Casaubon's Book

I came back to my computer to find that many of my fellow Sciblings have recently taken up issues of resource depletion from various interesting perspectives – doing my work for me, I guess ;-). It isn’t exactly news to most of us that we’ve been using just about every resource on the planet far too casually, but it is interesting to see them tied together.

At Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel takes up issues raised by Helium’s scarcity and the fact that our use of it to make children’s toys may seriously imperil future research capacities.

At Dr. Isis’s blog, she builds on this by exploring the present impact of shortages of 99m-TC, which is currently available only as a by-produce of weapons grade uranium production. She very clearly lays out the implications of this for health care imaging, and makes a case that we need a new source – and that one might be achievable by legislation.

At Green Gabbro, Maria Brumm helpfully rants about the annoyingness of the term “Peak” when applied to things that can’t actually be measured by Hubbert linearization – which I completely agree with. She argues that the term “Peak Water” is a mis-statement, that we can have a water crisis without it actually being described with the popular term “peak” (one of the reasons I use “depletion” more often.) That said, however, I do think that Peak is the buzzword o’the day, and we’re probably stuck with it.

If we wanted to talk about other resources that are “peaking” in the popular parlance (ie, we’re facing supply constraints and price increases that may or may not have anything to do with an actual peak) we could discuss the fact that China is reducing exports of Rare Earth Minerals and slowing production, and that 91% of those resources, including Tungsten, Disprosium and Antimony used worldwide come from China. Congress recently held hearings about the possible security implications of shortages. As a Wired blogger put it “Congress Holds Hearings on Unobtanium.”

Or we could talk about world Phosphorus supplies which a recent study concluded is a potential but not immediate shortage, which means we can basically give the issue minimal attention (because that’s worked so well for us in regards to oil).

We could talk topsoil, or fish stocks, but we won’t. And we won’t even mention oil. After all, according to a Reuters story, we’re now anticipating a miracle that dwarfs any of the ones to be celebrated in the coming weeks by various faiths, the miracle of “oil-less economic growth.” Next to this, the mere parting of the Sea of Reeds or the Resurrection of Christ is a pretty faint thing – despite the fact that all previous economic growth has depended on the magic of oil, this time it won’t. I do, however, agree with the articles claim that, “it does mean global oil use will eventually peak and start declining.” – I’m just not at all convinced this will be followed by growth.

What’s interesting about all of this to me is not the old news that we’re facing popular parlance “peaks” in a whole lot of things – for most people, even if we don’t know this, we KNOW it. It is that so many people have so many different and interesting pieces of a larger puzzle – the most important one of our times – that is, what does our future look like, and how can we best manage our coming reality.



  1. #1 Greenpa
    March 23, 2010

    I’ve started saying we hit Peak Science somewhere around 1980. And the great majority of my top scientist friends agree. All us old guys are agog at the rate with which 35-40 year old scientists are announcing “Breakthrough!” research- that we all totally knew about, discussed at length, and moved on from – decades ago. Really.

  2. #2 Fred Magyar
    March 23, 2010

    The world may soon achieve something long dreamed of by governments and policymakers: higher economic growth without using more oil.


    I sent a link to the Editors of The Oil Drum to this post, I’m sure they will enjoy a good laugh! I think many of the regulars there, myself included are suffering from peak doom and could use a good guffaw, thanks!

  3. #3 Douglas Watts
    March 24, 2010

    A lot of this stems from some scientists’ reluctance to face the fact that they can no longer be theologically disengaged from the political discussions which decide the use of stuff on Earth. Scientists must always be engaged at the very highest level of these discussions. If they don’t, science becomes silent.

  4. #4 Roland
    March 24, 2010

    You say: “all previous economic growth has depended on…oil”. That’s not right. Coal powered the industrial revolution, and wood powered the rise of civilization. More energy is needed, but the form is not that important. We’re in the age of electricity, made from many sources. “We are faced with insurmountable opportunities”

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    March 24, 2010

    Roland, you are absolutely correct – I should have said “all recent economic growth.” But since we can’t burn the coal and we can’t build out renewables fast enough to compensate at this stage, realistically, what we’re facing isn’t an insurmountable opportunity.


