Feeding 9 billion

16 01 2017

I have just been tipped off to this fantastic Joel Salatin video…… I think it’s ironic that Eclipe, a fan of Polyface Farm, is in complete disagreement with Joel who is totally anti hi-tech farming. In fact, like me, Joel believes in walking away from the Matrix (exemplified in this video by McDonald’s), and he lets both barrels go at the establishment…..

Enjoy.





The price of fuel..: what is going on..?

11 01 2017

Yesterday, I went to the big smoke for a medical appointment. I’m fine. But when I went to fill up to ensure I could make it home, I realised that the price of petrol had gone up by a whopping 20c/L in one hit. That’s a 14% increase……… in one day.Petrol price hike in Hobart

In the news, “Mr Moody (of the Royal Automobile Club of Tasmania) said prices were being driven up by increases in the global oil price, but he said the price should level out in Tasmania at about $1.40 a litre in about a month.”

Except that when I investigated this, the price of oil had not skyrocketed, it was still around $52 a barrel. Last time petrol was this expensive, oil was at $147 a barrel….. so what’s going on?

My take on this is that the oil companies must be finding it harder and harder to pay their interest bills. If they can’t make profits with oil, they’ll have to find them upstream at the pump.  Furthermore, maybe Peak Oil is on the cusp of getting really serious, and this might be the tip of the iceberg……. Nafeez Ahmed has just written the following article about how dire the oil situation is becoming…….

Brace for the oil, food and financial crash of 2018

80% of the world’s oil has peaked, and the resulting oil crunch will flatten the economy

New scientific research suggests that the world faces an imminent oil crunch, which will trigger another financial crisis.

A report by HSBC shows that contrary to industry mythology, even amidst the glut of unconventional oil and gas, the vast bulk of the world’s oil production has already peaked and is now in decline; while European government scientists show that the value of energy produced by oil has declined by half within just the first 15 years of the 21st century.

The upshot? Welcome to a new age of permanent economic recession driven by ongoing dependence on dirty, expensive, difficult oil… unless we choose a fundamentally different path.

Last September, a few outlets were reporting the counterintuitive findings of a new HSBC research report on global oil supply. Unfortunately, the true implications of the HSBC report were largely misunderstood.

The HSBC research note — prepared for clients of the global bank — found that contrary to concerns about too much oil supply and insufficient demand, the situation was opposite: global oil supply will in coming years be insufficient to sustain rising demand.screenshot

Yet the full, striking import of the report, concerning the world’s permanent entry into a new age of global oil decline, was never really explained. The report didn’t just go against the grain of the industry’s hype about ‘peak demand’: it vindicated what is routinely lambasted by the industry as a myth: peak oil — the concurrent peak and decline of global oil production.

The HSBC report you need to read, now

INSURGE intelligence obtained a copy of the report in December 2016, and for the first time we are exclusively publishing the entire report in the public interest.

Read and/or download the full HSBC report by clicking below:

HSBC peak oil report

The HSBC report has a helpful, ten-point summary of the key arguments the bank makes, and what is going on right now. These arguments are summarised below…:

  1. Oil’s oversupply problem, which has caused most of the trouble in the markets in recent years will end by 2017, and the market will return to balance.
  2. Spare capacity will have shrunk substantially by then “to just 1% of global supply/demand.” This HSBC argues, will make the market more susceptible to disruptions like those seen in Nigeria and Canada in 2016.
  3. Oil demand is still growing by ~1mbd every year, and no central scenarios that we recently assessed see oil demand peaking before 2040.”
  4. 81% of the production of liquid oil is already in decline.
  5. HSBC sees between 3 and 4.5 million barrels per day of supply disappearing once peak oil production is reached. “In our view a sensible range for average decline rate on post-peak production is 5-7%, equivalent to around 3-4.5mbd of lost production every year.”
  6. Based on a simple calculation, HSBC estimates that by 2040, the world will need to find around 40 million barrels of oil per day to keep up with growing demand from emerging economies. That is equivalent to over 4 times the current crude oil output of Saudi Arabia.
  7. “Small oilfields typically decline twice as fast as large fields, and the global supply mix relies increasingly on small fields: the typical new oilfield size has fallen from 500-1,000mb 40 years ago to only 75mb this decade.” — This will exacerbate the problem of declining oil fields, and the lack of supply.
  8. The amount of new oil discoveries being made is pretty small. HSBC notes that in 2015 the discovery rate for new wells was just 5%, a record low. The discoveries made are also fairly small in size.
  9. There is potential for growth in US shale oil, but it currently represents less than 5% of global supply, meaning that it will not be able, single-handedly at least, to address the tumbling global supply HSBC expects.
  10. “Step-change improvements in production and drilling efficiency in response to the downturn have masked underlying decline rates at many companies, but the degree to which they can continue to do so is becoming much more limited.” Essentially HSBC argues that companies aren’t improving their efficiency at a quick enough rate, meaning that supply declines will hit them even harder.

Here is the chart showing the decline in production post-peak:

Oil peak production

As usual, the mainstream media is spruiking loads of rubbish, probably trying to not scare the children…… unless you peek elsewhere like this blog, or follow other bloggers who keep abreast of the truth, you could be forgiven for thinking America will be great again…. or some other such rubbish.

