Archive for the 'future' Category

Predictions - The Halfway Point

Sharon June 6th, 2008

I’m doing the final proofread on _Depletion and Abundance_ right now, and as I was hunting up some old data I’d linked to, I ran into my New Years predictions. Here they are if you want to see them. 

Now note, these are slightly tongue in cheek. I don’t usually make predictions - frankly, I don’t want to be famous as the woman who said that the economy would collapse on Friday, when it didn’t.  Moreover, I think that kind of fame is sort of silly, anyway.  Making predictions is fun, and it can get you a lot of attention, but when you screw up a few dozen times, even teflon people like Daniel Yergin get in trouble eventually.

 Still, I think there is something revealing about looking at the year’s estimates of events, and noting just how quickly the pace of change is picking up.  With six months yet to go in the year of my predictions, 1, 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8 are already done, we’re well on track for 5 and 10 (the book comes out in early August ;-)).  And I wouldn’t have expected 3 to happen yet - figure autumn, although I’m still hoping no.

 Now what I think is perhaps notable about this isn’t that I’m right - I wasn’t really going way out on a limb for most of these.  What’s interesting is that what I thought would probably take a year, has happened in a matter of about 6 months.  And generally speaking, I think that’s one of the more interesting things about what’s going on - the speed of events is accellerating.  Just as it is hard to recognize global warming in any single storm, but comparatively easier to recognize it in the aggregate of the quantity of natural disasters, I think that the accelleration of events does probably matter.  Does that mean that the future will look exactly like this all the time, with everything speeding up further and further?  Almost certainly not.  But does this suggest that things are somewhat more precarious in general, and that the faster the pace of decline, the fewer options we’re going to have for arresting it?  Broadly, I think that’s probably right.

For example, whenever you write a current events book, as I have, you have to accept that at some point, the book is done, and that it will only be so accurate by the time it comes out - and even less, probably by the time most people actually read it.  Still, I want to be as accurate and current as possible.  So when I sent the book out in late November, I put in the outside predictions - as many as a million foreclosures in 2008.  Well, it turns out that 1.1 million foreclosures occurred in just the first quarter of this year, and 1 in every 10 homeowners is showing signs of loan trouble.  Nationally, equity is down to below 50%. 

 When we edited the book back in February, I changed some of the material about high food prices to include a list of 8 countries that had already had food riots.  If I wanted to, I could add 12 more now.  I’m taking out my mention of price inflation, because it is so damned hard to figure out, but it is clearly wildly high, and prices are rising steadily with the price of oil.  So far, we’ve put it on our credit cards, but that can’t last.

I didn’t even bother to mention the price of oil, which is a good thing, since today alone it has popped up by almost $7.  The word “volatility” is the key here.  Nor did I mention any possible warmongering an its effects, even though it is sounding increasingly possible that Israel will attack Iran.

We had our neighbors over for a bit the other day, and they were talking about how the housing bust is almost over, and they feel like “they can spend money again’ and that things are getting better, oil prices will come down again.  When I run into this stuff, I don’t usually argue with people, although I did point out that unemployment was rising, and housing prices still falling, and that that would have repercussions.  They didn’t believe me - or rather, they believed things might not get better for a few months, but that essentially, the good times are coming again soon.

Another friend and I had a friendly argument - I suggested that we were very close to seeing wool prices begin to rise, from a conflation of two things - the desperate need that Americans in cold climates are going to have for insulation, and the rising cost of shipping and manufacturing anything.  I predicted that within a few years, it wouldn’t be at all unlikely to see competetively priced rolled wool insulation for attics, crawlspaces, etc…   She didn’t buy it, although she was too polite to actually roll her eyes at the crazy person she was talking about. 

Neither of my friends are dumb - quite the contrary.  But they cannot get their heads around the truth - that this change is fundamentally different, that a rise in energy prices will reverbate in ways that are unlike our previous recessions.  That’s not to say that history is no guide - in fact there are chunks of history looking increasingly relevant, none of them happy.

If I were making predictions today (and June 6 is not a classic date for predicting things) it would be this.  The pace of events will, with peaks and valleys, continue to increase.  And at the same time, things will feel, to some of us who have a wider sense of what’s happening, like everything is in slow motion.  Meanwhile, what we are being told and what we experience will become increasingly disconnected from one another, until the truth, to the extent we can ever find it, will come out of the aggregate accounts of ordinary people, not those who are charged with the job of keeping everyone calm.  

The good thing about this is that people are smarter than their media masters and their government - despite the fact that they are being told that these prices are temporary, people aren’t buying SUVs, they are walking away from overpriced homes, they are saying no to consumer spending.  That’s not to say we’re all getting it - but at least most Americans aren’t buying the hype.

A little while ago I wrote that we were in a fast crash, and I haven’t changed my mind.  A few people didn’t quite get what I was saying - my claim was not that we were weeks away from some grand apocalypse.  In fact, it was the opposite - that we are in the midst of billions of aggregate small collapses, an intensification of events (because there are always people and things collapsing around us), that is forcing more and more of us into deep change - some voluntarily, as we come to an understand of events, but most by collapsing their personal worlds, their personal economies, and most of all, their ability to understand and predict what will come next.


Are There Any Good Choices Between Klingons and Cylons?

Sharon May 30th, 2008

 In the future, airplanes will be flown by a dog and a pilot. And the dog’s job will be to make sure that if the pilot tries to touch any of the buttons, the dog bites him. - Scott Adams

Growing up  in the last half century, most of us spent a lot of time exposed to imagined visions of our future.  We encountered them in science fiction novels, comic books, or on TV, and we’ve spent much of the last hundred years with our necks craned as far as possible, trying to see into the future.  And the future, as portrayed in almost every one of these visions, is progressive, moving forward, solving problems and making things better. 

Think about it - from the Jetsons (where’s my flying car?!) to Star Trek, all problems except the Klingons have essentially been conquered.  There have been projections by medical and technological journals which describe how magic technologies will fix everything, and economists and their reporters who saw us moving towards a perfect, globalized world, united in capitalism.  All of the visions of the future with which most Americans are familiar entail going forward as we are, but becoming better through advancements that make us more homogenized, more technologically advanced, to the logical culmination of our perfection.  As Rob Hopkins points out, this fantasy is still alive and well. 