  6. #6 Greenpa
    March 24, 2010

    Sharon- Ha! Can’t tell you how glad I am you do that too. :-)

    And, on the good side- I totally understood your shorthand language, and that you actually knew about wood, etc. You were just momentarily ignoring it, because wood plays little role at present, nor has it for over 50 years (industrially speaking).

    So, I think there is hope you and I will understand one another. On the other hand, the hazards of “shorthand” language will always be there- inevitably we’ll hit a point where your shorthand doesn’t match mine- and then we’ll be in trouble.

    Old old argument among scientists; should one EVER use “shorthand”? You’ll get two firm opinons about that; but I think the reality is that all of us lapse into shorthand from time to time. I think it’s safer to have the possibility up on the table; and not be pretending we never do it. We do.

  7. #7 darwinsdog
    March 24, 2010

    The argument that wood or coal fueled previous economic growth spurts fails to take population into account. Nate Hagens showed, convincingly to my mind, that if the entire population of the US relied exclusively on wood for home heat & cooking, the nation would be completely deforested in a mere two years (three, if softwoods had been included in his analysis). Coal powered electricity generation pumps enormous amounts of CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere & surface oceans, with resultant dire consequences. Damming rivers kills lotic ecosystems dead. Photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, etc., are negligible contributors. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no possibility whatsoever of feeding seven billion people sans the oxidation of reduced fossil carbon. Since reduced fossil carbon is a finite resource and its oxidation is poisoning the biosphere, the situation faced by humanity and millions of other species is indeed insurmountable. Any conclusion to the contrary constitutes wishful thinking by desperate people.

  8. #8 vera
    March 24, 2010

    Well put, darwinsdog.
    Though I sure wish people quit it with the peak phosphorus BS. There is no shortage of bioavailable phosphorus and never will be.

  9. #9 Greenpa
    March 24, 2010

    A little evidence to back up my “Peak Science” claim. NIcholas Wade is a “science writer” for the NYT, and has recently published a string of astonishingly un-thought out articles. Here’s a bit from today’s, re the new human ancestor just identified:

    “The finger bone was found in a layer laid down on the cave floor between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating. At that time, toward the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years ago, the climate was probably much colder. The people of the new lineage presumably wore clothes, Dr. Krause said, because chimpanzees and gorillas cannot withstand much cold, suggesting that fur alone is inadequate protection.”

    ah- what? because chimps/gorillas have fur and can’t stand cold, ergo these humans must have been wearing clothes?????? What planet does Dr. Krause live on?

    Is it vaguely possible these utterly unknown humans might have had thicker fur? An extra layer of subcutaneous fat? Sat by fires a lot? etc. ad infinitum?

    The stating of utterly unjustified observations, and their proliferation by the press, has accelerated astonishingly in the past 10 years, I think; and I have friends of varying ages who share that opinion.

    Yes, yes, speculation is necessary, and good and useful; but random weird uneducated guessing is not good scientific speculation.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    March 24, 2010

    Neandertals apparently chewed hides to soften them and may have covered themselves with processed hides while sleeping or wore them as ponchos, but there is no evidence that they produced or wore sewn or fitted clothing. Neandertals may have been considerably more hirsute than humans. Chimps & gorillas are hairy yet not very cold tolerant, it’s true. I agree that this new fossil hominid, whatever it turns out to be, could well be, like the neandertals & unlike modern chimps & gorillas, a cold adapted congener whose material culture lacked hide or textile working technologies. You’re correct in concluding that Krause has no basis for speculating that this Siberian specimen must have worn clothes.

  11. #11 provo
    March 24, 2010


    Please provide sources. I thought it was well understood
    that phosporus, being soluble as phosphate, was always
    being washed into the seas (eutrophication?)

    As such, it rapidly becomes unavailable.

    What is your ongoing source? The manure of livestock?
    That’s also being continually lost to the ocean.


  12. #12 vera
    March 25, 2010

    Provo, living beings are loaded with phosphorus, they continually excrete phosphorus in urine and manure, and when they die, their bones provide more. The trouble with phosphorus is, we are literally pissing it away. Which is really not the trouble with phosphorus, but the trouble with industrial civilization.

    I don’t have links. It’s easy to research.

