The new great migration era

Mass immigration has turned into a crisis that places a big burden on first world countries which aim to maintain their humanitarian standards. To reduce the streams of refugees, European nations have made deals with Turkish president annex dictator Erdogan, who promises to reduce the influx in exchange for visa free travel for Turkish citizens and other rewards.

There is good reason however, to believe that the streams will grow drastically in the decades ahead. To understand why, take a look at some of the below graphs:

Projected agricultural productivity change between 2003 and 2080

800px-projected_impact_of_climate_change_on_agricultural_yields_by_the_2080s_compared_to_2003_levels_cline_2007

As can be seen, Europe and North America are projected to witness an increase in agricultural yields. For Africa and South Asia, the outcome is projected to be far more catastrophic instead. It’s thought that the viking era was caused by overpopulation in Scandinavia. It’s also thought that a temperature drop in Northern Europe led to the Germanic invasions of the Roman empire. This is what tends to happen to populations that suddenly find themselves above carrying capacity, as a result of a sudden decrease in agricultural productivity of their land.

Youth bulge

Who leaves his country of origin in search of distant lands to colonize? Generally speaking, young men with poor prospects at home are most inclined to migrate to distant lands. Where do most of the world’s young people live? In third world countries.

clip_image004_thumb36

The map above shows the percentage of the population aged beneath 15 years in 2013. By now most of this cohort is in their twenties. The fertility rate in most of the Middle East and North Africa has dropped very rapidly in recent years, but this has no effect of course on young people who have already been born. If the fertility rate in these nations has dropped because of overpopulation, the current youth bulge in these nations will have to deal with the consequences of ecological overshoot.

Population explosion in sub-Saharan Africa

africaeuropepopulationgrowth4_thumb

Although great progress has been made in addressing population growth in the Middle East and Northern Africa, in Sub-Saharan Africa, we have been less than successful. In fact, many African countries have seen stable high fertility rates for decades.

In the period of 1950-1955, the fertility rate in Uganda was estimated at 6.9 children. In 1985-1990, the fertility rate was actually higher, at 7.1 children per women. By  2010-2015, the fertility rate has dropped to 6.38 children per woman. In the meantime however, the infant mortality rate dropped from 116 per 1000, to 61 per 1000, meaning that more of these children grow up to reach the age of reproduction themselves.

In Nigeria, the fertility rate is 6.01 children per woman, hardly any different from the peak fertility rate of 6.76 children decades ago. In the last period of five years, the fertility rate went down by 0.04 children. At this pace, a replacement fertility rate that would stabilize the Nigerian population would be reached 500 years from now.

There are however even worse situations found in some other African nations. In Congo, the fertility rate was estimated at 6.3 in 2007/2008. In 2013/2014, the fertility rate was estimated at 6.6 children per woman. In other words, fertility had gone up, rather than declined.

What causes this? Lack of access to contraception is one problem for certain regions, but a large part of the problem that’s taboo to discuss is the cultural factors that cause women to give birth to so many children. In parts of Nigeria, 81% of women desire more than four children. Eight percent of the women desire more than fifteen children.

Contrast this with Europe. In Western Germany in 2004, 16.6% of women desired no children. Just 3.7% of the women desire more than four children. The mean desired fertility rate was 1.73 in Western Germany, which is a desired fertility rate below replacement level. It should be clear that the conventional feel-good solution of providing contraception to women who desire contraception but have no access that has become established liberal wisdom is not going to be enough to solve our problem.

To make matters worse, desired fertility levels differ enormously between different socioeconomic groups in these nations. Muslims in Kenya have a desired fertility rate of 6.3, compared to 3.8 for Christians. Desired fertility rates are also much higher for poorer citizens.

It’s often thought that economic development reduces desired fertility rates, but this is not entirely clear. Some studies suggest that this has cause and effect backwards, that declining fertility rates actually led to economic development as nations temporarily ended up in a situation with few elderly and few children who need to be taken care of.

Interestingly, although quite some progress was made in reducing African fertility until the 90’s, the economic development in Africa that occurred since the 1990’s has not led to a further decline in fertility. Nigerian GDP per capita grew enormously since 2000 and continues to grow rapidly today. Fertility rates did not decline significantly as a consequence however. If anything, economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa allows these nations to maintain high fertility rates that would otherwise lead to a Malthusian catastrophe.

There exists no consensus on what causes the high desired African fertility rates. If we’re lucky, desired high fertility rates are largely a product of the high fertility rates women observe around them. African women who actually have more than eight children tend to be more ambivalent about their high fertility. Providing access to contraception would thus lead to a reduction in desired fertility rates, which would lead to more demand for contraception, in a positive feedback loop.

