Ever wondered why, despite all the conferences, treaties, international agreements and other excuses to travel around the world to expensive hotels, nothing seems to get done.
Targets are set and not met, only to be reset again.
And the process of resetting requires another swag of conferences to thrash out the new agreement.
Once the convention wording is agreed upon, often, we are told, in the early hours of the morning by emotional delegates who have put their hearts, souls and grandmas pension into the negotiation, the countries sign up.
Here are the signup rates for a baker’s dozen conventions and international agreements since 1971.
There are 195 countries in the world today. This total comprises 193 countries that are member states of the United Nations and 2 countries that are non-member observer states: the Holy See and the State of Palestine.
Most countries sign up on the day—one-time offer deals that make you look bad for any hesitation. These are the steep curves on the graph like the UNFCCC, UNCCD and the CBD. Everyone in the room will notice if you skip past the table with the dude offering the fountain pen.
Some agreements are hard to make, especially if you are morally or politically compromised by what they expect. These are ok to dodge for a while or not sign up to at all—for example, the Ramsar convention on wetland or the conservation of migratory species.
Heads of delegation smile, offer platitudes, thanks, and support for the premise of the agreement, “but we don’t have any wetlands or birds in our country”.
A quarter of countries avoid signing half the agreements, presumably not the same countries each time. Although some likely suspects do emerge as repeat non-signatories. In other words, it is acceptable to ignore a convention if needs must.
Signing up on the day and not signing up seems the opposite. But if the conventions do not achieve any results—settled science tells us that biodiversity loss is accelerating and greenhouse gas levels are increasing steadily—then both options come from the same place.
Both responses gain kudos, the national equivalent of an ego stroke.
Because if everyone signs these things but nothing happens, we healthy sceptics are left to conclude that the elusive ‘goodwill’ of putting disparate nations in a room together every few months for some wine and cheese is the extent of the outcomes.
Let’s hope this, plus a few trade deals on the side is enough.
The UK will soon see the back of their lying toerag of a prime minister who effortlessly broke the ‘economical with the truth’ adage attributed to Edmund Burke, who wrote in 1795
Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an œconomy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.
Johnson is just a liar.
The odd thing is that everyone knew his pathology because it followed him throughout his public life. He didn’t try to hide it. Indeed his was more Trumpesque doubling down tactics whenever questioned.
And for way too long, it worked.
A few more torrid weeks from now and the only prime minister known to have broken the law whilst in office might be gone; for a while. Recall that there have been many political comebacks, and there is always the truth about bad smells.
What I find curious, having already talked about the lessons for democracy and the vacuum of leadership in general among modern-day politicians, is how such an unsavoury character like Boris Johnson happened—not the excruciating going but the coming.
I know there are commentators with an excellent grasp of political economy and public sentiment that will describe the proximate causes, most likely to do with an electorate who were up their epiglottis in the Brexit stalemate and just wanted it done. But what was it ultimately? Did the UK people pay such little attention that they went to the voting day booth and forgot the top job candidate was only in it for himself?
Australians managed to come to their senses. We realised, perhaps just in time, that the muppets were not there for our best interests, and enough of us voted for the alternative, especially the predominantly women independents. It has only been a short time, but the new government is getting on with it, especially the repairs to our international reputation.
Back in Blighty, commentary has already switched to who the UK will get next. A series of whittling down votes by the MPs followed by a vote on the last two standing by conservative party members, roughly 200,000 people or 0.29% of the electorate, will determine who will receive the hospital pass from Boris who is still holding the ball and knocking over schoolkids.
The candidate list is long, and all of them are tainted by association.
Each one should start their campaigns by telling the truth. The last thing anyone wants is more of the same.
I was born in south London, Croydon to be precise, and lived in the UK until I was 26 years old. Today I am an Australian citizen, and in a few months, I will have lived in Sydney for 26 years.
A lot has happened since I left to seek fame and fortune in far-flung lands, or was it to escape from the religion of my upbringing. You will need to read Paul Sorol to find the answers to that intergenerational conundrum.
