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I.M.O.W. Team

Headed For Collapse

Food Insecurity and the Economic Crisis


Frances C. Moore, Earth Policy Institute

A chart showing Food Price Unrest around the World, November 2007 to April 2008.

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Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, says we are both the perpetrators and victims of a global "Ponzi" scheme. We invest less and less in our global economy and caring for the planet, yet we expect to receive the same returns (or more) year after year. The recent food and financial crises are warning signs that unless we change--and change now--we are headed towards environmental and economic collapse. Brown explains why in this excerpt from his new book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

From time to time, I go back and read about earlier civilizations that declined and collapsed, trying to understand the reasons for their demise. More often than not, shrinking food supplies were responsible. For the Sumerians, rising salt levels in the soil--the result of a flaw in their irrigation system--brought down wheat and barley yields and eventually the civilization itself.

For the Mayans, soil erosion, exacerbated by a series of intense droughts, apparently undermined their food supply and their civilization. For other early civilizations that collapsed, it was often soil erosion and the resulting shrinkage in harvests that led to their decline.

Does our civilization face a similar fate? Until recently it did not seem possible. I resisted the idea that food shortages could also bring down our early twenty-first century global civilization. But our continuing failure to reverse the environmental trends that are undermining the world food economy forces me to conclude that if we continue with business as usual such a collapse is not only possible but likely.

The historic grain price climb in the last few years underlines the gravity of the situation. From mid-2006 to mid-2008, world prices of wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans roughly tripled, reaching historic highs. It was not until the global economic crisis beginning in 2008 that grain prices receded somewhat. But even then, they were still well above the historical level...

Our Global Ponzi Economy

Our mismanaged world economy today has many of the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme takes payments from a broad base of investors and uses these to pay off returns. It creates the illusion that it is providing a highly attractive rate of return on investment as a result of savvy investment decisions when in fact these irresistibly high earnings are in part the result of consuming the asset base itself. A Ponzi scheme investment fund can last only as long as the flow of new investments is sufficient to sustain the high rates of return paid out to previous investors. When this is no longer possible, the scheme collapses, just as Bernard Madoff's $65-billion investment fund did in December, 2008.

Although the functioning of the global economy and a Ponzi investment scheme are not entirely analogous, there are some disturbing parallels. As recently as 1950 or so, the world economy was living more or less within its means, consuming only the sustainable yield, the interest of the natural systems that support it. But then as the economy doubled, and doubled again, and yet again, multiplying eightfold, it began to outrun sustainable yields and to consume the asset base itself. In a 2002 study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel concluded that humanity's collective demands first surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity around 1980. As of 2009, global demands on natural systems exceed their sustainable yield capacity by nearly 30 percent. This means we are meeting current demands in part by consuming the earth's natural assets, setting the stage for an eventual Ponzi-type collapse when these assets are depleted.

As of mid-2009, nearly all the world's major aquifers were being overpumped--in other words, drained much faster than they can be refilled by nature. We are using more irrigation water than before the overpumping began, in true Ponzi fashion. We get the feeling that we're doing very well in agriculture-but the reality is that an estimated 400 million people are today being fed by overpumping, a process that is by definition short-term. With aquifers being depleted, this water-based food bubble is about to burst.

A similar situation exists with the melting of mountain glaciers. When glaciers first start to melt, flows in the rivers and the irrigation canals they feed are larger than before the melting started. But after a point, as smaller glaciers disappear and larger ones shrink, the amount of ice melt declines and the river flow diminishes. Thus we have two water-based Ponzi schemes running in parallel in agriculture.

And there are more such schemes. As human and livestock populations grow more or less apace, the rising demand for forage eventually exceeds the sustainable yield of grasslands. As a result, the grass deteriorates, leaving the land bare, allowing it to turn to desert. At some point, the herds of ultimately emaciated cattle also collapse. In this Ponzi scheme, herders are forced to rely on food aid or they migrate to cities.
Three fourths of oceanic fisheries are now being fished at or beyond capacity or are recovering from overexploitation. If we continue with business as usual, many of these fisheries will collapse. Overfishing, simply defined, means we are taking fish from the oceans faster than they can reproduce. The cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada is a prime example of what can happen. Long one of the world's most productive fisheries, it collapsed in the early 1990s and may never recover.

Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest, puts it well: "At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation."

The larger question is, if we continue with business as usual with overpumping, overgrazing, overplowing, overfishing, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, how long will it be before the Ponzi economy unravels and collapses? No one knows. Our industrial civilization has not been here before.

Plan B: A Plan to Save Civilization

Plan B is the alternative to business as usual. Its goal is to move the world from the current decline and collapse path onto a new one where food security can be restored and civilization can be sustained. Just as the trends behind the current deterioration in the food situation go far beyond agriculture itself, so too must the response. In times past it was the Ministry of Agriculture that held the key to expanding agricultural research, expanding credit to farmers, and all the other obvious things that fall within its province, but securing future food supplies now depends on the mobilization of our entire society.

The challenge is not only to build a new economy but to do it at great speed, before we miss so many of nature's deadlines that the economic system also begins to unravel. Participating in the construction of this enduring new economy is exhilarating. So is the quality of life it will bring. A world where population has stabilized, forests are expanding, and carbon emissions are falling is within our grasp.

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