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Peak Everything

Peak oil is so last year. Now we can worry about peak everything: peak food, peak soil, peak fertiliser, even peak bees.

Let’s start small. We depend on bees to pollinate plants that account for about one-third of the world’s food supply, but since 2006 bee colonies in the United States have been dying off at an unprecedented rate. More recently the same “colony collapse disorder” has appeared in China, Egypt and Japan.

Many suspect that the main cause is a widely used type of pesticides called neonicotinoids, but the evidence is not yet conclusive. The fact remains that one-third of the American bee population has disappeared in the past decade. If the losses spread and deepen, we may face serious food shortages.

Then there’s peak fertiliser, or more precisely peak phosphate rock. Phosphorus is a critical ingredient of fertiliser, and it is the eightfold increase in the use of fertilisers that has enabled us to triple food production worldwide from about the same area of land in the past sixty years.

At the moment we are mining about 200 million tonnes of phosphate rock a year, and the global reserve that could be mined at a reasonable cost with current technology is estimated at about 16 billion tonnes. At the current level of production it won’t run out entirely for eighty years, but the increasing demand for fertilisers to feed the growing population means that phosphate production is rising fast.

As with peak oil, the really important date is not when there are no economically viable phosphate rock reserves left, but when production starts to fall. Peak phosphate is currently no more than forty years away – or much less, if fertiliser use continues to grow. After that, it’s back to organic fertilisers, which mainly means the urine and faeces of ten or twelve billion human beings and their domesticated animals. Good luck with that.

Peak soil is a trickier notion, but it derives from the more concrete concept that we are “mining” the soil: degrading and exhausting it by growing single-crop “monocultures”, using too much fertiliser and irrigating too enthusiastically, all in the name of higher crop yields.

“We know far more about the amount of oil there is globally and how long those stocks will last than we know about how much soil there is,” said John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems Program in Rothamsted Research in England. “Under business as usual, the current soils that are in agricultural production will yield about 30 percent less…by around 2050.”

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 25 percent of the world’s soils that are currently under cultivation are severely degraded, and another 8 percent moderately degraded. (Even “moderately degraded” soil has lost half its capacity to store water.) And the only way to access new, undamaged soil is to deforest the rest of the planet.

All of which brings us to the issue of peak food. And here the concept of “peak” undergoes a subtle modification, because it no longer means “maximum production, after which yields start to fall.” It just means “the point at which the growth in production stops accelerating”: it’s the peak rate of growth, not actual peak production. But even that is quite ominous, if you think about it.

During the latter part of the 20th century, food production grew at around 3.5 percent per year, comfortably ahead of population growth, but the dramatic rise in crop yields was due to new inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, much more irrigation, and new “green revolution” crop varieties. Now those one-time improvements have largely run their course, and global food production is rising at only 1.5 percent a year.

Population growth has slowed too, so we’re still more or less keeping up with demand, but there are signs that food production in many areas is running up against what researchers at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln in a report last year called “a biophysical yield ceiling for the crop in question.” Production of the food in question stops rising, then may even fall – and extra investment often doesn’t help.

The “peak” in this context is an early warning that there will eventually be a complete cessation of growth, possibly followed by an absolute decline. Peak maize happened in 1985, peak rice and wild fish in 1988, peak dairy in 1989, peak eggs in 1993, and peak meat in 1996. (The numbers come from a recent report by scientists at Yale, Michigan State University and the Helmholtz Centre in Germany in the journal “Ecology and Society”)

More recent peaks were vegetables in 2000, milk and wheat in 2004, poultry in 2006, and soya bean in 2009. Indeed, sixteen of the 21 foods examined in the “Ecology and Society” report have already peaked, and production levels have actually flattened out for key regions amounting to 33 percent of global rice and 27 percent of global wheat production.

