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Environmental resource collapse

Looking beyond energy security to food supply
By Matthew Wild

Resource collapse is bigger than peak oil, and bigger than the projected depletion of natural gas, coal and uranium – it encompasses each and every finite resource extracted or exploited or otherwise processed on an industrial scale.

This is not to deny peak oil, or the coming decline of all the other hydrocarbons that are essential to our lives and economies; the point is that even if we miraculously switched to, say, solar power tomorrow, we would still not be out of the mess that we’re in. We’re experiencing problems with our living environment – climate, soil and water – that cannot be ignored.

Of course, looking at the way things are going now – the special interest groups controlling a passive population via a complicit media – we won’t switch to renewable sources of energy until oil collapses, sometime within the next decade; that will likely be trumped by the rapid demise of coal, natural gas and uranium, sometimes the following decade. It’s highly unlikely that we will, at that point, be in a position to deal with environmental concerns.

Energy security clearly means a great deal to us in the industrialized west, as we can see our whole way of life becoming extinct due to the predicted coming hydrocarbon collapse – but many millions more are already live low energy lives. Around the developing world, this speculation of oil, coal, natural gas and uranium resources being depleted within the next two decades is not as immediate a concern as where the next day’s meal is coming from. Of course, peak oil will impact their lives, especially as it’s likely to make food more expensive – a large scale switch to biofuels could do just that, let alone the projected global economic carnage. But, living such marginal lives, billions of people face many other pressing issues relating to resource depletion – particularly soil, water and phosphorous, a key ingredient in fertilizers.

Once again, Hubbert’s model can be applied to any finite resource we extract from the Earth. Peak oil essentially means peak cheap oil, and it’s the same with any other item you consider this way. If it’s tragic that we are burning through all available resources with no thought for future consequences, it’s worse still to think that the payback will happen all together. It’s highly likely that we will be dealing with both a widespread hydrocarbons collapse – which will take down our economies – right when we have to deal with a greatly reduced capacity to grow crops and find people enough water to drink.

It’s wrong to assume this will only apply to the poorest of the poor in the developing nations – it’s just that they, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, will be hit first to die. When post-peak oil prices cause the already weakened Western economies to collapse, or at least slump into terminal recession/depression, we too will find ourselves living marginal lives. Then it will be our turn.

Climate, soil and water issues will bite us in the industrialized West, too. Looking at it holistically, our lives are supported by a complex tapestry of resources, and it’s wrong to overlook any one because we are focusing too much on peak oil. To put it bluntly, you can get by without oil, but can’t go more than three days without water, or a couple of weeks without food.

Peak oil and environmental discussion tends to be separated, and conducted in different terms and expressions. I’ve seen environmentalists post on peak oil pieces I’ve written that I’ve totally missed out on climate change; vice versa, many peak oil proponents keep out of environmental debates. My point here is that it’s wrong to separate the two. Both have the same cause: an attempt to exploit resources on an industrial scale. One group look at energy, the other at environment - ultimately they come together when you begin to consider food supply.

Climate change

Yes, the climate is changing. No-one can deny that. I've seen the changes in my lifetime. Parts of the world are getting drier, and some parts wetter: drought for some, flooding for others; overall, less predictability. There is more unusual weather in my neighbourhood – storms and droughts.

But for many it may mean death. Himalayan glaciers that are the principal dry-season water sources of Asia's biggest rivers - Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Yellow - could disappear. An international conferrence in Kathmandu recently heard a UN report that, if temperatures continue to rise "there will be no snow and ice in the Himalayas in 50 years." Under the headline Vanishing Himalayan Glaciers Threaten a Billion, we read of the unimaginably vast scope of climate change:
"It is extremely serious," said Surendra Shrestha, regional director at the United Nations Environment Programme for Asia and the Pacific. "It is going to change fundamentally the way we live."
"If the temperature continues to rise as it is, there will be no snow and ice in the Himalayas in 50 years."

Thousands of glaciers in the Himalayas are the source of water for nine major Asian rivers whose basins are home to 1.3 billion people from Pakistan to Myanmar, including parts of India and China, conference delegates said.
The only aspect of climate change we hear about in the media is the supposed debate over whether it is man-made or not. Frankly, arguing about this is only clouding the issue – like a man whose been shot trying to find out who pulled the trigger rather than seeking medical attention. We know the climate is changing, people are starting to suffer, and we need to make changes, to adapt. Parts of the world will become desert; tropical diseases will spread; food supply will be disrupted. As it is, right now, according to the UN, two billion people around the world lack "food security" and will be the first to die of climate change. This is the issue: what can we do for these people?