Under the current supply glut driven by rising unconventional production, falling oil prices have damaged industry profitability and led to dramatic cut backs in new investments in production. This, HSBC says, will exacerbate the likelihood of a global oil supply crunch from 2018 onwards.
So how do you improve profitability? You put the price of fuel up. Given that petrol is the single biggest purchase made by households on a weekly basis, the lift in petrol prices may lead to less household activity — a potential concern for retailers and the economy generally. High fuel prices combined with large debts is what broke the camel’s back in 2008, causing the GFC. Things are not only not different today, debt levels are even higher….. how long before GFC MkII kicks off is anyone’s guess, but it can’t be too far away now….




The Trouble with Permaculture

4 10 2016

With the recent passing of Bill Mollison, much has been published on the interweb about Permaculture; While Glenda was here for nine days, I didn’t spend much time at this laptop, preferring to help her set her own stamp on the Fanny Farm and using her very able gardening skills to get stuck into some planting…. and fixing the goose tractor in readiness for the acquisition of more birds, but there will be time for that some place else on this site.

Having published Samuel Alexander’s epitaph for Bill Mollison by merely copying and pasting the Conversation article, I didn’t bother following the links therein; luckily, Greg Bell did, and posted a couple in a comment he left here, many thanks Greg…. as he says in his comment, “Those two “here” links to critiques of permaculture are the two most important things I’ve read all year (and they, in turn, link to even more)……

The first link is to Resilience.org and bears the same title as this entry. Fascinating reading indeed, as are the comments below it.





“But Can’t Technical Advance Solve the Problems?”

16 07 2016

More from Ted Trainer…..

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

Ted Trainer.

9.4.16

The “limits to growth” analysis argues that the pursuit of affluent lifestyles and economic growth are the basic causes of the many alarming global problems we are running into.  We have environmental destruction, resource depletion, an impoverished Third World, problems of armed conflict and deteriorating cohesion and quality of life in even the richest countries…essentially because the levels of producing and consuming going on are far too high.  There is no possibility of these levels being maintained, let alone spread to all the world’s people. We must shift to far lower levels of consumption in rich countries. (For the detail see Trainer, 2011.)

The counter argument most commonly raised against the limits case is that the development of better technology will solve the problems, an enable us to go on living affluently in growth economies.  Almost everyone seems to hold this belief. It has recently been reasserted as “Ecomodernism.” (For the main statements see Asaef-Adjaye, 2016, and  Blomqvist, Nordhaus Shellenbeger, 2015. For a detailed critique see Trainer 2016a.)

It is not surprising that this claim is regarded as plausible, because technology does constantly achieve miraculous breakthroughs, and publicity is frequently given to schemes that are claimed could be developed to solve this or that problem.  However there is a weighty case that technical advance will not be able to solve the major global problems we face.

The Simpler Way view is that technical advances cannot solve the big global problems and therefore we must change to lifestyles and social systems which do not generate those problems.  This could easily be done if we wanted to do it, and it would actually enable a much higher quality of life than most of us have now in consumer society.  But it would involve abandoning the quest for affluent lifestyles and limitless economic growth…so it is not at all likely that this path will be taken.

The problems are already far too big for technical advance alone to solve.

Most people have little idea how serious the main problems are, or how far beyond sustainable levels we are. Here are some indicators of how far we have exceeded the limits to growth.

  • The 2007 IPCC Report said that if greenhouse gas emissions are to be kept to a “safe” level they must be cut by 50-80% by 2050, and more after that. The 50% figure would mean that the average American or Australian would have to go down to under 5% of their present per capita emission rate. Some argue that all emissions should cease well before 2030. (Anderson and Bows, 2009, Hansen, 2008, Spratt, 2014.
  • By 2050 the amount of productive land on the planet per capita will be 0.8 ha (assuming we will stop damaging and losing land.)  The present amount required to give each Australian their lifestyle is 8 ha.  This means we are 10 times over a sustainable amount, and there is not the slightest possibility of all the world’s people ever rising to anywhere near our level.
  • Australians use about 280 GJ of energy per capita p.a.  Are we heading for 500 GJ/person/y by 2050?  If all the world’s expected 9.7 billion people were to live as we live world energy supply would have to be around 4,500 EJ/y…which is 9 times the present world energy production and consumption.
  • Almost all resources are scarce and dwindling. Ore grades are falling, and there have been food and water riots. Fisheries and tropical forests are in serious decline. Yet only about one-fifth of the world’s people are using most of these; what happens when the rest rise to our levels?
  • Many of the world’s ecosystems are in alarmingly rapid decline.  This is essentially because humans are taking so much of the planet’s area,  and 40% of the biological productivity of the lands.  We are causing a holocaust of biodiversity die-off mainly because we are taking the habitats other species need.  Of about 8 billion ha of productive land we have taken 1.4 billion ha for cropland, and about 3.5 billion ha for grazing.  We are depleting most of the fisheries.  The number of big fish in the oceans is down to 10% of what it was. We are destroying around 15 million ha of tropical forest every year.  And if all 9 billion people expected are going to live as we do now, resource demands would be about 10 times as great as they are now.  There are many other environmental impacts that are either past the limits biologists think are tolerable, or approaching them, including the rate of nitrogen release, ozone destruction, chemical poisoning of the earth and atmospheric aerosol loads. (Rockstrom, 2009.)
  • The World Wildlife Fund estimates that we are now using up resources at a rate that it would take 1.5 planet earths to provide sustainably. (WWF, 2014.) If 9.7 billion are to live as we expect to in 2050 we will need more than 20 planet earths to harvest from.

