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

Category: Environment Page 1 of 15

Why Do I Talk About Real Food Shortages In The Future?

Well, this is one reason:

Martin Frick told the BBC that some of the most deprived areas had now reached a tipping point of having “zero” harvests left, as extreme weather was pushing already degraded land beyond use.

He said that as a result, parts of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America were now dependent on humanitarian aid.

Mr Frick warned that without efforts to reverse land degradation globally, richer countries would also begin to suffer crop failures.

The Global Environment Facility estimates that 95% of the world’s land could become degraded by 2050. The UN says that 40% is already degraded.

This seems… bad. Of course, we could do something about it. In theory:

But he argued such an eventuality could be avoided by moving toward localised farming that seeks to reinvigorate the land.

The food agency chief said there was currently an “unhealthy dependence” on crops such as wheat, maize and rice, and the few nations that are large-scale exporters of them – creating food shortages that particularly affect the developing world when those nations’ harvests are interrupted.

He noted how the Russian invasion of Ukraine had caused grain shortages in places such as East Africa.

Mr Frick said that to tackle hunger and land degradation at the same time, the world’s poorest should be incentivised to rejuvenate degraded land through regenerative practices –

Not till catastrophe, at least in most places.

This is on top of loss of nutrients from soil, more extreme weather events which effect crops, water shortages, groundwater being poisoned, and some of the richest agricultural areas having their climates change so they are no longer as productive.

This sort of thing is why the food per capita line on the chart below (from Limits to Growth) is so… dismal.

Notice how fast that food per capita line drops, and notice also that it drops below the food per capita in 1900, not a year where people were known for over-eating.

I want to emphasize, again, that just getting a garden isn’t sufficient for personal food security. Weather and climate variability are going to make growing outside unreliable, and when you need the food most is when it fails widely.

India Is Cooked

On May 29 New Delhi was 52.9 degrees Celsius (127.2 F), only 1.5 degrees less than the world record from Death Valley.

Records are being set all over the world:

And this is in May, which is, in a way, a good thing, since humidity is relatively low and the wet-bulb temperature wouldn’t have been as high as it would be, in say, August. At a humidity of 66%, people would have been dropping like flies.

I have noted, for many years now, that I do not expect India to survive and that I expect, along the way, large famines and death tolls of at least two to three hundred million.

Temperature is only part of it, but it’s not going to be a small deal. Most of India’s groundwater is contaminated, and while some states are fine, many are over-using groundwater to the extant that farmer suicides because wells drying up are a regular event. As the Himalayas get hotter and glaciers dry up, rivers will first swell then either die or have far less water in them. (The Monsoons, at least, will be stronger in most areas of India.)

The combination of less water, more heat, extreme weather events and unreliable planting seasons means that at some point India’s harvest is going to fail in a big way. If this was a “India only” problem, well, the rest of the world could get India thru, but it isn’t, India’s just one of the most vulnerable countries.

In most famines, there’s enough food, it just isn’t distributed to people who need it, but we are going to have famines where there just, genuinely, isn’t enough food, period and India is very vulnerable to this.

(This is, as an aside, one of the main reasons for the China/Russia alliance. China has great difficulty feeding itself, and Russia has massive food surpluses. China wants and needs to be first in line when food becomes scarce.)

Now there are potential solutions to a lot of this, but India, though ostensibly rich in GDP terms, isn’t rich on the ground and has terrible state capacity. China will be able to implement effective public policy for quite some time. India won’t.

Finally, and I want to return to this, the fact that population replacement rates are falling around the world is GOOD, not bad. We have too many people and are in classic population overshoot. Increasing population is the idiot’s way of increasing GDP. (Canada and Britain, take note.)

So one good piece of news for India is that population is now at replacement and in many states has fallen below replacement. But, it’s a little too late, I fear.

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What Happens When Insurance Goes Away

Thomas Neuburger, one of my favorite bloggers, has an excellent post on the fact that swathes of types of insurance are going to go extinct because of climate change. Property, fire, home (except from theft, though that may get hit during collapse) and so on. It’s worth a read.

This has already started to happen. Insurance companies are refusing to write new fire insurance policies in parts of California, for example, and no one with sense wants to insure buildings against hurricane risk in Florida. But it will spread: rivers will swell during climate change before they shrink, for example. Acts of God will become more and more common everywhere. Crop insurance, for example, is something that will become more expensive.

