The Steady Trickling Away of Our Subsistence
As mankind stumbles bewildered inwards the 21st century, it finds itself facing a minefield of existential threats. Catastrophic climate change, nuclear terrorism, multiresistant bacteria, autonomous weapons systems. The list is long and terrifying. Lurking in the shadows of these towering, new threats however; a darker, more fundamental — yet largely overlooked calamity of world-historical proportions steadily builds momentum.
For the past couple of decades, we have sustained economic growth only by extracting natural resources at an ever-accelerating pace. Even the most essential ones - topsoil nutrients, fish stocks, and groundwater reserves - are depleted at rates far exceeding their rates of replenishment. As should be painfully obvious, this approach to resource management simply cannot go on indefinitely. Eventually we will hit some upper physical limit, from where we must fall to the ground. Yet like suckers, financing their luxurious lifestyles by maxing out ever-growing piles of credit cards, we postpone the inevitable while sinking ever deeper into ecological debt.
By feasting on its seed corn, mankind was able to throw one hell of a party
Perhaps the single most overlooked calamity on our horizon is the degradation of agricultural soils caused by chemicals like synthetic nitrogen and pesticides. After indulging us with decades of unprecedented food security, the hidden ecological costs of these trojan chemicals are at last beginning to catch up with us. Like bleach repeatedly douced on a piece of cloth, they eroded the quality of our soil — depleting its nutrients, compressing it, and devastating it’s microbe ecosystems. Like a heroin addiction, the rewards from each fix dwindled over time, doses increased, and the side effects accumulated.
According to the World Economic Forum, soil nutrients are currently extracted at rates 10–40 times greater than their rates of recovery, while 40% of agricultural soil is considered «degraded» or «seriously degraded». Current trends, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns us, leads to the end of large-scale agriculture by the late 2070’s.
A slighly less overlooked development is the depletions of the oceans. In what might be the worst ecological disaster of the past 66 million years, global fish stocks have declined by 50 % over the past 50 years. The UN Environmental Program warns us that unless fishing fleets are slashed and stocks allowed to recover, we face «the nightmare possibility of fishless oceans by 2050».
And then there is the whole can of worms about water scarcity. According to the World Economic Forum an estimated 500 million people live in areas where annual water consumption is twice the amount replenished by rain. By the 2030s, half the global population may face severe water stress, as the demand for freshwater is set to outstrip supply by 40%.
Our current trajectory thus leaves us with approximately 60 remaining years of farming, 30 remaining years of fishing, and little more than a decade to prepare for a global crisis of water scarcity. As this unfolds — and with the biosphere already crumbling under our weight — our numbers keeps climbing towards an estimated 9–12 billion peak. How we are going to feed and hydrate all of these people remains a mystery.
Faced with these traumatizing prospects, our coping mechanism of choice has been selective blindness. Despite its world-historical significance, the dawning resource crisis has failed to take priority in public discourse. Lifting food- and water security to the top of the political agenda would seem absurd to most voters, willfully oblivious to the writing on the wall. Yet there it is for all who cares to look, clearly and unmistakably, like the torches of an advancing army flickering against the dead of night.
Meanwhile, we do nothing — see no need to do anything — pretending the problems aren’t real or will somehow just breeze by. Technological innovations have bailed us out before. Surely they will do so again. Awaiting the decent of this technological savior somehow became our plan A, and there is little appetite for even discussing any plan B.
A rough sketch of the geopolitical milieu in which resource scarcity must be dealt with
Predictions about the future are notorious for ending their lives as laughing stocks. History has a way of sneaking up on us to nudge us off our predicted trajectory, sending us tumbling into uncharted wilderness. Alas, the best we can hope for is to sketch the contours of what the comming decades would theoretically look like, if current political and technological seeds were allowed to blossom into their logical conclusions. Pending history’s eventual verdict, these makeshift maps are the best we can hope for, for navigating this treacherous domain. We must thus make do with them, despite their imperfections.
