A taste of our future

This article is just a glimpse at the disruptions the dry weather and drought in Midwestern U.S. is causing. But get used to this kinds of shocks because they will get more common and more severe in our future because we’ve politically decided huge wealth for the Kochs is more important than the food for most of humanity.

Even though climate scientists are reluctant (for fear of attacks by the denialists) to tie the recent drought and hot weather and corresponding reduced crop yields to AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) it is clear that severe adverse local weather resulting in food shortages are becoming more commonplace throughout the world and in 2012 especially in the United States in the corn belt. Even small shortfalls of production are then amplified by the rampant rigging of futures markets by Goldman Sachs to magnify price effects for their speculative profits (aka derivatives). So the farmer gets a bit more per bushel, for many less bushels, but the consumer pays a huge amount more because Goldman is sucking out the middle. Anyway for the U.S. this may mean a little less beef or bourbon, for other countries it may mean mass starvation. But we’re all affected, esp. as the rigged commodities markets will create shortages even if there aren’t any and so price soars disproportionately to reduced production.

Ever since Malthus warned of a crisis agriculture doomsdays have seemed to be around the corner, running out of land, diseases and destructions to the crops, running out of labor, static yields, running out of water, desertification due to overuse, and so forth. But thus far technological miracles have defied these predictions. We can farm on much more marginal land with higher yielding crops (both naturally and genetic enhanced) with harvested underground water. So total food production has risen; in fact, with hunger almost wiped out in the golden age of the late 20th century. But technology can simply push the limits not eliminate them. So now we’re extracting underground water faster than it can be replenished. We’re seeing topsoil loss that can only be replenished by major geological events requiring tens of thousands of years (basically glacier or increasing flooding). We using monoculture that is extremely brittle and the pests are evolving faster than we can create new GMOs. And population is steadily increasing. So Malthus may eventually be right, technology only postponed his doomsday.

Now we add in climate change. Part of what is hurting corn production in the Midwest U.S. is that much of the production is not normally irrigated. Irrigation is expensive and while widely used here in Nebraska it is avoided anywhere with adequate rainfall. Boom, now Indiana is getting clobbered with drought and unlike Nebraska they can’t just pump more water out of underground aquifers. So any longer-term change in climate could drastically impact production. And extensive use of irrigation, without the natural cleansing of ample rainfall, leads to salt buildup in the soil (a big issue in California where irrigation is now often the very efficient drip type). So all our technology that has increased production has also strained resources. With any climate change there simply is no unused resource to switch to, no more arable land (at least in North America), no more underground or surface water, etc. So when Indiana doesn’t get enough rain there’s not much to do about it. Plus the seeds are now highly optimized and it’s not clear how much better they can get. With hyper-efficient and smart machinery yields per acre are getting close to theoretical maximums. So simply, there’s not a lot more production can be grown, which is why we’re so vulnerable to any disruption in production due to climate.

And also this is where global climate change gets so nasty. Who cares if the average moisture per year doesn’t change much if it changes a lot during critical growing season but then rains like crazy at other times (which may then cause flooding that damages production)? Who cares if average temperatures only change a bit but that disrupts rainfall or snow patterns so enough to reduce river flows or provide moisture at key times in growing cycle? In short disruptions don’t have to be huge to have huge consequences to food production. They just have to happen at bad times or in sufficient quantity to damage these delicate and already max-ed out agricultural systems.

Whether the drought of 2012 is caused by AGW with 100% certainty is not the question. Is there even any connection between AGW and weather in critical food production areas, because as this article shows even a 7% shortfall in only one part of the world can disrupt world supplies. Now the Kochs may not care about the price of beef or bourbon  but the rest of us have a bit more limited budgets. The average person in the U.S. is far from starving, but our food choices may be highly constrained, again while others may not have any food at all (and if there are billions of those can we in the U.S. sit here safely expecting them to all die without a fight, unlikely, so security is threatened as well).

