The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

And They Made a Desert: 80 to 90% Drop in Nutrients in Food

Stumbled across this lovely chart the other day.

Nutrient Decline from Challenges in the Diagnosis of Magnesium Status

The core fact that most people, including the folks in the “best every world” Panglossian movement (like Pinker), don’t seem to understand is that even if they were right (questionable), the prosperity we have is based on burning down our own house.

“Sure is hot! Hottest it’s ever been!”

Yup. Sure is.

We have vastly reduced our supplies of various non-renewable resources. We have destroyed many species, leading to a loss of biodiversity, which may threaten food chains. In addition, every species we kill is one whose genetic code is lost to us, and we won’t even know what treasures we have lost when we genuinely become able to safely make direct genetic changes.

We have used up large amounts of sinks–places we can store pollution and excess production. We have run down aquifers so much that many of them will never recover. We have poisoned ground water. Fish stocks are down eighty to ninety percent as well, and the Great Barrier Reef is dying. It will not be saved.

And yes, we have destroyed the nutrient value of the soil (where we haven’t just let it blow away), so much so that eighty to ninety percent of some nutrients are missing. No wonder we have a vast incidence of chronic disease that our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t: We’re effectively starving, while getting fat off of empty calories.

The Industrial Era has been the Era of Locusts. We think we’re rich, but most of what has been happening is that we’re consuming resources far faster than they can be replaced. Meanwhile, we’re poisoning ourselves and the earth; shattering ecosystems which we do not know how to repair (or even understand), and altering Earth’s climate cycle (we should be moving towards an Ice Age).

This is crazed behaviour. This is the behaviour of children who have no self-control at all. Even when we know what we are doing is destructive, we keep doing it, like some kid gorging on cake ’til s/he pukes.

The super-optimists are fools. Yes, it is possible we’ll get out of this, but it’s not possible if we keep telling ourselves that the hole we’ve dug is no big deal. “Why can’t I see the sky anymore, Papa?”

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  1. Dan Lynch

    Yes. I would only add that it is morally wrong to hurt animals and hurt the planet because they are beautiful important things in their own right, not just because it may harm humans.

    Let’s take the standard ethics scenario of a train hurtling down the tracks, except this time it’s hurtling toward an endangered (in the lower 48) grizzly bear. You can save the endangered grizzly bear by switching the train to another track — but there are 7 billion humans (out of the 7.7 billion on earth) on that other track. What is the right thing to do?

    The grizzly is scarce and endangered and the gene pool is too small so even one grizzly life matters.

    Humans are overpopulated, and if 7 billion were wiped out, 700,000,000 humans would remain on the planet, more than adequate for a viable gene pool.

    I’d have to think about that.

  2. different clue

    On the one hand, at 7 billion people and counting, nothing is sustainable.
    On the other hand, I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.

    Dan Lynch’s logic is what the Global Overclass is operating on, as they try to arrange the death of 7 billion or so people in such a way as to make it look like an accident. They intend for themselves and their treasured pets and servants and butlers to survive. I hope the Overclasses themselves will be among the dead. They and all their loyal servants and retainers.

    The nicest way to achieve population reduction would be deep and broad birth control and rights for women and so forth. That way we could simply less-than-replace people as people die after hopefully long and happy lives. That’s a non-cruel way to do it.

    And consumption-reductions at the same time would reduce human consumption pressure against all the other creatures, things and forces.

    In the meantime, those Ian Welsh readers who hope to be among those who can outrun the other runners running from the bear might consider leaving “outrun the runners” information in the Weekly Wikrent Roundup threads . . . so people know where to go consistently for such information.

  3. bruce wilder

    I have long noted that much of what passes for controversy over climate change takes the form of ambivalence about whose worldview cum attitude-toward-uncertainty is better or more persuasive of other people. People will complain about and even argue against “alarmism”; others will argue that we “have to try” even if what we try to do is inadequate; a third person will insist that there are reasons for optimism. A lot of people seem to like particularly lurid stories of imminent apocalypse. Some will follow up with survivalist fantasies. A very common attitude is that we will muddle thru and cope; if it gets hotter, we will turn up the air conditioning or something. Another is the expectation of a magical technological fix. Or not even expectation so much as a readiness to believe, say, in the promise of “clean coal” or that substituting natural gas for coal or a plug-in hybrid for a gasoline auto is doing “something”.

    All of this is individual psychology; none of it is coming to grips with the problems as social and political challenges that require very long-term organization on a regional and global level: conscious, rational and deliberate design and management of the systems of production and distribution in which our individual lives are embedded.