More likely however, entrenched cultural factors play a role. It’s observed in multicultural societies around the world, that Muslims have higher fertility rates than Christians, Atheists and Hindus. More devout religious observers also tend to desire higher fertility rates. Most worrisome of all perhaps is the observation that tribal conflict between different ethnic groups leads to higher desired fertility rates in some nations. Palestinian authorities in Gaza were opposed to family planning for this reason. A look at maps of global cultural diversity shows a rough trend of lower fertility rates in less culturally diverse nations:

ft_diversity_map

Finally, most problematic perhaps would be the possibility that genetic factors play a role in the high desired fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s observed around the world that African girls enter puberty earlier than European girls, who enter puberty earlier than East Asian girls. Doctors have noticed that African and Aboriginal babies seem to mature earlier, at an age where Native American and Asian babies are still very helpless.

If children from certain ethnic groups innately require far more parental investment than children from other ethnic groups, it would make sense that women from some ethnic groups are more interested in birth spacing and reducing their fertility rates than other groups. As a consequence, we may find that addressing population growth in sub-Saharan Africa will be much more difficult than it proved to be in other places.

 

Advertenties

Loss of hydropower means renewable electricity is likely to decline in the 21st century

As unlikely as it might seem, renewable electricity generation is likely to decline. With cheap solar panels and wind turbines around the corner this might seem incomprehensible, but to understand why renewable electricity is in big trouble, ask yourself what the main present source of renewable electricity is. The answer to this question is hydropower. According to the IEA, 85% of renewable electricity comes from hydropower.

The IEA and some other big organization expect to see large growth in hydropower generation, but this increase appears unlikely for a number of reasons. When it comes to the impact of climate change on hydropower, the IEA’s roadmap that projects a doubling by 2050 in hydropower based itself on one study done in 2012. Looking up the study that the IEA uses, we find the following sentence:

This study has not examined the impact of increased frequency of droughts and floods, as forecast in many places with climate change. If droughts and floods become more frequent, this scenario would severely impacts hydropower production.

In other words, the argument made here that hydropower won’t be impacted by climate change is not very persuasive. Countries around the world have faced electricity rationing as a result of drought that are linked to climate change. Currently, Venezuela struggles with electricity rationing as a consequence of a severe drought.

To build new hydropower facilities faces a number of different problems. In China, 22% of water used by society is water that’s lost through evaporation from the massive reservoirs that China has built for its hydropower facilities. Nations that face a looming threat of water shortages would thus be unwise to build such massive reservoirs.

Scientific models always come with a degree of uncertainty. Whereas investment in new hydropower facilities may make sense in a stable climate, a changing climate leaves policymakers to pray that local precipitation patterns will indeed change in a fashion expected by climatologists.

Generally speaking, precipitation in our changing climate is expected to occur more commonly in the form of sudden downpours, rather than small amounts spread throughout the year. This places a big burden on hydropower facilities. When too much precipitation happens in a short periods, dams can collapse. In 1972, intense precipitation as a result of typhoon Nina led to a number of catastrophic dam failures in China. An estimated 172,000 people died as a result of these breaches.

Perhaps most important to note is the effect that climate change will have on soil erosion. Our hydroelectricity generating dams currently suffer from the effects of the decline in storage capacity of our reservoirs due to soil erosion. Dams currently lose around 1% of their storage every year.

Total global storage capacity peaked in 2006, as a result of the spread of sediment into the reservoirs, whereas storage capacity per person peaked even earlier in 1987, due to rapid population growth. As the capacity declines, so does the ability to produce electricity.

What’s most likely to happen in the coming decades is that a large share of existing hydroelectricity dams will gradually cease to function due to different factors. Some will face severe droughts and as a result prove unable to generate power. Other dams are likely to simply collapse, whether due to poor maintenance or as a result of the inevitable drastic increase in extreme weather events we will face in the years ahead.

Against green capitalism, in defense of ecological reintegration of man

I would like you to engage in a small thought experiment. Let us imagine we live in a small tribe on a forested island, that produces saws from trees. The trees are then used to produce new saws. The saws are relatively brittle and can chop down just ten trees, before it breaks down and a new one has to be produced.

We will estimate that it takes five trees to make a saw. Four trees are used to melt the iron that’s used for the blade, one tree is used to produce the handle for the saw. The other five trees that a saw can chop down are used by the tribe, to repair the huts they live in and to make a fire that’s used to cook food.

So far, the tribe can sustain its activities. It chops down ten trees, uses five of those to make a new saw, then uses five trees to repair its huts and cook food. What this means is that the tribe can continue to chop down trees, as long as there are trees. The destruction continues unabated, until there is nothing left to destroy.