With all these dire things that can happen and to the 99% (and I think ultimately even the 1% can’t hide from these effects) isn’t it time to ignore the Kochs and religious right denialist propaganda and start doing something about AGW while the fixes may be far less drastic that we’ll be required to do in a few more decades. The right believes in self-regulation – well, in the long-term they’re right in that nature, too, believes in self-regulation, otherwise known as extinction.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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8 Responses to A taste of our future

  1. Excellent work, my new friend! And your information from what I’d consider to be a ‘credible source’—astonishing! Love your informative writing style with just a little liberal bent—it’s truly engaging. This is what I like to read because I can learn from it. My FB ‘friends’ will turn all apathetic, but I’m going to post a link to your blog anyway. Even if ONE person reads it, the world will be better off. Kudos!

    • douq says:

      One of the odd things of being in Nebraska, given I’m really a coastal person, is the irony that the folks here support the very things that will destroy them. This is a state that hates science (gets an F in a rating system of education) yet every dollar earned here depends on a fortunate combination of environmental circumstances and geological accidents, yet people don’t realize how fragile it all is and that the policies they support are destroying it all.

      • How very true! The conservatives have the midwestern masses voting against their own interests—it still amazes me every time I think about it. And there used to be a block of upper midwest states (MN, IA, WI, IL, MI) that would usually vote the liberal candidate, but not any more. I guess it’s sort of like the ‘Gay Republicans’ during the Bush administration—they voted for a party that didn’t even recognize them as being human. Hummm…if you live in NE and I in WI, it’s 3:40 a.m. I know I suffer from insomnia, but what’s your excuse? Oh by the way, did you see this? “http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/11/paul-ryan-mitt-romney_n_1684794.html”

        • douq says:

          Hopefully you finally got to sleep and got some relief.

          I’ve lived in TX, MT, MA, and CA before Nebraska and so sorta have a feel for how people in different regions think. The Midwest, but more the Great Plains state have an old-fashioned kind of conservatism of the Taft-Eisenhower stripe with a lot of emphasis on family, self-reliance, and isolationism (not only from the world, but even other parts of U.S.). But it’s not the conservatism of today’s truly nasty conservative crowd and so if it weren’t for the regimentation of religion I actually think these might be blue states. The old progressive movement was a midwestern reaction to the big banks and monopolies and some of that still exists. But the social issues are the way the Repugs keep the voters in line. But it’s amazing how much then they vote *against* their own self-interest on pocket-book issues which is usually first priority of voters. Since so much of the economy is based on agriculture AGW should be top priority but that’s where the religious anti-science attitudes have played into the Kochs’ hand to create all the denialism. Yet these are some of the people that will be impacted the worst and they just don’t get that they’re being played by very rich people who don’t care what happens to them.

          As to being up late I don’t often do that. I don’t have an issue with insomnia per se (usually sleep too much) but sometimes I just don’t want to go to bed. With nothing that imposes schedule on me I also probably have like a 25 hour rhythm where each day I go to sleep later and later until Saturday night since I have to get up tomorrow to go on my exile (see Back at Starbucks) posts.

  2. waterlexeme says:

    Very interesting post. Here in New Zealand we have a rather tedious piece of legislation called the Resource Management Act, While it is the bain of anyone who wants to do anything’s existence, it has had the interesting side effect of causing a majority of people in a lot of industries to really get informed about how their practices impact on the environment. The legislation is set up in such a way that the decisions about what can and cannot be done to the local environment are decided by the local community – usually through the district and regional councils. The mining industry in New Zealand is a very small one, and I have recently finished a project for their main training organisation. Going in I expected to find myself at odds with the industry, but I have been rather surprised about just how environmentally aware the average bloke at the average quarry or mine site in on how their work impacts things like local catchments. The two main themes besides ‘how to use the machinery’ are health and safety issues and environmental impact management. This would not have been the case even twenty years ago,

    I was on a site not long ago where the guys had redesigned the entire water treatment system – these were not trained engineers. The water they were taking out of the environment was significantly cleaner than what was going back into into the catchment. I think a lot of this is about education, not necessarily formal education. These guys may not have finished high school, but they are smart guys. They drive some of the most complex machinery around, so it really isn’t surprising that they can figure out how a catchment system works, how to read chemical data and then design and build structures in response to this. Their drainage system works – it accounts for overland flow – and keeps clean water away from the site as well.

