Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Peak Agriculture

Buffalo skulls & buffalo hunters
Does it ever stop?

In addition to global warming induced climate change and rising sea levels, now it looks like we have to also start worrying about "peak everything."

One has to wonder about the sanity of civilization sometimes.

Especially when overpopulation, overuse, and waste begins to put every nation and every person at risk of having to suffer because there is not enough to go around as a result of a century of pure criminal foolishness. 

In an ongoing Dredd Blog series, in one post in that series, we briefly passed over the issue:
In his book "Peak Everything", author Richard Heinberg points out that civilization is effectively running out of all fundamental resources, not just oil.
(The Peak of Sanity). In that series we calculated that civilization reached the peak sanity when it addicted itself to finite resources, even as it accelerated overpopulation, thereby diminishing the finite resources needed for industrial life to continue.

What makes resources renewable are the cycles of the Earth's ecosystem that break down what we have left over following the use of resources, then place them back into the cycle for use again.

But that can't happen once we damage a cycle to the point it cannot recover:
Humanity may soon be approaching the boundaries for global freshwater use, change in land use, ocean acidification and interference with the global phosphorous cycle (see Fig. 1). Our analysis suggests that three of the Earth-system processes — climate change, rate of biodiversity loss and interference with the nitrogen cycle — have already transgressed their boundaries. For the latter two of these, the control variables are the rate of species loss and the rate at which N2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to reactive nitrogen for human use, respectively. These are rates of change that cannot continue without significantly eroding the resilience of major components of Earth-system functioning. Here we describe these three processes.


... biodiversity loss in the Anthropocene has accelerated massively. Species are becoming extinct at a rate that has not been seen since the last global mass-extinction event.


Modern agriculture is a major cause of environmental pollution, including large-scale nitrogen- and phosphorus-induced environmental change. At the planetary scale, the additional amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus activated by humans are now so large that they significantly perturb the global cycles of these two important elements.
(The Damage Cannot Be Undone?). New information is indicating that the phosphate problem is increasingly dangerous:
If you wanted to really mess with the world’s food production, a good place to start would be Bou Craa, located in the desert miles from anywhere in the Western Sahara. They don’t grow much here, but Bou Craa is a mine containing one of the world’s largest reserves of phosphate rock. Most of us, most days, will eat some food grown on fields fertilized by phosphate rock from this mine. And there is no substitute.

The Western Sahara is an occupied territory. In 1976, when Spanish colonialists left, its neighbor Morocco invaded, and has held it ever since. Most observers believe the vast phosphate deposits were the major reason that Morocco took an interest. Whatever the truth, the Polisario Front, a rebel movement the UN recognizes as the rightful representatives of the territory, would like it back.

Not many people would call phosphate a critical issue or one with serious environmental consequences. But even leaving aside the resource politics of the Sahara, it is an absolutely vital resource for feeding the world. It is also a resource that could start running low within a couple of decades — and one we grossly misuse, pouring it across the planet and recycling virtually none of it.
(Phosphate: A Critical Resource Misused and Now Running Low). Militants have control of a critical resource, therefore it is not unlikely that a larger nation will invade to "stabilize" access to the resource.

The nitrogen cycle has not doing very well for a long time either:
Of 80 million tons spread onto fields in fertilizer each year, only 17 million tons gets into food. The rest goes missing. This is partly because the fertilizer is wastefully applied, and partly because the new green-revolution crops developed to grow fat on nitrogen fertilizer are also wasteful of the nutrient. The nitrogen efficiency of the world’s cereals has fallen from 80 percent in 1960 to just 30 percent today.

Artificial nitrogen washes in drainage water from almost every field in the world. It is as ubiquitous in water as man-made carbon dioxide is in the air. It is accumulating in the world’s rivers and underground water reserves, choking waterways with algae and making water reserves unfit to drink without expensive clean-up.

Most of the man-made nitrogen fertilizer ever produced has been applied to fields in the last quarter-century.
(The Nitrogen Fix). The cost for paying the piper should this abuse continue is millions of deaths:
More than 100 million people will die and global economic growth will be cut by 3.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030 if the world fails to tackle climate change, a report commissioned by 20 governments said on Wednesday.
(Reuters, emphasis added). This is as serious as a 100 million heart attacks.

The Doha, Qatar climate change talks need to get real and do it fast.

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