I lament what has become of my homeland as I watch its descent into parody from afar, and I worry for the future of its people.
The latest escapades in the Boris saga make my previous sarcasm over political buffoonery sound tame. He is a disgrace but not half as his sycophants. Failure to endorse a no-confidence vote in an incoherent, toerag who lies to everyone is extreme cowardice. The shame will eat their souls in the end.
It is hard to imagine anything worse than fooling people into Brexit and partying during a lockdown to break the law of the land you just imposed, but it is coming—a food crisis.
Briefly, the UK does not grow enough food to feed everyone. There is a roughly 50% shortfall. The arrogant assumption of the muppets is that food can be purchased and imported as needed. Wake up. In the coming food shortage, families get fed first, not foreigners in a country with the worst economic outlook in the OECD. Why do you think China is shoring up its supplies?
I highly recommend reading the excellent book Feeding Britain by Tim Lang for a thorough explanation of the dire situation the UK is in, together with a logical and achievable list of solutions. Boris and his cronies have no excuse. Wise advisors have already told them the extent of the problem and how to fix it.
Food security has become my “outfit of the day” as I gather together my career in ecology into some pre-mortem eulogy.
In thinking about how much food is grown, what society does to share that production around (or not), and the precarious prospects for global supply chains, I imagined that our cultural maturity would hold us in good stead. Well-educated, intelligent, technologically gifted people in democratic societies would be able to anticipate the challenges and figure out solutions, even if it took a global crisis to trigger deployment.
Then I came across this quote from Canadian historian and author Ronald Wright
When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.”
Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004, pp 50-51)
I had no idea.
My schoolboy knowledge of the Aztecs did not cover such sophistication. I was blinkered by education in a country famous for its colonialism. The truth of expansionism is brutal; just ask the Ukranians.
What shocked me the most was the gaping hole it shot in my assumption about mature, gifted people being able to solve problems. Tragically the Aztecs couldn’t deal with the disruption heralded by Hernando Cortez in 1519, even with their high civilisation.
Maybe our modern version of civilisation will not be enough either because there is no invisible guiding hand on the tiller.
But it is ok; a few dipshit politicians still have a job.
Check out sustainably FED for over 120 posts with comments and suggestions to get everyone through the food, ecology and diet challenge.
I used to walk to high school. It took half an hour at teenager pace and required a courageous traverse across a playing field populated by thugs from a nearby comprehensive.
Just a little background for those unfamiliar with the class system that forms the skeleton of British culture. Rich kids go to the posh grammar schools and end up at university while the working classes send their kids to the state comprehensive schools. Not out of choice but necessity. Natural tribalism is readily expressed in the youth as a consequence of this unfair inequality.
My parents leveraged their status as local pastors to get me into the posh school meaning I had to run the gauntlet of the disaffected looking for an easy mark.
My recollection of these encounters was me using my smarts and gift of the gab as a defence against the bullying tactics. My chat, for the most part, worked. Apparently being able to speak their language knocks the bully off guard. Sure any loose change I might have carried was often part of the exchange but my attempt to identify with my would-be oppressors certainly had an effect.
Looking back I am grateful to those anonymous hoodlums. It was the start of my learning to fit into almost any crowd and so avoid the worst of being seen as different. This made life easier whilst I built self-confidence and learned to find my voice.
In a series of excellent articles, Robert Reich reflects on the global bullying phenomenon. He calls out Putin, Trump, right-wing nationalists, bigoted TV pundits, politicians, misogynists, and billionaires who use their money to manipulate. He connects these individuals and tropes as abusers of power and concludes that abuse encourages other abuses so standing up against all forms of bullying and brutality – is essential to preserving a civil society.
He is right.
There was no freedom of movement across that playing field on my way home from school, no matter the life lessons I learned. I like to think that I stood up to them in my own way, hoodwinking them out of giving me a beating. It was a puny attempt that would not have stopped them from picking on the next hapless kid from my school.
But in the bigger far more critical situation of the modern global bully, every little will help.