But now, let us presume that there are different types of trees to exploit for our tribe. The trees our tribe is familiar with are known as “good trees”, there are a hundred of them left on their island. There are also sick trees, that are sometimes rotten on the inside. There are fifty of them. One out of ten sick trees is too full of rotten wood to use, despite taking just as much effort to chop down.

In addition to the sick trees, there are fifty oak trees. Oak trees are sacred to our tribe, so they don’t cut them down. Their wood is also so hard, that a saw that attempts to chop down such trees can only chop down eight of them, before it breaks down.

What happens when our tribe runs out of good trees? Our tribe decides to cut down sick trees. Our tribe is lucky, until it cuts down the tenth sick tree, whose wood is so degraded that it’s effectively useless. Now the tribe is left with nine trees. It uses five of them to prepare food to avoid starvation, then it has four trees left to produce a new saw. It uses four of them to melt iron, but now is left without any tree to use for the handle. The tribe can’t cut down any more trees and their society falls apart.

But now, let’s presume that after fifty good tribes have been cut down, someone comes up with a mechanism by which the tribe can use just four trees for cooking and repairing homes. A little mound of dirt around the bowl ensures that less heat is lost to the environment and the water cooks faster. The member of the tribe, who hoped to reduce his tribe’s reliance on wood, is treated as a hero.

But what happens? Instead of collapsing after the good trees have been destroyed, the tribe can continue its destructive orgy on the island, chopping down fifty sick trees as well. After all, although the pace at which good trees are chopped down may have slowed down, the sick trees became a viable resource to exploit as well.

Similarly, if our tribe discovered some technique to use three trees to melt the iron, the tribe would eventually be faced with the question of whether it should chop down its sacred oak trees or accept starvation and perish. Quite clearly, the sacred oak trees would be lost.

What we see here is Jevon’s paradox. More efficient use of a resource means that more of the resource will be used. This was first observed with coal use in Victorian era England. This is in complete contrast to what we think happens. For environmental considerations, we drive our cars less, eat less meat, stop drinking bottled water and stop heating our homes. We use our resources more efficiently and waste less of them. If Jevon’s paradox applies here too, our attempt to save our environment would merely mean increased destruction.

Let’s return to our island. One of our tribe’s elders has made some calculations. She estimates that if more than sixty percent of the island’s trees are lost, the wind would be so hard that the other forty percent would eventually fall during storms. With all trees gone, the wind will blow the fertile soil away, the island would become a barren rock and all life on the island would perish, including our villagers.

What does our tribe’s elder recommend? If she is ignorant, she would insist that the tribe has to build mounds around the cooking bowl, to ensure that the rate of trees lost is reduced by ten percent. This ensures that our tribe buys itself some time, but eventually begins to exploit the sick trees too.

But what if our tribal elder is wise? Our tribal elder tells the villagers who are cooking food to sacrifice some food to the Gods. The villagers now have to cook more food. Six trees are used in the process. Just four trees are now left for those who have to produce a new saw. Those tasked with producing the new saw fail to carry out their task. The tribe can no longer continue to chop down trees.

Now that its unsustainable lifestyle has been destroyed, the tribe is faced with a crisis. This crisis is likely to be painful, but the earlier the crisis struck, the more trees were left on the island. This means that whatever transition the tribe will have to make will hopefully go smoother. An island with more trees should typically sustain more villagers.

So, as an analogy, perhaps if you really want to help avoid global warming, the best solution is not to ride a bus, but to buy an SUV. Of course, this is not sufficient to persuade you. The question you have to ask yourself however is as following: Do you live frugally because you think this will genuinely address climate change, or do you live frugally because it appeals to you at a deeper, guttural level?

Living frugally allows you to feel as if you are not morally complicit in the destruction. In addition, it allowed your ancestors to perform tasks more efficiently than a competing tribe. A frugal tribe that can feed ten people with a plot of land can typically conquer the land of a tribe that can feed just five people with a similar plot of land.

So what are you supposed to do with this information? Are you supposed to swap your bicycle for an SUV? This is not the point I am arguing. Rather, my point is that mainstream environmentalism is unlikely to address our crisis. Instead, a more radical and pervasive critique of the totality that we have come to inhabit is necessary.

If the impact we have on our environment is bad, the solution is not to be less wasteful in the processes we carry out. Rather, the processes we carry out have to be rejected altogether and exchanged for processes that serve to enrich life, rather than to function as a burden on life. This is in fact what non-human organisms do.

All organisms have an ecological niche, through which they help other lifeforms thrive. Just like us, a beaver chops down a tree to build a bed for itself, but rather than building suburban neighborhoods with sterilized grass lawns and enormous parking lots to house the beds in, the beaver’s dam provides a habitat for young fish. In addition, the bacteria that can thrive at the bottom of the beaver dam break down pesticides and remove excessive nutrients from the stream.

