Saturday, May 28, 2016
Hey, You Wanna Talk Dirt?
It's a pretty simple proposition. If there are three things that will probably kill you and you put your efforts into fighting one of them the other two that you ignored will probably kill you. If your house is on fire and you put all your efforts into fighting the fire in the kitchen your house is still going to burn to the ground.
By now most sentient people accept that climate change poses a mortal threat to human civilization, if not immediately, in two or three decades. That realization has become sufficiently widespread that our political caste, those to whom we've entrusted the reins of power, are talking of doing something about it. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. That's a cornucopia of "ifs" and "buts".
Yesterday I wrote about how humans aren't particularly well suited to dealing with existential threats. Human nature has a number of mechanisms, flaws that leave us pretty vulnerable. Sometimes we do the right thing. Sometimes we don't - ask the Maya, the Anasazi, the Easter Islanders, the Greenland Norse.
In yesterday's post I concluded by mentioning a chilling observation by Jared Diamond in the closing chapters of his book, "Collapse." Diamond argues, very convincingly, that when you have existential threats you must solve them all or you'll fail to rectify any of them. That's why I contend that if we're to tackle climate change it won't work unless we also deal with overpopulation and our massive over-consumption of Earth's resources.
Humanity is growing in total numbers and in per capita consumption. There are increasingly more of us, each (on average) consuming a growing quantity of resources - water, energy, agricultural products, goods of all descriptions. That means we're rapidly spooling up economic activity. That means more resources, more energy and more waste.
Our roster now stands at 7+ billion, heading to 9+ billion perhaps as soon as the middle of this century. To put that in perspective, we were at 3 billion in the 60s. Mankind didn't reach 1 billion until somewhere around 1814. In other words it took us 11,000 years of civilization to first reach 1 billion and just another 200 years in which to multiply seven fold.
50%, that's the number bandied about. The International Energy Agency says humans will need some 50% more energy by 2050. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and several other august bodies figure we'll need 50% more agricultural production to feed the global herd by 2050.
Which leads me to a problem rarely mentioned in polite company - the rapid decline in our agricultural capacity. As a follow up to some courses I've done in war studies, I became curious about food security issues and regional destabilization. In reading some of the assigned materials on global food supply I came across a paper that I found sufficiently interesting to read in its entirety. That was my introduction to the problem of loss of farmland - soil degradation, desertification and so on.
It was just one paper and I had other things to do so I moved on to other things. The issue didn't seem to have a lot of traction, perhaps the danger was overstated.
Then, in December, 2014, Scientific American published an item about a UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report warning that mankind had about 60 years of farmland left. What a mind-boggling thing to say. 60 years of farmland left, what could that possibly mean? Preposterous!
Yet the UN agency warning was consistent with what I had read previously through independent study. So I followed up and found all sorts of research coming to that same conclusion. Here's the thing. Yes, we grew to 7+ billion mouths but, to fill those mouths, we had to resort to the parlour tricks of the Green Revolution - intensive exploitation of surface and groundwater resources, ever increasing applications of soil exhausting chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and industrial-scale agricultural farming practices.
Think of it as the old-time farmer who pushes his plough horse to exhaustion until it collapses and dies. That's about where we're at with our stocks of farmland.
Then there's the spreading problem of salination. A lot of groundwater contains trace amounts of salt. Groundwater used for irrigation evaporates, leaving the salts behind. Over time the level of salt in the topsoil increases until it will no longer support plant life. That's what took down the Mesopotamians and our growing dependence on groundwater for irrigation has brought the problem back.
Even our most productive and well-managed agricultural areas are already degraded. Here's a map based on UN FAO data that shows you what we're dealing with - today.
I should mention that this is a commonly accepted graphic. You'll find it pretty much everywhere the subject is discussed. Now think of it, especially the red parts, in the context of human settlement. The major farming zones of the world, in China, India and the US, are in the red.
So why don't we hear about this? I came across an article in, of all places, Time Magazine where a soils expert dealt with that question. He said we don't hear about it because "it's not sexy." We're only talking about dirt. Dirt's everywhere. Don't you ever mop your floor?
Which brings us to a brief discussion about where soil comes from and where it's been going. Soil is a creation of nature. It comes from the effects of wind and sun and rain and lichens eating away at rock. Nature takes its sweet time making soil. It produces roughly one millimetre every hundred years. That's one centimetre, less than half an inch, every thousand years.
Human activity is depleting that fertile top soil at around 40-times its rate of natural generation. Think of the Dust Bowl of the Dirty 30s. You deplete the soil, drought finishes the job, winds blow it away, you're screwed so you gather up the kids, load up as much furniture as you can carry on the truck and move to greener pastures.
Soil experts think that rate of relative loss of fertile soil is going to increase, markedly so, in the next couple of decades. Whereas we're told we'll need about 50% more production to "feed the herd" our agricultural capacity is set to decline by an estimated 30% in that same interval.
Now if you look on the chart above you'll see the vast tracts of yellow territory, stable soil. Canada's sitting pretty. So is Russia. The rest not so much.
Unfortunately the yellow zones are boreal forest, tundra and bare rock. There is soil there but most of the biomass is in the plants themselves, not in the thin soil. And, as was driven home by the ongoing Fort Mac wildfires, the region is susceptible to sustained drought.
Climate change will extend normal growing temperatures northward, to be sure. What it will not do is tilt the Earth's axis of rotation to expose those northern tracts to the same sunlight exposure that supports photosynthesis in more temperate regions. In other words when it comes to the north being our salvation, you're confronted by a soils problem, a drought problem and a sunlight problem. There'll be some gain but it won't offset the damage done in our traditional agricultural areas.
There are some things that Canada and Russia can do but they're costly and dislocative and it would be hard to find the political will necessary to act. I've been working on a couple of ideas but it's not yet time to get into them. The truth is it may never be time, not before the options are foreclosed.