Having said that, I’ll stick my neck out and make a statement: deniers of anthropogenic, or man-made, climate change are part of “a well-documented war on scientific knowledge from the political right in this country.” Independent scientists, in many countries, and over a substantial period of time, have been pointing to climate change being man-made. Individuals have made mistakes along the way, but the bulk of work points in the direction of anthropogenic climate change. The fuss over “climategate” is a smokescreen at best, and at worse, a pack lies fed to a complicit media; independent investigation showed there is "no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice" in the disputed findings. You would think that was the only work that pointed to climate change.

Sceptics, by and large, tend to have links to oil companies and far right politicians (the ones that, ahem, tend to talk about environmentalists and terrorists in the same breath.) They are guided by financial interest and political and religious dogma – such as attempts to also deny evolution. And peak oil, too.

Or put it this way. On one side you have the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stating“An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system... There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” This group represents the work of approximately 2,000 scientists worldwide and supports major initiatives to curb carbon emissions. On the other side, meanwhile, you have the American Association of Petroleum Geologists which “stands alone among scientific societies in its denial of human-induced effects on global warming.” Clearly, they have a financial interest in denying man-made climate change.

In response to the IPCC report came the United States Senate Minority Report on Global Warming, which lists 687 “scientists” that allegedly dissent man-made climate change. As reported by Skeptical Inquirer:
The proportion of them who have published articles on climate science proved to be slightly less than 10 percent. Rounding off, a total of 15 percent exhibited a significant publication record in subjects at least related to climate science. We found no evidence that 551 (~80 percent) had any peer-reviewed publications bearing on climate science. At least fifty-five had no science credentials at all, and many others identified as meteorologists proved to be weather reporters. Almost 4 percent expressed support for the general consensus supporting anthropogenic causes of global warming, the near-consensus expressed by the IPCC-2007 science report, and therefore should not have appeared on the list in the first place
In May 2010, 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences including 11 Nobel Laureates signed an open letter about the attacks on science and scientists from global warming deniers:
We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. . .

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence.
There is no scientific controversy about anthropogenic climate change. It’s all political. And it follows a tried-and-tested route. The asbestos industry invented it: politicising and name-calling, lobying government, finding tame “scientists” to refute everything that’s politically unwelcome, threatening to remove funding from any organization that might be prepared to ask independent questions, appealing to people’s economic interest in avoiding regulation in favour of business-as-usual, and delaying everything to continue raking in the profits for as long as possible. The tobacco industry has long been following this route. Hell, we see it every time the mainstream media looks at oil reserves - we're all tinfoil-hat-wearing malcontents every time we appear in print, aren't we? Do some diligent background research, and you will see the same few arguments coming up, over and over again, in different contexts. And then go play Global Warming Sceptic Bingo.

Peak soil

The world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it. At the same time, population is growing exponentially – 9.3 billion by 2050, according to UN projections. What is everyone going to eat?

Parts of the world – particularly northern China, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Australia are already losing large tracts of arable land. Soil management is about more than heaping on chemical fertilizers. (But see below for what will likely happen to fertilizers.)

A 2008 New York Times article, Scientists focus on making better soil to help with food concerns, examined the complex nature of simple dirt:
Soil does not arise quickly. In nature it starts with a layer of glacial grit, or windblown sand, or cooled lava, or alluvial silt, or some other crumbled mineral matter. A few pioneer plants put down shallow roots, and living things begin to make their homes in and on the surface, enriching it with their excrement, and enriching it further when they die and rot.

The resulting organic matter feeds a whole underground ecology that aerates the soil, fixes nutrients, and makes it more hospitable for plant life, and over time the process feeds back on itself. If the soil does not wash away or get parched by drought, it very gradually thickens. It takes tens of thousands of years to make 15 centimeters of topsoil, about 6 inches' worth.
The UN’s Global Environment outlook, published 2007, states: “Deficiency of plant nutrients in the soil is the most significant biophysical factor limiting crop production across very large areas in the tropics.”

People are going hungry right now because of soil loss. It’s not some fancy, futuristic projection.

Peak water

While there is a vast amount of water on the planet, only a fraction of is fit to drink. Of this fresh water, only 1 per cent (or about 0.007 per cent of all water on earth) is readily accessible for direct human use.

The term peak water comes from the fact that much of the world’s water lies in underground aquifers and in lakes, which behaves like a finite resource by being depleted.

According to the UN’s Global Environment Outlook:
By 2025, about 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under conditions of water stress – the threshold for meeting the water requirements for agriculture, industry, domestic purposes, energy and the environment (UN Water 2007). This will have major impacts on activities such as farming. . .
As things stand right now, every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. Water is an urgent issue. Especially as, due to climate change, many parts of the world are becoming drier.