What does it mean for us humans? One outcome of this strain of thinking is to reconsider our role within our environment. In what way can we sustain ourselves while serving to enrich life and help other species thrive? Through permaculture principles it’s possible to restore degraded soils and restore life to a damaged environment.

Also important to note is that many rainforests are suffering from a lack of large mammals. Nutrient dispersal dropped by 98% after large mammals went extinct. These mammals walk around and deposit feces and urine, as well as their own bodies when they die. In addition, rainforests depend on large animals that eat fruit to disperse seeds of trees. The trees that carry such seeds tend to store more carbon than other trees.

When large mammals that once inhabited the rainforests are gone, it’s clear that humans can play a meaningful biological role there. This requires us to integrate into our environment, rather than to transform our environment to suit our wishes. This is the difference between hunter-gatherers and industrial civilization. Tribes that inhabit the rainforest can play a meaningful ecological role, as long as they do not have access to destructive modern technologies.

But even for those of us humans who can not be sustained by the rainforest there are options to pursue. Our atmosphere contains 777 petagram of carbon. Our global vegetation contains 650 petagram of carbon, while the top one meter of our soils contains 1500 petagram of carbon. Simply increasing the share of land habitable to life is the most viable path we have towards sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition to this, albedo changes as a result of abandoning tillage would be enough to reduce global temperatures by 0.2 degree Celsius according to one estimate.

Life does a lot more than merely storing carbon. Coral reefs and other living ecosystems create clouds through  emissions of dimethyl sulfide. Emissions of dimethyl sulfide in the pre-industrial atmosphere were enough to reduce global temperatures by ~3.5 W/m2. Most of this is emitted during periods of intense heat. Fish and cetaceans play a vital role in nutrient recycling in the ocean, through trophic cascades, as nutrients from the depth of the ocean are dumped in the top of the ocean again in the form of whale poo.

So what can humans in industrial civilization do? We could stop the practice of bottom trawling, which was actually illegal in medieval times. Instead we could build artificial coral reefs in the ocean and restore oyster reefs. We could abandon tillage and transition to regenerative agriculture.

In addition to this, we could reimplement trade barriers and rely on locally produced food, whose seeds can be reused in their native environment. This would encourage people to reintegrate into their native environment. Free trade, globalization and supranationalism are hugely prohibitive to this goal. It encourages migration of people into cities and foreign countries, away from lands with which they have a natural relationship. It also replaces an organic sense of belonging with a spiritual emptiness that is medicated through consumerism and greed.

I am quite convinced that people can intuitively understand what a healthy environment looks like. The problem we face is not preordained, but rather, a consequence of the fundamental values of our culture, which favors isolation of mankind from nature over reintegration. To put it bluntly, this culture teaches men that the goal in life for them to aspire to is to occupy some petty paper-pushing position in an office, rather than to stick their hands into the soil and become part of the living natural world. Catastrophe is a choice we make.

 

The Netherlands has empty jails because we can’t afford to throw people in jail anymore

A news story is circulating in the global media today, about the empty jails in the Netherlands. Supposedly we have a lack of crime and now have to close prisons due to a lack of prisoners.

In reality, the problem here is that it’s simply too expensive to throw people in jail. Housing someone in a Dutch prison costs 200 euro per day. That’s 73,000 Euro per year. Simply letting these people wander outside is a relatively easy way to cut costs.

Similarly, we don’t have a lack of crime in the Netherlands. The number of murders lies at around three times the level of 1965. Instead, the main problem we face is that most crimes are never solved. The rate of burglaries that are solved lies at seven percent, down from 8.6 percent earlier.

Out of all those crimes that are genuinely solved, a big share of criminals doesn’t end up in jail, simply because the police can’t find them. In September 2014, the Netherlands had a total of 10,365 prisoners. This number is easily eclipsed however, by the number of criminals supposed to be serving a sentence, who are still unaccounted for.

It was estimated in 2015 that the Netherlands has roughly 10,000 people who are supposed to be serving a jail sentence, who the police simply aren’t looking for, because it does not receive a high priority. If the police were to stumble upon them by accident they might end up in jail to serve their sentence, so all they have to do in practice is avoid doing anything that might draw attention. In addition to this figure, there are 2.843 people the police is actively looking for, because they’re supposed to be in jail.

To conclude, it’s easy to misinterpret the Netherlands crime figures. Our jails are not empty because we have no crime. They’re empty because we can’t afford to punish crime.

White people can’t be poor and America never stopped being great: Myths a civilization in decline tells itself

If anyone still wonders what made Donald Trump so popular among the working classes, Bernie Sanders provided the answer yesterday in an outburst that will probably cost him what remained of his chances for the nomination. When you’re white, according to Senator Sanders, you “don’t know what it’s like to be poor”.

