Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Peak everything, or “après moi, le déluge“

Click on graphs for fullsize view in their original context.
Peak oil: 1. fossil fuels in the history of human energy use
2. a conventional graph by Van Deas for ASPO: Association for the Study of Peak Oil. See also Wikipedia Peak_oil ,, and ODAC.

Humans have been exceeding the biosphere’s capacity to renew itself. This is a recipe for species extinction and human decimation. We are eating the world alive, stealing from our children. As we violate the principle of sustainable development, each succeeding generation will have less than the preceding one.

“Peak grain” seems to have been reached – grain stocks are at their lowest level in decades. While oil soared 80% in the last year, food prices rose over 40%. Fertilizers, produced from or with fossil fuels, doubled in price last year.

source: Chicago Board of Trade

For many, the result is starvation. Excerpt from an Associated Press report 29 Jan 08:

Let them eat mud

Food prices around the world have spiked because of higher oil prices, needed for fertilizer, irrigation and transportation. Prices for basic ingredients such as corn and wheat are also up sharply, and the increasing global demand for biofuels is pressuring food markets as well. The problem is particularly dire in the Caribbean… About 80 percent of people in Haiti live on less than $2 a day and a tiny elite controls the economy… two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate…Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say... at about 5 cents apiece, the mud cookies are a bargain compared to food staples.

-- See full text and UN reports from Kenya.

Arable land is declining relative to population. Much is lost to erosion and desertification. For the results, see Wikipedia on food security and world hunger. Stanford scientists predict mass starvation: global warming will reduce Asian grains by 10%, Southern African corn crops by 30%.

Sources: WRI: World Resources Institute (above) and USDA (below) tons per acre

Peak water: shortages already threaten China, India and their neighbours, Australia, mid-Africa, the entire Middle East – exacerbating existing conflicts. Andrew Liveris, chairman of Dow Chemical, announced at Davos meeting that “Water is ... the oil of the 21st century.”
map source: WRI, UNDP-GEF

Fish, the traditional protein of the poor, have been depleted by commercial trawling.

Forests have been pillaged and burned. Below are their original extent, and what is left today.

As climate warms, disease vectors spread. Two examples: malaria, and Lyme disease.







Minerals too are reaching their peak, increasing the dangers of environmentally disastrous mining practices, and of great-power battles over scarce supplies.

graph: Armin Reller, U of Augsburg & Tom Gruedel, Yale U.

Finally, the world’s political culture seems stuck in the past, or returning to the worst of the past: beggar my neighbor – let the poor “eat cake” as Marie Antoinette foolishly said; my nation right or wrong, tribalism, religious fundamentalism. According to former UK ambassador Craig Murray, we underestimate how dangerous and widespread such ideas can be, even among supposedly educated people:

Last year I delivered a talk on Central Asia at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As I sat preparing my lecture, I had the television on low in my hotel room because I don't like complete silence. Gradually I found myself listening intently to an evangelical preacher, telling his TV congregation that they should not worry about casualties in Iraq because the Bible showed us that there had to be a great and bloody conflict in the Middle East before the Second Coming of Christ. So the more people who died in these wars, the closer we are to Jesus. -- Murray's blog 24 Jan 08

See also the blinkered views of the North American super-rich reported by Johann Hari, “Reshuffling the deck chairs on the National Review cruise” / “En croisière sur le ‘Titanic’ de la droite américaine”, Le Monde Diplomatique février 2008

Further reading:
Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines (2007) and
James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (2006) and his blog Clusterfuck Nation, and
Thomas Homer-Dixon , The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (2007)

IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) 2008 study Boom or Bust: How commodity price volatility impedes poverty reduction, and what to do about it, for the Dec 2008 IGF in New Delhi
Suzuki Foundation studies and recommendations

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