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.


Lorne said...

For many years i taught The Grapes of Wrath, Mound, which begins with the dustbowl conditions of the midwest that forced farmers off their land. In the novel, as in real life, vast hordes went to the 'promised land' of California which, much to their dismay, was not the welcoming paradise they thought it would be. As your post so clearly shows, there is be no future promised land, either real or imagined, for the vast numbers who will be displaced and seeking arable land in which to resettle.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious threat, nothing is being done to ameliorate or prepare for the dire conditions that await. We are, it seems to me, a self-doomed species.

The Mound of Sound said...

That idea I shared with you some time ago remains alive and well, Lorne. I've been waiting for that "aha" moment that would show it invalid or less than feasible but subsequent events, to the contrary, have validated the concept. We shall see. I need to find that particular person adept at taking ideas and transforming them into politically irresistible proposals.

And, yes, the Grapes of Wrath were in my mind when I mentioned the Dust Bowl of the 30s. Farmers had settled an area, assuming the existing vegetation was indicative of soil fertility. They guessed wrong. Along comes a drought and they were finished.

We have a similar problem in the prairies that extends south through America's breadbasket states. Whites arrived to settle those areas believing that the climatic conditions were "normal" where, in fact, they were experiencing a period of unduly wet conditions. They didn't know how to read the signs - the lack of real forests, a landscape of grassland and stunted trees. Now we learn that the area is historically subject to megadroughts extending 60-years and more. In other words it's fundamentally uninhabitable except for the natural grazing common to the buffalo. Humans are a very water consumptive species which poses a huge problem in megadrought periods.

Tim said...

I think 9 billion is a big underestimate based on the growth we've seen in the past. Presumably, we will find terrible ways to get the population to 16 billion before the end of the century. People ask my partner and I if we're going to have kids, no way with what we see coming. And besides, there are a lot of kids out there who need a home. Self-preservation/continuation needs to be at a community level not on an atomized individual basis.

The Mound of Sound said...

Tim, I'm not convinced we'll reach 9 billion. We're already consuming the Earth's renewable resources at 1.7 times their replenishment rate, the Earth's "carrying capacity."

What's happening is visible to the naked eye from space - deforestation, desertification, severe storm events, loss of Arctic sea ice and glaciers, lakes drying up and rivers that run to the sea only at some times of the year, on and on.

Our energy consumption is rapacious. Our resource consumption is rapacious. The worsening accumulation of waste beyond the cleansing capacity of our ecosystems is a calamity in waiting.

We're already living well beyond our means. Growth? Where, how?

I reluctantly agree with James Lovelock. He believes mankind will enter the next century at well under one billion people.

Troy Thomas said...

For whatever reason, I'm reminded of Leo Tolstoy's short story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"
We really don't need all the food we grow. At least we in the Western nations. We really could use much less. A little more to the food insecure nations, too, and then we'd probably be all good.
There's really enough nutrients in the soil to last, well, forever. Any land that can support life should be able to grow agriculture. But we're all so damn ham-fisted that we tend to lose those nutrients in our turning over the land from the wild into farmland.
In the olden days, they had to rely on oxen and time. Nowadays, we'll use a machine, and dig too deeply and quickly, after which a good rain or a light breeze will carry what was important to the soil away. We'll replace some of what was lost by over-saturating the land with fertilizer, and then aggressively grow whatever we can for as much profit is possible. And then we exhaust the land.
How much food does a man need? Well, about as much land, I suppose, in the end.

Kim said...

I've been thinking about soil structure for a long time. These days anyone lucky enough to own land only owns the top strata, not the mineral rights. The modern way to do this involves a "developer" being the middleman, who scrapes off the top strata of soil with a machine and trucks it away before the build. You have to buy it back, delivered in a dump truck, or by the bag from the store. How stupid is that?

I was fortunate to have one place for a decade, and the soil structure was greatly improved by the time we were evicted. The guy who bought the property out from under us bulldozed and nuked it. Everywhere we go, we steward the soil and the networks that hold it in place, but we just can't afford the resources any more.

It makes me sad and bitter.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Troy. What I've learned, Troy, is that there aren't enough nutrients, microbes, in much of our farmland. This is the result, from the extensive research, of overproduction and from the effects of agri-chemicals, fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides that are depleting essential carbon content.

