Is our civilisation doomed?

May 24, 2009 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Have you heard of Lester Brown or read any of his articles? If not, do yourself a favour and go here. Brown is an American environmentalist and prolific author who has been saying for ages that the biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises. He’s no crackpot. He has a degree in agricultural science. He’s toughed it out in India where he learnt about food/population issues. He’s worked for the US Government and, in the 1970s, founded the Worldwatch Institute.

Now, one of his articles has been just been published in Scientific American and the title is ominous – “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization”. (I can give you the short answer: YES).  It’s scary reading but let me give you the key concepts. Then go off and read his article.

  • Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos
  • Such “failed states” can export disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees
  • Water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from global warming are placing severe limits on food production
  • Without massive and rapid intervention to address these three environmental factors, a series of government collapses could threaten the world order

Brown says: “Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy—most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures—forces me to conclude that such a collapse is possible.” And here are some more sobering stats:

  • In six of the past nine years, world grain production has fallen short of consumption, forcing a steady drawdown in stocks of grain. There are now only 62 days of grain stock in reserve.
  • But world grain prices in the spring and summer of 2008 climbed to the highest level ever.

Hungry people start protesting in the streets when they can’t afford basic food supplies and governments start to teeter. We’ve already seen food riots in Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines and Cameroon. Troops had to open fire in Somalia when people rioted over high food prices. In Africa, prices of some staple foods have increased more than 50%. I’ve been seeing articles recently predicting food riots in the United States. Heck, even scientists are jumping up and down warning about impending food shortages given predictions that food consumption will jump 50% by 2030 as the world population exceeds 8.3bn. One scientist says: “There is a significant likelihood that, without investing in the science to deliver higher crop yields, we will not have the kinds of food levels we need to ensure food security.”

So when nation states can no longer provide food security, then you have a situation where law and order breaks down and civil unrest takes over. And one of the biggest issues our world faces is rapidly falling water tables. 70% of the world’s freshwater is used for irrigation of crops and rainfall is not refilling irrigation wells fast enough. And so water shortages will result in food shortages. China’s wheat crop, for example, which is the world’s largest, has declined by 8% since it peaked at 123 million tons in 1997. Half of India’s wells have dried up already.

And here’s the bit in the article that really freaked me out: “Topsoil is eroding faster than new soil forms on perhaps a third of the world’s cropland. This thin layer of essential plant nutrients, the very foundation of civilization, took long stretches of geologic time to build up, yet it is typically only about six inches deep. Its loss from wind and water erosion doomed earlier civilizations.

So what’s the answer? Brown says: “Since the current world food shortage is trend-driven, the environmental trends that cause it must be reversed. To do so requires extraordinarily demanding measures, a monumental shift away from business as usual—what we at the Earth Policy Institute call Plan A—to a civilization-saving Plan B.” And what is Plan B?

  • cut carbon emissions by 80% from their 2006 levels by 2020
  • stabilization of the world’s population at 8 billion by 2040
  • the eradication of poverty
  • the restoration of forests, soils and aquifers

Plan B is outlined in Brown’s book.  I just hope that we all start taking this seriously. I’ve said before on this blog that I think the future will be full of wars over water, civil unrest over food scarcity and all sorts of security implications due to the planet heating up. Brown has identified in his article the 20 countries in the world that are closest to collapse (with Somalia being the worst):

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ivory Coast
Central African Republic
Burma (Myanmar)
North Korea
Sri Lanka

Entry filed under: Future predictions. Tags: , , , .

Train tossers At last!

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. JSC7  |  May 27, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Hi ThinkingShift,

    Wrote about something similar recently myself – I think its interesting to what extent current economic development protocols focus on reducing mortality rates, leading to increased urbanization and, in the end, increasing the risk of this sort of food-related instability. The way that most big aid organizations work, it sometimes seems like population stabilization and poverty eradication are, at least in the short-term, clashing goals.


  • 2. Paris  |  June 1, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    Oil civilisation is doomed because oil is a finite ressource, however it doesn’t mean humans can’t imagine other ways to survive, live, thrive…

    Actually we’ve been living wihtout oil for most of our history, so I’m sure we’ll get around this problem well.

    But there are no “magical bullets”, there will either be frighntening technical solutions bringing in more side problems (nanotechnology, GMO, robots, nuclear fusion), or a come back to old fashioned living ways (gathering, gardening, hunting, recycling)

  • 3. thinkingshift  |  June 1, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    and talk about frightening – GMO is a really really really bad idea IMHO.

  • 4. Allison Tara Sundaram  |  June 8, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    If you’re interested in more by Lester Brown, we’ve just posted on our O Say Can You See blog about his June 18th talk as part of the Smithsonian’s Portrait of Invention series. We’ll be archiving his remarks and posting them on the blog as soon as they become available, so we hope you take a look!

    Allison Tara Sundaram
    National Museum of American History


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