Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Solution to World Hunger Cannot be left in the Hands of Western Governments Again

Warning: This piece is long. It attempts to connect many dots on the way to making the point of the title. Hopefully you will bear with me.

The last "saviour" for the world hunger crisis
The Green Revolution (the brainchild of Dr. Norman Borlaug who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts) which dominated the efforts over the last half century to solve the world food crisis was literally manufactured by the burgeoning bioengineering industry of the U.S. and other western nations. It was built on the use of toxic petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, on massive, mechanized irrigation systems, too often using irreplaceable fossil water from deep underground aquifers, and on the new genetically modified food crops being turned out by agrifood giants like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Monsanto and Dupont.

While it bought us a few more decades of relative global food security it was also very much responsible for the virtual destruction of the natural fertility and food production capability of the world's commercial agricultural soils. It was an aspirin, offering short-term relief but still ending with severe long-term pain. But there was much more.

The strings attached to food and agricultural aid to poor nations and poor peoples by the corporate weapons of western capitalism (The World Bank, IMF, OECD, WHO, FAO and others) contributed to the unmanageable indebtedness of third world nations and ultimately diminished the ability of those nations to feed their undernourished populations. In most cases these strings included a demand for privatization and corporatization of the nation's water supply as well. The power-hungry multinational agrifood companies actually campaigned vigorously and successfully for decades to get control of world food production, making illegal, in many countries, the saving of seeds by indigenous farmers (as a condition of financial aid). The concentration of ever more limited, bioengineered crop varieties has contributed hugely to the destruction of a diverse plant gene pool, including native source crops.

This destruction has been released into the environment through cross pollination of native plants with genetically modified crops. Too often that cross-polination is transferring to native plants a terminator gene which prevents the plant from reproducing, having the potential to cause the extinction of some of those native species. How the introduction of those engineered genes into native species will affect future evolution of native plant species is totally unknown because such uncontrolled evolution of genetically modified species was never studied in the lab or in the field. We have, as a result, now turned the entire biosphere of our planet into an uncontrolled genetic evolution laboratory.

Most importantly for our near-term future, however, because of the move to large-scale, broad-acre farms to achieve efficient crop production, small farmers and indigenous farmers have been driven off the land that had sustained them and the communities around them for generations. Their small holdings of agricultural land are being consolidated into massive, managed, industrialized tracts. As a result, much of the knowledge and practice (including the facility to develop and maintain tools suited to that small-scale production) of small scale farming is rapidly being lost throughout the world. Long before the middle of this century those old ways (so critical as we slide down the other side of Hubbert's Peak) may be lost forever, having to be reinvented by a desperate and hapless population having, for the first time, to learn the art of survival.

Western Capitalism is a delusional destroyer of the environment
If western capitalist society has proven one thing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution it is that it has chosen to be an enemy and destroyer of the environment which, it has forgotten, sustains it. And in that role it is functioning very successfully. We have also proven that we can easily convince ourselves that what we are doing is good, even when all of the evidence says otherwise. We have industrialized and systematized our propaganda machine and our tools of self-delusion just as effectively as we have the assembly-line production of widgets. We see what we want to see and are blind to that which we do not. In our virtual world perception has become reality. We see wealth in debt. We see nutrition and sustenance in empty calories. We see agricultural fertility in a bag of chemicals. We see reality in staged farces presented on our television sets. And we recoil in fear and loathing at all that is natural, reject the only true source of reality and beauty; nature. And we vilify and criminalize those who would dare to protect what little is left of nature from man's abuse and destruction.

Human population is unsustainable
Man's greatest threat to nature, however, is not our machines, nor our technology, nor our concrete and asphalt cities and roadways. Our greatest threat is our huge numbers, period. There are over 6.6 billion of us and our numbers continue to increase year after year. The rate of population increase has slowed but our numbers could, all other things being equal, double again well before the end of this century. Being the world's most successful omnivore, however, puts us unquestionably at the top of the global food chain. But natural food chains are a pyramid with micro-organisms at the bottom, then herbivores, then carnivores, then omnivores. But each level up the pyramid has to be smaller in number for the levels below to support it. Yet we, through our unnatural use of stored energy, have turned that pyramid upside down, temporarily at least. We are 6.6 billion fairies on the head of the pin stuck in the top of that pyramid.

THAT......... is unsustainable!