But it might survive, because the government may consider it necessary. Insurance is people pooling together money to make sure that when occasional bad things happen, people can be made whole. It relies on three things to be viable:

  1. You can’ predict who will get hit; and,
  2. It happens often enough to be worth insuring against; and,
  3. It doesn’t happen so often it’s unaffordable; and,
  4. It’s big enough to matter to people.

If any of those four things break down, insurance doesn’t work. If you know who’ll be hit, other people won’t pay for it. Thus insurance companies won’t pay for pre-existing illnesses unless the government forces them to. If it is so rare no one is scared, no one will buy. If it happens too often, it becomes  unaffordable and if it’s too small, why bother?

Climate change violates “you can’t predict who will get hit” and “it doesn’t happen so often it’s unaffordable.” If there are so many fires or huge hurricanes or floods that it’s inevitable and everyone in a certain area will be hit, insurance makes no sense. At that point, leave or do something to make it less likely.

Since we’re not going to stop climate change (that decision point has passed) that would mean things like sea walls, creating swamps and wetlands, increasing the capacity of stormwater systems, getting rid of concrete roads and replacing them with material that absorbs water and so on. Homes could be protected from wildfires by various other measures.

There’s going to be a push to have government underwrite insurance in places where it’s no longer really viable, and sometimes that will happen. As with the absurd expansion of credit after the 2008 financial crisis, this will eventually run up against a simple problem: money can only buy what exists. If too many homes and too much property are being destroyed, society will at some point not be able to rebuild it all, or, if sensible, will decide that rebuilding where you know another flood or disaster is coming is stupid.

Insurance was originally fraternal. People would join together and deposit into a pot and in some cases promise to physically help rebuild. Re-raising a barn, for example, with communal labor. In places where insurance is still viable, I would suspect that much of this will come back. (This also used to be how medical insurance worked. A fraternal organization would hire a doctor and a couple nurses and they would care for sick people. A fraternity would have some small apartments or rooms for members rendered homeless, too.)

As government fails, we will be pushed back on what we can do for ourselves, and for that to work we’ll have to be realistic: “what can our group actually do?” Can we source medicines? Can we rebuild? If we can, will it have to be rammed earth or trees we can cut ourselves? How can we get wiring?

We’ve lived in the era of big government and big companies: the era of the cornucopia, where money was the same as having access to almost anything we wanted.

That era is ending.

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Principles Of The Green Age After The Collapse: #1

Do as thou will, so long as you increase biodiversity and biomass, reduce pollution and heat, and replace any resources used.

Want to live in the howling wilderness? OK. But only if you can increase the number and amount of lifeforms, and reduce pollution by being there. If you can’t do all three, you don’t get to live in the wilderness.

Freedom today is based on money. If you have enough money, you can do what you want, if you obey the law. The more money you have, the fewer laws apply to you: either they are laws which if violated are punished with fines, which you don’t care about, or they are laws which are effectively not enforced against the rich.

The Green Age, instead of having a zero tolerance policy for minor infractions, will have no tolerance for people who damage the ecosphere or the climate.

Likewise, you will need to replace the resources you’re using if you’re using them beyond any natural replacement rate. If you’re taking water from a river or an aquifer, you’ll have an amount you can use that is equal to natural replenishment. If you use any more, you’ll need to replace it. Chop trees, plant them, and since you also need to maintain biomass and biodiversity, that won’t mean tree farms and will require you to keep doing it and, most likely, to have done it in the past. (This will make clear-cutting very rare.)

This also means that you don’t get to do what you want if you use non-renewable resources. Mining and other forms of permanent extraction will be something that society has a strict limit on. Much will be assigned by government, and much will likely be divided and given to each member of society and when they buy something which uses a non-renewable resource, that account will be debited, with no credit except in life-saving emergencies.

The principle is simple: replace what you use if it can be replaced, make the ecology and the environment better because of your existence and use limited amounts of non-renewable resources. This is how we fix the environment and make an environment is healthier and far more enjoyable to live in. (Just as almost everyone wants to live on a street with lots of trees.)

Long term, if you want to use a lot of non-renewable resources, we will have to go into space, but taking masses from Earth will be verboeten.