So we are already in trouble, and it will get worse even before climate change gets bad. There are still some quick fixes available, notably by cutting down on waste: more than a third of the food that is grown for human consumption never gets eaten. But unless we come up with some new “magic bullets”, things will be getting fairly grim on the food front by the 2030s.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 12. (“At the…fast”; “We know…2050″; and “Population…help”)

Scottish Referendum

If the Scots vote “yes” to independence on September 18, as one opinion poll now suggests they will, three things are likely to happen in the following week.

First, David Cameron may cease to be the leader of the Conservative Party and  the prime minister of the United Kingdom. He would be removed by his own Conservative members of parliament, who would hold him responsible for allowing the break-up of a very successful union that has lasted 307 years.

Secondly, the British pound would start to fall against other currencies, not because Scottish independence would necessarily be an economic disaster for the rest of the United Kingdom, but because the markets hate uncertainly.

To prevent a serious decline of the pound, the British government would have to act on its pre-referendum warnings that a post-independence Scottish government could not have any say in managing the currency. Nobody can stop the Scots from using the pound if they want (and the “Yes” campaigners say they will), but they would be using it the same way that Panama and Liberia use the US dollar. No control over interest rates or anything else.

And thirdly, Spain would block automatic membership in the European Union for an independent Scotland (perhaps with support from some other EU members). Maybe Scotland could become a member eventually, but at least it would have to join the end of the queue for membership and go through years of convoluted negotiations. And it would have to accept the euro as its currency.

The Spanish government has already said it would insist on this, because the Spanish province of Catalonia is holding its own (unauthorised) referendum on independence in November. Madrid has veto power, and it is determined to show that breaking up an existing EU country is not easy or painless.

On the other hand, it would not be like South Sudan or East Timor: there would be no bloodshed and no refugees. Some businesses, particularly banks, would move their head offices from Scotland to England, but in five or ten years the Scots would stop blaming England for all their problems and start blaming their own politicians. And the English would simply have forgotten Scotland.

The right question in this situation, therefore, is not “What will happen if…?” Nothing very extreme would happen, although Scotland is unlikely to enjoy the economic and cultural boom that First Minister Alex Salmond, who called the referendum on independence, frequently predicts. The better question is “How did it end up like this?”

How did a country that has shared a monarch with England since the early 1600s, and freely joined a union with the rest of the “United Kingdom” in 1707 (although there was a lot of political jiggery-pokery involved, as was normal at that time), end up on the brink of leaving the Union in 2014?

Scotland shared in Britain’s wars, and Scottish emigrants settled in all of Britain’s colonies. The Scots had their industrial revolution almost as early as England and far ahead of the rest of Europe. They played a large part in managing the British empire, and profited immensely from it.

Post-industrial Scotland has its deprived inner-city areas, just as England does, but the two countries have pretty much the same standard of living. Scotland always kept its own legal and educational systems, and for the past 16 years it has had its own elected parliament and government, with powers comparable to those of a US, Indian or Australian state. So what’s wrong with this picture?

The real grievance that fuels Scotland’s independence movement is the fact that Britain keeps electing governments that are either explicitly Conservative or (like Tony Blair’s three terms in office) conservative in all but name. They take Britain into stupid foreign wars, and they impose austerity on ordinary British people while looking after the rich.

Scots see themselves as being more socially conscious and more egalitarian, and there is some truth in that view. (Only one of Scotland’s 59 members of the British Parliament is a Conservative.) So the “Yes” campaign argues that the only way to avoid perpetual rule by Margaret Thatcher clones in London is to break away and build a separate Scottish state.

That argument is getting a lot of traction in Scotland at the moment, and voting intentions have swung from 61 percent for No and 39 percent for Yes in early August to a knife-edge (49 percent No, 51 percent Yes) in one of this week’s polls. The other recent polls still show a small advantage for the Noes, but it could go either way.

If it goes Yes, then the change is forever, and everybody will just have to live with it. But since Scotland’s current dissatisfaction with the Union is mainly about the political colour of recent British governments, a No to independence might also be permanent. A couple of genuinely left-wing British governments and a strong economic recovery (which is actually happening), and the whole thing might blow over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11. (“How…picture?”)