It’s urgent that Sanders visits the senior citizens in Kent country,  who survive off a diet of cat food, and informs them that their poverty isn’t real. In fact, statistics show that most Americans living below the poverty line are white. In contrast to minority communities,  these poor whites are relatively inapt at having their voices heard.

Whereas black Americans can blame their poverty on institutionalized racism, there’s still very much a perception in American culture that one determines the outcome of his own life. Only racism, sexism and other -ism’s are accepted as legitimate barriers to one’s economic emancipation.

This is the myth that America’s political and cultural elites have endorsed. The very same universities that favor “legacy admissions” of wealthy white students whose families have attended the university for generations while discriminating against working-class white and Asian students because they are “over-represented”, carry out studies investigating in what dark corners of society institutionalized oppression still resides.

For white poverty to even be acknowledged as a problem tends to require the perception that the subjects in question have somehow made a sacrifice for their society. Veterans who are impoverished receive some attention, as do the elderly. Poverty among most other groups is more taboo, as people are afraid of being perceived as “wanting a hand-out”, or worse, “being a socialist”.

From another ivory tower,  Hillary Clinton looks down upon her peons and responds to Donald Trump’s growing popularity that “America never stopped being great”. She’ll probably never come to understand that the statistics she’s shown on paper don’t correspond to the reality that average Americans experience.

If we look at GDP per capita, we see a steady rise, but if we look at real median household income, which better reflects an average person’s financial situation, we find that the standard of living peaked in 1999. Since then it has been a bumpy road downwards. This simple acknowledgement, that America stopped being “great”, is a violation of an unspoken taboo that is enough to win Trump millions of votes.

Americans have figured out that their nation is in decline and Donald manages to come up with a narrative that makes the decline appear reversible. If only they had a “tough negotiator”, nations like China and Mexico would stop “taking advantage” of them. In reality of course that situation is a bit more complicated, but if you say something with enough confidence, people will generally believe you, especially if you tell them something they want to believe.

If elites should learn one thing from the Trump revolution, it’s the fact that publicly denying decline isn’t going to save your skin. At some point, you are inevitably held responsible for the festering mess your country has turned into, by a public whose impoverishment has become so universal that it can no longer be kept in the dark through statistical trickery and fooled into believing that their individual experiences are the exception rather than the rule.

The Neopaleolithic: Hunter-Gatherers of the 21st century

There’s a common perception that as our society reaches a peak to the degree of complexity it can sustain, we will gradually return to a lower level of complexity that preceded it.  However, for us to be able to return to a lower level of complexity typically requires us to have maintained the technologies that enabled the previous level of complexity, as well as relevant knowledge of the skills we utilized to sustain the previous level of complexity.

What are some of the problems that civilization encounters, if it has to cope with a sudden transition to pre-industrial agricultural conditions? There are a wide variety of problems that are relevant and I will aim to outline some of them here, to illustrate that the back to land perception probably isn’t going to unfold in the way that most expect it will. I will also aim to outline a scenario that I personally consider to be more likely.

Population

One major problem we face is that most people simply don’t live in those places where food is grown to feed them. Saudi Arabia imports 80% of its food, Kuwait 91%, Qatar 97%. Japan’s caloric self-sufficiency is estimated at 39%. It’s simply not possible without mass migration across continents for people to live in those places where their food is produced and participate in food production. This would require mass migration to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Russia.

Urbanization

An estimated 49 percent of people lived in cities in 2005, up from 13% in 1900. This figure continues to rise. It’s questionable whether people are better off in cities or outside of them. It might seem self-evident that the countryside would be preferable, but it’s likely that critical infrastructure in cities can be sustained longer than it can be in more rural places.

Economic decline so far seems to lead to a rise in urbanization, rather than the opposite, as rural places become increasingly expensive to inhabit. What causes urbanization is a reduction in dependence on physical labor in agriculture. So far there seems to be no reversal in this trend.

The Dutch Method: Greenhouses

The Dutch method of food production is characterized by its complete unsustainability. The Netherlands produces 17% of its own need for grains, but a massive 241% of its own need for vegetables. Incredibly, this country produces 290% of its own need for tomatoes, a tropical crop native to central America, where it grows as a perennial. The vast majority of this (80+%) is exported to other countries

How is all of this achieved? Through the use of greenhouses. In the Netherlands yield per hectare of greenhouses lies almost ten times higher than in similar greenhouses in Spain, allowing this country to be a world-leading food producer, despite its lack of farmland.