  13. #13 darwinsdog
    March 25, 2010

    P comprises .12% of the Earth’s crust by weight. Since there’s no gaseous phase to its cycle, biogeochemical cycling time is long, measured in tens or hundreds of millions of years. If all residues and manures were returned to soils, and irrigation was done intelligently so as to minimize leaching, I agree with Vera that rock phosphate depletion would not be much of an issue. As things stand, depletion of phosphate deposits is approaching the crisis stage. Without rock phosphate there can be no mechanized agro-industrial food production. Without mechanized agro-industrial food production, seven billion people can’t be fed. A University of Colorado website estimates that rock phosphate deposits that are currently economical to mine, will be depleted in 44 years. This time frame may be stretched to 175 years if less concentrated deposits become economically viable. I wonder what they expect will fuel heavy mining machinery in 175 years.

  14. #14 vera
    March 25, 2010

    What darwinsdog said. Which really highlights the whole civ hubris. I mean… this has been by far the most advanced civ with the cleverest well educated kind of people having input for more than a couple of hundred years… and still, when you look at the stuff that has been laid down, it’s like they could not think ahead past the tip of their noses. Mindboggling. After us, the deluge.

  15. #15 Sharon Astyk
    March 25, 2010

    I agree that phosphorus by itself isn’t a limiting factor – but the shift of where we poop away from where we grow food means that the recycling of human nutrients will mean yet another reason why our large scale food system can’t work in the long term. So I think peak phosphorus matters – not because we’re all doomed because of it, but because it is yet another nail in the coffin of a particular food system.


  16. #16 darwinsdog
    March 25, 2010

    The mechanized agro-industrial food system is more than just one particular food system. It’s the ONLY food system that can support a population inflated an order & a half of magnitude beyond the carrying capacity of the biosphere. And with a billion people suffering “food insecurity,” i.e. hunger, it does even that poorly. The mechanized agro-industrial food system relies on petroleum for diesel, coal & natural gas for Haber Bosch fixed nitrogen, and diesel again for strip mined potash & rock phosphate. As all are aware, petroleum & rock phosphate are rapidly being depleted, which is a good thing lest we turn the oceans anoxic from lowered pH & eutrophication. In the meanwhile, topsoil continues to erode and ecosystems be subverted to agriculture, degrading carrying capacity even as population continues to burgeon.

  17. #17 DreamQuestor
    March 25, 2010

    What is truly perplexing is that even as we exhaust the resources of Earth, we are simultaneously scaling back programs to tap the resources of space. Virtually every space program in the world has suffered budget cuts since the global recession began two years ago and yet space is the one place that offers the opportunity to replenish or supplement our resources. It’s almost as if our species has collectively decided to commit suicide.

  18. #18 darwinsdog
    March 26, 2010

    The thing is DQ, that there are no biogeochemical cycles on other bodies in Sol’s system, to process & concentrate elements essential to life here on Earth. Metals & other resources may be available in space but nutrient elements will be too diffusely distributed to be economical to exploit. As the global economic situation becomes increasingly grim due to resource depletion on Earth, space programs will increasingly become luxuries nations can ill afford. I am all for environmental monitoring & communication satellites, etc., but in my opinion, not one penny ought to be spent on manned space missions, the militarization of space, or on projects intended solely to satisfy the curiosity of cosmologists, so long as there is a single hungry person here on Earth.

  19. #19 Greenpa
    March 26, 2010

    darwinshound- ” It’s the ONLY food system that can support a population inflated”

    You are exceedingly fond of absolute statements.

    In time, you will learn that absolute statements are always wrong.

  20. #20 darwinsdog
    March 26, 2010

    I don’t have time to qualify everything I say with weasel wording, Greenpa. If you don’t like my terse, declarative style, don’t read my comments.

  21. #21 Greenpa
    March 26, 2010

    Nothing would make me happier, since I sense a lost intellect in there. The problem is that others will read your absurd absolutes and take them seriously, since you DO have time to add tons of accurate information- and I wind up reading them, by accident.

    Your approaches to understanding the universe are broad, well educated- and deeply unscientific- in the traditions of Darwin, Einstein, and the like. Your mind is closed. Theirs were open- and it takes a great deal of work to keep the mind open. You aren’t even trying- you KNOW- over and over- that X is absolutely true, and no other paths are possible. Very sophomoric, really.

    Over, and out.