These are some of the many ways in which we have already greatly exceeded the planet’s capacity to meet human demands, and they define the task the tech-fix believer is faced with.  So ask the tech-fix optimist, “If technology is going to solve our problems, when is it going to start?  Just about all of them seem to be getting worse at present.”

Now add the absurdity of economic growth.

These and many other facts and figures only indicate the magnitude of the present problems caused by over-production and over-consumption.  To this alarming situation we must now add the fact that our society is committed to rapid and limitless increases in “living standards” and GDP; i.e., economic growth is the supreme goal.

If we Australians have 3% p.a. economic growth to 2050, and by then all 9.7 billion people will have come up to the “living standards” we will have by then, the total amount of economic production in the world each year will be about 20 times as great as it is now.  The present amount of production and resource use is grossly unsustainable, yet we are committed to economic system which will see these rates multiplied 20 times by 2050.

And note that most of the resources and ecosystems we draw on to provide consumer lifestyles are deteriorating. The WWF’s Footprint index tells us that at present we would need 1.5 planet Earth’s to provide the resources we use sustainably. So the Tech-fix advocate’s task is to explain how we might cope with a resource demand that is 20×1.5 = 30 times a currently sustainable level by 2050…and twice as much by 2073 given 3% p.a. growth.

Huge figures such as these define the magnitude of the problem for technical-fix believers.  We are far beyond sustainable levels of production and consumption; our society is grossly unsustainable, yet its fundamental determination is to increase present levels without limit.  If technical advance is going to solve the problems caused by all that producing and consuming it must cut resource use and impacts by a huge multiple…and keep it down there despite endless growth.  Now ask the tech-fix believer what precisely he thinks will enable this.

Faith-based tech-fix optimism.

At this point we usually find that the belief in tech–fix is nothing but a faith, and one that has almost no supporting evidence.   Because technology has achieved many wonders it is assumed that it will come up with the required solutions, somehow.  This is as rational as someone saying, “I have a very serious lung disease, but I still smoke five packs of cigarettes a day, because technical advance could come up with a cure for my disease.”  This argument is perfectly true… and perfectly idiotic.  If you are on a path that is clearly leading to disaster the sensible thing is to get off it.  If technology does come up with solutions then it might make sense to get back on that path again.

The tech-fix optimist should be challenged to show in detail what are the grounds for us accepting that solutions will be found, to each and every one of the big problems we face.  What precisely might solve the biodiversity loss problem, the water shortage, the scarcity of phosphorus, the collapse of fish stocks, etc., and how likely are these possible beak-throughs?   Does it not make better sense to change from the lifestyles and systems that are causing these problems, at least until we can see that we can solve the resulting problems?

It should be stressed that the argument here is not to deny or undervalue the many astounding advances being made all the time in fields like medicine, astronomy, genetics, sub-atomic physics and IT, or to imply that these will not continue. The point is that technical advance is very unlikely to come up with ways that solve the resource and environmental problems being generated by affluent lifestyles.  The argument is that when the magnitude of the task (above) and the evidence on the significance of technical advance for resource and ecological problems is considered (below), tech-fix faith is seen to be extremely unwarranted … and the solutions have to be sought in terms of shifting to a Simpler Way of some kind.

Amory Lovins and Factor 4 or 5 reductions.

For decades Amory Lovins has been possibly the best known of several people who argue that technical advances could cut resource use per unit of GDP considerably.  He says we could in effect have 4 times the output with the same impact.  (Von Weizacher and Lovins, 1997).  But the above numbers make it clear that this is far from sufficient.  If by 2050 we should cut ecological impact and resource use in half (remember footprint and other indices show this is far from enough), but we also increase economic output by 20, then we’d need a factor 40 reduction, not Factor 4…and resource demand would be twice as high in another 23 years if 3% growth continued.

The factors limiting what technical advance can do.

It is important to keep in mind that there are several factors which typically determine the gains a technical advance actually enables are well below those that seem possible at first.  Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.

  • “Technical potential.”  This is what the technology could achieve if fully applied with no regard to cost or other problems.
  • Economic (or ecological) potential”.  This is usually much less than the technical potential because to achieve all the gains that are technically possible would cost too much.  For instance it is technically possible for passenger flights to be faster than sound, but it is far too costly.  It would be technically possible to recycle all lead used, but it would be much too costly in dollars and convenience to do so. Some estimate that it would be technically possible to harvest 1,400 million ha for biomass energy per year, but when ecologically sensitive regions are taken out some conclude that the yield could only be 250 million ha or less. (World Wildlife Fund, 2010, p. 181.)  The WWF study quotes Smeets and Faiij (2007) as finding that it would be technically possible for the world’s forests to produce another 64 EJ/y of biomass energy p.a., but Field, Campbelo and Lobell (2007) conclude that only 27 EJ/y can be obtained, under 2 per cent of the Smeets and Faiij figure.
  • What are the net gains?  Enthusiastic claims about a technical advance typically focus on the gains and not the costs which should be subtracted to give a net value.  For instance the energy needed to keep buildings warm can be reduced markedly, but it costs a considerable amount of energy to do this, in the electricity needed to run the air-conditioning and heat pumps, and in the energy embodied in the insulation and triple glazing.

