Monday, February 09, 2015

Peak Capitalism?

It is a clichéd phrase, “the destruction of the Earth”, but picture a starving child on a barren dirt field— and then multiply that a few billion times. Climate change hits the poorest people the hardest, those living in vulnerable areas with the fewest resources to help them adapt or recover quickly from shocks. As the effects of climate change worsen, escaping poverty becomes more difficult. There's certainly no technical obstacles to transforming to a more sustainable form of social production. The problem is that there don't appear to be any paths from here to there that lie along the route of profit-maximisation. The ecological crisis we are facing today is the result of ever-expanding capitalist production for profit. The capitalist ruling class has a vested interest in hiding this cause of the crisis and pretending it does not exist. In the competitive market system capitalists are forced to cut corners in order to stay competitive and profitable — this means ignoring concerns about the environment. In addition, corporations are constantly using their political power and propaganda to spread disinformation and trample over the environmental concerns of citizens.

We are currently wrangling about how much to devastate the Earth because scientists say that if we leave most of the world's known carbon reserves in the ground there will be milder rather than the more extreme versions of climate change. Under the milder version, countless more people, species, and places will survive. It’s the best-case scenario in which we damage the Earth less. Exxon and similar fossil fuel businesses have decided to bet that governments won’t be able  to make the corporations keep its reserves in the ground, and the company is reassuring its investors that it will continue to profit off the intentional destruction of the Earth.

In an ecological-minded libertarian socialist society this abuse of the environment would be impossible as the people themselves would be in control of production — the people who live in the community where production takes place are obviously going to be concerned about the environment which they live in and which they are responsible for. Methods of production that harm the environment would be done away with and new methods would be substituted. Harmful technologies would be abandoned. The only way to avert the catastrophe of ecological destruction is to get rid of the profit motive of production and give control of production over to the people. Eco-socialism is about rational production, instead of blind consideration for profit (which ignores concerns about the environment, workers long-term well-being, animal welfare, etc.). Production under socialism will take into consideration environmental effects, availability and renew-ability of resources, human need, etc., and develop the least harmful methods of production.

All of which brings us to the issue of peak food. The concept of "peak food" is relatively easy to grasp. Food production has steadily increased since the beginning of the 20th century, through the use of new technologies and inventions like irrigation techniques and fertilizers. This is good, because population growth has steadily increased over the last few centuries. (The world's population was 1 billion in 1800 and now over 7 billion.) However, with all those technological advances, various kinds of food production have already begun to plateau. This means that while global production continues to increase, it's doing so at relatively lower levels than before. The population, meanwhile, isn't showing any signs of slowing down. That's a problem.

And here the concept of “peak” undergoes a subtle modification, because it no longer means “maximum production, after which yields start to fall.” It just means “the point at which the growth in production stops accelerating”: it’s the peak rate of growth, not actual peak production. But even that is quite ominous, if you think about it.
During the latter part of the 20th century, food production grew at around 3.5 percent per year, comfortably ahead of population growth, but the dramatic rise in crop yields was due to new inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, much more irrigation, and new “green revolution” crop varieties. Now those one-time improvements have largely run their course, and global food production is rising at only 1.5 percent a year.
Population growth has slowed too, so we’re still more or less keeping up with demand, but there are signs that food production in many areas is running up against what researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in a report last year called “a biophysical yield ceiling for the crop in question.” Production of the food in question stops rising, then may even fall.

Have we reached peak food? Authors of a new study in Ecology and Society say “yes,” claiming our ability to grow more food has reached its limit, despite advances in growing technology, even as the population increases. But others say that if we simply stop wasting food, we won’t have a problem.
Ralf Seppelt, a scientist with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, and several colleagues looked at production rates for 27 renewable and nonrenewable resources, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Using data they collected from different international organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, they “analyzed yield rates and totals over a period of time—from 1961 to about 2010 in most cases. For renewable resources like crops and livestock, the team identified peak production as the point when acceleration in gains maxed out and was followed by a clear deceleration.”
In every category, the rate of growth is still increasing — except for wild-caught fish — but at a monumentally slower rate than previously measured. Peak production of most food products occurred between five and 30 years ago. Peak corn production occurred in 1985; peak rice in 1988; peak milk and wheat in 2004.
This means, Seppelt asserts, that these crops and many others will plateau in growth and potentially even decline. Why? Because we have already used all of the pesticides, fertilizers and “genetic modification” tricks we know to increase food yields and there simply no more tricks in the hat. “Just nine or ten plant species feed the world,” says Seppelt. “But we found there’s a peak for all these resources. Even renewable resources won’t last forever.” Fertilizing soil is important, but it can only go so far. We reached peak nitrogen, an essential nutrient to fertilizer, 1983.

Converting forest and marshland to farmland holds some potential, but losing more forests to agriculture is a recipe for ecological disaster. Jonathan Foley, director of the California Academy of Sciences, said that the trajectory is a warning but in a way, it’s good news. “It means we will have to change how we eat and use food,” he said in Smithsonian Magazine. He also notes that 30 to 40 percent of food globally goes uneaten. In developing nations, this waste happens before the food gets to market and the food spoils. In developed nations, it occurs post-consumer.

Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertilizer, and it is the eightfold increase in the use of fertilizers that has enabled us to triple food production worldwide from about the same area of land in the past sixty years. At the moment we are mining about 200 million tonnes of phosphate rock a year, and the global reserve that could be mined at a reasonable cost with current technology is estimated at about 16 billion tonnes. At the current level of production it won’t run out entirely for 80 years, but the increasing demand for fertilizers to feed the growing population means that phosphate production is rising fast. As with peak oil, the really important date is not when there are no economically viable phosphate rock reserves left, but when production starts to fall. Peak phosphate is currently no more than 40 years away—or much less, if fertilizer use continues to grow. After that, it’s back to organic fertilizers, which mainly means the urine and feces of 10 or 12 billion human beings and their domesticated animals. Good luck with that.

Peak soil is a trickier notion, but it derives from the more concrete concept that we are “mining” the soil: degrading and exhausting it by growing single-crop “monocultures”, using too much fertilizer and irrigating too enthusiastically, all in the name of higher crop yields.
“We know far more about the amount of oil there is globally and how long those stocks will last than we know about how much soil there is,” said John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems Program in Rothamsted Research in England. “Under business as usual, the current soils that are in agricultural production will yield about 30 percent around 2050.”
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 25 percent of the world’s soils that are currently under cultivation are severely degraded, and another eight percent moderately degraded. (Even “moderately degraded” soil has lost half its capacity to store water.) And the only way to access new, undamaged soil is to deforest the rest of the planet.

Agriculture overtake deforestation as the leading source of land-based greenhouse gas pollution during the past decade. The research shows that the recent climate-protecting gains in forests are being nearly canceled out by efforts to satisfy the world’s growing appetite—particularly its appetite for meat. Greenhouse gases released by farming, such as methane from livestock and rice paddies, and nitrous oxides from fertilizers and other soil treatments rose 13 percent after 1990, the study concluded. Agricultural climate pollution is mostly caused by livestock. Cows and buffalo are the worst offenders—their ruminating guts and decomposing waste produce a lot of methane. They produce so much methane, and eat so much fertilized feed, that livestock are blamed for two-thirds of agriculture’s climate pollution every year.  Some countries, particularly India, have been averse to discussing agricultural impacts during U.N. climate negotiations—largely because they fear that the outcomes of such talks could reduce agricultural output and worsen food shortages. “Poor countries are not going to sit idly by and just impose reductions in food production to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets,” Schwartzman said.
Doug Boucher, the director of climate research at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says agriculture’s climate impacts could be reduced without taking food off tables. Reducing the overuse of fertilizers, protecting the organic content of soils by changing farming practices, and keeping rice paddies flooded for fewer weeks every season could all contribute to a climate solution, he said. The biggest opportunities for reforming agriculture’s climate impacts can sometimes be found miles from where any food is grown. Reducing waste where food is sold, prepared, eaten and, in many cases, partly tossed in the trash as uneaten leftovers or unsellable produce, reduces the amount of land, fertilizer and equipment needed to feed everybody. “Shifting consumption toward less beef and more chicken, and reducing waste of meat in particular, are what seem to have the biggest potential,” Boucher said. 

Global agriculture and food production is responsible for about 25% of green house gases (GHG) emission. About one half of ice-free land is used for food production. The amount of GHG emission linked to meat production is dramatically higher than for plant –based food products. Tilman and Clark found that production of one pound of beef protein causes 250 times the GHG emission as compared to the production of one pound of legume-derived proteins. Or another way for comparison, 20 servings of vegetables correspond to less GHG emission than one serving of beef. If the current cultural and diet trends continue to 2050. During this period, increase in global population by 36%, together with increase in dietary shift towards meat consumption, will cause an increase of estimated 80% in GHG emission from food production.  This increase in emission is equal to the total 2010 global transportation emission. A global shift from the omnivore diet to the alternative plant-based diet can dramatically slow down this trend. The Scientists estimate that this global diet change with several other changes (such as reduced wastage of fresh produce) will reduce agriculture derived GHG emission by 30-60 % and reduce land usage by 20-30%.

People revolt when their lives are unbearable. Sometimes material reality creates that unbearableness: droughts, plagues, storms, floods. But food and medical care, health and well-being, access to housing and education— these things are also governed by economic means and government policy. Water failure, crop failure, flooding, and more will lead to mass migration and climate refugees— they already have— and this will lead to conflict. Those conflicts are being set in motion now. It is no longer peak oil but peak everything: peak food, peak soil, peak fertilizer, even peak bees. Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16 million children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us. One of the events prompting the French Revolution was the failure of the 1788 wheat crop, which made bread prices skyrocket and the poor go hungry. Advising them to eat cake didn’t stop the revolution.