Or, they aren’t.  In the same genre, there’s Battlestar Galactica, in which the remnents of a decimated population have to seek a new world after an apocalypse.   For every novel that imagines us enjoying our leisure with robots that do all our work, there’s a reciprocal novel like Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road which imagines us wandering hopelessly in an utter wasteland.  

Eric, who teaches the history of Space Exploration to literally thousands of excited students every year sees both sides of the fantasy in his classes.  He tries gently to lead his students to the reality that a future is space probably won’t happen - and to remind them that earth, too is a planet, and that exploring and understanding it in a deep ecological way is also a frontier.  But every year as he talks about the barriers of energy and environment, he unintentionally sends students away who, if they dreams of space are destroyed, lose hope.  This is both sad, and deeply unnecessary, but the narrow bounds of our imagined futures contain many of us. 

Ever since we realized, in the 1940s, that nuclear weapons meant that we really could destroy the entire world, we’ve been fascinated by this flip side of our progress - the ability to utterly annihilate ourselves, the logical contrast to the idea that we can become the perfect species, Homo technologicus, roaming the galaxy in our faster than light spaceships, civilizing other peoples on other planets.

Thus, it is perhaps no great surprise, then,  that if you ask most people about the problems we face, you will find that most of us  place a great deal of faith in  growth market solutions and new technologies, and a smaller, but equally certain group feels that we are bound for complete and utter self destruction.  After all, those are the choices that our culture has given us.  Virtually everyone living in Western society grew up with those alternatives presented to them as starkly as possible.

But as we discussed before, market and technological solutions are beginning to fail, and show no signs of being able to solve our problems.  Does that mean we’re bound for an inevitable disaster, an absolute and utter apocalypse?  Some people think so.  For example, Gaia-hypothesis creator, scientist James Lovelock imagines that within a hundred years human beings will be limited to “a few breeding pairs at the poles.”  No wonder most people prefer to believe that something- the market, scientific solutions, divine intervention, extraterrestrial technologies- something will fix our problems.  After all, what is the point of contemplating the absolute and utter destruction of everything?  Why not deny that there are problems at all, or perhaps place our hopes on any anyone who says hey can develop another technology if just given enough money?  Moreover, what possible incentive could any of us ever have for overcoming our trained faith in capitalism and technology if the best alternative we can be offered is a chance to hole up in a bunker with some spam and an automatic weapon?

But like all dichotomies, the choice between “rely on technology and growth to perfect us”  vs. “accept the end of the world” is a false one.  There are other options but we have not been taught to see them.  We have been told for so long that all we have is to go forward as we are or accept absolute annihilation that we have come to believe that we cannot change our course, and move in some new and different way.  But this is not true, and the first step in recognizing this is to learn to see false dichotomy for what it is - then we can begin to look around at alternatives.

Writer and activist Maria Mies writes in her seminal book (written with Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen), The Subsistence Perspective, about the fixity with which many people believe that these are the only choices.  She talks about attending a panel in Germany with a number of scientists prognosticating an absolutely bleak future for the world, and then goes on to answer them by observing,

“I looked at the audience: all young people with worried faces.  They had come on this Sunday morning to get some orientation from these famous speakers for their own future.  But they only painted an apocalyptic picture gloom and hopelessness.  The gist of their presentations was that there was no alternative, that we could do nothing.  I could not tolerate this pessimism any longer and said, ‘Please, don’t forget where we are.  We are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what once was one of the capitals of the Roman empire.  An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world.  But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome.  The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit the stones of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne.  On this road where the Roman legions had marched, grass had gown, and now we grew our potatoes on that road.  I wanted to say that even the collapse of big empires does not mean the end fo the world; rather, people then begin to understand what is important in life, namely our subsistence…The image of my father behind the plough on the old Roman road stands for another philosophy, another logic.  For most…scientists this subsistence logic is difficult to grasp.  It is neither expressed in the slogan that ‘life will go on by itself’ (nature will regenerate herself, grass will grow by itself) nor by the attitude that we humans can control nature and repair all damage done by our master technology.  The difference between a subsistence orientation and scientific omnipotence mania is the understanding that life neither simply regenerates itself, nor is it an invention of engineers; rather, we as natural beings, have to cooperate with nature if we want life to continue.”[i]

Here Mies begins to articulate the possibility of something in between apocalypse and progress, a new way of thinking.  She and Bennholdt-Thomsen call this “the subsistence perspective” but it might also be described as a return to cyclical, rather than linear thinking and living.  What she describes is the idea of our integration into history and nature, rather than a choice between our mastery over both forces or our utter destruction at their hands.  This is not simply a rhetoric of “everything will fix itself” but suggests that we could be a part of a partial solution.

We so desperately need expressions of this other vision - I was thinking about this when as I read the discussions on about the possibility of hitting 1000 ppm.  The discussion vibrates wildly between the choices we’ve been given - denial, technologies, doom…doom…doom.  Most of us recognize that the technofixes won’t work - or at best, are a long term solution.  And certainly, doom is a possibility for many of us.  Joseph Romm has discussed the potential harm of the melting of the permafrost, and its capacity to get us rapidly from 450 ppm to 800 or 1000ppm. 

But, just as the leap between technologies and doom seems to have no gaps, we can stop and say “umm…what was that middle thing again?”  You know, that place between the Klingons and the Cylons? 

 Don’t expect me to have any better ideas about how to get there than I ever have before.  But I do sometimes think that the first step might be just pointing out - there is a middle thing.


Triage: If You Thought I was Over-reacting with the Food Storage Stuff…

Sharon May 7th, 2008

The idea that we might for an extended crisis be effectively on our own is something that gets you one of two reactions.  1. “OMG!  I’d better do something about this” or 2. “Yeah, it’ll never happen”.  Now not everyone has the same reaction time.  I completely ignored Y2K, never bought any plastic sheeting or duct tape after 9/11, and was too young for the duck and cover drills.  

