In a nutshell

May 1, 2008

The girl im’d me this article today. There are two very good quotes:

Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, calculates that without nitrogen fertilizer, there would be insufficient food for 40 percent of the world’s population, at least based on today’s diets.

Initially, much of the increased production of fertilizer went to grains like wheat and rice that served as the foundation of a basic diet. But recently, with world economic growth at a brisk 5 percent a year, hundreds of millions of people began earning enough money to buy more meat from animals fattened with grains. That occurred at the same time that rising production of biofuels, like ethanol, put new pressure on grain supplies.

So,  we made our own mess with the worldwide food shortage. The bizarre tradition of being wealthy means eating meat  and our need to fuel our cars above all else is going to mean MANY of us (and by us I mean humans, not any particular nationality) are going to starve.  We’ve wed ourselves to fossil-fuel based nitrogen fertilizers. But surely we’ll find a way to feed everyone right?

“This is a basic problem, to feed 6.6 billion people,” said Norman Borlaug, an American scientist who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in spreading intensive agricultural practices to poor countries. “Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”

Hmm, No. I guess we might not. Not without easily available energy resources.

I know what the economists in the crowd are saying “Yes, but the market will adjust and provide a solution.” And if you look back through history it does, sort of, seem that way. Seeing the evolution of sciences and industries to provide for the required goods of the consuming population. The issue is, of course, from the perspective of the present the past always looks like a series of fairly smooth progressions. While, in the present, things are actually a good bit bumpier and less progressive. People starve, revolutions occur, bread riots, wars, things get messier.

The market may actually engineer a way around the problem, or it could be that resource depletion creates massive starvation, epidemic due to insufficient nutrients and resource wars. There are two ways to deal with a supply and demand problem, right? Increase supply or have the demand drop off. Now, when that comes to shiny plastic things that play music, that’s reasonably fine. When it comes to food demand only falls off when there are fewer people or there is a glut of food. You don’t stop being hungry just because food gets more expensive.

Sounds pretty doomy and gloomy doesn’t it? Well, it sorta is. But there are things we can do to help the situation:

1. Stop eating  so much meat. Give it a try, cut down the meat in your diet to 3 meals once a week. Out of 21 meals in a week, eat meat at only 3 of them. The other 18 eat a vegetarian meal.  I stopped eating meat my junior year in college and I’ve been fine almost 12 years later, now. It’s not that hard. Hell, you might not even lose any weight. I’m still a big fat guy and I consume a lot little leafy things (well, and tomatoes, mmmm tomatoes.)

2. Stop using fuel where you don’t need to. Turn off unnecessary draws of energy. Cars, lights, computers, whatever. Shut it down if you don’t need it. Take a bus or a train to work. Don’t fly unless you have to. Ride a bike (it uses vastly less fuel than a car and less calories are burnt than walking). In general use less fuel. If it wasn’t clear from the article fuel equals food. And while you might not have any trouble buying food right now, other people are having problems.

3. Stop having children. If you feel you have to have a child, keep it to one. Gradually scaling back world population is possible. With planning we can get the world back to a more sustainable 2 billion in about 150 years if we can keep reproduction down to one child per woman.  If you think it’s a horrible thing to suggest that people not have kids then ask yourself this question: Is it more horrible for a child to starve painfully over months in squalor until finally dying or to have not been born/conceived at all? Remember, in the time it has taken you to read this post the world had roughly 300 humans(net) added to it. 147 people a minute.

This is not an issue of saving the environment (though it could be), this is not an issue of stopping climate change (though it could be), this is not an issue of saving any particular endangered species or cleaning up a polluted river (though it could be). This is an issue of making the next few decades not the worst ones we’ll EVER see. And I can say ever because our population has never before been this badly in overshoot of what our resources will support. Never. The world will not be like it was before. We need to give up that memory. It’s gone. There are better and worse places we can end up. If we continue acting like nothing has changed then we’ll end up worse-off. We can make it better.


6 Responses to “In a nutshell”

  1. Steven Says:

    Good luck to change people’s habits…I’ve read somewhere that the daily energy used by an US citizen is roughly 3x more important than an European. This is an issue as well, because as far as I can tell we have the life standard. Go figure.

    Ah, and this one too:

  2. jonrob Says:

    I’ve enjoyed your last couple of posts 🙂

    For the last two weeks now I’ve been trying to cut back how many meals I eat with meat, and although not quite at three per week, it’s probably only about 4 or 5 now which is a big change for me. One of the best things is it’s encouraging me to try foods that I probably never would have done if I wasn’t doing this – and some have been really tasty!

    As for using less energy, this is something that I’ve been trying to do for a long time now and I don’t do too badly but not as well as I could. Still, I’ll keep trying 🙂

    Oh, and you might find this article interesting – it’s what prompted me to change how I eat:



  3. Петър Says:

    Honestly I am surprised to read such thoughts by an engineer, as in ppl’s mind the engineers are always busy in their engineering tasks and don’t think much of anything else.
    Thanks for proving me wrong.
    It was the energy and resource savings that made me try Linux initially. It was not the idea of libre software, I didn’t understand what it means and while i do now it makes little difference to me as I am not able to read the code anyway.
    But the promise to make a working system out of an old iron (so to say) was so tempting!
    Now, 5 years later I still use the old laptop I have bought back then – second hand. And it still works like a charm. I have everything available on my small screen that is available on a new power laptop. And I love it. I honestly do! And it gets better every year! What else is it if not resources savings! It saves my money (so I can donate for the development of even better free software, instead buying a new laptop every 2/3 years), it saves resources and it works.
    Long story short – this proves (a least for me) that there are ways we can reduce out resource consumption. And I am honestly optimistic, because now-days ppl can use the Internet as a tool to spread their ideas, their success and their failures in the strive for more sustainable living, which then can be accessible and used as example by other and so on and so no.
    So … keep mentioning the things you find important, even if the readers do not expect this from an engineer.

  4. Jay Says:

    I think it has everything to do with (or at least it should) with saving the environment, stopping climate change and saving endangered/dying species. We need to change how we live to save the earth. Also please avoid GM crops and GM foods. Here is a couple more interesting articles.

    The first link has an article and video, both relevant to the food issues discussed in the NYTIMES article

    This Company May Be the Biggest Threat to Your Future Health


    Why Are Bats Dying?

  5. 1) You can make nitrogen fertizers via solar power but only after oil stays at 120 for it to be marketable.

    2) The funny thing is that the more educated/rich you are the less likely you are to have a large family. The two silly statistics things that come from this is that ‘meat-eaters’ reproduce less than veggie eaters.. or the ‘stupid’ people breed more stupid people (neither I believe in).

    The reality is that the more ‘vulnerable’ you are to starvation, plague, etc the more your body is going to say ‘breed’… and the more likely you will have kids. Yes it is not logical, but humans aren’t logical creatures no matter what we try to convince ourselves.

    And asking the poor/less educated to have less kids just comes across as rich people trying to take yet another thing from them.

  6. Pete Zaitcev Says:

    This is pretty amusing, in a schadenfreude kind of way. Little wonder how every survey shows that conservatives have more satisfying sex and are generally happier. It simply is a better lot in life than being a ball of misery, ride public transit, and eat veggies.

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