May 16, 2005

Dangers and Challenges for the Future

With the exponential growth in information, people respond to the overwhelming amount of data by narrowing their focus and specializing in one discipline or another. Most people gain a deep understanding in one or two areas resulting in silos of knowledge. This leads to them seeing issues and problems in relationship to their (limited) view of the world. Yet, many of the problems that we face as humans demand a more holistic approach because the problems we are facing are interconnected and cannot be solved in isolation. Global warming is one such problem.

We know that global warming is caused by the increased greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere and some of the climatic consequences can be predicted: increased storms, melting icecaps, droughts, rising sea levels, etc. We can say that global warming is a direct consequence of our carbon-based economy. But one thing that is not so well known is that the consequences of global warming will directly relate to how much potable water humans will have in the future. And the water we have will affect the food supply.

When Congress puts together energy policies, they are most likely unaware that their proposals need to also consider our water policies and how that relates to the world’s food capacity. Understanding the linkages between the world’s resources is something that Lester Brown, the founder of the Earth Policy Institute, has studied and thought deeply about. Brown is a true renaissance man. Originally a farmer, he believes that it was his experience in farming that allows him to have a perspective that spans the complex interconnection of energy, water, and food.

Lester Brown has recently published a new book focusing on how the world is fast approaching a time were there will be too little potable water to support the planet.

"In recent months, rising oil prices have focused the world’s attention on the depletion of oil reserves. But the depletion of underground water resources from overpumping is a far more serious issue,” says Lester R. Brown in his new book, Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures. “Excessive pumping for irrigation to satisfy food needs today almost guarantees a decline in food production tomorrow.

"There are substitutes for oil, but there are no substitutes for water.”

Currently our world is adding 76 million people every year, but we are losing our ability to feed those people by exhausting of the world’s fresh water reserves. Although water is a renewable resource, the world economy is consuming water resources faster than they can be renewed. And the most worrisome drops in the water tables are in the countries which have the largest populations.

Studies show that rising temperatures reduce the yield of crops: an increase of 1 degree Celsius reduces the yield by 10%. In 2003, the record heat in Europe reduced European grain production by 30 tons – an amount that is half the U.S. wheat harvest. Current predictions are that the world’s temperatures will rise another 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius causing a reduction in the world’s capacity for grain production. Brown notes that the farmers today will face warmer conditions than man has ever known since the invention of agriculture.

During the last five years, for four years less grain was produced than consumed and the world grain stocks are the lowest they’ve been in the past 30 years. If 2005 shows the same results, the world grain reserves will be seriously depleted and food prices through out the world could soar.

Between 1998 and 2004, China’s grain production dropped by 50 million tons and in response almost wiped out their extensive stockpiles. China is now the world’s biggest importer of wheat and imports huge quantities of the world’s rice and corn as well. As they become less self-sufficient, they will be consuming increasing amounts of the world grain production leaving less for others in poorer societies.

Brazil has capacity to turn more land into farmland, but at the cost of some of the incredible diversity found there. Brown asks how many other species will we sacrifice and what natural services will we lose when we turn vast forests and marsh into tilled acreage.

The complexity of this problem is much different than it was in the 1970s.

“Today food security—once the exclusive province of agricultural ministers—is a far more complex issue. It is perhaps a commentary on the complexity of our time that decisions made in ministries of energy can have a greater effect on future food security than those made in ministries of agriculture. Policies formulated by ministers of water resources can also directly affect food production and food prices. And with irrigation water availability per person shrinking for the world as a whole, ministries of health and family planning may also have a greater effect on future food security than ministries of agriculture.”

He believes that it is urgent to address this problem and says that the world will need to act on three fronts:

  1. Raise water productivity
  2. Cut carbon emissions
  3. Stabilize population

And as he says, we have the technology to address these issues. For example, if we accelerate the rollout of hybrid technology in our cars, we could cut our use of oil by 50%. Furthermore, there are a number of renewable energy sources that are ready to go online. Europe is actively expanding their use of wind power to deliver energy for their economies.

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has been working on technologies that help as well. They are a non-profit think tank that have been working since the 70s on how to move our country to a more sustainable model mixing both free-market ideas with governmental incentives that has attracted both conservative and liberal backing.

Last year RMI worked with industry and the Pentagon to publish a report called Winning the Oil Endgame. This report has a number of suggestions of what could be done to wean the U.S. economy off oil by 2025 including using hybrid technology combined with ultralight composites that reduce the weight of cars, trucks and airplanes.

Today, the threat of global warming, shrinking water supplies and food scarcity creates an ominous picture of the future. Yet the future of our world can be a made a great deal brighter by changing the economy to reward efficiency and innovation. Much of the technology needed to reduce our dependence on carbon and improve our ability to use both energy and water more efficiently is already available. What we need now is the will to step up to the challenge.

[Ed: This is a revised version of an article orginally published in the Nebraska Vox Populi eZine in April 2005.]

Posted by Mary at May 16, 2005 12:54 AM | Environment | Technorati links |