We all know that the blacker the soil, the more fertile it will be. That's the carbon that is being lost to our farmland. One soil expert after another is calling for some means to restore soil carbon, the food of microbes that create the nutrients that feed plant/crop growth.

I'm working on a couple of ideas for soil rehabilitation by recarbonizing topsoil. The only thing holding it back, as far as I can see, is a bit of engineering and government support. My main idea should be self-funding, probably even quite profitable. We'll see.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Troy, I wanted to respond to your other point that we don't need all the food we produce. That's actually true if we manage our production, distribution and consumption differently. Unfortunately the current models are those of Big Agra and I haven't seen any government willing to take them on. Aside from a few humanitarian relief gestures they would rather let the land sit fallow before they would incur the costs of production and distribution for those who cannot afford to pay their going rate.

Can you imagine any leader, even Trudeau, telling his/her people that they've had it too good and it's time to trim their sails, cut their standard of living by 30% or even 10% so that the vulnerable can be helped? Hell we won't even sacrifice for Canadians two generations distant. We've already demonized the poor in distant lands as primitive, backward, essentially worthless. That doesn't seem an especially auspicious mindset for supporting acts of selflessness.

Look no further than your own people, Troy. That's all the insight you need to figure out how willing we'll be to make sacrifices for people on the other end of the planet.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Kim - I was talking to a local horse breeder recently. He told me that he had to bring in hay from the mainland. It grows here but the soil is so thin that the crop has only marginal food value for the animals. He brought up the poor carbon levels in the local soil, the result of the rainforest climate.

I was born and raised in an area of excellent market farming. My grandfather's farm grew everything you would find on a produce aisle and it was beautiful, delicious product. The soil, a prehistoric freshwater lakebed, was black. Even when I was a kid (Christ was still just a corporal) they knew to leave the canes and silage in the field to be ploughed under for the following year. Between that and the manure from grandfather's fairly large dairy operation, they tended their soil very well.

That reminds me of the summer joy of a young, barefoot boy walking through a cattle pasture on a sunny day. Damn but didn't that feel good!

Northern PoV said...

"Chung Kuo is primarily set 200 years in the future in mile-high, continent-spanning cities made of a super-plastic called 'ice'. Housing a global population of 40 billion, the cities are divided into 300 levels and success and prestige is measured by how far above the ground one lives. Some – in the Above – live in great comfort. Others – in the Lowers – live in squalor, whilst at the bottom of the pile is 'Below the Net', a place where the criminal element is exiled and left to rot. Beneath the cities lie the ruins of old Earth – the Clay – a lightless, stygian hell in which, astonishingly, humans still exist. These divisions are known as 'the world of levels'.

In addition to the world of levels, there are the great meat-animal pens and sprawling, vast plantations to feed the population. There is also activity beyond Earth. The ruling classes – who base their rule on the customs and fashions of imperial China – maintain traditional palaces and courts both on Earth and in geostationary orbit. There are also Martian research bases and the outer colonies, with their mining planets."
from wikipedia

Marie Snyder said...

I read my students a bit of Alan Weisman's "World Without Us" - his solution to overpopulation is automatic sterilization of every woman as soon as she has one live birth. He does the math to show how quickly it could solve many problems. My students are horrified at the idea. I ask for better solutions and get little more than 'just ask them nicely'. Students mainly still want 2-3 kids each. I'm to the point at cringing at the sight of a newborn because I picture it as a foot soldier 18 years from now. We've got the soil and water, but the US has the military. I worry more about the wars that will start here when reality sets in. That's the downfall of being in the best spot to survive - how many will we let in before we start to get nervous?

My own older two don't want any kids, but can't find any doctor that will do the surgery on adults in their 20s. They have to be 30-35 to get it done. Nobody's paying attention to the long view.

The Mound of Sound said...

Mass sterilization is about the only solution to the overpopulation problem and, within a generation or two, it would also resolve most of our other threats.

Why do we hear no one championing the cause? Because the next big population bomb is in Africa and the big population countries are India and China. The developed world has lost much of its moral authority in the Third World and emerging economic superpowers and for good reason.

We go to lecture them and they shout "global warming, global warming, global warming" back in our faces.