Today as an Australian citizen who cast his vote with fingers crossed that it would be enough to keep the local labour party member in parliament and that nationally the Liberal-National coalition bullies would get a hiding, I am feeling like I just talked my way out of an uncomfortable encounter.
The electorate came to its senses.
It rejected the conservative coalition who, for a decade, was deaf, dumb, and blind to climate, women, and the disadvantaged whilst waving coal at us, holidaying during a firestorm, and dodging responsibility as all bullies do.
We now have a Labour government but not because we like them—they lost votes too—because they have spent the decade complicit with the hoodlums. They are in power because smart people, especially women, voted for independents. The people stuck it to the bullies and the two major parties have fewer lower house seats than ever before.
The commentary tells us this is seismic and creates the opportunity for a reset on just about everything.
After a decade of boofhead behaviour, we had had enough—the liberal bully oxymoron is no more.
The loss and the horror are a stain on history that is painful to recall but stare past the nightmares of the war and remarkable things happened during the years of conflict. Here are a few of them.
The US government increased spending by an order of magnitude between 1940 and 1945 and spent more money (in current dollar terms) between 1942 and 1945 than it had in the 152 years prior to 1941.
The US was in the war for three years and during that time manufactured 87,000 naval vessels, including 27 aircraft carriers, 300,000 planes, 100,000 tanks and armoured cars and 44 billion rounds of ammunition.
Whole towns and cities were turned into munitions factories all while many of the young men were serving in Europe and the Pacific. Women took on blue-collar jobs so there were workers to run the machines.
At the same time, the manufacture of cars was banned as was the construction of new homes. There was rationing of food, tyres and gasoline because it was considered fairer than taxing scarce goods. And to save fuel a national speed limit of 35mph was imposed.
Remember this is the US where libertarians rule and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was about to unleash the Second Red Scare, lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s. McCarthyism was characterized by heightened political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals, and a campaign spreading fear of alleged communist and socialist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents.
Even in a society leery of socialism, the war produced an extraordinary collective effort in the US and an acceptance of government regulation. It was a similar story in the UK and even in the occupied countries, people resisted for the greater good.
If such collective will against the axis powers could bring such change and effort why not now when we need it again?
Here is what George Monbiot suggests
Public hostility and indifference create a lack of political will.
Indeed, don’t look up.
I agree but would add another break on drastic responses — the ineptitude of our politicians.
Most of those in the big dog posts are there because they have a single skill, political surfing. They ride the political waves into positions of authority. Very few get there on intellectual merit, leadership skills or foresight.
It is not always their fault.
Our collective failure to recall history and use it to see the future means we have no sense of urgency. Indifference means we don’t ask for leaders with flair, vision or skills. We accept muppets.
But the decisions needed now are as era-defining as those made by the US in the 1940s that won a war and set the country on a steeper industrial path.
We need that decisive force not just to deal with imperialist aggression but to feed everyone well.
When I went to university in 1979, there was plenty of noise. British students were boisterous.
We shouted and boycotted Barclays because it was the biggest high street bank in South Africa. We listened when the Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned against Barclays because it helped finance the Cabora Bassa dam project in Mozambique.
Then, after James Callaghan’s minority Labour government lost a no-confidence motion by one vote forcing a general election that elected Margaret Thatcher, we had some local politics to get us lefties agitated. We crowed when the new conservative government introduced means-tested student loans. A few of my buddies estranged from wealthy families suddenly had to fund their education.
I remember that the first black-led government of Rhodesia in 90 years came to power after the power-sharing deal of Ian Smith in the soon to be independent Zimbabwe. I didn’t know that I would live in that beautiful country a few years later.
The handsome young fellow at the start of his academic career, Zimbabwe, 1987
1979 saw the One-child policy introduced in China with significant political and population consequences.
Meanwhile, in the United States, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.
By 1979, protests to end the Vietnam war were over. But their residue left a slightly cantankerous youth still able to muster an occupation of the university administration building. I can’t remember why.