These rules will apply to individuals and groups, including whatever replaces corporations as our primary private economic vehicle and to households. This will lead to the end of suburbs and exurbs as we know them. Most people will either be rural (working on food production and environmental projects) or will live in dense cities. If we want the privilege of living in low population density areas, we will have to earn it by figuring out how to do so in a way that doesn’t decrease biodiversity, biomass or renewable resources, and instead of those who make more money being allowed to do more, those who will be allowed to do more will be those who increase those environmental variables the most.

This is only the first of the Green Age articles, we’ll dive into the rest of the principles and some of the details of how such a society must be run as the series continues.

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Climate Change and Environmental Collapse (State of the World 2023 #2)

(This is second in the series promised during the 2022 fundraiser. For #1 (imperial collapse) read here.)

I’m going to keep this one brief.

This year has seen the constant shattering of temperature records. Temperatures in the high thirties, in winter, have been common.

The majority of the Mediterranean is going to be uninhabitable without air conditioning for months every year. This includes North Africa and the European areas. The same will be true of most areas of the tropics. Time scale is ten to fifteen years.

Because climate change includes weather instability, it will become impossible to get property insurance in increasing areas, starting with the coasts and areas prone to wildfires.

Wildfires will continue until the ecology of areas has changed to one suitable to their new temperature and rainfall pattern.

In the short to mid term, there will be a lot of river floods, then rivers based on snow pack or coming from glaciers will reduce in size or dry up. Most of the world’s aquifers are drained, and many are poisoned. This means vast areas will become unsuitable for agriculture, which will lead to genuine food shortages. We haven’t had those in a long time, our current shortages are because we can’t be bothered to distribute food, of which we have great excess. But by 2030 we’ll see some real famines, and by 2040 almost everyone’s going to be eating less, even if they aren’t going hungry.

The oceans will become increasingly lifeless, and most fisheries will collapse. Even sea farming will be difficult, as oxygen content drops and acidification increases. If you’re middle aged, you’ll see the start of the Sea of Jellyfish. The real danger is if CO2 fixing and O2 emitting plankton collapse, in which case we’ll see some real problems.

On land, the great rainforests will mostly die. This includes the Amazon and Congo. They will be replaced by wastelands, and will be almost impossible to regrow under the new circumstances. This will, again, lead to vast increases in CO2. The effect on Brazil will be catastrophic.

The first ocean inundations will come sooner than almost anyone thinks and low lying countries and areas which have not built sea walls and pumps will go underwater. Bangladesh is a good weather vane here, but the northern Chinese breadbasket is at risk in the second wave.

If this was only about CO2 and global warming the realist optimist types would be right that it’d suck mightily, but whatever. The danger is that we’ve also go ecological collapse going on. I can’t estimate the odds correctly, but collapse of food chains, and in particular collapses of microbes, insects, plankton and so on could lead to drastic issues. The old line is that if the bees go extinct, so do we, but there’s a lot more risk than that, and that’s the “apocalyptic” scenario.

In your personal life, you should be preparing. Find a way to get your own water, even if it’s condensation. Food is important but understand that growing it outside is going to be tricky because of climate instability. Food you can count on will have some form of environmental control.

Expect everything to come in faster than the consensus ICC estimates. They’ve almost all been wrong to the upside, so consider them the “best case scenario” and don’t plan for that.

Climate change and ecological collapse are going to play into geopolitics in a big way. Normally, as I wrote yesterday, the ascendance of China would be all over except the shooting, but China’s going to get hit hard. They’re not stupid, and they know this. They just penned an absolutely massive deal for food from Russia, for example. But they need to do a lot more, and they and everyone else are going to have to change lifestyles. An economy of millions of cars, with sprawling cities makes no damn sense if the future that is coming.

Refugee waves are going to be absolutely massive, with hundreds of millions of people on the move. Multiple countries will collapse into warlordism and anarchy. There will be real revolutions, with elite murdered en-masse, because when people start starving and going without water, they will freak.

There just isn’t going to be enough to go around, it’s that simple.

If you want to survive, beyond the obvious, make friends and join or create strong community groups. You want a lot of people to like you and want you to live. Find a way to be useful, if possible, too. Plumbers and handymen and makers will be taken care of.

This is still some ways off, but understand clearly, civilization collapse has started, we are past the peak and past the point where we can stop it with any actions which it is even slightly conceivable we are capable of taking politically.


