmer having a tractor that the real farmers could use in a crunch seemed like a very good idea. Aside from doing a test run or 3 and dusting the tractor off to show off, it has just sat in the barn for a while now. I've since focused my attention on Bio-Diesel from nut trees instead. Diesel is a much better bio fuel (crop wise) to produce. You can broad acre or orchard grow it, eg canola or pecans and so on. The post processing of ethanol via a still is also much more energy and labor intensive than doing SVO (straight vegetable oil) or even full bio-diesel.

Nate's picture
Nate
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 6 2009
Posts: 461
ternary phase diagram

A ternary phase diagram for gasoline-ethanol-water will tell you how when phase separation starts.

See page 2-34 in this pdf.

http://www-erd.llnl.gov/ethanol/etohdoc/vol4/chap02.pdf

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 2748
Grover, Grandefille, Nate

Thanks for the discussion.  It is illuminating, but (perhaps reflecting my own density) one thing I don't understand is where the water comes from.  Is ethanol in our gasoline already mixed with water?

Doug

robie robinson's picture
robie robinson
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 25 2009
Posts: 627
its hydroscopic

atmosphere

robie robinson's picture
robie robinson
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 25 2009
Posts: 627
this deserves its own thread

http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/wendell-berry-on-bill-moyers/

very good,a must watch. robie

gillbilly's picture
gillbilly
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 22 2012
Posts: 381
The nature of Nature

This was a sobering podcast, and many good responses. I find it ironic that there seems to be acceleration of the environmental  problems in Saudi Arabia and Texas. I don’t wish any harm on either of its citizens, but it is interesting that the two oil “hot spots” are fraught with depleting resources of a third kind.

Coincidently I picked up Paul Tillich’s “The Shaking of the Foundations” and reread the 9th chapter titled “Nature, Also Mourns For A Lost Good.”  The book was published in 1948, and after 65 years I find it also sobering that the same issues are being grappled with, the same questions are being asked. He was one of our greatest theologians and I’m always in awe of the insight he had. Here are some of the quotes that really moved me:

So let us ask today: What does nature mean to us? What does it mean to itself? What does it mean in the great drama of creation and salvation?

Are we able to perceive the hidden voice of nature? Does nature speak to us? Does it speak to you? Or has nature become silent to us, silent to the men of our period? Some of you may say, “Never before in any period has nature been so open to man as it is today. The mysteries of the past have become the knowledge of children. Through every scientific book, through every laboratory, through every machine, nature speaks to us. The technical use of nature has been heard by the scientific mind, and its answer is the conquest of nature. But is this all that nature says to us?

Is nature not completely subjected to the will and willfulness of man? This technical civilization, the pride of mankind, has brought about a tremendous devastation of original nature, of the land, of animals, of plants. It has kept the genuine nature in small reservations and has occupied everything for domination and ruthless exploitation. And worse: many of us have lost the ability to live with nature. We fill it with the noise of empty talk, instead of listening to its many voices, and, through them to the voiceless music of the universe. Separated from the soil by a machine, we speed through nature, catching glimpses of it, but never comprehending its greatness or feeling its power.

Who is still able to penetrate, meditating and contemplating, the creative ground of nature?

The glory of nature is not shallow beauty. Nature is not only glorious; it is also tragic. It is subjected to the laws of finitude and destruction. It is suffering and sighing with us. No one who has ever listened to the sounds of nature with sympathy can forget their tragic melodies. The melancholy of the leaves falling in autumn, the end of the jubilant life of spring and summer, the quiet death of innumerable beings in the cold air of the approaching winter – all this has grasped and always will grasp the hearts, not only of poets, but of every feeling man and woman. Nature mourns for a lost good.

Therefore, commune with nature! Become reconciled with nature after your estrangement from it. Listen to nature in quietness, and you will find its heart. It will sound forth the glory of its divine ground. It will sigh with us in the bondage of tragedy. It will speak of the indestructible hope of salvation!

The music of the universe plays in every moment. If we can just listen!

Peace

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Login or Register to post comments