The WWF Energy Report (2010) claims that big savings can be made in building heating and cooling, but their Figs. 3 – 11 and 3 – 12 show that although their measures would reduce heat used in buildings by 90%, electricity used would increase c. 50% (and there is no reference to what the embodied energy cost of manufacturing the equipment and insulation might be.)  The graphs don’t seem to show any net reduction in building energy use.

The Green Revolution doubled food yields, but only by introducing crops that required high energy inputs in the form of expensive fertilizers, seeds and irrigation.  One result was that large numbers of very poor farmers went out of business because they couldn’t afford the inputs.

Similarly, it is possible to solve some water supply problems by desalination, but only by increasing the energy and greenhouse problems.

  • What is socially/politically possible?  Then there are limits set by what people will accept.  It would be technically possible for many people in Sydney to get to work by public transport, but large numbers would not give up the convenience of their cars even if they saved money doing so.  The energy efficiency of American cars is much lower than what is technically possible, and in fact lower than it was decades ago … because many people want energy-intensive vehicles.  Australians are now building the biggest and most energy wasteful houses in the world.  A beautiful, tiny, sufficient mud brick house could be built for less than $10,000…but most people would not want one.  These examples make it clear that the problems of over-consumption in many realms are mainly social rather than technical, and that they can’t be solved by technical advance.  The essential tech-fix issue is to do with whether or not the problems can be solved by technical advances which allow us to go on living and consuming as we were before, or whether we must change to values and behaviour that don’t cause problems.
  • The Jevons or “rebound” effect.  Then there is the strong tendency for savings made possible by a technical advance to be spent on consuming more of the thing saved or something else.  For instance if we found how to get twice the mileage per litre of petrol many would just drive a lot more, or spend the money saved on buying more of something else.  The Indians have recently developed a very cheap car, making it possible for many more low income people to drive, consume petrol and increase greenhouse gases.

So it is always important to recognise that an announced technical miracle breakthrough probably refers to its technical potential but the savings etc. that it is likely to enable in the real world will probably be well below this.

Some evidence on technical advance in the relevant fields.

Again the focus here is on fields which involve high resource or ecological impacts and demands, not on the many advances being made in fields like medicine or particle physics. It should not be assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in the relevant fields, especially in crucial areas such as energy efficiency. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production.  The efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (Ayres, 2009, Figs. 4.1 and 4.19, p. 127.)  “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960”.  (p. 126), probably due to increased use of accessories.  Ayres’ Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960. (p. 128.)  He notes that reports tend to publicise particular spectacular technical advances and this can be misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies.

We tend not to hear about areas where technology is not solving problems, or appears to have been completely defeated.  Not long ago everyone looked forward to super-sonic mass passenger flight, but with the demise of Concorde this goal has been abandoned.  It would be too difficult and costly, even without an energy crunch coming up.  Sydney’s transport problems cannot be solved by more public transport; more rail and bus would improve things, but not much because the sprawling city has been build for the car on 70 years of cheap oil.  Yes you could solve all its problems with buses and trains, but only at an infinite cost.   The Murray-Darling river can only be saved by drastic reduction in the amount of water being taken out of it.  The biodiversity holocaust taking place could only be avoided if humans stopped taking so much of nature, and returned large areas of farmland and pasture to natural habitat. (For an extremely pessimistic analysis of what future technology might achieve, see Smith and Positrano, 2010.)

Most indices of technical progress, efficiency and productivity show long term tapering towards ceilings.  “But what about Moore’s law, where by computer chip power has followed a steep upward curve?”  Yes in some realms this happens, for a time, but the trend in IT is highly atypical.  (By the way, the advent of computers has not made much difference at all to the productivity of the economy; indeed in recent decades productivity growth indices for national economies have fallen.  This is identified as “The Productivity Paradox.”)

There are two important areas where recent trends seem to run counter to this argument; the remarkable fall in the costs of PV panels and the advent of new batteries. However the significance of these is uncertain. The PV cost is largely due to latge subsidies, very cheap labour, and the general failure of the Chinese economy to pay ecological costs of production. (On the enormous difference the last factor makes see Smith, 2016.)  Thus the real cost, and that which we will have to pay in future is likely to be much higher.  (… the EIA thinks costs will probably rise before long.), The significance of the new battery technology is clouded by the fact that costs would have to fall by perhaps two-thirds before they could be used for grid storage without greatly increasing the cost of power, and it is not likely that there is enough Lithium to enable grid level storage of renewable energy.

The crucial “decoupling” issue.

The fundamentally important element in the tech-fix or ecomodernist position is the belief/claim that resource demand and ecological impact can be “decoupled” from economic growth, that is, that new ways will enable the economy to keep growing and “living standards”, incomes and consumption to continue rising without increasing resource use or environmental damage (or while keeping these down to sustainable levels.) The following passages deal with considerable evidence on decoupling and show this belief to be extremely implausible, to put it mildly.

What about the falling “energy intensity” of the economy?”

The fact that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country has declined is often seen as evidence of decoupling but this is misleading. It does not take into account the large amounts of energy embodied in imports, i.e., energy use we benefit from but does not show up in our national accounts.  (below.) Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit. For instance a unit of energy in the form of gas enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because gas is more easily transported, switched on and off, or converted from one function to another, etc. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984, Kaufmann, 2004,  Office of Technology Assessments, 1990, Berndt, 1990, Schurr and Netschurt, 1960.)

What about productivity increases?