What I do remember was that protest was inherently political.
It meant something to throw challenges and abuse at the politicians because these were the people who made decisions. Whether that was Margaret or PW Botha, the last prime minister of South Africa before the State President was given executive powers under the new post-apartheid constitution, politicians were the target.
What I didn’t feel was any danger.
My generation railed for others because we had it lucky. The world was our oyster, and we were enjoying a fabulous education heavily subsidised by the state.
Not so much now.
It is much harder everywhere, with more obscure prospects and a clear risk of system collapse. Even the fundamentals of the social contract are crumbling.
Activism skipped a few generations before it landed in schools.
Today, the teenagers have taken up the chants and populated the demonstrations because they are worried. And I don’t blame them.
They point to the risk of environmental collapse and ask for urgent action.
Only the groundswell of justice that pushed my generation onto the moral high ground is, at best, a trickle of support. The political elite has insulated themselves from the noise in the fantasy land of their parliaments and used the media to make blunders like Brexit into great victories.
They are all deaf, dumb, blind and crap at pinball.
Even when the best of the schoolkid activists addresses them, all they can say is “go back to school”.
“Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”
Greta Thunberg, Houses of Parliament, UK, April 2019.
Guardian columnist and writer Zoe Williams sums it up.
And then, in the matter-of-fact simplicity of youth.
We are sick of conference upon conference as if that alone is the solution.
Ella Simons, 15-year-old high school student from Melbourne, Member of the School Strike for Climate movement.
Each generation lives with noise.
In hindsight, my late baby boomer peers had few moral dilemmas to chant about; the reality was far away in another land. We were unhappy with one in ten and danced with Rankin Roger as he implored Margaret to stand down, but these issues were never existential.
Today’s generation has its very future in the frame.
A recent opinion poll in the US had 70% of respondents agreeing that global warming was happening.
After a decade or more of IPCC reports and any number of respected scientists pointing to the evidence, not to mention the school kids gathering in the streets, the message appears to have landed with a significant majority.
Climate-related disasters worldwide that grabbed headlines helped, as did the heavy-duty local weather events that everyone has experienced in the last few years.
Of course, that 70% changes on party lines. Almost all Democrats, some 89%, accept the science of a climate emergency, whilst 42% of Republicans agreed that global warming is a reality and a third deny it altogether.
When it came to what causes climate change, two-thirds of Democrats went with a human cause. One in five Republicans agree humans are responsible, many citing disagreement among scientists as the reason for doubt. No matter that a separate survey of scientists had near-unanimous agreement (99.9%) that the climate emergency results from human actions.
All this is pretty predictable and has been in the wind for a while.
Report after report has carried the evidence.
In 2021, the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) State of the Global Climate 2020 reported carbon dioxide levels at 413.2 parts per million in 2020, rising more than the average rate over the last decade despite a temporary dip in emissions during COVID-19 lockdowns.
After the long and hostile climate denial wars that still linger in some parts of the world, notably in the Australian government, most people are convinced that something is happening. However, Greta would be quick to say that we are not concerned enough about the crisis.
Back to the original opinion survey in the US where there is a statistic that explains the delay and the lack of urgency.
More than 60% of respondents said oil and gas companies were “completely or mostly responsible” for global warming.
Ah, yes, the ‘them, not us’ response.
The majority now believe in the science that says climate change is real but another majority reckon it is the fault of the fossil fuel industry.
It is worth a pause here.
Let that response sink in.
Close to two out of three people blame the oil companies for global warming.
Only those companies, who admittedly are out to maximise shareholder value, the same objective of just about every other for-profit organisation on the planet, are extracting and selling a resource. They can do this because they have buyers.
Now those buyers are other companies that convert oil to energy or put the refined oil into their aircraft and commercial vehicles or refine the oil into a host of products that end up on the shelves of retail outlets.
We buy the products and a ticket to put our butt in seat F3 of the Airbus A380.
I think this ‘them, not us’ dissonance is more critical than taking a decade to get the science.