Various unsustainable technological methods are used in this process. Rest-heat and captured CO2 from fossil fuel based power plants is routed to the greenhouses, to keep tropical crops like the tomato at the temperature needed for optimal growth. At least 90% of greenhouses are artificially heated.

Other greenhouses burn their own fuel, raising temperatures and creating an environment of elevated carbon dioxide in the greenhouse, typically of 1000 parts per million, to further stimulate growth beyond what heat alone can accomplish. An estimated 7% of natural gas use in the Netherlands is used directly by greenhouses to deliver carbon and heat to plants. A fuel crisis, whether through logistical problems or fossil fuel depletion, thus inevitably also means a food crisis.

Other nations are heavily dependent on greenhouses too, though few of these greenhouses are as completely dependent on modern technology as the Dutch ones. Globally, 473,466 hectares of greenhouses are used, out of which slightly more than 10,000 hectare is found in the Netherlands. A stagnation in greenhouse production is visible in the Netherlands, whereas on a global scale growth continues very rapidly.

Even the windows of the greenhouses are dependent on petroleum. An estimated 90% of greenhouses in the Mediterranean don’t use glass but transparent plastic instead that allows the desired wavelengths to pass through the greenhouse.

Pesticide dependence

Individual studies tend to find a relatively small decrease in yield for farmers who don’t use pesticides. These estimates can’t be reliably extrapolated however, as such farmers inevitably benefit indirectly from other farmers who do use pesticides on their crops, thereby never allowing pests to gain a foothold in the first place.

Because of the international scale of modern agriculture and our industrial food system as well as a drastic reduction in biodiversity in our plants, a variety of plant pathogens have managed to spread to different species and continents. This has necessitated a growing cocktail of a wide variety of different pesticides, the health effects of which are largely unknown.

For us to grow plants in greenhouses in particular is nigh impossible without the use of pesticides, due to a variety of factors. Ultraviolet light, which is blocked by glass, harms certain pathogens, but also causes plants to produce compounds that reduce their sensitivity to pathogens. The reduced day-night temperature variation and relatively high humidity also makes greenhouse plants more vulnerable to a variety of pathogens than traditional food production systems.

Irrigation

Irrigation as we see it today is a big problem. Places like Israel depend on desalination for water, which is only accomplished by use of high amounts of energy. Israel also depends on water that is relatively high in salt, to avoid salt building up in the soil, sprinkler installations are used that require very little water to effectively treat the plants.

Using pre-industrial methods instead, like building irrigation canals, would cause salt to build up in the soil due to evaporation, whereas a lack of irrigation would drastically reduce yields and require a switch to completely different crops.

Nitrogen and Phosphorus

The two main nutrients we use as fertilizer are nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen is removed from the atmosphere through the Habers-Bosch process, which consists for 80% of nitrogen. This requires the use of natural gas, an estimated 3-5% of global natural gas production is used for this purpose alone. Nearly 80% of nitrogen found in our body originates from this process.

Phosphate is mined from phosphate rock. Because the world’s grasslands are losing phosphorus through various processes, it’s estimated that phosphate application on grassland will have to quadruple between 2005 and 2050, to increase production by the 80% expected to be necessary over that time period.

In total, it’s thought that phosphorus production will have to more than double by 2050 compared to 2005, just to keep up with demand. It’s not clear how much further phosphate rock production can grow. Some estimates are that phosphate rock production will peak by 2027, even as depletion of our soils will merely get worse.

Because rising CO2 concentrations increase the growth rate of plants, places that are currently in phosphorus balance may become gradually depleted as a result and ultimately dependent on phosphorus application by humans. This happens to peripheral regions, where the fertility of land is extracted as the land is valued less than in regions that are highly populated and seen as economically valuable.

While many regions witness phosphorus depletion, places like the Netherlands are victim to overnourishment. Crops are shipped from marginal lands in places like Brazil to factory farm animals in the Netherlands, where animals defecate and the phosphorus is released in excessive amounts into our soils and waters. This is enabled by industrial agriculture’s international orientation, without which minerals like phosphorus would be recycled in a local ecosystem in a more sustainable fashion.

Peak farmland

Today we have less fertile land around the world, due to factors like those outlined above. Some places that used to be farmed have become burdened by too many heavy metals and other pollutants to still be capable of reliably producing food. In China, 19.4% of arable land is estimated to be contaminated with heavy metals. This share will continue to rise in the coming years, as well as the degree of contamination.

It is estimated that the world lost a third of its arable land between 1975 and 2015. Factors that are important here are not just chemical contamination, but also erosion of fertile soils by wind and water, as well as the covering of fertile farmland with human infrastructure. Climate change also contributes to making soils more vulnerable to erosion

Thus today we find ourselves having to feed more people, with less arable land. What proved possible for our ancestors won’t be possible for us, simply because you can’t go back to farming arable land that no longer exists.