It is commonly thought that the power of technology is evident in the constantly improving productivity of the economy.  Again this is misleading, firstly because productivity gains have been low and decreasing in recent decades and this is a constant concern and puzzle among economists and politicians. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.”

The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.

Most of the productivity growth that  has taken place now seems to have been due not to technical advance but to increased use of energy. Previous analyses have not realized this but have analysed only in terms of labour and capital input “factors of production”. Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.

Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.

The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on EROI ratios. Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect  that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)

So when we examine the issue of productivity growth we find little or no support for the general tech-fix faith.  It is not the case that technical breakthroughs are constantly enabling significantly more to be produced per unit of inputs. The small improvements in productivity being made seem to be largely due to changes to more energy-intensive ways, and energy itself is exhibiting marked deterioration in productivity (ie, as evident in its EROI.) Some analysts (e.g., Ayres, 2009, Ayres et al., 2013) believe that any gains occurring now will probably disappear with coming rises in energy scarcity and cost.

Lets examine ewhere materials are used; not general GDP

Evidence on low past and present decoupling achievement.

The historical record suggests that at best rates of decoupling materials and energy use from GDP have been very low or less than zero; i.e., some important measures show materials or energy use to be increasing faster than GDP. It is important not to focus on national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials in imported goods.  For example the OECD (2015) claims that materials used within its countries has fallen 45% per dollar of GDP, but this figure does not take into account materials embodied in imported goods. When they are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveals only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed.   Tverberg () reproduces the common plot for global energy use and GWP, showing an almost complete overlay; i.e., no tendency for energy use to fall away from GWP growth.

Weidmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity…has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use. It must be stressed here that, as they point out, these findingss would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World (that is, had energy embodied in imports been included.)

Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.)  However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity…”

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that the energy efficiency of energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, 2014.) Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, 1997, Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).

A version of the decoupling thesis is the “Environmental Kuznets Curve”, i.e., the claim that as economic development takes place environmental impacts increase but then decrease. The evidence on this thesis indicates that it is not correct. Greenhouse gas emissions give us a glaring example. Alexander concludes his review, (2014),  “If the EKC hypothesis sounds too good to be true, that is because, on the whole, it is false.”

These sources and figures indicate the apparently total lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. They are assuming that there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that by 2050 energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 30. There appears to be noecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale. (I have made about five attempts to have such evidence sent to me from the leading ecomodernist authors, without receiving any.)

            The changing components of GDP.

There is another consideration that makes the situation much worse. Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” that takes the form of key strokes that move electrons around.  A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches in “investments”. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, commissions, loans, interest, consultancy fees.  These make a big contribution to GDP figures. In one recent year 40% of US corporate profits came from the finance sector. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio.

This means that the most significant measures will be to do with industries that use material and ecological inputs.  The crucial question is, in those industries that are causing the pressure on resources and ecosystems is significant decoupling taking place? However when output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food and vehicles, or aged care is considered we do not seem to find reassuring evidence of decoupling.  Again agricultural industry provides some of the best examples. Over the last 50 years there has been a huge increase in energy used in fuel, pesticides, fertilizers, transport, packaging, marketing and waste treatment. Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%. Between 1997 and 2002 the US household use of energy on food increased 6 times as fast as use for all household purposes. (Canning et al., 2010.)

The enormous implications for energy demand.

The main ecomodernist texts make clear that if the technical advances envisaged could not take place unless there was extremely large scale increase in the amount of energy produced.  They look forward to shifting a large fraction of agriculture off land into intensive systems such as high rise greenhouses and acquaculture, massive use of desalination for water supply, processing lower grade ores, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures for billions to live in as they propose shifting people from the land to allow more of it to be returned to nature.  They do not think renewable energy sources can provide these quantities of energy, so their proposals would have to involve very large numbers of fourth generation nuclear reactors (which run on plutonium). How large?

If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x5 (for the US to world average ratio) x10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 450 times as great as at present.

And the baseline is deteriorating…

The general “limits to growth” analysis of the global situation makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by present conditions such as resource availability. As Steffen et al. (2015) and many others stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration.

It is as if the ecomodernists are claiming that their A380 can be got to climb at a 60 degree angle, which is far steeper than it has ever done before, but at present it is in an alarming and accelerating decline with just about all its systems in trouble and some apparently beyond repair. The problem is the wild party on board, passengers and crew dancing around a bonfire and throwing bottles at the instruments, getting more drunk by the minute. A few passengers are saying the party should stop, but no one is listening, not even the pilots. The ecomodernist’s problem is not just about producing far more metals, it is about producing far more as grades decline, it is not just about producing much more food, it is about producing much more despite the fact that problems to do with water availability, soils, the nitrogen cycle, acidification, and carbon loss are getting worse.  It can be argued that on many separate fronts halting the deteriorating trends is now unlikely to be achieved. Yet the ecomodernist wants us to believe that the curves can be made to cease falling and to rise dramatically, without abandoning the quests for affluence and growth which are responsible for their deterioration.  Stopping the party is not thought to warrant consideration.

This is not an argument against technology.