Feeding Ourselves
Whether it be natural or artificial, the most common and critical need of all 6.6 billion of us is food. But that food derives from and is critically dependent on the wide diversity of other living organisms with which we reluctantly share this planet. There may be many who do not recognize that reality, who think that food naturally comes in a manufactured plastic container complete with a printed best-before date. There may be billions on this planet who have never seen a cow being milked, never seen a potato growing in the ground, never actually seen a chicken lay an egg. They only recognize these things by their packaging and their location on the grocer's shelves.

But feeding our 6.6 billion population is an ongoing and increasingly serious problem as we monopolize, and destroy, more and more of the planet's life-support system to the exclusion of other species. More and more, however, that monopolization of the food producing capacity at the expense of others is now happening within our own species. With more and more people and less and less food, and less and less capability to produce it, larger and larger numbers of people are being left out in our game of musical-food (like musical chairs but with the reward when the music stops being enough food to keep you alive rather than just a chair to sit on). To paraphrase the old expression, you can't have an ever-expanding population and enough food for all too. (I think if Marie Antoinette had lived now and witnessed recent events in Haiti her new slogan would be "Let them eat mudpies!")

Economic system disconnect between ever-increasing needs and ever-declining resources
Western nations are bound to an unforgiving economic paradigm that is critically dependent on perpetual growth with a money supply grown on the ever-increasing issuance of new debt. This cannot be the source of solutions for a world that already has too many people, already scarce and constantly diminishing resources. It is just not possible to maintain a business-as-usual system where the demand side keeps growing and the supply side keeps declining. When the money that is the representation of the economy no longer has a tangible value within the economy then the economy survives only through the momentum of faith and confidence. It can no longer survive an eventual but inevitable loss of that confidence. Even today the Capitalist Church has a rapidly declining membership and may soon face an empty collection plate.

There may have been a time when we could have redressed the economic and cultural supply-demand imbalance by either increasing the supply or decreasing the demand. That option is no longer open to us. The supply can no longer be increased, except of course on the graphs and charts of economists. The resources with which to do so are rapidly disappearing. The only option left open to us is to decrease the demand.

There is some small latitude within the system to reduce the demand without serious impact on population. But even that option is seriously limited and very short-term. The simple and painful reality is that sooner rather than later our massive population is going to have to be reduced because there simply aren't enough resources to maintain us all, no matter what level of resource consumption and lifestyle we consider acceptable. As those resources are finite sooner or later that excess population will deplete them to a level below the minimum sustainable.

Is the Human species too big to fail?

As we have proven over the past couple of centuries, species go extinct. Some 99.9999% of all species that have ever existed on earth are now extinct. Extinction, it is now recognized by science, is a natural phase in the evolution of species. That suggests, therefore, that extinction at some point in the future is inevitable for the human species. From an evolutionary and biological point of view there is nothing particularly unique about our species that suggests any likelihood of our avoiding that eventuality. We may, before that extinction, evolve into a new species. We may, on the other hand, prove to be an evolutionary dead-end, as is the case with the majority of species that have existed. Evolution, despite our beliefs and best efforts to make it otherwise, is a crap shoot. Welcome to the real world.

With that evolutionary perspective I would like to suggest that the period we are entering into (probably covering at least this and next century) is, in fact, going to be a struggle for the survival of our species. Never in the history of our species has such a large population had to deal with such a massive shift in lifestyle and survivability as we will be facing as global energy declines over the coming decades. We have already approached extinction several times since we first evolved into being on this planet. We managed to claw back from the edge of the extinction abyss on each of those occasions. We may still do so several more times before our eventual demise. But we cannot take our continued existence as a species for granted.

Human species is in severe overshoot
We, as a species, have severely overshot the carrying capacity of the environment that sustains us, in our case, unlike most other species, being the entire planet. The resources upon which we critically depend for our survival are rapidly diminishing while our numbers continue to increase. This is a classic pattern of the transition into overshoot. Science tells us resource insufficiency due to overshoot is the most common cause of all extinctions throughout the history of life on earth.

But human overshoot in reality happened some time early in the Industrial Revolution. Many scientists believe that, without the support of the massive amounts of energy we have derived from fossil fuels, the global carrying capacity for the human species is, at best, between 1 and 2 billion. The massive added population that fossil fuels have allowed simply cannot be sustained without them. Whether we like it or not, as the global supply of fossil fuels diminish our human population will go into decline. The only question remaining, to which no one realistically has an answer, is how.