It explains why the youngsters are so frustrated at the ‘blah, blah, blah’. They know that rhetoric panders to this avoidance of responsibility.
Luckily, it is all fine because we have Boris, Scotty, and Donald. Oh my lordy.
In the early 1990s, I lived in southern Africa. Specifically, the newly prosperous country of Botswana. What an experience.
I should say a privilege because that is what it felt like to spend seven years in such a magnificent country. Read any of the 22 Alexander McCall-Smith novels about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and you will get the idea of what it was like—slow, relaxed and, well, African.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective, Mma Ramotswe, didn’t mention as she tootled along the dirt roads in her tiny Nissan, that road travel in Botswana was risky. Even today, Botswana is well above the global average for road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants.
Back in the 1990s, this was not surprising.
Locals were driving for the first time. Most were first-generation vehicle owners at the wheel of brand new Toyota 4.2L landcruiser wagons, many with a fondness for sorghum beer and the art of binge drinking. Then there were the donkeys, cows, and goats spread randomly on the highways plus the perils of keeping traction along the corrugations of the dirt roads. You have to drive faster than seems reasonable or the beer shakes itself.
I was cautious in the car, but those donkeys refused to step aside for anyone so I decided that my second-hand hi-lux needed insurance against the chance of damage. My colleague at the University was from Belgium, and he had a very different take on the risk to his vehicles. He saved thousands on insurance premiums not paid, but neither of us had an accident or nefariousness over vehicles in 10 years.
So much for risk management. It is just luck, good or bad, and there is nothing to do. Only a fool pays the premiums.
Skip forward to 2015 and 8,000 km northward to continental Europe.
In Paris, 196 Parties entered into a legally international treaty on climate change designed to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”. This temperature goal is about a climate neutral world by mid-century and is like the insurance policy I took out to travel African roads. It makes perfect sense.
Science has established that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the climate. Anything above 2 degrees Celcius will put the entire global food system at risk from drought, flood and more intense weather events.
196 parties represent most of the jurisdictions and most of the people in the world. Many of those people are concerned the agreement is not enough and that more action is needed. They have missed school to protest.
This lengthy preamble introduces a decision by the Australian government in a budget statement a few weeks out from a general election in 2022 to cut climate spending if returned to power at the election.
The 2022-23 budget papers show funding will fall from $2bn next financial year to $1.9bn, $1.5bn and $1.3bn in three years. The fall represents a 35% annual cut over four years.
There are many rants about the Australian government and its politicians not reading the room or being out of touch or going to Hawaii when monster bushfires are impacting your constituents. Still, this one is so whacky that it cannot be a bungle. They must have done it on purpose.
So why did they?
I have been listening to an excellent podcast by Nate Hagens called The Great Simplification and unreservedly recommend it. In conversations with several of his academic colleagues and senior political leaders, Hagens asks about why humanity has been incredibly successful and at the point of simplification—a euphemism for collapse.
The bottom line is that humans have leveraged the energy in fossil fuels for a free ride to prosperity and vast numbers.
The planet now has close to 8 billion people who use energy, equivalent to another 500 billion people if humans were doing all the work done by oil, coal and gas. In other words, our bodies and our societies are the product of fossil fuel use. And this is before we get to the use of oil for making stuff.
We are good at resources, technology, and making the most of opportunities. We have forgotten the flip side of opportunity because modern economies have little choice but to run with the fossil fuel story. We are stuck in the paradigm of ubiquitous, cheap energy, polluting the planet and changing the climate.
Our risk is growing as fast as our debt.
Only none of this can be real. It fails to fit the neoliberal paradigm, which has wormed its way into most heads, that growth is the only way. It gave us wealth and can keep on giving so long as we stick with it.
The Great Simplification explains why this is nonsense. Limitless growth is impossible on a finite planet, no matter how clever the technology or lucky it was to have an old energy battery under the ground.
