Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Vale of Malthus

From James Kunstler at Clusterfuck Nation this week:

Like a lot of other activities in American life these days, agribusiness is unreformable along its current lines. It will take a convulsion to change it, and in that convulsion it will be dragged kicking-and-screaming into a new reality. As that occurs, the US public will have to contend with more than just higher taco chip prices. We're heading into the Vale of Malthus -- Thomas Robert Malthus, the British economist-philosopher who introduced the notion that eventually world population would overtake world food production capacity. Malthus has been scorned and ridiculed in recent decades, as fossil fuel-cranked farming allowed the global population to go vertical. Techno-triumphalist observers who should have known better attributed this to the "green revolution" of bio-engineering. Malthus is back now, along with his outriders: famine, pestilence, and war.

He's talking about, among other things, the effects of the floods in Iowa and the cost of fossil-fuel based agricultural inputs. Spot has called Kunstler the "gleeful Mathusian," but he cannot recall Kunstler so explicitly calling on Malthus' ghost before. Here's what Kunstler says about the current agribusiness model:

Behind that magic [of cheap corn and processed foods] is an agribusiness model of farming cranked up on the steroids of cheap oil and cheap natural-gas-based fertilizer. Both of these "inputs" have recently entered the realm of the non-cheap. Oil-and-gas-based farming had already reached a crisis stage before the flood of Iowa. Diesel fuel is a dollar-a-gallon higher than gasoline. Natural gas prices have doubled over the past year, sending fertilizer prices way up. American farmers are poorly positioned to reform their practices. All that cheap fossil fuel masks a tremendous decay of skill in husbandry. The farming of the decades ahead will be a lot more complicated than just buying x-amount of "inputs" (on credit) to be dumped on a sterile soil growth medium and spread around with giant diesel-powered machines.

Have we ever seen this before, Spotty?

Well yes, grasshopper, as it turns out, we may have! Fairly recently, too. North Korea.

Oh, come on, Spot, that's ridiculous.

Not according to John Feffer, writing in Tomdispatch:

Gas prices are above $4 a gallon; global food prices surged 39% last year; and an environmental disaster looms as carbon emissions continue to spiral upward. The global economy appears on the verge of a TKO, a triple whammy from energy, agriculture, and climate-change trends. Right now you may be grumbling about the extra bucks you're shelling out at the pump and the grocery store; but, unless policymakers begin to address all three of these trends as one major crisis, it could get a whole lot worse.

Just ask the North Koreans.

In the 1990s, North Korea was the world's canary. The famine that killed as much as 10% of the North Korean population in those years was, it turns out, a harbinger of the crisis that now grips the globe -- though few saw it that way at the time.

That small Northeast Asian land, one of the last putatively communist countries on the planet, faced the same three converging factors as we do now -- escalating energy prices, a reduction in food supplies, and impending environmental catastrophe. At the time, of course, all the knowing analysts and pundits dismissed what was happening in that country as the inevitable breakdown of an archaic economic system presided over by a crackpot dictator.

They were wrong. The collapse of North Korean agriculture in the 1990s was not the result of backwardness. In fact, North Korea boasted one of the most mechanized agricultures in Asia. Despite claims of self-sufficiency, the North Koreans were actually heavily dependent on cheap fuel imports. (Does that already ring a bell?) In their case, the heavily subsidized energy came from Russia and China, and it helped keep North Korea's battalion of tractors operating. It also meant that North Korea was able to go through fertilizer, a petroleum product, at one of the world's highest rates. When the Soviets and Chinese stopped subsidizing those energy imports in the late 1980s and international energy rates became the norm for them, too, the North Koreans had a rude awakening.

You're just full of good news, Spot.

Indeed, grasshopper; we live in interesting times.

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