Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Missing the Forest for the Fields Pt4

Sorry I've been a bit slow about responding to all the comments in the last post. There's a reason, but then that would require another post to explain...

In any case, most of the comments appeared on Facebook, but I feel it makes more sense to address them here.

First up, Gigi Little said:

Positively chilling.

I've known for most of my life (meaning not including seven years old and sitting in front of the TV watching the Brady Bunch) that overpopulation is a terror to our planet and that we're deep, deep in it - but I don't think I've ever made the connection you have between it and agriculture.

The problem with talking about all this, of course, is man's natural defensiveness. Our innate hunter-gatherer brains, in fact, which are programmed to defend ourselves no matter what. How do you get something like this through to people when there's so much natural resistance?

Fiction, perhaps? A big, powerhouse novel with the unrelenting muscle of The Wrong House, but which allows people to come to the same conclusions themselves, through reading it? Eh? Eh? Just saying.
I think Gigi really nails the "natural resistance" people have when discussing the negative aspects of agriculture (as you'll see in some of the following comments). To be honest, a month or two ago I would have been just as resistant, so I don't want to pressure anyone to blindly accept my theory that agriculture is the central problem of humanity (after all, it's just a hypothesis), but I do urge you to at least consider it.

Next up is Andrea P.

I know you know this, so I feel redundant pointing it out, but the major fallacy of your argument is that all of the grain crops grown in the midwest go to feed our overpopulated planet. Simply untrue. The vast, vast majority of it is livestock feed. In addition there's the major swaths of land devoted to grazing, and the environmental disaster of hog farms, etc. Don't get me wrong, I think meat can be raised more responsibly, but there's no getting around the fact that it takes 10 lbs of grain to get one pound of meat. And that doesn't even address the water issues (i.e. the enormous quantities of increasingly scarce fresh water needed to raise farm animals). I grew up in Michigan and Illinois and knew from childhood that the food being grown all around wasn't for my consumption. But sure, the planet needs fewer people. Read "Maybe One" by Bill McKibben and convince yourself not to have a second kid. The people really stressing the planet aren't likely to need snorkel rice.
I don't really know whether or not the "vast, vast, majority" of grain grown in the Midwest goes to livestock feed (obviously, at least some of it is going to high-fructose corn syrup and other processed garbage). In any case, I think we can safely say that MUCH of the grain is going to livestock.

Other than that, I... agree. Grain-fed livestock is an environmental disaster (and most probably, unhealthy too). We are wasting huge amounts of water raising livestock while simultaneously polluting what little water is left (although, to be fair, agriculture is doing exactly the same thing).

We need to move back to pasture-raised meat, but as always, we run into the problem of overpopulation and demand outstripping supply. I am curious as to how much meat could sustainably be produced by returning prairie land to grass and allowing the buffalo to return. From what I've read, pre-conquest there may have been as many wild bison roaming the country as there are there are cows in feedlots now. (Yes, I know it'll never happen, but let me dream...)

Of course, if we diverted that "10 lbs" of grain from animals to people (and I should point out that the amount of grain required to produce a pound of animal meat does depend greatly on the specific animal), we would almost certainly increase the population--compounding the problem.

Looks like I'm going to have to read "Maybe One" by Bill McKibben...

...or not. Because according to Daniel:
In counterpoint to the Malthusian claim of "too many humans" is the fact that the biomass of the ants of the world outweigh humans. Just the ants. This is a species that creates complex societies, cities, garbage dumps, factories and farms, cemeteries, etc. yet are a net additive force to whatever biome they live in.

Its not all about fewer humans, it is also about the 'unnatural' way that we do live. If we just take the commandment to reduce and lessen impact but do so in our current construct, the logical outcome is an admonishment to commit suicide or worse as the final environmentalist position.

Well, Gigi responded to the first part of this comment before I could get to it: "Thing is, the kinds of garbage ants leave around aren't plastic and cigarette butts. Unless they've gotten them from us."

I guess I would add that comparing humans to ants in terms of "biomass" might be just as misleading as comparing them simply in terms of numbers. As a species we are very different than ants, and I'm not sure if it's productive to directly compare their environmental impact to ours. Personally, I see more of a similarity to locusts.

Daniel's point is valid, though. If we can change the way we live, we might be able to survive at a much higher population level. But can we?

[SIDE NOTE: Although have I nothing personal against terrestrial ants, watching the Paul Verhoeven documentary "Starship Troopers" has left me with a pronounced fear of any extraterrestrial ants, and I strongly believe in their immediate extermination.]