 Now for a long time the “It’ll never happen” folks had the majority - but that may be coming to an end.  After all, there’s something about seeing your own military blocking people trying to walk out of New Orleans and folks screaming for help in the superdome while the government serenely ignores them that does point up the “maybe we should have a plan” idea. 

I’ve seen this myself, as people move from thinking “Sharon’s that whack-job apocalyptic nut” to “Well, she may be a whack-job apocalyptic nut, but she’s kinda right about some stuff…” ;-).

Here’s a new bit of news on this subject.  From the Medical Journal _Chest_ comes a study that tries to deal with the hard questions of how to allocate scarce resources in a time of epidemic or other large scale medical crisis.  There’s an AP summary here as well.  And let’s just say that it didn’t precisely make my day to know that when there are difficulties with allocation of scarce resources, those with “severe mental impairment” (which is not clearly defined in the study or the article) will be on the list of people to be denied treatment, since my eldest son pretty clearly fits that definition.

There rest of the list includes:

_People older than 85.

_Those with severe trauma, which could include critical injuries from car crashes and shootings.

_Severely burned patients older than 60.

_Those with severe mental impairment, which could include advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

_Those with a severe chronic disease, such as advanced heart failure, lung disease or poorly controlled diabetes.

 Now first off, I’d like say that I think that the project of triage is necessary, and unpleasant, and it is probably good that guidelines are being established.   I’m not demonizing this one report, or the doctors that made it.  I’m also aware that Eli would have to be very sick and have a high likelihood of death before this protocol was even relevant…probably.  

Let’s be clear  - this report does not say they would deny treatment to anyone with the above conditions, but that a combination of these conditions and a high likelihood of death already would cause triaging.  The reason I am concerned here, besides my personal investment, is that triage sometimes has to move down the chain - that is, a plan that carefully limits rationing works only when there still remain substantial supplies.  If supply chains tighten further, then you have to ration more stringently - and a set of guidelines for rationing that starts the process are likely to continue being part of the reasoning as rationing gets tighter.  So, for example, if mid-way through a crisis supplies begin to be limited, the above parameters are implemented.  But when supplies get really tight there has to be a mechanism for deciding how what remains gets allocated - and if we’ve already downgraded the elderly, mentally disabled and chronically ill, that does point out the next move.

The unfortunate truth is that you end up triaging one way or another - that is, if you have a limited supply of medical resources and no certainty that you will be resupplied, you can use them all up on early arrivals, and thus triage by when you show up, or you can find some other way to ration.  Just because I’m fairly horrified by the idea that in a pandemic or other widespread medical crisis my kid might not be treated doesn’t mean that I think that the doctors doing this aren’t trying to address a difficult concern. 

All of us may be doing some ugly triage at some point or another, as we sort out what resources in our communities are salvageable.  There is no way not to sort things out when there are limits on resources - one way or another, when needed items are scarce, you make choices about how to use them.  We often imagine that unconsciously going forward and using things up until they run out isn’t a form of triage, but, of course it is - and usually an inequitable one.  The reality is that rationing of some sort is almost always a better solution than not rationing, when you run into absolute scarcity.  And sometimes, the choices will be bad - there will be no way to make one without hurting someone. 

So I don’t think that this report is fundamentally a bad thing.  We do need a triage plan.  But we also need to fill in some steps before triage, and make sure those who have to implement strategies know when to go to triage, and when not to.

 You see,  the problem with applications like this is that they do get complicated.  And in the heat of things, complexity tends to fall by the wayside.  Medical studies have suggested that this is quite common, for example, that thousands of medical deaths are caused each year simply because in the heat of things, it is difficult for doctors and nurses to remember to do every single necessary step to minimize risk.  Doctors and nurses are human beings, and make ordinary human errors.

So a fairly complex way of sorting people out (evaluating both their likelihood of death and their quality of life/lifespan, giving each a score and then having a designated person make a decision) has a solid chance of going wrong when the crisis occurs when the designated person is not there, the chart is buried in the wrong office and no one has the key and the person who went through the training once six years ago has to make the decisions.  And it would be pretty easy for those decisions to translate, in a crisis to: we don’t have any resources for the elderly, sick, disabled or mentally impaired, or for triage protocols to be implemented before they are necessary. 

 And, of course, because the poor are more likely to fall into many of  these categories, they are likely to be disproportionately allowed to die in  such a crisis.  This is largely because of our present system of health care rationing, which sorts us out by ability to pay.  That is, people who are already being rationed out of care will then be penalized for this. I think it is worth noting that those who are most likely to be victims don’t look just like my middle class, white kid.  Heck, I could probably fake it if he were sick enough, and lie about his situation.  But it is harder to lie to doctors about your diabetes, your cancer, your skin color or to conceal your or your child’s obvious severe disability. 

This protocol may or may not become part of the SOP at hospitals around the nation.  But there’s a good chance that at some point, some kind of triage protocol will be implemented, and some sad, horrible choices will be made. It is even possible that such a protocol will never be misused - that good choices always will be made honorably.  But it is also possible that they will not.  The truth is that we ration right now by ability to pay - and that the people we ration to tend not to be very politically powerful.  So maybe, just maybe we have to be very, very careful about the assumptions we are nurturing under the auspices of preparedness.

 This is also a reminder (in case we needed one) that rather than prepare and adapt for oncoming crises, our society tends to choose the easiest ways to mitigate potential harm, rather than the most comprehensive ones.  Despite years of awareness of the possibility of epidemics or widespread disaster, it is always easier to claim that no one could have forseen this, and to under-prepare.  It is always easier to let the most vulnerable people in a society slide - they don’t protest very loudly in many cases.  It is easier to let the levees crumble than to allocate money to protect mostly very poor and very black people.  It is easier to talk about rationing for the disabled and elderly in a crisis than to come up with a plan for ensuring their needs are met.

Thus Hurricane Katrina became the ultimate expression of who we value: “Own a private car, or die…oh, and it is just a coincidence that you aren’t white…”  In a sense, I give this report credit - it at least opens up discussion and analysis of who we value, rather than leaving it unspoken, but just as deadly.  But I also recognize the risk of sending messages about who we value that get twisted into much more explicit, even more troubling messages.  The triage protocol may be necessary - but it is also necessary to ask “are we doing everything we can to ensure that this protocol’s use will be minimized?”  In this case, we are not.  US preparedness for medical disaster is woefully inadequate.