Overshoot ultimately local
Overshoot of carrying capacity, though it has species wide implications, is very much a local, regional phenomenon. Even today there are many regions and nations that can, within the resources available in their region, support their current population. This reality is masked not just by our use of fossil fuels but by the current efficiency of a global food distribution system. At the moment, and as long as there are fossil fuels (or other means) to maintain the distribution system, our carrying capacity has largely been averaged out to a global basis. Poor countries do not have higher levels of starvation and nutrition-related diseases because they do not have the agricultural carrying capacity to produce enough food. They simply cannot compete for that food in a global food distribution system that clearly favours wealthy nations and peoples. This is complicated by the unfortunate capitalist reality that much of the agricultural land of poor nations is currently being used, by large agricultural companies, to produce luxury crops like cotton, coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane for western markets.

As the global food distribution declines and ultimately fails, which it will, carrying capacity and food security will again become very clearly a local problem. Regions and nations will survive or fail based on their ability to produce the food needed to support the population within their region, and to control the level of population within their region. This local food security issue, of course, is clearly recognized by an increasing number of groups and grass-roots organizations around the world who are today fostering "eat local", "food miles" and bio-regionalism efforts.

Western Capitalism and the current global food crisis
Food self-sufficiency and food security has different components in different regions around the world. In North America and Europe the prime underpinning of our food security is wheat. In Latin America it is corn. Much of the poor diet of Africa is based on Casava and Taro (taro is also a key food in the Pacific islands, as well as fish). Asian food security is dominated by rice.

When nations supply food aid they tend to think in terms of offering that with which they are familiar. America offers wheat. Japan and China offer rice. The benefits from such aid are immediate and short term. But they create and reinforce a dependence on a foreign food source. It does not have long-term viability. It does not allow or facilitate the people or nation being helped to achieve long-term sustainability.

The real need is to help those nations and peoples strengthen and secure local self-sufficiency. In many cases, because of the consolidation effort during the Green Revolution, that may require extensive land redistribution, putting the small farmer back on the land. It needs a strengthening of development of that food resource (such as Casava in Africa) that naturally underpins the region's food security. It probably also needs a disconnect from the global debt economy, which may also need debt forgiveness to get those poor nations out from under the burden of unmanageable indebtedness. In a global economy and money supply grown by debt-issuance, the debt of not just poor nations but all nations can never be discharged. It takes new debt to pay existing debt.

Food crisis is not a technological problem, it is a population problem
Western capitalist nations approach every offer of aid and assistance as a profit-making venture and a technological challenge. Neither of these have long-term viability as solutions to the current global food crisis. This food crisis is not a technological problem. It is a population problem. Global population MUST be reduced.

This, above all else, is the reason that the global food crisis cannot be left to western capitalist nations. Every nation and region is going to have to determine what its local long-term carrying capacity is. Perhaps western nations can offer some assistance in this effort. Once that carrying capacity is determined, however, each nation and region is going to have to determine how to get their population below the level of the carrying capacity. Under no circumstances should western capitalist nations have a role in determining how this is achieved outside of their own borders. We have far different criteria than is needed. We value life very differently than most peoples and nations can afford. Whether we like it or not, life is brutal and tough, especially when the world is in overshoot and people are having to struggle for their survival. We cannot impose upon such a world our current unrealistic view of worth and value. We have spent far too long (since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) living within the bubble of a virtual world. Our perceived reality does not an can not match the hard realities of the bulk of the 6.6 billion people and 200+ nations on this planet.

I don't know how the people of Botswana (just an example) will achieve equilibrium within their carrying capacity. I know, however, that they must figure it out, that it is not my problem to deal with. Yes, many countries and peoples will sort it out in brutal civil and inter-tribal wars, in revolutions. But if 3-5 people out of every six globally are going to be casualties it is unrealistic to expect this to be done nobly, humanely. As the money supply increases the value of that money diminishes. As the population increases, especially in overshoot, the value of each life diminishes. This is a reality we have thus far been able to avoid.

We have an unfortunate tendency to shoot the messenger, especially when the news he brings is bad. Believe me, I am not sitting back counting my piles of money and rubbing my hands in glee at the prospect of a global die-off. The next century or two are going to be a brutal struggle for survival. How quickly that struggle deepens into a battle I do not know. I don't think it is that far away. We can see the signs of an escalation in those struggles already. I am of an age and a state of health where I am content to know that I will not be around to face the worst of it. But our children and grandchildren will. And I fear for them.