    I think it is inherently difficult to think about the design and management of systems — about architectural design, if you like. It is beyond most people’s individual experience, so the heuristics and tropes of individual experience are largely irrelevant. And, it isn’t fixed: it is inherently a learning process. In whatever domain of human activity, design and management of “the system” is going to be reflected in evolving philosophies: it does not matter if the domain is forest management or monetary policy.

    I honestly do not know if I think most people can be induced to think thru even the basics of social systems and their consequences. I look around and I see cognitive exhaustion as a pandemic. Maybe that is a consequence of magnesium deficiency!

    The problem that Ian highlights in this post: that we collectively are majorly disinvesting and that running down of reserves and sinks and resources is what furnishes the apparent “surplus” fuels our lifestyles is apparently very hard to grasp.

    In relation to fossil fuel use and climate change, only a few people seem to get that we have to lead with radical conservation and constraints on activity generally. Many people seem to back on just reproducing everything, but “sustainably”.

    Some other ideas for systemic change — UBI comes to my mind — just seem to reject any realistic notion that there is or has to be a system.

  4. My vote’s for the bear. Go Griz! We are flees – planet lice – agitating the hide of a far greater organism. There are bugs just thawing out in the far north that have lain dormant longer than we’ve been “human”. And it won’t necessarily be the strong, the well-fortified, that survive …

    Couple million years ago there were a couple varieties of our remote ancestors roaming central Africa: one a large pastoral creature, an herbivore in spite of its Klingon-like appearance, grazing the savannah in large herds; another a smaller more agile creature just down from the trees, hunting in packs or small family units, more than carnivores – omnivores, they would eat anything… and they became us.

  5. Besides soil depletion, the creation of franken-foods and franken-crops threatens humanity.

    I recently posted about how the previously almost non-existent macular degeneration has become a scourge. The epi-genetic causes are almost certainly processed foods.

    Alas, it’s worse than that. The history of the development of modern-day wheat shows that even the with the best of intentions (which probably did stave off famine for millions), what we’ve ended up doing to human health is a crime. See

  6. anon y'mouse

    UBI could be helpful for the transition period.

    the way i see it is this: most of us are engaged in perpetuating this system, whatever we want to believe about ourselves. we don’t revolt because we have to get up and go obey our bosses and put food on tables and roofs overhead.

    if this concern were taken away because the needs are met, the alternative is what? right now, unfortunately mostly sitting around watching TV. if you want to be more proactive, perhaps volunteering in a soup kitchen or something. perhaps half of our problems would disappear simply by removing the need for everyone to drive to work everyday. but food and goods still need to be made. how to get people to do those jobs without the lash of the whip? perhaps give them other incentives. meaning, value, and actually doing something positive for the world and others are strong lures. so much so, that people right now are willing to buy the illusion that they are doing this when they engage in consumerism (every x you purchase, we will plant y trees!).

    if you simultaneously begin to let communities have resources (primarily information) and input about their built environment, they might be able to arrange themselves to do something like energy retrofit every home in the neighborhood, engage in some kind of community-agriculture plus itinerant recycling system, and start to build the systems together that they will need for this radical conservation future.

    the reason we are so scattered and unable to foment any actual resistance to the system is because of a lack of time, money and knowledge mostly. solve two of those problems at a stroke with UBI. the issue of not having enough hamsters in the wheels could also be solved by offering people nonmonetary perks, and very good job conditions. nonessential stuff like torturing people over the phone to pay their medical debts will fall away, as will a lot of crap that is nearly useless but provides the vaunted “jobs”. most people don’t want to be sitting around alone in their homes drinking and watching the toob. that’s what they do because they are disheartened and exhausted, or isolated and alienated from the present system because of their “loser” status, and because there isn’t anyone around to engage with when they are all at work for the Man.

    my only issue with UBI is not that people will waste their time, but that it will be snarfled up by every rentier that we have installed along the way–the landlord will raise rents and every other corporation will put their hand out accordingly. it can’t be done without strict cost controls, and therefore it can’t be done because those people own everything now and do not want to relinquish profit and control. not even the slightest little bit to give people health care, or old age pensions.

  7. “The super-optimists are fools. ”

    Obviously, but so are the super-pessimists.

    And neither is very interested in rational debate, plan B’s, and cost-benefit analyses.

    I don’t know much about Confucianism, but I think it’s ethics were integral to the Chinese civil service system. I honestly think we’d be better off being ruled by a meritocratic, educated, and ethically constrained elite.