  22. #22 vera
    March 26, 2010

    Not like you, Greenpa, to slug someone and fish for a flame. Coyote got your chickens? :-(

  23. #23 oyun indir
    March 30, 2010

    darwinshound- ” It’s the ONLY food system that can support a population inflated”

    You are exceedingly fond of absolute statements.

    In time, you will learn that absolute statements are always wrong.

  24. #24 vera
    March 30, 2010

    Look, peeps. This is what darwinsdog says: “The mechanized agro-industrial food system is more than just one particular food system. It’s the ONLY food system that can support a population inflated an order & a half of magnitude beyond the carrying capacity of the biosphere.”

    So if you disagree, please tell what other system can support a population way past overshoot? Eating oil seems to me the only one, just like the dawg says. ?

  25. #25 Greenpa
    March 30, 2010

    vera: “Not like you, Greenpa, to slug someone and fish for a flame. Coyote got your chickens? :-(”

    aw. :-) thank you. really.

    Here’s why- it’s gotten to be a knee jerk response for me, at this point- the relative bit is the long discussion of the use of “the ONLY way”.

  26. #26 darwinsdog
    March 30, 2010

    LoL Vera, don’t expect cogent counter-argumentation from people who have ad hominem crankiness at their disposal.

    I’ve been watching how the herd mentality operates in internet fora for years, and here’s how it works: Someone establishes him- or herself as chat- or blogroom maven, and rallies others via the stick & carrot approach to his or her “side.” Then someone else comes along who offers some sort of a perceived challenge to said maven’s self-importance. Out of jealousy the established protagonist attempts to rally the blog-bonded faithful to the attack. No reasonable or informed counter argument need be offered; after all, these are gregarious, politically minded apes we’re talking about here. The hope is that the newbie will leave the forum in frustration after repeated ad hominem aspersion by all the loyal sycophants. This type of sordid online interpersonal interaction is so common as to be practically universal, and hence is totally to be expected. It’s just so much easier to attack the antagonist personally than it is to counter arguments one finds personally distasteful yet are grounded firmly in the realities of ecology & population biology. Don’t expect anyone to effectively counter the assertion that mechanized, fossil fueled agro-industry is the ONLY ‘food system’ capable of feeding 7 billion people. They simply can’t do so. ;)

  27. #27 dewey
    March 30, 2010

    darwinsdog – True to a point, but your habit of attributing dissent from your own opinions to various irrational psychological motives implies that you are an infallible arbiter of what the science of biology has to say about our current situation. Other people with equal scientific background have argued with you that the situation is not so clear-cut as you believe, and been met with what could reasonably be described as ad hominems. Those of us who are smart enough to recognize that humans are apes often paradoxically tend to overlook the ways in which our own behavior is consistent with that status.

  28. #28 darwinsdog
    March 30, 2010

    dewey, all I’m saying is:

    1. Human population grossly exceeds the carrying capacity of the biosphere sans fossil fuel input.

    2. Fossil fuels are finite resources that are rapidly being depleted, with no viable substitute(s) in the offing.

    3. When fossil fuels become so scarce or unaffordable that mechanized agro-industrial food production can no longer be supported, human population is going to crash and crash hard.

    If you disagree with these assertions, please dispute them with evidence & logic. Please explain why the situation is not as clear cut as these three tenets would indicate. If you are unwilling or unable to do so, any objection merely substantiates the online interpersonal dynamic I outlined in post #26 above.

  29. #29 dewey
    March 30, 2010

    Well, first of all, that is not all you say. You have previously argued for the certainty of near-future human extinction, not simply near-term large-scale dieoff or extinction in some undefined future time, and responded with ad hominems to biologists having different opinions. Predator population peaks and declines that do not lead to instant extinction are much more common in nature than those that do. I could agree with your above assertions and still disagree with the extinction meme.

    As for the dieoff assertions: I agree that human population is high enough to ensure environmental degradation, and therefore must and will be reduced eventually. However, the combination of points 1 and 3 is not self-evidently true. Although non-industrialized farming can be far more productive per acre than “agro-industrial” farming, it is probably true that if synthetic fertilizers magically vanished overnight the total amount of food that could be produced planetwide would be significantly lower. That need not mean that everyone would starve; it could mean that the reduced quantity of grain would be fed strictly to humans rather than to cows and SUVs, resulting in lower cancer rates and minimal immediate famine.