The benign geopolitical reality of the past few decades lulled most observers into dismissing realpolitik and tribalism as things of the past, irreversibly replaced by liberal internationalism. Waking up to the stench of the decaying liberal order, we now recognize it for what it always was: A short-lived epiphenomenon of the post-Cold War zeitgeist and U.S. hegemony — contingencies not likely to repeat themselves anytime soon.
Leaving behind our safe, little «end of history» era, we now return to the geopolitical milieu of times immemorial: Hobbesian, Darwinian and in violent flux.
The havoc climate change is about to wreck upon Africa and the Middle East, will be a game-changer. Droughts, floods and volatile rainfalls are expected to drive peasant populations, in the hundreds of millions, off the countryside, to join the swelling, urban underclasses (à la during Syria’s 2007–2010 drought). A recent joint report by the UN and World Bank estimates that water scarcity alone might displace as many as 700 million within decades.
The results will be all too predictable. From this petri dish of desperation, a region-spanning archipelago of failed states, civil wars, violent sectarianism and jihadism, can be expected to flourish. As the region decent into chaos, the rivalry among its would-be hegemons, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, may exacerbate the issue, escalating minor instabilities into bloody proxy wars (à la the current situation in Yemen).
Waves of northbound climate refugees, breaking against the borders of Europe, might push an already crumbling European Union off its feet. Due to the Wests culpability in triggering climate change, the dilemma posed by the mass-arrival of its victims will be profoundly divisive. In retrospect, the puny trickle of refugees during the Syrian Civil War will seem trivial, the way the Napoleonic wars must have seemed to a World War 1 trench-veteran.
Coinciding with a never ending trickle of technological disruptions, surging inequality and the rise of a «useless class», rendered unemployable by automatization, — the scene might be set for nationalist strongmen to grab power. Foreign Affairs recently ran a piece proclaiming the end of the democratic century (the 20th), implying that the 21st will be one of authoritarianism.
As governments scramble to feed and hydrate their populations, access to contested water resources will drive conflict — as already manifesting along the world’s major river basins: on the Nile, upstream Ethiopia has begun constructing new dams, threatening the water security of downstream Egypt; on the Mekong, upstream China is doing the same, essentially reducing the river, in some downstream areas, to “just a series of puddles»; on the Indus, upstream India, home to the world’s largest water-poor population, threatens the water security of its downstream arch enemy, Pakistan.
Pakistan is incidentally located in an area expected to be particularly ravaged by climate change. Combine this with a frail central government, a military and intelligence service tightly intertwined with the Taliban, and the world’s sixth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, and we might be looking at the soon-to-be birthplace of nuclear terrorism.
The draining of lake Chad is a telling case study of destabilization due to water scarcity. Water from this immense lake (spread over the four countries Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria), was diverted to supply booming urban populations, at unsustainable rates. As the lake started drying up, the new urban population, enabled by — and now dependent on this water, was left without a stable water supply. Security experts point to this as a catalyst for the rise of Boko Haram. Squads of previously benevolent peasants turned to extremism, partly to seek revenge against a state that had left them to die — partly in desperation, to secure food and water for their families.
Peeking deeper into the crystal ball, recent breakthroughs in biotech are pregnant with the prospect of designer babies. The first genetically enhanced children are indeed already among us. Homo Sapiens is essentially mere baby steps away from splitting up into multiple, genetically distinct, sub-species. By the end of the century, one can imagine the developed world inhabited by a spectrum of genetically engineered post-humans, deeply embedded with technology; the developing world inhabited by the remaining Homo Sapiens simpletons - fighting it out over water and gasoline, in a post-apocalyptic, environmentally wrecked hellscape.