Peak phosphorus

Phosphorus is a nutrient that is essential for plant life. It is removed from the soil by plants, and, in the case of agriculture, returned through fertilizers – along with nitrogen and potassium. Most of the world’s agricultural land does not have enough phosphate, so this is vital if an increasing global population is to be fed.

Phosphate rocks are mined to produce the fertilizer; when their output drops, so does that of our agriculture. The paper Peak phosphorus, by Patrick Déry and Bart Anderson, states:
In the literature, estimates before we "run out" of phosphorus range from 50 to 130 years. This date is conveniently far enough in the future so that immediate action does not seem necessary. However, as we know from peak oil analysis, trouble begins not when we "run out" of a resource, but when production peaks. From that point onward, the resource becomes more difficult to extract and more expensive.
An April 2010 Foreign Policy article by James Elser and Stuart White, again titled Peak phosphorus, is essential reading because it shows just how insidious the current phosphorus issue is:
Increased demand for fertilizer and the decreased supply of phosphorus exports will result in higher prices, significantly affecting millions of farmers in the developing world who live on the brink of bankruptcy and starvation. Rising fertilizer prices could tip this balance.

Already, signs are emerging that our current practices cannot continue for long. Between 2003 and 2008, phosphate fertilizer prices rose approximately 350 percent. In 2008, rising food prices sparked riots in more than 40 countries. Although the spike in fertilizer prices was only partially responsible for the higher food prices, the riots illustrate the social upheaval caused by disruptions to the world's food supply. The 2008 food riots were only stopped by government promises of food subsidies -- a viable strategy only as long as governments can afford the ever-increasing costs of food support.
Phosphorous is not destroyed when it’s used and so could be recovered and recycled. It could, in theory, to some extent be extracted from urine, but it’s more productive to work harder to prevent soil erosion, and come up with more precise ways to apply fertilizer. The Foreign Policy article continues that if we fail to use the limited phosphorous that remains in a sustainable way, millions will starve.:

If we fail to meet this challenge, humanity faces a Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced. The geopolitical impacts of such disruptions will be severe, as an increasing number of states fail to provide their citizens with a sufficient food supply.
A decline in phosphorous output has the potential to cause more death, especially in developing countries, than that of oil.

Biodiversity loss

A UN report, published May 2010, warned that the 'alarming' rate of biodiversity loss could harm food sources and industry, and worsen climate change through rising emissions.

The third Global Biodiversity Outlook report stated that the "alarming" rate at which species are being lost could have a severe effect on humanity, despite the prior setting of targets to halt the decline at the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity (which clearly, like climate change agreements, are not being followed). Quoted in the Guardian newspaper:
Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said: "Humanity has fabricated the illusion that somehow we can get by without biodiversity or that it is somehow peripheral to our contemporary world: the truth is we need it more than ever on a planet of 6 billion [people], heading to over 9 billion by 2050. Business as usual is no longer an option if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the life-support systems of our planet."
It follows a report from a coalition of conservation groups, published the previous month in the journal Science, of "alarming biodiversity declines", and that pressures on the natural world from development, over-use and pollution

"Since 1970 we have reduced animal populations by 30%, the area of mangroves and sea grasses by 20% and the coverage of living corals by 40%," said Professor Joseph Alcamo, chief scientist of the United Nations Environment Programme, one of the contributing organisations.

"These losses are clearly unsustainable, since biodiversity makes a key contribution to human well-being and sustainable development."
The Science study examined “30 indicators of biodiversity,” including species populations, extinction risk and habitats. In March, Simon Stuart, chair of the Species Survival Commission for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said that for the first time since the dinosaurs, species were becoming extinct faster than new ones were evolving. Environmentalists warned we were on the brink of the "sixth great extinction":

Conservation experts have already signalled that the world is in the grip of the "sixth great extinction" of species, driven by the destruction of natural habitats, hunting, the spread of alien predators and disease, and climate change.

However until recently it has been hoped that the rate at which new species were evolving could keep pace with the loss of diversity of life.

The IUCN created shock waves with its major assessment of the world's biodiversity in 2004, which calculated that the rate of extinction had reached 100-1,000 times that suggested by the fossil records before humans.
As background, according to wikipedia, these previous mass extinctions are:
Since life began on Earth, five major mass extinctions have led to large and sudden drops in the biodiversity of species. The Phanerozoic eon (the last 540 million years) marked a rapid growth in biodiversity in the Cambrian explosion—a period during which nearly every phylum of multicellular organisms first appeared. The next 400 million years was distinguished by periodic, massive losses of biodiversity classified as mass extinction events. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago, and has attracted more attention than all others because it killed the dinosaurs.
Why does biodiversity matter? Simply, becausee are all part of the global ecosystem. Research has shown that diverse ecosystems are better at supplying amenities like food and clean water, and at recovering from shocks like freak weather events.