    If you want to argue that global food production will inevitably drop to a point causing mass starvation in the near term, it is for you to show evidence that: (1) availability of fuel and fertilizer is at least likely to decline so catastrophically that there will be no time for adaptation, such as more “normal” forms of population decline, and (2) the maximum possible worldwide food production without those commodities would be too little to sustain the population through a shallower decline trajectory, assuming equitable distribution and the best feasible sustainable-ag and waste-reduction practices. Mind you, I am not saying those unstated premises are false; they may indeed be true. But unless you or someone else has published solid analyses on the subject, it isn’t science to assert that because it sounds right to you, it must be true.

  30. #30 ranklebiter
    March 30, 2010

    vera; “So if you disagree, please tell what other system can support a population way past overshoot”

    I read Greenpa’s linked bit from #25. I recommend it.

    Seems to me that darwinschihuahua has indeed tapped into the power of absolute statements- he’s stopped people from thinking.

    Are China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Bangladesh all sustaining their vast numbers entirely by the magic of industrial ag? Obviously, there’s an argument that could go on for years without resolution- but one factor that is undeniable; according to UN stats, around half the food in those countries is currently coming from very old style peasant production. Which, incidentally, particularly in China can look like it’s industrial. I was traveling some years ago through the middle Yangtse regions, and as our train drove through miles of absolutely flat rice fields – the only thing besides rice being periodic villages, very tightly built and most buildings 3 and 4 stories tall, though traditional- I stated to my Chinese host “This must be one of those regions where the new rice-working machines are being used! It’s so huge!” And in some embarrassment, he shook his head. “No. All hand labor here; no machines.”

    The recent issue of Science devoted to “Food Security” includes an article by scientists from some of those places recommending that the world food dudes take another look at integrated crop/animal systems, as a way to keep nutrient cycles healthy, and increase production. Virtually the only answer industrial ag has, and what we’ve been preaching for decades, is “you’ve GOT to specialize! Grow just one thing, and do it excellently, and you’ll get rich!” – which is a deadly trap, of course.

    There is, for sure, more than one way- and stating otherwise is just an excuse to quit thinking- and – quit.

  31. #31 dewey
    March 30, 2010

    ranklebiter – I agree. For example, agro-industry says just grow rice, period. Sustainable non-industrial agriculture can introduce other species, such as fish and edible greens, into rice paddies, boosting total productivity without any cost in fertilizer or fossil fuels. The systemwide constraint on boosting productivity via organic agriculture is that most growers use more organic matter (manure, compost) than can be produced on their own lands. This is not true of productivity improvements that come via onsite increases in complexity.

  32. #32 darwinsdog
    March 30, 2010

    “You have previously argued for the certainty of near-future human extinction, not simply near-term large-scale dieoff…”

    Not so. I have said repeatedly that human population crash directly to extinction is likely but even more likely is a scenario in which isolated relict populations in the Southern Hemisphere persist for several generations before being overwhelmed one by one by synergistic combinations of environmental stressors & Allee effects.

    “…and responded with ad hominems to biologists having different opinions.”

    I’m not very tolerant of stupidity, it’s true, but I don’t believe that I’ve leveled any ad hominems at anyone who hasn’t first leveled them at me.

    “Predator population peaks and declines that do not lead to instant extinction are much more common in nature than those that do.”

    No species of large vertebrate in Earth history has exceeded carrying capacity to the extent human population currently does. Not even close. The situation faced by humanity and the biosphere today is simply unprecedented. Hence, comparing current human demographics with those of any other vertebrate, at whatever trophic level, is largely irrelevant.

    “…That need not mean that everyone would starve;”

    Eleven families live in my neighborhood under the riparian bosque. Only my family heats exclusively with wood. So long as only one family heats exclusively with wood, trees can be harvested sustainably from the bosque. If all eleven families attempted to heat their homes exclusively with wood, the bosque would be destroyed in only a few years.