    I think the main problem is the emotional knee-jerk reaction that goes on around politics. Once people (or farmers) really start to understand how things work they start to work with their environments rather than against them. I think for those of us who live in urban settings this is especially difficult to understand, but for people who really depend on the environment to make a living it can come to matter a lot. Environmental issues are definitely bluring the lines for traditional politics. It is very much a cross-party lines type of issue.

    • dmill96 says:

      Thanks for the reply, it’s really interesting to see how these issues are perceived in other countries (really hope to visit New Zealand someday). When I lived in California there, at least as far as water use, people (urban and rural) were way ahead of much of the rest of the U.S. California is basically a desert but with good water resources if wisely used. During a long drought the urban/rural competition intensified. Silicon Valley can generate far more $’s per acre-foot of water than growing hay but laws prohibited farmers from selling their water (excess or even sustaining) to the urban areas. In the severe drought those laws almost got overturned but then the rains came again. The result was a lot more conservation, primarily switching to drip systems for area flooding. Here in the midwestern part of U.S. probably the largest aquifer exists and for decades there was essentially no cost to lifting from that aquifer. Of late the cost of extraction from the aquifer has significantly risen so most of the sprinkler irrigation systems have been replaced with lower (and less evaporation) sprayer systems.

      As you say none of the people here involved in water usage are stupid. It’s mostly a question of incentives. When water is cheap it gets wasted. But what bugs me is that often the capital + labor cost of conservation is no higher than wasteful practices, so it takes a shock like drought to trigger more efficient utilization. U.S. highway 81 (north from Mexico to Canada) is approximately the dividing line between sufficient rainfall areas and arid areas so east, in Illinois and Indiana, relatively little irrigation is used, so people in those areas just count on sufficient precipitation. What’s happening here this here is a massive change in the summer pattern (again, perhaps only this exceptional year, perhaps the new “normal”) and so now the previously unirrigated areas are suffering.

      People who make their living off natural resources, esp. farming, have the most to lose due to any kind of change. In the midwest we’ve probably come close to the limits of how much land can be cultivated and how productive each acre can be. So at this point in history any adverse change in climate can’t be made up by more cultivation somewhere else and the unsustainable use of groundwater will inevitably result in lower production. So it amazes me that the people most affected by this are the most credulous for AGW deniers. In California, due to the population density, many people talked about “environment”, but here in the great plains it’s a question of economic survival. Despite that there is still all this denial that there is change and the change is having an adverse effect.

      If this were only a question of educating people about agricultural engineering and broader science I think we could adapt. Amazingly the universities here and the Internet are heavily used since they tie so closely to people’s economic well-being. But for some reason the whole idea of climate change has people’s minds closed almost solely because the special interests (here the Koch brothers and other carbon industries) have laid in a massive propaganda effort to convince people that scientists are liars and fools, that it is some massive left-wing commie conspiracy to cheat people out of the just due. Amazing that people believe this stuff. So my post was largely that the believe who believe these lies the most are the ones who will be most directly affected, but it also will affect all of us. I’m sure there is a linkage between commodity prices in the U.S. and some prices in New Zealand, since everything is connected today. So we’re all losers when those on the firing line are fooled.

  3. dmill96 says:

    Here’s another reference to overuse of groundwater around the world (it’s not just the Ogalala and it looks like that isn’t even one of the worst): http://www.nature.com/news/demand-for-water-outstrips-supply-1.11143

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