In short, biodiversity gives us options. These run from medicines to technologies inspired by plants and animals to the food that we eat. In the face of unusal weather patterns brought about by climate change, which itself brings new diseases, pests and risks of drought and flood, cultivating a diverse portfolio of crops is the best way to ensure food security. Biodiversity is the measure of the health of a biological system. It may involve millions of distinct biological specis, but it comes back to us at the end of the day, as we are at the top of the food chain. Biodiversity comes back to food security.

Peak lithium

Lithium is central to the electric cars, because it’s used to create superior batteries - and it's starting to run out, too. Although clearly less urgent than the items above, this is here to make the observation that it's wrong to assume that after hitting the peak in global resources we can carry on as before, except that the commute will be in batter-powered cars.

A typical ithium-ion cell can generate approximately three volts, compared to 2.1 volts for lead/acid and 1.5 volts for zinc-carbon cells. According to an April 2010 column Peak Everything? on "free minds and free markets" website reason.com, it’s running out fast:
For example, the Chevy Volt, scheduled to be at dealers this fall, will be energized by 400 pounds of lithium ion batteries, plus a gasoline engine to produce electricity to extend the car’s range of travel once the batteries are drained. In 2007, William Tahil, an analyst with the France-based consultancy, Meridian International Research, issued a report that alarmingly concluded that there is “insufficient economically recoverable lithium available in the Earth's crust to sustain electric vehicle manufacture in the volumes required.” Tahil added, “Depletion rates would exceed current oil depletion rates and switch dependency from one diminishing resource to another.”
In fairness, a couple of companies are claiming to be developing far superior batteries, that use more common materials – but then if fuel cells lived up to their claims, we’d not even need these. In addition, seawater contains an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium, though at a low concentration of 0.1 to 0.2 ppm – but whether this be harvested in a world of declining hydrocarbons is open to debate.

Peak neodymium

Neodymium is a rare earth metal that makes the strongest permanent magnets known. These are used in products ranging from magnetic computer discs to wind turbines.

Think that when oil supplies start to dwindle, we can all commute in a fleet of hybrid or electric vehicle? Back to reason.com:

For example, the magnets that drive a Prius hybrid’s electric motor use more than two pounds of neodymium. . . Because China can more cheaply produce neodymium than any other country in the world, that country is now the source of 95 percent of the world’s neodymium. Recently, however, China’s government warned that it would begin restricting exports of neodymium (and other rare earth metals) in order to insure supplies for its own manufacturers.
However, this item does state that inventors of a new AC induction motor claim to have eliminated the permanent neodymium magnets. But it’s still an example that driving a Prius is no solution to a future of peak resources.


Many peak oil proponents suggest oil either is about to peak, or has already, and that production will fall below demand sometime before 2020. Many independent researchers believe the world’s natural gas, coal and uranium are likely to peak during the following decade.

But then, non-renewable resources cannot long withstand the onslaught of industrial mining/exploitation. Massive species decline points to that. (These are supposed to be renewable, after all - but nothing is coming back once it's extinct.)

Just as we will face a global energy crisis, we will be forced to come to terms with some equally urgent issues. The global population is rising exponentially. Soil is becoming poorer throughout most of the world, and access to clean water more scarce. According to the UN, by the mid-2020s, two-thirds of the world’s population may struggle to find enough water to meet their needs.

A decline in phosphorous by itself could pose a “Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced.”

In addition, we are facing the very real prospect of global climate change. (Stepping around the political games, climate is changing. Parts of the world are becoming drier, and some more prone to flooding.)

So, the world is facing a hydrocarbons peak, right as we are beginning to struggle with soil, the nutrients required for large scale agriculture, environmental change and availability of water. When you put the disparate elements together, it begins to look like a perfect storm.

Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, is of the opinion that soil erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses poses as much a risk as hydrocarbon depletion. However, rather than choosing one over another, he links the mismanagement of all systems: "If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world’s major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age."

We are talking about the starvation of billions. It's already started. Somewhere in the world, a child dies of hunger every five seconds - how many died while you were reading this page? Six million children starve to death each year. Children like mine.

And people in the West might start going hungry next. Pardon my cynicism, but white people starving always makes the news.