    You may be correct that a few people might be able to feed themselves via human & animal traction & cultivation, compost & manure fertilization, and hand harvesting & processing of food. But hunger will not be the only, or even necessarily the primary stressor. Water borne disease, ecosystem collapse, civil unrest, the breakdown of irrigation infrastructure, and a host of other problems will interact nonadditively to impose insurmountable difficulties on survivors. It takes a degree of stability, at least throughout the growing season, to bring in a crop. Around here it also takes decades of organic amendment to produce a soil that will grow anything besides Russian thistle without I-NPK & chelated micronutrient supplementation. Time sufficient for the practice of agriculture may be a luxury survivors of population collapse, if there are any, may not have available to them.

    As for other points you make in your past two posts: When the population of Southeast Asia numbered in the few hundreds of millions rather than billions, it’s true that traditional agriculture managed to feed this population via extremely intensive practices, in which all human & other animal “wastes” were composted & returned to the soil. These practices involved unremittent human toil and the incorporation of hogs, ducks, grass carp and even earthworms in the farming operation. Also, locally adapted landraces of rice provided the staple, and up to four crops were grown per year, at least one being an N-fixing legume. Today, traditional landraces have been replaced by IRRI developed varieties that require enormous I-NPK & synthetic biocide inputs in order to be productive. It’s also true that the canal network that once transported food to urban centers & excrement back to the fields has largely been abandoned and traditional knowledge lost. King published “Farmers of Forty Centuries” in 1911. Chinese, Filipeno, Thai, Vietnamese… agriculture no longer resembles those traditional practices. It could not, and still feed three billion people. Today, Chinese farmers apply more I-NPK than American farmers do. The point being that not even the population of King’s day could be supported by traditional practices following fossil fuel depletion & population collapse. Overshoot of carrying capacity and consequent collapse always degrades carrying capacity relative to what it was previous to overshoot. If traditional agriculture once supported a human population in the vicinity of 200 million worldwide, no more than a few tens of millions could be supported following population collapse and only then provided that trophic issues were virtually the only concern, which will certainly not be the case.

  33. #33 dewey
    March 30, 2010

    Much of the above is speculation, not fact, or relies upon future history progressing in specific ways that you cannot know will occur (e.g., is there any essential reason why those dying “relict populations” couldn’t exist north of the equator?). You have previously tried to claim proof of imminent extinction lies in that which is known by biology and genetics; above you dispose of contradictory data with the handwaving “comparing current human demographics with those of any other vertebrate … is largely irrelevant.” There is no point in our arguing this subject any further; entrenched beliefs will not be changed.

    I do wonder, though, why if you are really so certain of our imminent extinction, you personally bother to engage in all the wise future-serving activities you have told us about (with, admittedly, a leavening of Other-fearing survivalism). If we are all doomed, why do you sweat to build a sustainable place and improve your soil? Everyone who might farm it will die anyway, right, so who cares? Why don’t you just quit working so hard and eat, drink, and be merry? It seems to me that there is considerable cognitive dissidence in toiling for the benefit of future generations who, in your official view, will not exist, and who will obliterate every last deer and tree from your land before they go, so you’d not even be preserving the habitat for nonhuman animals.

  34. #34 darwinsdog
    March 30, 2010

    “If we are all doomed, why do you sweat to build a sustainable place and improve your soil? … Why don’t you just quit working so hard and eat, drink, and be merry?”

    Because I am an old hippie who has lived this way for decades. I don’t watch television, go out to movies, bars, or restaurants, and don’t have much to do with people. Cutting wood, gardening, canning, raising poultry, observing wildlife, etc., is what passes for entertainment or recreation for me. In truth, in an ateleological universe, what is the point of anything? I just do what comes natural to me and would probably do more or less the same regardless of the larger picture.

  35. #35 dewey
    March 31, 2010

    Well, if you say so. It’s commendable behavior, anyway. But it reminds me of the guys who claim to be very sure that the Rapture is coming any day now, yet keep putting money into their retirement accounts.

  36. #36 vera
    March 31, 2010

    Oh, yuck. Why don’t we all enroll in the Argumentation School? It’s a lifetime investment… :-(

    The dog’s statement dealt with the assertion that the only system able to feed 7 billion is agribiz. Which is oil based. Whether or not the dog is reasonable to believe in extinction has nothing to do with this argument, or whether he has used ad hominems, or whether he is rational in caring for his doomstead.