Alright, so why did the Australian government decide to cut climate spending? The simplistic answer is that they cannot give up their religious adherence to growth. Only the reality is the lack of a credible alternative paradigm to maintain wealth creation at the rate generated from the gift of fossil energy. Renewables will be cleaner, but they are far less efficient than oil because they cost money to make, maintain and replace. Plus, energy replacement is only part of the story. Where are the alternative materials for all the stuff we make from oil?
Adherence has another benefit.
The neoliberal paradigm blinds us all to the risk, so we decide, like my friend in Botswana, not to pay the premium and take our chances with the donkeys.
Casual observation over time suggests they are characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements. One minute they are persuading us of the necessity of fiscal frugality, that money doesn’t grow on trees, and a balanced budget is the desire of all sensible governments.
The next minute they spend up big to bail out ailing economies that would fail without a subsidy borrowed against the future.
They have been having these ‘breakdowns in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion’ for quite a while.
Over two centuries ago, the Panic of 1792 was the first time the U.S. federal government intervened to prop up the markets. During that crisis, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton authorized purchases to prevent the collapse of the securities market.
The Great Depression between 1929 and 1941 began with the stock market crash of 1929 and included banking panics in 1930 and 1931, included a government program to buy and refinance defaulted mortgages that kept a million families in their homes.
The Savings & Loan crisis between 1986 and 1995, when nearly a third of the 3,234 savings and loan associations in the United States failed, cost the government $160 billion (in 1990 dollars) to clean up.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government authorized more than $2 trillion in assistance including direct cash payments to citizens in April and December 2020, and again in March 2021.
In between these moments of apparent madness, the modern neoliberal mantra is fiscal conservatism — small government, small spending, deregulation and an unencumbered faith that the market will save everyone.
What this history tells us is that what gets done in a crisis is very different to business-as-usual and could even be the exact opposite of it. Interventions that save people from tragedy are necessary and moral.
And for the most part, the madness works. Excessive bonuses to executives notwithstanding, bailouts do seem to save economies and reduce impacts on communities.
At least for a time.
Most environmentalists will tell you that the environment is in trouble and has been ever since the industrial revolution changed the way humans interact with nature.
So this question from one of those advocates, George Monbiot, is a conundrum.
Why do nations rescue banks and other financial institutions but not the planet?
Why not save the planet?
Well, perhaps the answer to the central question stems from the biblical notions of dominion.
Why save something that humanity was designed to exploit?
Maybe it is because nature has been through troubles before and shown remarkable resilience. Over geological time climate changes, massive atmospheric disruption and even meteorite strikes have come and gone with nature none the worse. Admittedly she takes time to recover from shocks but is still remarkably resilient.
It is worth remembering that there was more biological diversity on the planet a hundred years ago than at any other time in the history of life on earth—biodiversity is a consequence of time, disturbance and a replicator molecule.
No need to spend money on a rescue because nature will recover herself.
Perhaps it is ignorance of the crisis itself. People with spending power have no vision of the environmental crisis. They are, after all, more likely to be focused on the banks when they look up from their single bottom line. Plus nature is the perennial provider of goods and services that humans have a right and moral responsibility to exploit.
No vision of the problem so there is no problem.
It could be that money can’t buy nature’s happiness because no matter what is spent, nature would not notice. Why spend vast sums on the environment when she has no ability to respond to the spending. Anyway, there is nothing to see if the food keeps growing and the people keep spending.
No use throwing good money on something that can’t be fixed.
It could be that money could buy nature her happiness but she is a fickle thing and it is not clear what to spend the money on. In the financial crises the ailments were obvious and the salve equally so. Other than emission reduction that may or may not reverse climate changes, spending on the environment to save nature is a mystery with no obvious return on investment.
No point in spending on random actions.
Cognitive dissonance is a possibility. This intriguing explanation from psychology says that when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. Rather than accept an inconsistency we look for ways to resolve the conflict to reduce our emotional discomfort. The easy option, call it fake news and decide that the garden remains full of roses.
No environmental problem can exist if it makes me feel bad.