I think this document represents another expression of who we value in a society.  For those of us who value lives differently, who do our own calculations in different ways, it is a reminder that again, we may be on our own.  There may be no point in rushing Grandma to a hospital in a crisis, if she will be refused treatment.  Those of us with vulnerable family and friends may need to do more to ensure that they don’t become sick in the first place, or that plans exist for their support.  We may need to create community structures for the care of those who would be turned away who don’t have family to care for them. 

More important, for all that it is necessary to have triage strategies, it is worth noting that the scale of the disaster depends on our prior expressions of what and who we value.  That is, it is far less likely that this kind of ugly triage will have to ever occur if we actually allocate adequate resources both to preventatives and to responses.  It is true, as the report notes, that the idea of unlimited resupply is impossible.  It is not true that hospitals couldn’t have a greater degree of preparedness, larger stockpiles and, perhaps, plans for hospice care and community based care of those they cannot serve. 

There is often a tendency in a crisis to jump far too rapidly to the idea of triaging.  And it certainly is a balancing act, a difficult set of choices, and waiting too long is potentially disastrous too.  But too often, I see people who understand the crisis we face assuming that we must give up on the hope of addressing injustices, or for caring for certain people.  The idea is that crisis comes and we’re immediately reduced to a world in which every choice is life or death - that is, we are immediately thrust into the world in which a bite of food shared condemns me to death, we are immediately transformed into a world where we are sered of such lofty goals as justice or the protection of the weak, and we enter into a blind struggle for survival. 

The problem is that even in great exigency, the world is more complicated than that.  And the problem of seeing a coming scarcity in a world of great abundance is that you sometimes miss the fact that there’s still enough abundance to allow for a less urgent, less scarce view of the world.  That is, we are, in the rich world, still a long way away from the struggle for survival.  To give up on our struggle to  protect the weak along with the strong would be premature - easier, yes, but wrong.  And it is still within our powers to create a low energy society that never requires much of that sort of ugly triage - if we choose to prioritize the resources.

But this is also an important reminder - the priorities of institutions and governments are not my priorities. If I want to be sure that my family and those I care about are cared for, I must rely on *my* priorities, allocating what resources I can as I see fit.  This is true on a personal level - that is, I should prepare specifically to care for my son at home in a crisis (actually, the point may be kind of moot, since  my local hospital would be completely overwhelmed  and I should prepare to care for all my family at home), and that I should be looking about my community for those who are likely to fall through the cracks.


The Great Big Food Kablooey: Why Food is Complicated

Sharon May 1st, 2008

I have come to feel that the term “mess” does not adequately describe the complexity of our present food crisis.  In fact, the whole thing reminds me of that old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin complains that scientists give things lame names, and that the “big bang” should be called “the great big space kablooey.”  As I attempt to sort the present food situation into something that can be clearly articulated in our book, I find myself thinking that what we are experiencing might well be described as the “Great Big Food Kablooey.”

What do I mean?  Well, for a fairly long time, the world food system (if we can speak of such a thing as a coherent mass) went along mostly doing much of what it was supposed to.  It didn’t work super well - for example as Lappe et al document in _World Hunger: 12 Myths_, most of the claims that Green Revolution food increases reduced hunger were pretty much false - hunger increased even as food production increased in most nations, except China, which had huge reductions in hunger.  But whether communism or Borlaug was the cause, the number of hungry got kinda smaller, as long as you only looked at it on a world scale, and as long as you felt that the better diets of chinese peasants somehow compensated for starving Guatemalans.  And while the industrial food system shortened some lifespans and raised medical costs in parts of the rich world, still, lotsa people were eating - some too often.

That’s not to say that the system was optimal - for example, we’ve known for years that you could get the same yields with fewer inputs at lower cost using organic agriculture.  Many studies suggested that even if yields fell slightly (and that wouldn’t necessarily be the case) poor people would be able to have more food in total because their profits wouldn’t be so badly eaten up by the cost of fertilizers and seeds.  

Certainly, agricultural dumping drove millions of farmers off their land and into cities, and shifted agricultural production in complex ways.  It made poor use of land, since smaller farms are more productive and can be managed sustainably.  It stripped resources that will be needed by future generations and essentially threw them away.  It was a crappy, unjust, toxic system that sorta worked in the short - and thus, any solution that suggested that we didn’t have to have things be quite so crappy, unjust and toxic had to bear up under the shouts of protest by entrenched powers that nothing else could work, and this did.

But the system has more or less stopped working,  rather, I think to the surprise of all of the people (me included) who thought it would eventually stop working.  It wasn’t that we hadn’t been saying that all these problems would build up - but to have it happen quite so rapidly is something of a shock.  And it brings home the message - food is complicated. 

 Moreover, the driving forces of our present crisis are precisely the same structures that worked so (kinda) well.  In order to change our present model, we’re going to have to back up, pick a new course, and go over some heavy ground (rendered heavy by us) as lightly as possible.  Is that feasible?  Sure - I wouldn’t be writing a book about it if I didn’t think it was possible.  But it is also the case that what is falling apart is rather larger than the food or energy system itself.

Now despite the fact that virtually every post I’ve written on this subject has included the terms (often in big capital letters for emphasis) that THERE ARE NO ACTUAL SHORTAGES AND WE HAVE ENOUGH FOOD TO FEED THE WORLD’S POPULATION, people keep insisting that I don’t understand this point.  I admit, I’m a bit at a loss as to how to make it clear that I do ;-).  Unfortunately, that observation doesn’t help us nearly as much as it would seem to. 

It is certainly true that almost all of our food problems have to with access, not absolute quantities of food.  But then again, as Amartya Sen has shown, that’s always the case - since the end of the last century, famine has virtually always been a result of access issues.   Even the famous 1980s Sahel famine occurred while Ethiopia and Eritrea were exporting substantial quantities of food.   Saying that this is “just” bad policy doesn’t get us very far - because the bad policies we’re talking about - rationing food by price, globalization of agriculture, over-reliance on fossil inputs, growing inequity, powerful corporate interests whose profits come ahead of feeding people,  heavy consumption of meat and oil or food-based oil substitutes by the rich - are very powerful forces, heavily institutionalized and hard to counteract.  They aren’t so much policies, as expressions of our deepest social inequities. 