Soil compaction

Soil compaction is a harmful process that damages the fertility of our soils. Depending on the depth at which the compaction takes place, the compaction is often practically irreversible.

Unfortunately, governments have a tendency to use poor metrics to estimate soil compaction. It’s estimated for example, that individual humans lead to greater soil compaction than large machinery, simply because the weight of such machinery can be spread out further across the soil through use of big wide tires.

The difference here however, is that topsoil compaction is far less harmless than subsoil compaction. The impact of humans and other animals takes place mostly at the topsoil, because humans and other animals put high pressure at small locations.

Heavy machinery like tractors on the other hand, execute far higher pressure when measured over a broader area. The average tractor has increased in weight from 2 ton in 1950 to 7 ton today, which is more than the largest elephants. The broad tires of the machinery might lead to less harm to the topsoil, but causes greater harm to the subsoil.

The topsoil is quite rapidly restored by earthworms, moles and other lifeforms, who dig through the ground and loosen the soil, allowing roots to penetrate the soil again. The subsoil on the other hand takes much longer to recover when compacted, because the subsoil is home to comparatively few lifeforms.

This prohibits roots from growing into the subsoil and redistributing scarce nutrients up into the higher soils, as well as preventing the subsoil from retaining water, often creating puddles of water above the soil that end up damaging the plants.

In the short term (up to around six years), yields are greatly reduced by subsoil compaction, but there are also smaller more persistent effects that linger for decades. One study estimated a permanent reduction in yield for wheat of 1.5% and 6% for two different fields respectively, as a result of the use of heavy machinery.

Effects are likely to be worse today, due to the even heavier machinery now in use. In addition, plants that naturally root deeper than wheat, like many edible nut species, would have even worse effectively permanent reductions in yield than wheat. Subsoil compaction represents a long-term reduction in the diversity of life that a plot of land could harbor otherwise.

Irreversible transitions

The problems seen above are a consequence of the general rule of thumb with most technologies that it’s easier to adapt to them than to let go of them again. Our innovations in agriculture are no exception, they’re schoolbook examples.

This transition to modern technology in agriculture produces long-term consequences, that can be concealed in the short-term through use of more new technologies. For example, rising CO2 concentrations make plants more vulnerable to pathogens, but farmers who happily spray pesticides probably don’t realize this until they suddenly have to return to growing crops without pesticides.

Land consolidation

The number of farms in existence today has decreased drastically, as many people have quit the farming business due to scale advantages that effectively allowed just a few farm business to survive.

Whereas formerly people would have guarded the crops growing in their backyard, today farmland is often in the hands of nameless corporations. In the event of a food shortage, the theft of food crops will thus be increasingly difficult to prohibit.

A scenario for the future: Marauding 21st century Hunter-Gatherers

Ownership and control over food producing resources will probably prove difficult to enforce in many places. Even people who own small plots of land will have difficulty growing crops and keeping the harvest for themselves if they do not live on the land.

A scenario where people grow their own food appears to be far less likely than a scenario where nomadic groups of people begin to plunder the countryside. This is what effectively seems to have happened in the Roman empire, where nomadic tribes invaded and local bands of Roman citizens known as Bagaudae began pillaging the countryside.

Eventually, as food that can be plundered from homes and fields begins to run out, people would be forced to depend solely on whatever grows in the countryside. Our changing climate means that this may prove to be a more viable strategy than we might expect.

In Europe, some Middle Eastern refugees already appear to be adapting to a migratory lifestyle, incorporating wild foods into their diet. A spike in mushroom poisoning cases has been seen in Germany as a consequence of refugees eating wild mushrooms.

It seems to me that we should expect to see a lot more of this in the years ahead. Our food production system has evolved in a fashion that is difficult to roll back even when it becomes necessary. It appears more likely to cease working altogether than to become less complex.

 

The Looming Consequences of Industrial Agriculture’s Biodiversity Crisis

Proponents of industrial agriculture tend to claim that it is the only method that’s going to feed nine billion people. In reality, industrial agriculture has triggered a biodiversity crisis in our most popular crops that threatens to wipe out agriculture altogether.

In the process of increasing yields, introducing disease-resistant genes and creating optimal crops for industrial harvest, strains of the same crop indigenous to cultures that practice traditional agriculture are typically lost.

The 20th century has been characterized by a dramatic loss in biodiversity in the plants we cultivate. To give some numbers, 90% of the wheat varieties used in China in the last century are now extinct, while 93% of all seed varieties sold in the United States in 1903 were extinct by 1983. The introduction of genetically modified crops has merely made the global biodiversity crisis even worse.