And finally, in this incomplete list, it could also be that the planet is not in need of rescue. Nature isn’t sentient and couldn’t care less what happens. The planet is a small blue ball in a vast universe that happens to have organic life that persists in spite of drastic perturbations. No matter what life does, the rock will continue to fly across space until the sun grows to consume it. Such an opinion is heresy but it does fit the evidence.
There is no Gaia to save.
So there we have it. A preliminary list of reasons why humans save banks and not the planet. No doubt I have missed many others and will be reminded of them in the comments.
We do know this…
Whatever humans do over the next hundred years or so, 100,000 years from now the planet will still be here.
In my comfortable home with a fridge full of food, potable water in the tap, and all the modern conveniences of a western lifestyle, I am one of the most fortunate people lucky enough to have existed.
Life is not all roses and freshly ground coffee. Two years ago, a massive 300,000 ha wildfire threatened our suburb after the previous one destroyed our backyard. Along with everyone else, we struggled through COVID lockdowns, survived shortages of toilet rolls, and went along to get vaccinated. Just as the lockdown rules were relaxed, we sloshed our way through the wettest summer I can remember as our region was declared a disaster area in the floods of early March and April 2022. But the record-breaking weather didn’t lead the newsfeed because there was a horrible unnecessary war in Europe.
So when I pinch myself, I am numb, not quite sure how to be grateful for my good luck.
There is a knot in my stomach. I realise that the current events are just harbingers—signals of what is to come. And although in my comfort, I have no right to be fearful, I am.
Here is why. I have a niggling question.
How are we going to feed everyone well?
Nothing like a pile of healthy greens—source Alloporus
Food prices will rise
Bread is a staple in the diet of billions of people worldwide. In 2021 global wheat production was around 766 million tons. Three countries make up 30% of the world’s production: Ukraine 26 million, Russian Federation 73 million, and China 132 million. Russia and Ukraine export about a quarter of the world’s wheat and half of its sunflower products.
Even if we assume that Ukrainian farmers will continue to grow crops when the conflict subsides, there will be a disruption to supply in 2022 and beyond.
Some countries are heavily exposed to this disruption.
Egypt imports the most grain, including around 5.60% of the world’s wheat imports. Flatbread is a staple food in Egypt, where the government has subsidised bread for decades but plans to raise the price. Egypt imported 6.1 million tonnes of wheat in 2021, with Russia supplying 4.2 million tonnes worth $1.2 billion. What happens if the Egyptians need to source wheat from elsewhere?
“I cannot provide 20 loaves of bread at the cost of one cigarette.”
Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egyptian President
In Tunisia, where the state controls the price of bread, half the country’s wheat imports come from Ukraine, and since the war started, wheat prices have risen to a 14-year high.
Lebanon imports more than half of its wheat from Ukraine and reportedly has only weeks worth of supply.
“Over time, depending on the length and the severity of this war, you could begin to see shortages of shipments that come to the African continent, and that could cause shortages. Particularly in the North African countries, and to an extent in East Africa.”
Wandile Sihlobo, Chief economist, Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa
I could go on, but when staple foods are not on the shelves or price rises put them out of reach, the social consequences reach further than toilet tissue.
In the acute phase of the conflict, people will treat these challenges like disasters. They will rally, help each other, and strike new trade deals.
But the combination of war, COVID disruption, and population growth are not like a natural disaster that comes and goes away, leaving some clean air to rebuild and recover.
Given we have bread on our minds, annual wheat production in the EU has been around 120 million tons for a decade. This is a little more than Russia and Ukraine combined.
Almost all of this production comes from intensive input-driven agriculture. Failure to add fertiliser and yield declines rapidly because the soils are already depleted from centuries of production.
Bread is humans eating fertiliser (or drinking oil).
And for the EU, a quarter of this fertiliser comes from Russia.
Russia produces 50 million tons of fertilisers every year, 13% of the world’s total, and is a significant exporter of potash, phosphate, and nitrogen-containing fertilisers. Economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy, but restricting fertiliser exports would be an equivalent retaliation to impact the west.