But more than that, acknowledging that access is fundamentally the problem doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues of scarcity tied into the larger issues of access.  And this is what I mean by “Great Big Food Kablooey” - that is, it is insufficient to say that there’s enough rice to feed the whole world plus reserves for whatever number of days.  Why?  Because food is complicated.

When there’s a scarce resource, the closer you get to having just enough for everyone, the lower and lower the chance of equitable distribution.  Now it is important to note that this chance is not 0 - just smaller.  Markets as we have them now mostly work on the theory that if you pour out lots and lots of something, most people will get some, and that’s kinda, sorta true if you ignore the ones who don’t.  But as supplies for a given population get smaller, equitable distribution becomes more important - if there’s two of everything for everyone, and everyone needs at least one, some mechanism is required to make sure that everyone gets at least one. But that’s exactly the opposite of what global industrial food systems are designed to do - they are designed to concentrate resources.  And that’s what is happening now - biofuels, meat consumption and speculation, along with increases in agricultural yield and input availability that are often not keeping pace are causing a crisis.

Is there enough rice to feed the world?  Well, yes.  Estimates suggest that there is, and a bit more.  We had record rice harvests last year.  But those number are complicated by a host of things.  One of them is the political necessity of building reserves.  World food reserves have fallen steadily, but the world picture doesn’t really give you a good perspective.  Vietnam, according to one report I had from a UN official I queried, was down to a two day supply for its country.  China, which already holds large reserves, also has fairly recent cultural memories of famine, and several reports have suggested that China is buying rice up rapidly, because of the urgent necessity of reassuring its population that it will not go hungry.  At least two different people I spoke to also suggested that China was replacing its purchases of US Treasuries with rice, since rice was a better deal.

Reserves are not just speculation - and they aren’t a bad thing.  That is, as terrible as the situation is right now, if countries were to open up their rice reserves (as Thailand is doing right now) and then have a bad harvest, the situation would be that much more dire.  It is also a difficult political balancing act - keeping the anger of the hungry in check requires that countries do something about it - stockpiling and keeping prices low is one of those things.  But that does have the result of exacerbating hunger in nations that cannot be food self-sufficient.  That is, operating in a society where food sovereignty has been heavily penalized, those solutions solve one part of the crisis by exacerbating another. 

That doesn’t mean that there is an absolute shortage of rice, but that there is a shortage of available rice for sale in some places - and it isn’t much consolation to rice eating people if there’s no absolute shortage, but no rice in their stores.  Even less if there’s plenty and not a bite they can afford. 

In some places in the US, there are supply constraints, as the US, which is virtually the only major rice exporter not to raise tariffs or limit exports, attempts to compensate for loss of supplies that come from Thailand and India without reducing exports.  Globalization has meant that most nations import and export lots of equivalent items - just because the US grows rice, doesn’t mean that the rice in your supermarket comes from the US - the rice grown in Louisiana or California this year may have been committed to export to Thailand long before it was harvested.  So short term supply problems are probably the name of the game.

Now one would expect (and indeed experts are predicting) rising food prices to motivate farmers to plant more grain.  And that almost certainly will be true in some places and in some circumstances.  For example, Thailand is planting a third rice crop this year, which should help stabilize prices somewhat.  But on the other hand, in Tanzania and Vietnam, farmers are finding themselves unable to afford the rising costs of inputs and transport.  Tanzania is supposed to be food self-sufficient - but because the country technically produces enough food does not mean that that food ends up in the hands of the hungry, or that they can afford to buy and eat it.

‘The uncontrollable increase in food prices is becoming a serious problem in Tanzania. I say so because in most cases I do buy food to feed my family and it is a fact that there has been a constant increase in food prices in Tanzania. Maize, rice and beans, which are staple foods here, have doubled in less than three years.

“There are number of reasons leading to the rising food prices. One is that poor farmers in Tanzania are no longer planting more food crops as was the case in the past because they have no money left for inputs which are also becoming too expensive.

“Unfavorable weather conditions in recent years have led to the decline in food production. For instance, last year in Tanzania we faced drought. With scarce rainfall, food production declined a large percentage. Consequently, this has a negative impact on the country’s poverty alleviation efforts.

“Another reason is the spill-over effects of the increased world fuel prices. This is attributed to the fact that in some regions of the country there is plenty of food harvested, yet the food cannot be transported to the other regions facing the scarcity because it is too expensive to meet such transportation costs.

“Authorities say up to 300,000 tonnes of maize imports are currently required to meet the national food requirements. Maize is a staple food in Tanzania. Prof. Peter Msolla, the Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives, a few days ago was quoted saying that so far only 6,500 tonnes of maize have been imported despite the government’s waiver on taxes on imported foodstuff as an incentive for importers.

“The waiver was aimed at stocking up the national food reserve. In January, the government announced the tax waiver for a period of five months from January to May. This was arrived at following an analysis by the Ministry of Agriculture of the declining food production, with maize production for the 2007/2008 season, coupled with severe food crises in 21 districts of Tanzania.

“Maize importers however said that even after the duty waiver, they were unable to get substantial volumes and attributed this to the fact that most countries that produce grains in large quantities had turned to the lucrative bio-fuel production instead.”

 In one report, Vietnamese subsistence farmers are actually going hungry, because they can’t afford enough fertilizers to feed themselves - the majority of the world’s poor are land poor farmers who grow much of their own food - and who also buy some.  And all through the poor world, there’s increasing evidence that energy and input costs are simply eating up the profits:

“‘The profits are not in the hands of the farmers,’ said Vo Tong Xuan, a rice economist and professor in Vietnam. ‘The profits are enjoyed by middlemen and speculators who hoard the rice to sell it at a higher price.’

He worries that the Vietnamese government, bowing to pressure from urban consumers, will order a reduction in rice prices. This would impoverish many farmers, since their costs are still rising, he said.”