The Little Englanders Win Big

23 January 2013

The Little Englanders Win Big

By Gwynne Dyer

The real problem is continental drift: Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is getting further and further away from England. Or at least that is British Prime Minister David Cameron’s line.

Cameron made his long awaited speech promising a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union on 23 January, and he placed the blame squarely on plate tectonics: “People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.”

The “frustrated” people in question are English, of course. Hostility to the European Union is mainly an English thing, but that matters a lot in the United Kingdom, where 55 million of the kingdom’s 65 million people live in England.

The Scottish nationalists seeking separation from England in their own referendum take the opposite tack. They promise the Scottish electorate that leaving the UK would NOT mean leaving the European Union (although in fact Scotland would probably have to re-apply for membership). Scottish politicians have to promise to stay in the EU, because otherwise very few Scottish voters would say “yes” to independence. But England is different.

The “Little Englander” glories in the notion of England being unencumbered by foreign ties and commitments. It’s the kind of nationalism that Americans call “isolationism”, and the phrase is now used to describe strongly nationalist, even xenophobic people on the right of English politics. Those people, always present in significant numbers within Cameron’s Conservative Party, have now won the internal party debate.

Every Conservative leader has had to deal with these people. They always managed to contain them in the past, because the European Union is Britain’s biggest trading partner, and it is obviously in Britain’s interest to belong to the organisation that makes the rules for Europe’s “single market”. What has changed is that the long recession and relatively high immigration of recent years have increased the popularity of the extreme right in England.

That doesn’t mean that populist demagogues and neo-fascists are about to win power in the United Kingdom. Far from it: they’d be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote. But it does mean that the Conservatives are losing their more right-wing supporters to the anti-EU, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party.

UKIP could never win an election in Britain, but it could easily steal enough votes from the Conservatives to make them lose the next election. So there has been mounting panic in the Conservative Party, and not just among its instinctively anti-EU members.

Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership is first and foremost an attempt to steal UKIP’s thunder and win back the defecting Conservative voters. He doesn’t really want to leave the EU, but he really does want to win the election that is due in 2015.

His reluctance to be the man who took Britain out of the EU was evident in the way he hedged around his referendum promise. The referendum would not take place until after the next election, and only if the Conservative Party won enough seats in 2015 to form a government on its own. (Its current coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, opposes the whole idea).

Cameron says he will spend the next two years renegotiating the terms of Britain’s EU membership to “repatriate” many powers from Brussels to London, and to make various changes in the way the EU is run. Then, if he is satisfied with the outcome, he will support EU membership in the election and in the subsequent referendum, which will be held by 2017. But he had no satisfactory answer to the hard questions that followed his speech.

What if the 26 other EU members choose not to waste months in talks on changing Britain’s relationship with the EU? What if they do negotiate but refuse to tie themselves up in knots just to ease Cameron’s local political problems? Would he support continued EU membership in the promised referendum if he didn’t have a “new deal” to offer the voters. He simply wouldn’t answer those questions.

There is much that could be done to improve the accountability and efficiency of the European Union, but it is not helpful to open a negotiation with 26 other governments by standing at the exit door and threatening to leave if you do not get your way. The time may well come when Cameron has to answer those questions, and he probably does not know himself which way he would jump.

So for the next four years, all those foreign companies that have been using the United Kingdom as a convenient, English-speaking centre to produce goods and services for the European market will be re-thinking their investment strategies. If the United Kingdom may leave the EU by 2017, is this really the right place to put their money? It will probably be a long dry season for the British economy.

How did an allegedly grown-up country talk itself into this position? It’s an attitude that was summed up in an apocryphal English newspaper headline of the 1930s: “Fog in (the English) Channel; Continent Cut Off.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 13. (“The Scottish…different”; and “There is…jump”)

 

 

Guns and Culture in America

16 December 2012

Guns and Culture in America

By Gwynne Dyer

Here’s an interesting statistic: the second-highest rate of gun ownership in the world is in Yemen, a largely tribal, extremely poor country. The highest is in the United States, where there are almost as many guns as people: around 300 million guns for 311 million people.

