A Himalaya Range of Resource “Peaks”

By David L. Brown

As Val Germann notes in the preceding post today, the world is slowly beginning to become aware of the phenomenon of ‘Peak Oil” and all which that event may portend for the future of humanity. But there are more peaks than that surrounding us today, a veritable Himalaya Range of steep and looming peaks that bode no good.

In fact, the coming of Peak Oil is only one side of a multi-faceted and unfolding disaster, and we tend to hear less about the many other “Peaks” that surround our world today. These include “Peak Water,” “Peak Topsoil,” “Peak Mineral Resources,” and one that strikes close to all of us who like to eat, “Peak Food.”

Every one of these Peaks is related, all the result of tectonic-scale forces being applied to the planet by runaway over-population. There we have the Mount Everest of them all, “Peak Population,” and we can only hope that that particular peak will be reached sooner rather than later and that human numbers will begin to decline once more.

Peak Food lies close to the subject of population, for without food there can be no people. Less food will mean fewer people. And there is evidence that the world has already surpassed its ability to properly feed a population of more than 6.5 billion that continues to grow by 70 million each year. Already more than one billion people live in hunger, barely surviving on fewer calories than required to sustain life in the longer term. Think here of the pictures you have seen of concentration camp survivors of the Holocaust.

Endemic malnutrition yields children that are mentally and physically stunted, adults who are too weak to work, immune systems compromised and bodies open to disease. Hunger also feeds the danger of political collapse, lawlessness, terrorism, and uncontrolled environmental immigration that overruns neighboring lands and even spreads into the First World.

Hunger is a fact of life today in many parts of the world, but the planet is teetering on the brink of outright famine with its inevitable conclusion, death. And hard though it might be to imagine, the food production base even in the United States is vulnerable to climate change and has entered a decline. World food production has almost certainly peaked already and we are on the downward slope that leads into an uncertain future.

Virtually all qualified scientists now agree that global warming is real and is here now. One fact that is often overlooked by the general public and its “thought” leaders is that higher average global temperatures are not evenly spread out. For example, temperatures over oceans, which cover 70 percent of the globe, are affected the least. Arctic regions are affected the most, and in Alaska the average temperature has already risen by 4 to 7 degrees F. In recent decades the rapid melting of snow cover, glaciers and permafrost is creating an environmental disaster in Alaska, particularly for tens of thousands of Inuits who are literally being flooded out by meltwater.

Another way that global warming expresses itself is by heating continental interiors to a higher degree, and we see evidence of that in today’s news. The 2006 corn crop in Kansas, located in the heart of North America, has been seriously damaged not only by drought but in particular by crop-withering triple digit temperatures. Here’s a paragraph from an Associated Press report:

On Monday [August 7] the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service reported that 32 percent of the state’s corn was in poor to very poor condition. The remaining corn is not faring well, either. About 34 percent was listed in fair condition. Only 29 percent was said to be in good condition, with 5 percent in excellent shape, KASS reported.

Worst hit are dryland fields where rain is depended upon for moisture. But even the large areas of irrigated land in Kansas are being seriously impacted by blistering temperatures and hot winds. Responding to the heat, corn plants are “tipping,” or drawing moisture from their developing kernels to stay alive. Leaves are curling to protect against the heat, thus curtailing the process of photosynthesis needed to grow a crop.

And it is not only the corn crop that is being devastated by heat and drought in Kansas this year. According to the AP report, about 30 percent of sorghum was in poor to very poor conditions, and 17 percent of the soybean crop was also threatened and degraded. Furthermore, pastures in western Kansas are so dry that there is no grass left for range cattle to eat, forcing ranchers to move their herds or ship them to market. According to the KASS report last Monday, 53 percent of the state’s rangeland and pasture was in poor to very poor condition.

Kansas is in its sixth year of drought, and the long-lasting heatwave this season is driving many farmers over the edge and prompting memories of the Dustbowl Days. Even if more land could be put under irrigation (and pumping of “fossil” water from the Ogalalla Aquifer is rapidly depleting that precious resource), high temperatures above 95 degrees have a significant effect on crop yields. Sustained temperatures much over 100 degrees can destroy an entire corn crop in short order, which is exactly what seems to be happening.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the other “peaks” that surround us, starting with “Peak Mineral Resources.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, and assuming a 2 percent per year increase in extraction, the world’s remaining supply of lead will last for just 18 years. Tin will run out in 30 years. Copper has another 25 years to go. Iron ore can last just 64 more years. And bauxite (aluminum ore) will all be gone in 69 years. (Source: Calculated by Earth Policy Institute from Mineral Commodity Summaries 2005, U.S. Government Printing Office.)

Note that we are not talking about ‘Peaks” here, but the bottoms of those deep valleys on the far side of the production curves, the points at which the resources have been completely depleted. The time when there is none left!

Here’s a glimpse of “Peak Topsoil,” another resource closely related to Peak Food and Peak Population. Since 1950 the amount of grain producing land in the world has dropped from 0.28 hectare to just 0.1 hectare per person, a decline of almost two-thirds. One-tenth of a hectare is about half the size of a typical suburban house lot. And this comparison does not include the degradation of remaining fields through loss of topsoil to erosion, declining content of organic matter, mining of micro-nutrients through continuous monocultural cropping, and the killing of biologically living soil through extensive application of toxic pesticides.

Similar “Peak” curves can be drawn for fresh water, clean air, biological diversity and every other resource that plays an important and irreplaceable role in the overall working of our planet’s environment and human activity.

To continue the metaphor, humanity no longer stands in a verdant valley surrounded by “Peaks,” but rather is approaching the tops of those peaks, or having actually atttained the metaphorical summits are spilling over them and beginning to go down the other side. [You may be interested in reading my recent essay on “Overshoot-and-Collapse” which discusses the likely results of this scenario.]

Peak Food is one factor that has been little noted, but is about to become a major consideration for billions of people, leading to the potential for massive famines such as the proponents of the “green revolution” have assured us were things of the past. Millions if not billions are set to die from starvation and its related effects. The waves of environmental refugees have already begun to move across national borders in Europe, the U.S., and other far less hospitable places.

It is important to be aware that we are facing the economic disaster of Peak Oil, but perhaps those other ecological, demographic, and sociological “Peaks” bode even worse disaster for humanity if we do not begin to change our ways PDQ.

But please do not hold your breath waiting for this to happen unless you want to experience “Peak Asphyxiation” in about two minutes.

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