Research and development and improving things are obviously important and in The Simpler Way vision we would have more resources going into technical research than we have now despite a much lower GDP, because we would have phased out the enormous waste of resources that occurs in consumer-capitalist society.  But it is a mistake to think that the way to solve our problems is to develop better technology.  That will not solve the problems, because they are far too big, and they are being generated by trying to live in ways that generate impossible resource demands. The big global problems have been caused by our faulty social systems and values.  The solution is to develop ways and systems that don’t generate the problems, and this requires movement away from affluent, high energy, centralised, industrialised, globalised etc., systems and standards. Above all it requires a shift from obsession with getting rich, consuming and acquiring property. It requires a willing acceptance of frugality and sufficiency, of being content with what is good enough.

Hundreds of years ago we knew how to produce not just good enough but beautiful food, houses, cathedrals, clothes, concerts, works of art, villages and communities, using little more than hand tools and crafts.  Of course we should use modern technologies including computers (if we can keep the satellites up there) where these make sense.  But we don’t need much high-tech to design and enjoy high quality communities.

Some of our most serious problems are to do with social breakdown, depression, stress, and falling quality of life.  These problems will not be solved by better technology, because they derive from faulty social systems and values.  Technical advances often make these problems worse, e.g., by increasing the individual’s capacity to live independently of others and community, and by enabling machines to cause unemployment. Especially worrying is the fact that ecomodernist dreams would involve massive globally integrated professional and corporate run systems involving centralised control and global regulatory systems (e.g., to prevent proliferation of radioactive materials from all those reactors.  Firstly this is not a scenario that will have a place for billions of poor people.  It will enable a few super-smart techies, financiers and CEOs to thrive, making inequality far more savage, and it will set impossible problems for democracy because there will be abundant opportunities for those in the centre to sdrure their own interests, to be corrupt and secretive. (See Richard Smith’s disturbing account of China today: 2015.)

(For a detail account of The Simpler Way vision of a sustainable and satisfactory society see The Simpler Way website,  thesimplerway.info and  in particular thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

—————————————

ABARE, (2008), Australian Energy Projections to 2029-30.  http://www.abare.gov.au/publications_html/energy/energy_10/energy_proj.pdf

Anderson, K., and A.  Bows, (2009), “Radical reframing of climate change agenda”, Tyndall Centre, Manchester University, http://sites.google.com//com/sitt/cutcarbonemissions80by2020/drs-kevin-anderson-aclice-bows-tyndall-centre-re-uk-radical-reforming-of-climate-change-agenda

Asafu-Adjaye, J., et al., (2015), An Ecomodernist Manifesto, April, http://www.ecomodernism.org

Ayres, R. U., The economic Growth Engine, Cheltenham, Elgar, 2009.

Ayres, R. U., et al., 2013, ”The underestimated contribution of energy to economic growth”, Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, 27, 79 – 88.

Berndt, E. R., (1990), “Energy use, technical progress and productivity growth: a survey of economic issues”, The Journal of Productivity Analysis, 2:, pp.  67-83.

Blomqvist, L., T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenbeger, (2015), Nature Unbound; Decoupling for Conservation, Breakthrough Institute.

Canning, P. et al., (2010), Energy Use in the US Food System, USDA.

Cleveland, C. J., R. Costanza, C. A. S. Hall, and R. K. Kaufmann “Energy and the U.S. economy: A biophysical perspective.” Science, 225: (1984), pp., 890-897.

Field, C.B., Campbell, J.E. and Lobell, D.B. (2007), “Biomass energy: the scale of the potential resource”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 65-72.

Hansen, J., et al., (2008), “Target atmospheric CO2; Where Should humanity aim?”, The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2, 217 – 231.

  1. K. Kaufmann, (2004), “A biophysical analysis of the energy/real GDP ratio: implications for substitution and technical change”, Ecological Economics , 6: pp. 35-56.
  2. K. Kaufmann, (2004), “The mechanisms for autonomous energy efficiency increases: A co-integration analysis of the US energy/GDP ratio”, Energy Journal , 25(1), pp.  63-86.

Office of Technology Assessment, (1990), Energy Use and the U.S. Economy, US Congress, OTA-BP-E-57, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

Rockstrom, J., (2009) “A safe operating space for humanity”, Nature, 461:24 (Sept.), pp. 472 – 476.

  1. Schurr, and B. Netschert, (1960), Energy and the American Economy, 1850-1975, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Smeets, E., and A. Faaij, (2007), “Bioenergy potentials from forestry in 2050 —  An assessment of the drivers that determine the potentials”, Climatic Change, 8, 353 – 390.

Smith, R., (2015), China’s communist-capitalist ecological apocalypse”, Real-world Economic Review, 71.

Spratt, D., (2014),The real budgetary emergency and the myth of ‘burnable carbon”, Climate Code Red, 22 May.

Stern, D. and C. J. Cleveland, (2004), “Energy and Economic Growth”, in C. J. Cleveland (ed.), Encyclopedia of Energy. San Diego: Academic Press.

Trainer, T, (2011), The Simpler Way; Outline of Our Perspective, http://thesimplerway.info/TSWmain.htm

Trainer, T., (2016a), The extreme implausibility of Ecomodernism, (This critique overlaps considerably with this argument against the Tech Fix position.)

Von Weizacker, E. and A. B. Lovins, (1997), Factor Four : Doubling Wealth – Halving Resource Use : A New Report to the Club of Rome, St Leondards, Allen & Unwin.

World Wide Fund for Nature, (2011), The Energy Report, WWF and Ecofys.





Food for thought…..

1 07 2016

I recently published an item about the jetstream crossing the equator. At the time, I said I didn’t know what to make of it, and now it turns out to be bogus…… so I’ve pulled it.