    So let’s stick to one thing, shall we? It seems to me that since the 7 billion now is dependent on agribiz, and we agree we are in gross overshoot, it is reasonable to say that this way is to all appearances the only way that can feed the human herd at this point. Because that is the way we are doing it now. Those who do not see it that way — the burden of proof is on you because what you are saying at least *seems* counterintuitive.

    To argue that the chinese are growing rice without combines, is not to say they are growing it oil-free. Huge monocultures like that are necessarily dependent on special seed, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.

    Dewey says that if oil disappeared, we could still feed everyone on lower rations diverted from livestock and other uses. That is ignoring the problem of power. We produce far more food than is needed to feed everyone. Yet huge numbers of people are starving and malnourished. Is it reasonable to expect that the power system will do the rational, humane thing in oil decline, or it is more reasonable to expect that it will do what it does today, which is starve people?

    I think that a lot of people could be supported by intensive subsistence-type farming. But the fact that most of those practices have disappeared over large swaths of the planet, where people will have to struggle to reinvent the ways of their ancestors on soil grossly depleted or damaged by oil-based practices (aggravated by water issues in many places) does not bode well. I very much doubt that 7 billion could be so supported even under ideal circumstances. It’s not a pleasant prospect. If you have an argument to the contrary, I sure would love to hear it. But so far in this little argument here, I am not hearing anything convincing.

  37. #37 Robb
    March 31, 2010

    Vera: are you familiar with this stuff?

    in the works 30 years; still working- with some hundreds of growers with plants in the ground. very early- but very different. Read it all if you want to understand! :-)

  38. #38 dewey
    March 31, 2010

    Vera – If you will please reread my message carefully, I do not say that we could produce enough food non-industrially to feed the present population; I say that I don’t know, but don’t regard it as a proven fact that we could not. It is not, in fact, logical to assume that the way “we” are doing something now is the only way “we” could do it – especially since subsistence agriculture in many places today still uses few artificial inputs. The burden of proof is not on the agnostic, but on the person who claims to know the future.

    Though the “power system” can indeed force unequal distribution of theoretically adequate resources, this leverage would get much smaller in an imaginary world where oil and fertilizer had vanished. Right now, people in developing countries are pushed out of staple crop farming by tax-subsidized, fossil-fueled American competition, and coerced into cultivating cash crops to be shipped to the U.S., sometimes by refrigerated air freight. Take away fossil fuels, and America could no longer afford to keep those people from growing sustainable crops for local use; their cash income would probably decrease, but their food security might well be improved.

  39. #39 vera
    March 31, 2010

    Robb, thank you for the link. Neat stuff. I am more familiar with Wes Jackson’s research on perennial grains. Neat too… but not there yet.

    Dewey, yes, I agree that as the arm of power recedes, people can return to the old ways… if they still can. What will happen to those out there in the cities? What about those where the land is desertified? Moreover, the land in outlying places is getting snatched by corporations trying to keep their hold on things… Can the old fashioned peasants in say Zimbabwe feed their own cities, at this time? I don’t know. I am betting hard though that it is unlikely.

    I am not much into predicting the future either. But if we cannot feed the Earth’s current population while oil still gushes, we are unlikely to feed it when it’s grown even larger, and when oil has quit gushing. I am surprised that we are actually having a disagreement on this, to tell the truth.

  40. #40 dewey
    March 31, 2010

    We’re not disagreeing, I think, that there are real (if not fixed) physical limits on total world food production or on sustainable human populations, nor that (overall) we have overshot the sustainable population. The question is what that means for the future. Assuming that humans fail to voluntarily limit themselves, as they so often do, does that lead to the “billions of corpses in the streets” scenario so beloved of survivalist novels, or to generations’ worth of a post-Soviet Russia-style decline as demographic, health, and nutritional factors incrementally worsen? If things get bad enough slowly enough, as Greer postulates, the children and grandchildren of many of the folks who have been forced into slums could return to the land. Possibly under very unfair conditions, sure – or possibly the corporate executives who impede land reform will meet Madame Guillotine – I don’t think it’s possible to predict, and as globalism deteriorates it would be easier for different regions to follow different paths.