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Political v.s Physical Tipping Points

Back in the 2000’s I belonged to the Netroots movement. Our mantra was “more, better democrats.” We ran primaries, fundraised and put pressure on politicians, on top of all the normal blogging stuff, much of which we were the first mass practitioners of.

We failed. Obama was our loss moment, as he bypassed us and was able to get our readers without having to appease us.

But Obama was something more important. The financial crisis of 2007-9 was a moment which would have allowed for radical change. An FDR figure could have changed the nature of America in their response to it, breaking up banks and other monopolies and letting a vast swathe of the rich go bankrupt and charging them with crimes, thus breaking their power for generations to come.

Obama didn’t do that. He didn’t even seriously consider it, instead he supported the Federal Reserve and Treasury in saving them and enriching them.

I considered it then, and now, a political tipping point. The financial crisis was the last real political chance to change the direction of society, globally (since an American response would have cascaded throughout the world, as it did), enough to perhaps stave off climate change and ecological collapse, since politically dealing with those required breaking the power of the wealthy.

The most important political tipping point was actually the neoliberal empowerment moment: 79’s election of Thatcher and 80’s election of Reagan. Clinton and Blair ascending to the top of the Democrats and Labor were the second political points, since each of them institutionalized the changes made by their Republican/Conservative predecessors. Thatcher understood well, noting that her victory was sealed by Blair.

For both climate change and ecological collapse to be stopped, for the physical tipping points to be avoided, we had to make a radical change in how we ran our societies. Continuing on more or less as we had before meant disaster. To be sure, the changes necessary were truly radical (though less so the sooner they were begun), but nonetheless they required political victory and destruction of the power of vested interests.

So while others were saying “we still have time”, I was looking at the politics and the realities of power and saying the opposite, “it’s too late, we missed the window”, because there was no political possibility.

The physical tipping point for climate change was reached this year or last year, I’m reasonably sure. The ecological collapse tipping point may have been somewhat earlier. The civilization collapse point has also probably passed, and I put that around 2020.

All along the road off-turns were offered. People laugh at Dennis Kucinich, but he wanted to do the right things and ran in the Democratic primaries multiple times. The fact that he was considered laughable even though his policy prescriptions were correct is exactly the problem.

While Corbyn came too late to turn the tide, his election and success, if it had been the precursor of serious political realignment, as was Thatcher, could have saved hundreds of millions of lives and made the process much less painful. Indeed his defeat is one reason (though only one) that I consider 2020 the turning point for civilization collapse. It was definitely the turning point for UK collapse.

Modern propaganda is mighty indeed, and Corbyn lacked the necessary ruthlessness to defeat entrenched interests, if it was even possible. Unlike Obama, however, he at least wished to do the right things.

And that’s the main point: whoever runs society must want to do the right thing. Physically we had plenty of time, if you look at it from back in the 70s, which is when I first became concerned as a child.

Politically, though, we did not have lots of time. Changes in ruling sub-ideologies and opportunities to break the power of elites are not that common, and we failed to do so at each possible political tipping point.

And so, here we are.


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Declining Population Thru Lower Birth Rates Is GOOD, Mmmmkay?

Alright, let’s cover this again, with a bit more explication, since the idiots are really doubling down on “oh no, decreasing population.”

If you want to see it on a map, here goes:

Even India has dropped to about replacement rate.

Now, let’s deal with this.

First, to the extent the plummet in birth rates is because of decreased biological fertility, like reduced sperm counts, it’s bad.

Second, despite this, we are well over the world’s carrying capacity and you are seeing it in the collapse of other life forms (ecological collapse) and climate change.

Third: the world’s carrying capacity is variable in a sense: what matters is number of people times the average per capita carrying cost of each person.

Fourth: the more population we want to have, the lower our per capita carrying costs have to be.

Fifth: a lot of people whine about this and to a certain extent rightly so. It is associated with austerity.

Sixth: imagine a world in which you bought a phone and used it for 20 years with modular upgrades; a car and used it for 50 (with modular upgrades); a washer and dryer and used it for 75 years, and where all of those things, when they finally ended their lives, were carefully recycled as much as possible.

Imagine a world in which almost nothing was made out of plastic. (In the 70s almost all bottles were glass and we used paper bags and grocery items were not individually wrapped in plastic and fuck “germs!” Covid has proven we don’t really care about that.)

Imagine a world in which we work half as much, create stuff that lasts for decades or even half a century or more.