Two bloggers have made a stunning claim that has spread like wildfire on the Internet: They say the Northern Hemisphere jet stream, the high-altitude river of winds that separates cold air from warm air, has done something new and outrageous. They say it has crossed the equator, joining the jet stream in the Southern Hemisphere. One said this signifies that the jet stream is ‘wrecked‘, the other said it means we have a “global climate emergency.”

But these shrill claims have no validity — air flow between the hemispheres occurs routinely. The claims are unsupported and unscientific, and they demonstrate the danger of wild assertions made by non-experts reaching and misleading the masses.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2016/06/30/claim-that-jet-stream-crossing-equator-is-climate-emergency-is-utter-nonsense/

Just goes to show, you cannot believe everything you read on the internet, and frankly, I’m relieved as someone who staunchly believes the only place to live is as far away from the Northern Hemisphere..!

Below is Mark Cochrane’s latest offering…..

markcochrane2

Mark Cochrane

Having just come back from a new region of agricultural development in Brazil and seeing some new research just out on related issues in other regions I thought I´d illustrate some of the climate-related issues in our global food production that we are facing.

Here in Brazil, agricultural expansion has been a large part of the regional economy and is the only actual growth sector in a country mired in political chaos and economic contraction (link). That said, much like the search for new energy sources, new agricultural lands are cut from the landscape on increasingly marginal lands.

With the development of soybean cultivars that could survive short day lengths near the equator and expanding global markets, this crop first spread through the Brazilian Cerrado and then into the southern Amazon, converting native vegetation to agricultural lands and even pushing cattle operations out of the way as pasturelands were bought up. Corn, cotton, sorghum and coffee have also spread to lesser degrees. Soils, climate, pests and infrastructure (or lack thereof) have provided challenges all along the way.

Despite this, the industry has thrived and land prices have soared to the point that new frontiers have opened up including the so called Matopiba region, which is an acronym for an amorphous area at the junction of Maranhâo, Tocantins, Piaui, and Bahia states. The region was originally passed over because it was considered unprofitable to farm but high commodity prices, technological breakthroughs and cheap land prices have driven exponential growth of farming and whole cities to spring up in the last 15 years that are impressive, if tenuous.

Nobody mentions the soils because they are uniformly poor and acidic. Lime applications are needed to lock up the toxic aluminum and fertilizers are needed to get decent crop growth. The region is dry, and though irrigation has not always been needed, it has proven critical over the last five years of unprecedented drought. There were 10 good years of production but now many are losing money with drought stunted crops and low production. Planted crop varieties are GM variants of Bt cultivars. Trying to plant anything else has proven a monetary disaster. Despite this built in biological pesticide, repeated applications of chemical pesticides are necessary as well, with 10-15 applications per growing season common! One farmer needed 30 applications in a single six-month season. It is safe to say that the insects are building up resistance rapidly and the local aquifers will not be pure for long. Interestingly, water is less limiting than the cost of actually pumping it for irrigation purposes.Energy is expensive and unreliable.

I mention all of this because these sorts of regions and problems are inherent in all ´new´ lands being brought into production to try to feed our planet´s exploding population. These areas are incredibly vulnerable to changing climate, commodity prices, energy prices, pests and pathogens. It takes a lot of effort to bring them into production but they could dry up and blow away all too easily. Management of production in these sorts of areas is necessary and difficult to mitigate and adapt to climate changes.

New research  (Challinor et al. 2016) indicates that breeding, delivery and adoption of new climate appropriate variants of crops (maize in this case) may not be able to keep up with the changing conditions likely in the coming decades. Much like conversion to a new energy source can take decades to implement after development, planting new variants of a crop or more appropriate crops for a changing climate can take decades to permeate a region, especially in developing countries. The upshot being that productivity levels are likely to fall over time with changing climates.

On the front of dubious good news, a large ´water windfall´ has been discovered underneath California´s Central Valley. Up to three times as much water as was previously estimated may reside under this region which sounds like a great thing until you realize that much of this new water resource resides between 300 and 3,000 meters below the surface (Kang and Jackson 2016). These water reserves may not be economically accessible for irrigation purposes and are complicated by the numerous (35,000!) oil and gas wells that currently perforate it (link). Never mind the fact that the land itself has been sinking rapidly with groundwater pumping.

When you are contemplating the viability of pumping water from more than a mile beneath the surface in order to water your crops, it is clear that the battle to maintain production is being lost. If power cannot be generated extremely cheaply then this region, the most productive in the United States, will fall out of production in the not too distant future for anything but dryland agriculture.

The take home message here is that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain current agricultural production levels at a time when we need to dramatically increase them to feed rapidly growing human populations. There may never have been a better time to take up gardening to ensure a modicum of calories for your family…





Peak Farming….?

15 01 2016

As the financial system unravels, the weather goes ballistic all over the world, and the demands of a growing population increase the pressure on food production, breaking strains are starting to appear.  The perfect storm of Peak Debt, Climate Change, and even Peak Oil in its own pervert way are starting to even emerge in mainstream media. Except of course, they don’t call it what I call it, but nonetheless, the signs are here.

This appeared on the ABC’s news website this morning:

Rural Debt and Drought Taskforce hears calls for Queensland Government to set up own bank

Graziers struggling with debt in drought-declared North Queensland have lashed out and broken down in front of visiting politicians and economists.