  41. #41 Robb
    March 31, 2010

    Vera- yah, Wes Jackson has a huge publicity machine- these guys seem to spend their time working- which is maybe why they have people growing their crops? :-)

  42. #42 vera
    March 31, 2010

    So, dewey, in other words, you do understand it the same as the dog, in that quote above? The disagreement is only how the die-off will proceed?

    In that case, we are in synch. Maybe people piled on the dog because of his prior misbehavior? ;)

    I looked into the pop stats of my former homeland, Czechoslovakia… from 1950 to today, people grew by about 3+ million. In 1950, ag was still very much old fashioned, but that began to change very quickly under communist rule — the commies were enamored by the bigger is better model, and lots of big machines. The horses were killed off, farmers were persecuted, lands were devastated… some by chemical fall-out, some by poor management. Over time, population urbanized more and more. The infrastructure for going to subsistence farming isn’t there any more. Old fashioned machinery was junked, there are no horses to speak of, fertile land was paved over, and people have lost the skills. I think theoretically, all those people could be fed from subsistence ag if the conditions of 1950 still prevailed. I just don’t see anything like that being practically viable today.

    I don’t see corpses in the streets based on food alone, but I do see a die-off. If I had to bet, I would say, perhaps going from 15+ million to 10. A third. Reasonable, or not?

  43. #43 dewey
    March 31, 2010

    Reasonable enough, but can we predict how and when? Over decades, it could happen through declining live births and lowered life expectancy; you would notice that the country was poorer and sicker than it used to be, and eventually that the population was lower, but you would never be able to point to a particular “dieoff event.”

    If people have lost the skills to make do as they used to, it’s because they have developed other skills instead, as the market has required of them. If the next generation now has to go back to the old ways, or old ways enhanced by modern sustainable techniques, I think they will be just as capable of learning those techniques as this generation has been of learning to program Web sites and the like. I try to take a nuanced view of human nature – yeah, humans can be a plague, but they deserve credit for being pretty adaptable.

  44. #44 vera
    March 31, 2010

    Agreed then. I am somewhat more skeptical of the next generation learning those old techniques. All those tools and techniques developed over centuries and millennia… once it’s gone, not easy to do it again large scale. I mean, can you imagine? Horses and mules will be worth their weight in gold, so to speak… it will take a couple of generations to relearn things and rebuild… restoring the breeds, etc.

    I guess I fall somewhere in the area of… worse than Russia, but not as bad as people dropping like flies. (Unless an epidemic moves in.) But crap, I hate to make these predictions, it’s hubris… I side with those who say, let’s get off our duff and do what we can. Even if the power system is insane. You never know… yeah, maybe we humans have some magic left in us… :-)

  45. #45 darwinsdog
    April 1, 2010

    Apparent disagreement stems, in large part, from differing perspectives of time scale. I tend to think in terms of ecological & evolutionary time. Anthropogenic Mass Extinction (AME) began in the late Pleistocene and has accelerated ever since, and still has a ways to go before it’s over. To the time perspective of most people the late Pleistocene was a “long time ago.” To me it was mere moments ago in evolutionary terms. If I say that human extinction is “eminent” I may mean decades, centuries or even several millenia from now. Most people probably think I mean, like, tomorrow or next year. I’ve studied past extinction pulses and am convinced that AME is a biggie. As big as the end-Cretaceous dieoff, precipitated by a massive extraterrestrial bolide impact. I’m pretty much convinced that the planet will lose all large vertebrates, and probably even entire phyla, to AME. And in the future’s fossil record, AME will appear instantaneous, even if it takes several thousand more years before biodiversity begins to recover. I don’t much care about the fine detail, or the perspective of an individual human lifetime or even several. I’m looking at AME from the perspective of the grand sweep of time called the Phanerozoic; at how this current ongoing extinction pulse compares to others in the past. I think that we’re all pretty much in agreement and it’s only in perspective of time scale that we differ.

  46. #46 vera
    April 1, 2010

    Hey. I am figuring we are still in the Pleistocene… Holocene merely being the name for this interglacial… :-)

  47. #47 vera
    April 8, 2010

    I am rethinking the part of the argument that oil-based ag can feed more people than subsistence ag.

    It seems that if we measure by outputs minus inputs plus externalities, small farms come off better. Still though, the small farms they studied use oil…

    Has anyone measured a small oil-based farm against a small subsistence farm? They could use the most traditional Amish in the study… ?