Because the profits from agriculture are not reaching farmers, their incentives have to be not some noble goal of “feeding the world” but the bottom line - keeping their families fed and their land going.  The article above blames this on export restrictions, which probably don’t help, but the root cause is industrial agriculture’s constant distortion of markets (in the false name of “free” markets) by concentrating agricultural profits into the hands of middlemen, processors and speculators. 

Over the last decade, the percentage of profits that farmers worldwide receive on a bushel of grain has plummetted all over the world, while the proportion of inputs need to keep up crop yields has risen.   This concentration of wealth has most disproportionately affected small farmers - who provide a majority of the world’s food.  Hundreds of millions of small farmers have been displaced into cities, their land nationalized or developed.  Reversing that trend will require major systemic alterations.

And it is worth noting that this destruction of small scale agriculture is not an accidental consequence of industrialization, it is intentional.  That is, the concentration of wealth into smaller and smaller numbers of hands is the intended result of growth capitalism.  We are told, endlessly, that if we just increase productivity and yields a bit more, eventually some of it will leak down to the poor, but, of course, the opposite has occurred - inequity has spiked, and many of the gains of the developing world have come at the cost of working class denizens of the Global North, as analysis after analysis suggests.  That is, the industrial system *works* in part by displacing farmers into cities, and paving agricultural land, and by impoverishing farmers.  It is not at all clear that a system in which they were enriched, or even just paid fairly, would work. 

And while there is no absolute shortage of food, there are actual shortfalls of fertilizer availability - and fertilizers are the lifeblood of the industrial system we’ve created, remember?  Again, at this point, there is not yet an absolute shortage - but the chances of any resource ever being 100% equitably distributed is pretty much nil - and less when its distribution is controlled by market forces whose primary goal is not equity, but profit.

Thus, many of the same factors that are affecting poor world food production are affecting it in the rich world.  For example, world demand for wheat is expected to rise again next year - one would think that would lead to more acres of wheat planted in the US. In fact, that’s unlikely:

“The ethanol boom, in particular, is providing strong incentives to keep former wheat acres in corn. Within a year, Braaten will be able to truck his corn to three modern ethanol refineries, one already built and two others near completion. These huge distilleries will need corn from an area about the size of Rhode Island, and many of the acres will come at the expense of such traditional crops as wheat and sugar beets.

Corn has even begun to make inroads in the western part of the state, where sparse rainfall and the short growing season traditionally have ruled out most crops except wheat, barley and oats. Spurred by the availability of cheap coal for power and a local cattle industry that will buy the dry byproducts for feed, a new ethanol plant opened last year in Richardton, west of Bismarck, the capital.

“There’s getting to be more and more corn all the time,” said Clark Holzwarth, the refinery’s commodity manager.

At current prices, farmers like Braaten can make more money from an acre of corn than from an acre of wheat, according to North Dakota State University economist Dwight Aakre. But wheat’s biggest problem is susceptibility to disease, which has turned many farmers against it.”

Since most of the growth in corn production will go directly into gas tanks, and the soybeans in large part of livestock, what we will see is a net reduction in land actually producing food for people.  This is at a time when nearly everyone agrees that what is desperately needed is more land put into agricultural production.  The problem is that where there is land, there is often not water.  And where there is water, the land is often under development. 

This essay is already too long for me to do a full analysis of water or climate change - but the net realities of both aquifer depletion and the increased levels of irrigation required to keep up with rising temperatures mean that as long as we’re working on the theory that we need enough for cars and cows as well as people, agriculture productivity will never be able to keep up - period.  It is the original caucus race.

The problem is markets themselves, and globalization itself.  That is, despite food riots and unrest breaking out all over the world, the voices that demand more equity are being overpowered by the idea that we must produce more food.  The problem is that, just as in the Green Revolution, more food does not translate to more equity. 

And the present situation means that gains in food production, even if they could happen quickly will likely to be lost.  For example, agricultural speculation and trading is profitable in a world where an increasing number of other sources of profit are drying up.  Although US interest rate cuts are still not keeping the economy alive, and are increasing hunger worldwide, US interests always trump hunger as we saw in yesterday’s rate cuts - even when growing numbers of Americans are among the hugry.  With world population growing at 1.6% a year, and consumption of meat growing far faster in the Global South, it is wildly unlikely that food production will ever keep pace.  Scrapping biofuels would help, but it would also drop the bottom out of agricultural prices for farmers and likely see thousands of American and European farmers driven into bankruptcy and off their land in the shorter term. 

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it, but there is no such thing as an act without consequences - and food price volatility is part of the problem.  For example, the volatility of the last decades in agriculture has meant that 77% of the children of farmers don’t have any interest in following in their parents’ footsteps, despite the fact that North American and European farmers are overwhelmingly nearing retirement age.  Their parent discourage them - most don’t want their children to be farmers, and the ethanol boom has not changed the opinions of the farmers I’ve talked to - yes, they are having a boom now, but there isn’t a farmer I’ve met who believes that they won’t have the rug jerked out from under them again and again and again.  Whether that’s true or not (and it probably is) the overarching forces of the markets are again pushing against more farmers, which means against future yields.

John Michael Greer has an essay that takes me to task at some length for overstating the case in my essay “We Regret to Inform You.”  He says,

“Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the number of voices proclaiming the imminence of total collapse has skyrocketed. Typical is a recent post in Sharon Astyk’s useful peak oil blog. Astyk claims that recent events have decisively settled the debate between the fast-crash and slow-grind models of post-peak oil reality, in favor of the fast crash – and we’re already in it. Her argument is basically that the drastic spikes in food and energy costs over the last few months have outrun the limits of the slow-grind scenario; ergo, the fast crash is here.I’ve commented several times in these essays about the way that linear thinking distorts our view of the future, and Astyk’s prediction makes a good example. The drastic price spikes in many commodities over the last few months offer a warning that shouldn’t be ignored, but treating them as evidence that industrial society is about to implode imposes a linear model onto the complex realities of socioeconomic change. The fact that change is happening quickly right now does not mean that it will continue to happen at the same pace, or even in the same direction.”