As to Daniel's second point(s)--I agree that we need to profoundly change our "current construct," but disagree that "the logical outcome is an admonishment to commit suicide or worse as the final environmentalist position."

While it may seem like a sort of "Logan's Run" approach to controlling the population (i.e., killing off members of society after they age out of their "productive" years) is the most straightforward answer, I'm clearly too old myself to support killing off the olds.

I certainly don't have all the answers when it comes to controlling the population. (Remember, this post was initially about identifying agriculture as the central problem of human, not necessarily coming up with the solution.) But while it's true that I have a fairly apocalyptic view of the world (going so far as to write a novel titled The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse), even I can see that there may be less drastic ways of controlling the population.

Many first world countries now have a birthrate below replacement, which at least suggests it's possible to control the population with out reverting to mass suicide or slaughter.

Elizabeth Hickey had a less drastic idea:

[Full Disclosure: I may have had a child with this woman.]

I've been trying to figure out my angle on this huge, intractable problem, and I think it's education for women around the world, because if women are educated they are more likely to limit their families. It won't change the fact that the way we feed ourselves is unsustainable, but it could bring the worldwide population down and ease some of the stress. I still haven't worked out how I'm going to contribute, so if anyone has any suggestions...

In conclusion, I guess I feel like step one is identifying whether or not the problem really is agriculture. Once that questions is decided, then we can move on to step two (i.e., trying to find if there are any realistic solutions short of mass suicide or slaughter). Of course, if we do nothing, billions of people are going to die anyway...

Good lard, this is a long post. I'll shut up now...

Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4


  1. [for anyone preparing to comment, I have been having a horrible time trying to get blogger to work, so you might save your comments in another doc first before trying to post]

    Forget the us/them meat vs. veggie argument. I’m going to offer up another cause to our problem of sustainability: the Suburbs and the idea that sprawl is a realistic way to live. The highway system and car culture that is so intrinsically linked to the creation of the suburbs is the same urban “development” that makes us think that mono-product farming and shipping produce thousands of miles are good ideas. As Americans, the belief is if it is economical, then it must be good. The only problem to this thinking is that governmental subsidies are underneath the seeming economy to each of these. Tax benefits for mortgages (created to encourage the middle class to move to suburbs), highways built with tax dollars (if states agree to auxiliary federal stipulations), and serious crop subsidies for the types of crops that are destroying our soil, water, food, and subsequently health (corn syrup alone is case in point.)

  2. And I forgot to mention the obvious: the huge gas subsidies we get in this country. Europe has always paid about 3-times what we do for gas.

  3. @Lisa Dahl

    Wow. I wonder where we could find somebody who could write a post about suburban sprawl...

    Perhaps Lisa Dahl?

  4. A postscript to the earlier discussion of overpopulation and possible strategies to address the problem...there are microbial forces hard at work that may provide the solution. The recent concerns from the CDC concerning H1M1 are less focused on the virulence of this flu strain than the ease of its spread. Historically, it's quite rare for a disease to easily and quickly jump from one species to another. This is a process that requires a lot of time and, at the outset, a low success rate. What is alarming about swine flu is the multiple species that can harbor the disease and serve as hosts. If this were combined with the mortality rates we experienced when HIV was introduced...well you get the idea. A disease like that would quickly spread through a population causing a high death rate before a vaccination or treatment could be effectively applied. Hence, no more population problem!

  5. @Christopher

    Okay, according to at least one estimate (found on Wikipedia) the death rate after the introduction of European diseases in the New World was 95 percent.

    If we apply that to the (soon to be) seven billion people populating the planet, it would bring us down to a much more manageable 350 million.

    Of course, civilization would utterly collapse... among other things.

  6. Great set of posts. You've summed it up well. This is arguably the most important, least recognized issue facing humanity.

    Yet, to date, hardly anyone has even considered it. I think it's because it just seems hard to believe that something as basic as agriculture, something on which civilization is fundamentally based, could actually be unsustainable and patently destructive. But that it is.

    Glad you're talking about it!

  7. I am a statistics nerd, so here it is, from the EPA, for clarification:

    'Corn grown for grain accounts for almost one quarter of the harvested crop acres in this country.'

    'According to the National Corn Growers Association, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production. The crop is fed as ground grain, silage, high-moisture, and high-oil corn. About 12% of the U.S. corn crop ends up in foods that are either consumed directly (e.g. corn chips) or indirectly (e.g. high fructose corn syrup). It also has a wide array of industrial uses including ethanol, a popular oxygenate in cleaner burning auto fuels.'

  8. @Cellar Door Coffee Roasters

    Well that shuts me up... Never would have figured 80%.


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