    There is nothing like this, on the horizon. In fact, as long as the public is placid, and the activists so stupid/co-opted/whatever-makes-them-fail-against-plutocratic-interests, we won’t even reform the system we already have, in any major way.

    I know zero details about it, but Dr. Zach Bush is involved with trying to restore the independence of farmers from agri-business slavery. Of course, if he was a super-pessimist, he wouldn’t bother trying.

  8. Z

    And fools that have way too much power and wealth in this world are worried about this:

    “When it comes to the future of humanity, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Alibaba founder Jack Ma disagree on whether people should be scared by the potential of artificial intelligence. Ma is optimistic about AI, while Musk is more apocalyptic. But the two billionaire businessmen do agree on the biggest problem the world will face in the future: not enough people.

    “Most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view,” Musk said while on stage with Ma at at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Wednesday. “Assuming there is a benevolent future with AI, I think the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse.”

    “The biggest issue in 20 years will be population collapse. Not explosion. Collapse.”

    “I absolutely agree with that,” Ma said. “The population problem is going to be facing huge challenge. 1.4 billion people in China sounds a lot, but I think next 20 years, we will see this thing will bring big trouble to China. And … the speed of population decrease is going to speed up. You called it a ‘collapse,’” he said to Musk. “I agree with you.”

    “Yeah, accelerating collapse,” Musk said.

    Fears of overpopulation due to immigration are short-sighted, according to Musk. “The common rebuttal is like, ‘Well what about immigration?’ I’m like, ‘From where?’”

    “For example, due to decades of birth restrictions in China (from the ’70s until 2015 Chinese couples were required to have only one child), ever increasing economic opportunities for women and increasing longevity, China now has a lopsided population — there are not enough young workers to support the growing population of older people.

    In January, a group of local academics, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, issued a warning to government leaders about the potential threat of population decline, the New York Times reported.

    “What are the socio-economic consequences of long-term sustained negative population growth? From a theoretical point of view, the long-term population decline, especially with the aging of the aging, is bound to bring very unfavorable social and economic consequences,””


  9. Stirling S Newberry

    Pinker went for buttering up the rich boys. In his field, he remarkably good. But the is child speech, not much money to be made there. He wishes he was a genius, but he is not.

  10. different clue

    @ bruce wilder

    ” I honestly do not know if I think most people can be induced to think thru even the basics of social systems and their consequences. I look around and I see cognitive exhaustion as a pandemic. Maybe that is a consequence of magnesium deficiency!”

    Don’t laugh!

    Charles Walters Jr., founder and publisher of Acres USA, suggested some decades ago that rampant subclinical malnutrition from eating minerally nutrient-defficient mainstream food grown by mineral-deficiency-genic mainstream agriculture on de-mineralized soils made that way by mainstream agriculture was degrading and attriting the brain-function of endless millions of mainstream people who ate that food.

    The Dr. Zach Bush referenced above by Metamars is featured sometimes in the pages of Acres USA.

    About the nutrient de-available-ization inflicted on food by aggressive processing, the book Pottenger’s Cats was written decades ago.

    More recently has been written a book called Pottenger’s Prophecy.

  11. nihil obstet

    I don’t think “most people can be induced to think thru even the basics of social systems and their consequences.” But I don’t think it’s necessary. Thinking through the architecture of social systems is an intellectual pursuit of the past several hundred years. Prior to that, there were myths, there were broad descriptions of the basic functions of individuals and groups, but relatively little political science or sociology.

    Leaders and advisors trained in and committed to understanding how the social systems play out will make for better government and society. The countries of western Europe would have been a lot better off in the 16th c., for example, if they had understood inflation, its causes and consequences. But broad descriptions that command legitimacy can be an adequate basis for good government.

  12. Hugh

    The sustainable carrying capacity of the planet is maybe 3 billion. The current population is 7.7 billion and rising. We want the population to decline, but it isn’t. Musk and Ma are simply further examples of a couple of rich dopes who think because they are rich they must be smart. They aren’t. Besides if everything is supposed to be automated in their Jetsons’ future, why should they care about any incidental distortions in the age distribution? Automation is automation.

    Pinker is an Upton Sinclair man, one of those academics who play acts at being a public “intellectual”, but like most academics, his schtick is mouthing the virtues of his class and their self-serving system. What a surprise.

  13. Eric Anderson

    Wow. Seems a sane society might consider a solution like this:

    At the very least, you’d think a sane and educated commentariat would.

    Suffice to say, the results were mixed at best.

  14. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    I used to think I was a pessimist, but compared to the average commenter here, not to mention our esteemed host, I’m Pollyanna With A Pecker.