But here’s another interesting statistic: in the past 25 years, the proportion of Americans who own guns has fallen from about one in three to only one in five. However, the United States, unlike Yemen, is a rich country, and the average American gun-owner has four or five firearms. Moreover, he or she is utterly determined to keep them no matter what happens.

What has just happened in Sandy Hook, Connecticut is the seventh massacre this year in which four or more people were killed by a lone gunman. The fact that this time twenty of the victims were little girls and boys six or seven years old has caused a wave of revulsion in the United States, but it is not likely to lead to new laws on gun controls. It’s not even clear that new laws would help.

Half the firearms in the entire world are in the United States. The rate of murders by gunfire in the United States is almost twenty times higher than the average rate in 22 other populous, high-income countries where the frequency of other crimes is about the same. There is clearly a connection between these two facts, but it is not necessarily simple cause-and-effect.

Here’s one reason to suspect that it’s not that simple: the American rate for murders of all kinds – shooting, strangling, stabbing, poisoning, pushing people under buses, etc. – is seven times higher than it is in those other 22 rich countries. It can’t just be guns.

And here’s another clue: the rate of firearms homicides in Canada, another mainly English-speaking country in North America with a similar political heritage, is about half the American rate – and in England itself it is only one-thirtieth as much. What else is in play here?

Steven Pinker, whose book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is about the long-term decline in violence of every kind in the world, is well aware that murder rates have not fallen in the United States in the past century. (Most people don’t believe that violence is in decline anywhere, let alone almost everywhere. That’s why he wrote the book.) And Pinker suggests an explanation for the American exception.

In medieval Europe, where everybody from warlords to peasants was on his own when it came to defending his property, his rights and his “honour”, the murder rates were astronomically high: 110 people per 100,000 in 14th-century Oxford, for example. It was at least as high in colonial New England in the early 17th century.

By the mid-20th century, the murder rate in England had fallen more than a hundredfold: in London, it was less than one person per 100,000 per year. In most Western European countries it was about the same. Whereas the US murder rate is still up around seven people per 100,000 per year. Why?

Pinker quotes historian Pieter Spierenburg’s provocative suggestion that “democracy came too early” to America. In European countries, the population was gradually disarmed by the centralised state as it put an end to feudal anarchy. Only much later, after people had already learned to trust the law to defend their property and protect them from violence, did democracy come to these countries.

This is also what has happened in most other parts of the world, although in many cases it was the colonial power that disarmed the people and instituted the rule of law. But in the United States, where the democratic revolution came over two centuries ago, the people took over the state before they had been disarmed – and kept their weapons. They also kept their old attitudes.

Indeed, large parts of the United States, particularly in the southeast and southwest, still have an “honour” culture in which it is accepted that a private individual may choose to defend his rights and his interests by violence rather than seeking justice through the law. The homicide rate in New England is less than three people per 100,000 per year; in Louisiana it is more than fourteen.

None of this explains the specific phenomenon of gun massacres by deranged individuals, who are presumably present at the same rate in every country. It’s just that in the United States, it’s easier for individuals like that to get access to rapid-fire weapons. And, of course, the intense media coverage of every massacre gives many other crazies an incentive to do the same, only more of it.

But only one in three hundred murders in the United States happens in that kind of massacre. Most are simply due to quarrels between individuals, often members of the same family. Private acts of violence to obtain “justice”, with or without guns, are deeply entrenched in American culture, and the murder rate would stay extraordinarily high even if there were no guns.

Since there are guns everywhere, of course, the murder rate is even higher. But since the popular attitudes to violence have not changed, that is not going to change either.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“And here’s…here”; and “Indeed…fourteen”)