Why is biodiversity so important? The problem we face is that pathogens like stem rust adapt to plants. If all of our domesticated plants are genetically rather similar, it’s easy for a pathogen to spread from one plant to another, decimating our entire food supply.

This is what happened to our bananas. Before we began to grow the currently popular banana race, we used to grow a banana known as the Gros Michel. Low genetic diversity allowed a fungus to practically wipe out this strain and the industry moved on to an inferior tasting substitute.

Until the 20th century, the world consists of small communities where people preserved their own strains of plants for generations. Biodiversity, along with relatively infrequent travel made it difficult for a pathogen to spread throughout our entire global food supply.

The few crops we grow today are typically themselves the benefactors of the massive biodiversity that once existed, yet threaten to annihilate it. In wheat, stemrust resistance gene 21 was inherited from einkorn wheat, a primitive form of domesticated wheat, that looks very much like its primitive ancestor and inherits a number of its disadvantages (low yield) that led it to lose ground in the 20th century.

Stemrust resistance gene 31 in wheat was inherited from rye, wheat’s rebellious cousin. Rye commonly used to grow voluntarily in fields of wheat, resulting in the mixture of wheat and rye that medieval Europeans typically used to produce bread, until humans transitioned to industrial agriculture.

If our food’s biodiversity has disappeared, how come we don’t see massive epidemics of fungal infections that decimate our crops? The answer here is that industrial agriculture manages to keep most of these outbreaks under control, by using a continually growing arsenal of chemical pesticides.

By keeping our farmland a sterile place devoid of life, where crops are grown in the absence of any species that might harm them, we can continue to grow crops that are maximized for yield and ease of mechanical harvest at the cost of genetic diversity.

There are certain disadvantages of course, including the fact that plants grown in a sterile environment tend not to produce the various compounds like salicylic acid that protect them against pathogens and have been shown to improve human health, but as long as the consumer is not aware of this unfortunate side-effect, he will happily continue to chow on his sterile food devoid of nutrients.

It is now estimated that the average Dutch potato is sprayed with a total of 36 different pesticides. The farmers often have little choice and are well aware of the burden it places on their own health, they do what’s necessary for their company to remain economically viable.

Although it might be possible for you and me to grow potatoes and other crops on our small plots of land (and we certainly should), the industrial scale of modern agriculture, necessitating massive plots of land covered with the same crop for year upon year necessitates spraying pesticides to avoid providing a home to any of the pathogens that would like to turn a farmer’s crops into its home.

And these pathogens learn quickly. In 1978 there were 49 known pathogens that infected chickpeas, by 1995 we were looking at 172. It should thus come as no surprise that the amount of pesticide sprayed on our crops continually grows as well.

There’s reason to believe that our growing reliance on pesticides may play a role in a growing number of health problems. Glyphosate is a prominent pesticide used on our crops. It was thought to be safe, but concerns are growing about its impact on health. Glyphosate is thought to negatively alter the balance of gut bacteria in our intestinal tract, benefiting pathogenic species as the cost of benevolent species.

Those who first began to raise the alarm bells were typically people in the farming community, who noticed that their animals were having difficulty getting pregnant and giving birth to deformed babies, until they switched over to glyphosate free food. It’s thought that the use of Glyphosate may play a role in the growing epidemic of wheat sensitivity.

What solution is there to this problem? Just as with most big problems, there exists no simple solution. It’s possible to reduce pesticide intake by eating more fruit and vegetables from your own environment. I often eat wild berries and grow various kinds of berries in my own garden.

Of course this is not an option with staple foods for most people. Fortunately, there is a different solution possible here, in the form of fermentation. Bacteria and fungi gradually break down the glyphosate found in our bread. After one hour of yeast fermentation, 21% of glyphosate is degraded. Sourdough fermentation involves allowing strains of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria to ferment dough for multiple days.

Within agriculture, it’s important to understand that plants benefit from symbiotic relationships with fungi. Plants form symbiotic connections with ectomycorhizal fungi, which involve the release of substances by the fungi that prohibit pathogenic fungi from infecting the plants, thereby reducing the dependence on pesticides.

Plants of course can only form such symbiotic relationships with fungi if given ample time to grow, in health undisturbed soils. In contrast, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat come from greenhouses, where plants are never even exposed to soil but simply grow with their roots directly in the water.

Most pesticides we use depend on petroleum. Those who will have to grow crops in the post-pesticide era after we run out of petroleum will have to cope with an epidemic of plant pathogens that are perfectly adapted to the limited genetic spectrum of our crops. It would be wise for people to hold onto rare varieties of wheat and other crops as these plants should stand a better chance of surviving without the use of pesticides. A switch away from wheat to more niche and hardy crops like rye is also recommendable.