Greer seems not to have understood my point, in that he seems to think that my claim was that we are entering “total collapse” and that I made prediction of “the immanent collapse of industrial society.”  In fact, I didn’t go so far as to predict anything - I described what had occurred, without ever mentioning my vision of the future of industrial society.  The whole point of my post was that we are in a fast crash - and that crash doesn’t necessarily look like a post-apocalyptic novel, or lead to the immediate and complete downfall of industrial society.  I wrote:

“And so how does the story end?  If you were reading this in a history book, what ending would you expect to see?  Because just because the crash doesn’t quite read like a post apocalyptic novel doesn’t mean that we aren’t the new Po-Apoc (like Po-Mo, only darker) generation.”

That is, crashes aren’t, as Dmitry Orlov puts it, a one stop drop to the bottom of the elevator shaft - 100 million new hungry in a matter of a few months is a crash - that is, it is a complete and utter disaster. And we are part of that disaster, we are not seperate from  it, as Greer seems to suggest we are,  in either a moral or cultural sense. As I point out in a subsequent post:

“…the perfect equal opportunity crash probably won’t ever happen.  The question is how much any given crisis will apply to you - or rather that’s part of the question.  The other question is this - if the world is crashing down around the poor and the hungry, when do we see it, not as their problem, but as ours?  When do we see it as a world-crash, not a poor-crash? 

My major objection to Greer’s post is that their analysis amounts to a “the poor are always with us” narrative, in which “crash” is always, ever-more deferred.  Of course, if we’re waiting for the stockbrokers and the Begali rice farmer to experience the world through lenses of equal suffering, the crash will never, ever come.  Of course, those who suggest that this is a disaster that is fundamentally different from what has come before us (and yes it is different too from most of the 19th century famines that Greer invokes) are overstating things - one can, of course, invoke larger historical narratives to claim that anything is a blip.  In historical overview, historians have been known to argue that even Rome didn’t crash - it merely had a 2000 year period of consolidation with a substantial dip in population growth and a less than perfectly smooth transition to a tourist, rather than empire, economy ;-).

As others have said, it is perfectly possible to over-react to signals of a crisis, to see the sky falling in every eclipse.  It is also, however, perfectly possible to *under* react to such signals - for example, most economists predicted a minor bump and a quick recovery during the Great Depression.  Up until the very moment that people had to acknowledge that the Soviet Union had fallen apart, there were competent, intelligent analysts saying this was merely a downturn.  It is both risky and potentially problematic to predict early in a crisis that bad things are happening.  It is also risky and potentially problematic to predict that they aren’t - the truth is that sometimes short term signals do lead, more or less directly - to disaster.  All disasters show some signals beforehand, and in many cases, the results are predicted by some people correctly.  I don’t claim to say that my predictions are right, merely that the argument that short term data doesn’t necessarily tell us where the larger picture is going is wrong.  Sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it does.

Greer assures us that the crisis is driving market signals in a complex system amounts to a balancing.

“At the same time, rising prices in a market society also help drive responses to crisis. Here in Oregon, much of the farmland in the long and fertile Willamette valley has been used for years to grow grass seed for the lawn-improvement market. This year, though, a good many of the grass-seed farmers are planting wheat instead – the grass seed market is weak, while the price they can expect for wheat is higher than it’s been in generations. Similar responses are beginning to show up in other agricultural and economic sectors; that’s the sort of response that can be expected, after all, from a complex homeostatic system.”

And he’s right - up to a point.  Am I glad that the grass seed people are growing some wheat.  Sure.  Is that a good sign.  Sure.  But, as Greer himself acknowledges (and I rather agree with most of the latter half of his post), the system under which those signals are being sent is failing miserably.  As I think I’ve shown above, the problem with the system is that it isn’t enough to do a light overhaul - the distortions in signals being sent under the current system are so great that averting disaster means overhauling the global economy. 

The good thing is that this is probably necessary, and thus may actually happen, to the world’s long term benefit.  The bad thing is that overhauling the global economy will most likely be extremely rough on those most held in thrall to it - the world’s poorest people, and the poor and former middle class of the Global North, who have given up pretty much all ties to the informal economy and replaced them with links to the formal economy.  Greer’s “rough couple of decades” and my “fast crash” are really not very far apart at all.  Neither of us believe that peak oil or climate change is the end of the world (in fact, I wrote a post with that title a bit over a year ago). 

So why call it a crash?  Well, because it is one - because the system is literally falling apart because of its own internal structure.  The Great Big Food Kablooey is an implosion, created by the system itself, and it will have to be replaced with another system if we are to have a working food system - it isn’t just a matter of some minor modifications on what exists already.

Greer ends with an assumption I find somewhat inexplicable.  He says of living in his rough few decades,

“That need not stop us from facing the emerging crisis with as much grace and humanity as we can muster, while doing our part to lay the foundations for the ecotechnic societies of the future – unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.”

I admit, I’m a little puzzled as to how the articulation that we are in a different, and rapidly changing crisis, is a “distraction” from what we must do.  Of course we agree that we should do the work and gracefully.  But why is it that we also must not attempt to figure out whether we are on the cusp of a deep or shallow change?  I realize that the time I spend writing my posts (and he his) could perhaps be used more usefully, and I will gracefully conceed to wasting time now and again.  But I think that ultimately, this operates as a strawman, and a troubling one at this.  The idea that saying “things are different now, we need to work faster and harder” is a “distraction” (with no evidence provided for this claim) not only is a distraction itself - that is, it suggest we’re better off arguing about whether we should be arguing about this than getting to work, and it artificially magnifies comparatively small differences - but it also, I think, works against human psychology.  As Samuel Johnson noted, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Most radical changes in society occur when they *have* to - Cuba transformed its agriculture, not when its agronomists made a compelling case for organics, but when people were going hungry.  Already, world hunger is driving both good and bad responses - one government already overthrown, the Egyptian army baking bread, nations concerned about food sovereignty.  Articulating that we can no longer go on as we have been is not, I think a distraction, but of great utility in creating food sovereignties and economies that can feed the people. 