Some of these trends may materialize, while others will no doubt be disrupted along the way. Regardless of the details, we need to accept that we simply don’t get to solve the issue of resource scarcity in some pink fairyland-reality, where world leaders join forces to solve the issure in a rational manner. No, if we are going to deal with this mess, it has to happen in this lousy reality.
Enough with the Malthusian disaster-porn! We get it. Now what?!
I which I knew. Pulling theoretical solutions like «we should all go vegan» or «we should implement a global one-child policy» out of the air is a simple, yet fruitless exercise. Piecing together some less-than-awful compromise that could actually be implemented and enforced given the political, cultural and psychological conditions actually existing, might be an insurmountable challenge. Decades of institutional failure to grapple with our predicament may already have accumulated to the point where only “unrealistic” proposals would suffice to halt our death spiral — while any “realistic” proposal would be too little, too late.
The International Nitrogen Management System (nicknamed the IPCC of nitrogen), has called for global nitrogen pollution to be cut in half by mid-century in order to preempt an ecological meltdown. They don’t, however, seem to offer any plausible strategy for achieving this, in light of the 2–3 billion new guys expected to join our party by mid-century, extensive loss of farmland due to climate change (particularly on the continent who’s population is about to double — Africa), or the prospective decline of industrialized fishing.
According to a UN estimate, 23,000 square miles of new farmland needs to be ploughed every year, just to keep up with the population growth. Nearly twice this area is annually lost due to soil degradation.
Even in the pink fairyland-reality with no geopolitical, cultural or psychological sludge muddying the water — which options would we even have? Large scale return to ecological farming and traditional fishing? Now that we are stuck with these 6 billion extra mouths to feed, there is no retreat from industrial food production. How would one even go about finding enough manure to replace any significant portion of the annual demand for 115 million tons of Nitrogen fertilizers?
Even crops marketed as «organic» gets its manure from livestock primarily fed by artificially fertilized crops. The ultimate source of that nitrogen is thus also synthetic. Manure merely recycles the nitrogen poured onto the gazing fields.
International negotiation to limit fishing have failed due to incentives to cheat and widespread illegal fishing. Aquaculture has been touted as a sustainable alternative to foraged fish, but fish farms also dependents on foraged wild fish to feed its livestock. Carnivorous fish, (such as farmed salmon), consume far more wild fish than they generate as a final product. The booming salmon farming industry, will thus require evermore foraged fish for feed, at a time when 75 % of the worlds monitored fisheries «are already near to or have exceeded their maximum sustainable yield».
This essay is approaching its 3 000 word limit, and it still hasn’t gotten to the destruction of rain forests, or collapse of insect populations. Jesus! We are besieged from so many angles, it’s hard to even keep track of it all. A recently published study documents a 75 % drop in Germany’s insect biomass over the past 30 years. What‘s going on here’? Reports like these are overwhelming — yet barely sink in. They read as try, statistical facts «out there», of little «real life» relevance. As if they were happening in another reality than the one we inhabit. Is this a case of denial? Or learned helplessness? Or did the human mind simply not evolve to grapple with issues of this scale and pace? Regardless, it feels better to just ignore what’s going on, and pretend everything is okay.
Perhaps our technological messiah actually will descend to bestow us infinite growth on our finite planet. Yet, it seems wise to hedge our bet on that one. Cultured meat and desalination facilities may eventually feed and hydrate our descendant, but these technologies are far too immature and energy intensive to scale in the foreseeable future. By the time the public wakes up and demand political action, the timing window for averting disaster might already be closed. Perhaps it already is. Like bugs, trapped in a cobweb, perhaps all we can do is to rage against the spider, in futile defiance.
Regardless. This right here, is our century. It belongs to Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z, and whatever happens here is our responsibility. There will be no rescue party coming for us. We are it. The legacy of our generation will be forged by our attempt to carry the torch of humanity through these calamities. If we bite the dust, our crash will echo through the eons.
We, who are destined to journey through this perilous century, needs to brace ourselves — its going to be one hell of a ride.