The Rural Debt and Drought Taskforce met about 40 farmers in Ayr on Thursday to discuss what some called “criminal” and “disgraceful” behaviour by banks.

“You will starve — the whole country will starve” if governments do not “pull their heads in” and bail out the industry, one man warned.

People always look at me blankly when I mention food shortages in Australia……  ‘Is he mad?’  But there you have it, the farmers aren’t stupid.  AND we still have oil to farm with! What do they think……..  no, know, will happen when we start having fuel shortages?  And not too soon either the way the price of oil is going, now under $30 as I write.

The gathering heard some lenders were devaluing properties across the region by up to 30 per cent, forcing graziers to pay higher interest rates because the loans were now considered higher risk.

Nicole Foss was right all along, obviously….. deflation is here alright.

Taskforce chairman and Mount Isa MP Rob Katter again argued the Queensland Government should set up its own bank to takeover loans from private lenders.

“These things are effective instruments. They keep industries going,” he said.

Proof politicians have no idea.  Mind you, what else could you expect from someone wanting an ethanol industry?

Once upon a time, farming was about producing excess food to feed the masses. Now, farmers buy food in supermarkets, and work for money, trapped in the Matrix. Now I have an aware farmer for a neighbour, we have interesting discussions over the fence or over a beer or cider…. Thank goodness some people understand me, and what is going on…. otherwise we’d all go the way of the suicide wave happening in the Indian farming sector.





Ugo Bardi on Food Systems Complexity

19 07 2015

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi

Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see, e.g.here).

This said, let’s get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world’s food supply. I’ll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one’s hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.

First of all, should we say that the world’s food supply is a “problem”? Yes, if you note that about half of the world’s human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases – they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world’s population is going to suffer from diabetes.

So, if we have a problem, is it really “wicked”? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors…… and more, including the fact that people don’t just eat “calories”, they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as “you can’t do just one thing.”

globalfoodsystemOnce you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system – as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference – then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to “solve the problem”. The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.

Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won’t change as a consequence. It is the “look, it is simple” approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, “look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved”. What is meant with “this” varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry “let’s go GMOs!” (genetically modified organisms).

Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system – to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food’s nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.

There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the “‘look, it is simple” strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another “look, it is simple” approach is ‘if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone’. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy “green food” in their supermarkets has little impact on the situation of the poor in the rest of the world. And then, some kinds of “green” food are bulky and hence difficult to transport; also they spoil easily, and so you need refrigeration, and so on. Something similar holds for the “let’s go local” strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to “solve the food supply problem.”

A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the “look, it is simple” mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them? Sometimes, proposers of this approach seem to think that all what we need to do is to drop condoms on poor countries (at least it is better than dropping bombs on them). But suppose that you can reduce population in non traumatic ways, then you intervene into a system where “population” means a complex mix of different social and economic niches: you have urban, peri-urban, and rural population; a population reduction may mean shifting people from one sector to the other, it may involve losing producing capabilities in the rural areas, or, on the contrary, reduced capabilities of financing production if you could lower population in urban areas. Again, population reduction, alone, is a linear approach that won’t work as it is supposed to do, even if it could be implemented.

Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp. You would have to be at the same time an expert in agriculture, in logistics, in nutrition, in finance, in population dynamics, and much more. One thing I noticed, as a modest expert in energy and fossil fuels, is how food experts normally don’t realize that the availability of fossil fuels must necessarily go down in the near future. That will have enormous effects on agriculture: think of fertilizers, mechanization, transportation, refrigeration, and more. But I didn’t see these effects taken into account in most models presented. Several researchers showed diagrams extrapolating current trends into the future as if oil production were to keep increasing for the rest of the century and more.

The same is true for climate change: I didn’t see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet’s subsystems (e.g. sea levels), but no models that could tell us how the agricultural system will react to shifting weather patterns, different temperatures, droughts or floods. Just think of how deeply agricultural yields in India are linked to the yearly monsoon pattern and you can only shiver at the thought of what might happen if climate change would affect that.

So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the overshootlevel of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is “overshoot”. That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food – measured in calories – for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.

But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics is a tool that could help a lot policy makers to do better in managing the food supply system. And, possibly, helping them device better ideas to “solve the food problem”. That’s more difficult than it seems: system dynamics is not for everyone and teaching it to bureaucrats is like teaching dogs to solve equations: it takes a lot of work and it doesn’t work so well. Then, system dynamics practitioners are often victim of the “spaghetti diagram” syndrome, which consists in drawing complex models full of little arrows going from somewhere to somewhere else, and then watching the mess they created and nodding in a show of internal satisfaction. But it is also true that, at the conference, I saw a lot of good will among the various actors in the field to find a common language. This is a good thing, difficult, but promising.

In the end, what is the solution to the “food supply problem”? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: “in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation.” As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can’t solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.

Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.

H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome

Notes.

* Once you tackle the food problem, you can’t ignore the “third world” situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, “linearizing” complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the “circular” approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don’t have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.

** In the food system, the idea that “look, it is simple: just let’s get rid of waste” is exactly parallel to the “zero waste” approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the “zero waste” idea simply can’t work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn’t mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can’t build up a “zero waste” industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the “participatory management” approach, (see, e.g.,the work of Prof. Gutberlet). It can be done with urban waste, but also with food waste and it is another way to increase the resilience of the system.