Three Mothers and the Fall of Icarus

Sharon April 25th, 2008

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 
 - WH Auden

My husband’s grandmother used to have a picture of herself and two of her cousins at a birthday party.  They lived in Berlin in the 1930s.  And one day, Eric’s great-grandmother and one great-aunt decided to put two of their daughters on the kindertransport train that took Jewish children out of Germany to safety in Britain.  It was a very hard decision to make - the trip went through dangerous territory, and it looked as though it wouldn’t be terribly long before Britain would be held by Germany.  Certainly both sides were preparing for war - sending the children to London meant sending them to be a target.  And thus far, the Jews hadn’t had too much more than ghettoizing. 

Inge, Eric’s grandmother, was only 12 years old.  It meant taking her out of school and sending her to a strange family’s home, through war, to a place that was soon to be a target.  It meant, in fact, extrapolating from prior trends to say that it was more dangerous to stay in Germany than it was to send your child off alone into a war zone.

It is little wonder that one of the cousin’s Mother, another great-aunt said no, that it was safer for her little girl to stay with her parents, to stay in school, to stay where things were familiar.  So two of the cousins boarded the train, left their parents - one would never see either of them again, one would see her mother, but many years later.  And one cousin stayed behind.  She died in a concentration camp two years later, with her mother and father. 

But I don’t tell this story to suggest that it is always the right thing to react strongly.  Because let us imagine, for example, that the original Nazi desire to simply kick the Jews the heck out of their territory had not culminated the Final Solution, and that other nations had opened their doors to the European Jewry.  Historians have postulated that this is, within the realm of possibility - at first, Hitler just wanted the Jews gone, and had the US and other nations let them in, millions of Jews probably would have lived.

Now Inge was supposed to live with a family in England that would treat her as a daughter.  In fact, while her cousin did go to such a family, Inge went to a family in England who regarded their little Jewish emigree as a servant.  They forced her to work, never sent her to school, and emotionally and physically abused her.  A neighbor girl went to a different family and was shortly after killed in the blitz.  My point being that it is that it was perfectly reasonable for that cousin’s family to say that sending their daughter to England was too big a risk - it was within the realm of possibility that getting on the kindertransport could have been as disastrous for Eric’s grandmother as not getting on it was for her cousin.  But it wasn’t. 

I bring this up because I think it is important to understand that reading the data as I did in my prior post about the crash,  almost never leads to historical certainty.  That is, history, when you live it, feels like life.  There are occasionally those moments of absolute disaster in which you know you are playing a part in something larger, but most of the time, history is just what a lot of people do all day.  And it is virtually impossible to know what to do and when to do it precisely.  And yet, history, and what is happening now, are pretty much the tools that we have to work with. 

The point of my previous post was that it is possible to be in the midst of a historically significant and terribly tragic event, and not really know that you are participating in it.  The current world crisis may reach into my readership, leaving some of them hungry and desperate.  Or rich world denizens may well be able to say later “You hear all these stories about that terrible time, but we always had plenty.” It is, however, unlikely that the residents of Bangladesh will agree with you - crashes are always specific.  Even the Black Death left millions in the Americas who never knew it existed.  It may technically be possible for the world to have a equal opportunity worldwide crisis, but only a meteor crash that instantly extinguished all life would qualify - that is, there will always be people who say “well, that wasn’t too awful.”

So things can be crashing and we still have to ask ourselves “does this apply to me?”  Crashes happen all the time - Cuba crashed.  The Soviet Union crashed.  Argentina crashed.  The Jews of Europe crashed.  Zimbabwe crashed.  And larger crashes happen - they are perfectly possible.  But the perfect equal opportunity crash probably won’t ever happen.  The question is how much any given crisis will apply to you - or rather that’s part of the question.  The other question is this - if the world is crashing down around the poor and the hungry, when do we see it, not as their problem, but as ours?  When do we see it as a world-crash, not a poor-crash?  My own take is that sooner, rather than later, gets us closer to the response we need.

Nor is “crash” a world without multiple valences and meanings.  Dmitry Orlov wrote a superb essay about “The Five Stages of Collapse” - and his central point is that not only is a crash something that can work a whole lot of ways, but that it isn’t, as many people tend to assume, a race to the bottom - that is, saying that society is crashing doesn’t immediately translate to “cannibalism now.”  It simply means that things are falling apart and will have to be put back together in new ways.  It is pretty clear that the ways that it falls apart among the desperately poor and hungry will be different than if the rich world remains insulated.

Ultimately, at some point, all of us stand in the position of those three Mothers, making that agonzing decision - what do we do, what do we believe, how do we react.  And worse, we have to make it for others in many cases - parents have to make it for their children, but also neighbors make it for their neighbors, in a way - people who recognize where we’re going make preparations and move communities in particular ways.  

None of us knows that our reading of historical events is absolutely true.  It is certainly possible to over-react, to say that the sky is falling when what you have is just a little cloud.  It is also equally possible to under-react, to wait too long, to close off your choices, to say that the problem belongs to someone else or won’t come here for too long.  And the truth is, no matter what happens, everyone risks choosing wrongly.  And we don’t know the price of making mistakes.

But we still have to choose.  No matter what we do, we close off some options.  If we look up and see a crash, and live our lives as though we are in one, we choose one way.  We lose the peace of mind we might have had otherwise.  We may lose some time that would have felt normal - and we may choose wrongly.  We may look back and say “I wish I hadn’t listened to Sharon - I got all worried and nothing really happened” or “Things really weren’t that bad - I should have put the money into the college funds, not the farm” or “There was nothing we could do anyway, so I wish we’d just gone to Cancun one more time.”  Or perhaps your regrets will go the other way - there is no way not to choose.  “Wait and see” is a choice that closes off a whole set of options for early response.  “Hurry this way” closes off the option of going the other way.  We can’t not choose. 

And we can’t know what will happen.  As WH Auden observes

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure”

It is never fully possible to know which failures are important.  But what is possible is this. To make the best choices we can with what we know - to be the best Mothers and Fathers to our children and our culture that we can.  To leave as many doors open as we can.  And to decide that when children are falling into the sea, when a million more people are hungry, that this failure is ours, together.


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