But fertiliser supply is not all that Russia controls.
Ammonia is a critical ingredient in nitrogen fertilisers. It is made from natural gas. Yara International, one of the largest fertiliser producers in Europe, cut 40% of its production capacity in Europe in 2021 before the conflict because of a spike in the price of wholesale gas.
Self-sufficiency is not just about farmers. It is about the tools of their trade and the inputs they need to get the job done.
“Half the world’s population gets food as a result of fertilisers… and if that’s removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%… For me, it’s not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it’s how large the crisis will be.“
Svein Tore Holsether, CEO, Yara International
Homemade pavlova that was simply delicious—Alloporus
Global food supply.
A lot has happened to the world since WW2. Most of it was peaceful, at least for the average citizen in Europe or the US.
Once the Cold War ended, globalisation took over. Products, components, energy, and expertise come from anywhere and go anywhere, especially food.
Currently, enough food is grown to feed everyone. Goods made or produced are shipped everywhere through a global supply system to arrive just in time. Many western countries rely heavily on this trade. They find it cheaper to buy the food than grow it themselves. Governments can point to the efficiency of the global food system to justify the easy option.
However, food production systems lack resilience.
A small example. There are 74,542 farms and 1,000 agricultural and food companies in Minnesota, but there are shortages everywhere because the supply chain is down over 5,000 commercial drivers. Brexit and then COVID created a similar problem for British consumers who get 80% of their food from France, Germany, the Netherlands and over 150 other countries.
Problems with distribution, access and waste leave one in ten of the global population hungry. Historically, most of these people lived in poorer countries, but the US and UK examples show the jurisdictional us and them breaking down.
Hungry people exist everywhere.
Intensive agriculture that only produces cheap food with an energy subsidy and just in time trade is precarious.
Scarcity is a failed crop away.
Feeding the poor well
“War leads to greater food insecurity, and food insecurity increases the chance of unrest and violence. So a conflict in Ukraine leading to hunger and pushing people into food insecurity elsewhere could have [the] potential for unrest and violence in other areas. And really, the world cannot afford another conflict.”
Abeer Etefa, World Food Programme spokesperson based in Cairo
Back in my comfortable home with a fridge full of food and my status as one of the fortunate people feels secure.
Putting food in the fridge costs me roughly 10% of the household income. Should the food prices rise globally, I will feel inconvenienced. In only eight countries in the world do residents spend less than 10% of their household income on food: US, Singapore, UK, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Australia and Austria.
The average Kenyan spends $543 a year on food, a fifth of the money spent by an average American. But that $543 is equivalent to 47% of disposable income. Double food prices, and the average Kenyan has no money left for anything else.
This high proportional spending on food is not just about poorer countries.
Over the past 25 years, USDA estimates suggest that the poorest 20% of households in the US spent between 30% and 43% of their income on food. This explains in part why there are 40 million Americans on food stamps.
Any inequity in access to resources is made more acute by a crisis. When prices rise, it is usually because of high demand, supply constrictions, or both. In all the higher price scenarios, the poor have less flexibility and suffer the consequences before anyone else.
Oxfam estimated that as of September 2021, 18 months into the pandemic, the economic decline, mass unemployment and severely disrupted food production led to a 40% surge in global food prices—the highest rise in over a decade—and more than 40 million people experiencing extreme levels of hunger, a 70% increase over the previous year.
We can predict that famines will be publicised and the acute phases will be supported with global aid. There might even be another LiveAid concert or two.
What will be harder to do is to support the poor diffused through otherwise prosperous-looking societies. These impoverished people will need policy changes to reduce their immediate food insecurity and create opportunities to earn more as food prices rise.
Thanks for reading this far into such a torrid story. It is scary to think about these issues but they are critical. They must be open for honest adult discussion because humanity will face disaster with our pants around our ankles if we fail to prepare.
Fear makes us irrational, so we have to take courage, overcome our worries and start coming up with solutions.
I co-founded sustainably FED as a tiny contribution. Please go over and check it out.