Seventh: “but how can we afford this?” We can afford anything we can actually physically do. Each individual item would be more expensive, but last far longer and be cheaper overall. Yes, we would have to change how we distribute permission to have things, but we need to do that already.

Eighth: even in capitalist terms the “oh, without population gain how can we have economic growth” stuff is incoherent. Capitalism is supposed to increase productivity massively, so you should still be able to have growth, certainly per-capita growth. If you can’t, you’re a bad capitalist.

Ninth: that particular issue is related to oligarchs wanting to funnel all the money upwards and instead of relying on customers, rely on government, including central bank, subsidies. (Neither Tesla nor SpaceX would have made it without massive government subsidies.) In actual capitalism capitalists want high wages, because “everyone else’s employees are my customers.” The cost of high wages is more than made up for by people being able to afford their goods. This is why the economy of the post-war era was so good: high wages and lots of consumptiong.

Tenth: of course this sort of capitalism has to go away, we can’t afford a planned obsolesence economy in a world over carrying capacity and with limited stocks of key resources (the way we’re burning thru lithium should be literally criminal). But even in capitalist terms “oh no, population decrease” is an admission of failure.

Eleven: the dependency ratio is how many working people are supporting non-working (old, young, disabled and not allowed to work) people. Yes, a lower ratio makes things harder, but again, productivity is what matters and capitalism keeps claiming it’s good at raising productivity. Plus the actual percentage of people working for wages in high prosperity periods has often actually been lower than in high prosperity periods.

Twelve: oh, and worker compensation is likely to go up as population decreases and as the carry ratio decreases (or at least, be higher than it would have been otherwise, civilization collapse is also in the mix.) After the black death, welfare increased massively. We’re already seeing some of this effect due to the pandemic (one of the only good things to come out of it.)

***

We need less population. The world’s population has over doubled just in my lifetime (I’m 55). That’s ridiculous. And minus the internet and a few good medical improvements, I’ll tell you that life wasn’t worse then. (Even Africa had higher growth rates in the 50s and 60s and the dire poverty numbers are bullshit, because subsistence farming was far more common, but that’s another article.)

We have no problems we can’t adapt to, minus a few scenarios like the Venus runaway, a full ecological collapse which eliminates the apex species (that’s us) or polluting the world so much we can’t survive (which includes nuclear war.)  We can, in theory and even in practice, if our politics wasn’t so screwed up, even make most people better off at the same time. But it will take time, and the most important problems are made simpler by population reductions.

What is going to make everything harder, actually, is our refusal to deal with Covid and our “New Emperor’s Clothes” insistence on pretending it’s over, while it continues as a mass disabling event. Yeah, we can handle a lower dependency ratio, but crippling hundreds of millions of people and making hundreds of millions more sicker is an unnecessary self-inflicted wound.

As before, as so far always in this crisis, the most important thing we have to do is replace our leadership class: political and private, en-masse, so that the correct decisions can be made. And yes, capitalism as we understand it is going to have to go away.

But this weird idea that population reduction right now is bad is breathtakingly stupid, and people who believe it have been fooled, or are fools


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The Simplest Thing You Need To Understand About Climate Change

The amount of warming is based primarily on how much CO2 there is in the atmosphere.

This is what is known as a STOCK. Think of it like the water in a sink.

The amount of climate change gases we are putting into the atmosphere is a FLOW. Think of it as the net amount of water going into the sink.

So, when you read an article talking about how much gas is being produced, if it says that amount is going down, what that means is that warming is still increasing.

If we want to reduce the amount of warming, we have to get to a negative amount of gasses going into the pool; into the stock. The flow needs to be negative, like turning off the water and pulling the plug.

Unfortunately, and that is what I’ve been concerned by, at a certain point, stored climate change gasses start being released. Methane in the permafrost and in swamps, for example. Once the permafrost areas heat up enough, methane which has been kept out of the stock and flows starts flowing into the pool.

This is a flow we have only indirect control over and it makes it much harder to get to a negative flow or even slow the increase of the stock.

So, if we ever want the old world back we’re going to have to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere or take other radical steps like orbital mirrors which reflect sunlight so there’s less incoming heat.

Removing CO2 is HARD. It’s not an easy problem and many of the ways of doing it, like ocean seeding, may cause other problems. As with a lot of problems, the easiest way to deal with it was not to let it occur in the first place.

It’s too late to do that.


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