    Which probably has been depicted on some futanari site somewhere… 😆

  15. DMC

    Pick a date after which 99% of live births are immediately sterilized for a period of not less than 20 years and let attrition do the rest. Alternatively, offer persons of sexual maturity a tax break or other financial inducement to give up their breeding rights. Bet a LOT of third world types would go for that, if you made it sweet enough. Its just so much simpler to prevent humans than it is try to get rid of currently existing ones.

  16. Willy

    Pinker’s shtick is that secularism works better than religion does. Seems a bit of a spurious claim there. Lots of hardworking religious folk are giving neoliberalism their martyr all. It’s amazing how many of today’s credentialed “academics” can ignore all the variables and long range effects when their forebears showed much more scientific concern.

    There needs to be a game show where they’re made to compete against fifth graders.

  17. Bill Hicks

    Unless by “possible we’ll get out of this” you mean mankind might not go completely extinct, I think you’re pulling your punch a bit. Personally, given that the childish mentality you are referring to is most prevalent in the U.S., my belief is that we will not sacrifice “our American way of life” without taking the rest of humanity down with us. No way all those nukes go unfired. By then we’ll probably have talked ourselves into believing that such a war is survivable and even winnable with a first strike:

  18. Hugh

    As a thought experiment, look at countries and regions and go through the following list or make up one of your own. Based on these, you start getting an idea of the survival probabilities of countries, regions, and continents in the next 20 to 30 years.

    Population: Birth rates, size of immigrant flows, population size now and in 2050 vs sustainable population (I use 1950 populations as a rule of thumb.)
    Climate change: Sea level rise, storms, water availability, effects on agriculture, environment
    Social: Strength of civil institutions and government, strength of civil society, tech and industrial level, inequality level/neoliberalism, political legitmacy, stability of supply chains
    Horsemen: War, famine, disease

    I have been doing this for a few years now. My list of factors keeps getting longer and my estimates keep getting more pessimistic. For example, in the past I would have put US survival in some form at say 80% and something like its current form (not necessarily economic) at 60%. Now with the weakness of American institutions both exposed and epitomized by Trump as well as the general failure to do anything about anything, I would put general survival at 60% and something recognizable with what we have at 40%. I would note that this is still the highest of the three major economic areas: US, China/Northeast Asia, and Europe.

    China/NE Asia is weighed down by a nuclearized North Korea, severe divisions among almost all the states in the region: an imperial China, Taiwan, South Korea vs Japan, vs North Korea. China, in particular, has failed to exercise leadership in the region. It has also failed to create a sense of national identity based on something other than being Han. As a result and as exampled multiple times in its history, it will be stable until its not. And when it’s not, it usually breaks up into regions.

    As for Europe, it is breaking up before our eyes even before the major stressors in my list have begun to hit. Again the major ignored and unreported story about Europe has been the complete and absolute failure of German leadership. Indeed with German mercantilism, its leadership has been not just absent but deeply negative: the destruction of Greece, the economic woes of the Southern Tier, the authoritarian bent of the Eastern Tier, and of course Brexit. Then add in the stressors, especially something like 50 to 150 million climate refugees from Africa and the Middle East, and European survivability chances plummet.

    As for the rest of the planet, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are gone. Most of Central Asia, South East Asia, Central America, and South America are also gone. Russia will break up.

    This is, as best I can tell, our future. Bits and pieces of it are already happening, already forming the patterns of what will follow. Yet there seems to be a very deliberate refusal to treat even as a possibility what our and our planet’s likely future is going to be. As if to do so would break some unspoken taboo, and unleash events that are coming anyway.

  19. Steve Ruis

    While I do not disagree with your main points, that chart is useless. The Y-axis is in milligrams (of Mg?) per 100 grams of what? Is this 100 grams of lentils, carrots, lamb’s liver … what? As it was posted it is the worst kind of gee-whiz graph, one that screams “We have to do something before that line gets to zero,” but it lacks any specificity.

    I hate posting a criticism of this site as it is far more reliable than the, for example NY Times. (I cancelled my subscription.)

  20. different clue

    @Steve Ruis,

    I clicked on the link that Ian Welsh got this chart from. The chart also appears in the article itself to which Ian Welsh’s link links. But in the article itself where the chart appears, the chart itself also has the caption reading: ” The average mineral content of calcium, magnesium, and iron in cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, and spinach has dropped 80–90% between 1914 and 2018 [30,34,35,36,37]. Asterisks indicate numbers could not be independently verified.”

    Also, the chart as within the article itself appears itself to be linkable-to. Here is what I think the link to the chart with its caption is.

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