Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Food Economics and Ecology: Inverse Impossibilities of Technology and Capital Markets in Feeding Humanity

I’ll start at the end of my thoughts by saying that creative approaches to growing food are welcome.   Capital economics contribute to that creativity, in some degrees.   The destructive qualities of capital economy, however, are predominant.  So that, in the end, controlling how people  pursue food production probably does not matter.  Let folks be creative.  Enjoy the fun while it lasts.  Surviving will probably not be a very democratic experience.

I admit that I am relinquishing something to fate.

Here are a couple of fate factors:

1) The demand for food is only going to increase as global population increases.
2) The demand for protein, especially in animal form (sea or land based), is only going to increase as general global middle class incomes increase.
3) Surface soil available for food production can only stagnate or perhaps decline – land surface is a finite quantity – lo and behold.

On the surface soil factor, technology and climate change may increase land areas available for production. At the same time, climate change will adversely affect production areas.  Probably a zero sum game.  A decline in my mind.  You can decide for yourself by reading Chapter 10: Changes in Land Cover and Terrestrial Biogeochemistry in the USGCRP, 2017: Climate Science Special Report.

People will choose to respond to these fate factors in different ways.  Examples abound.  Some folks will (are) creatively producing food and other plant products in metal shipping containers.  Others in underground mines, or in old chocolate factories, or on roof tops, or floating on ocean water.  All the power to them for creativity.

Technology to make creative food production possible, however, is expensive and energy dependent.  Technologically dependent production systems require high degrees of stability.  So those energy sources will have to be reliable.  Inevitably, they will also have to increase in availability.

There is lots of stuff out there in the wilds of the internet, indicating how fossil fuel consumption and emissions are generally increasing.  Check out the Global Carbon Budget.

The thing about high tech food production, is that nobody is growing garden foods on floating islands in calm seas (wherever they may find them… good luck) without interesting supplies of portable energy.  Of course, in a classic sense, photosynthesis is the most abundant and free mechanism for energy conversion; this can be achieved on floating islands or anywhere.  So go for it.  Have your floating garden and capture sunlight wherever you can.

It is the ancillary energy needs of high tech that have the greatest impact.   Fresh water accessibility, filtration, shipping, packaging, chemical production, storage, cooling… all these elements and many more will require diverse and intensive energy supplies.  Vertical horticulture production systems need energy to rotate their tables, pump water, provide light and much more.  In the end, technology dependent systems require energy beyond photosynthesis in degrees that will far exceed land and soil based production systems.

The principle concerns of the energy question are stability and cleanliness and safety.  These standards are hardly achieved today and, apart from fanciful optimism, there is little evidence that they will be achieved tomorrow.  In a global sense, at least.  Due apologies to the clean tech folk, who, within their field are moving leaps and bounds forward to clean-where-used (watch out for that old (ceterus paribus function !).  Certainly, in some specific locations on the planet, stability, cleanliness, and safety are being achieved, with high percentages of access and utility.  Examples are like in Germany, some areas of the US, and spottily elsewhere.   Just be sure to harbour a measure of doubt when you hear all the good news.

Yes, there is plenty of evidence that “clean energy” and stable access to clean energy is on the rise.  A global perspective is necessary, though.  CO2 levels are now at their highest ever recorded.  In other words, continuing to increase.  Why, if renewable energy sources are comparatively clean?

Clean in Germany is made possible by unclean elsewhere, let’s say most garishly in China, which produces many (most ?) of the materials and equipment that go into clean energy technology.  Mining and mineral production are among the other culprits of dirtiness; aluminum, nickel, and other metals and plastics that go into the production of clean technology are not so clean themselves.

Stability of energy supply has been possible over the past 200 years or so with every increasing exploitation of fossil fuel sources, increased nuclear, and now expansion into solar, wind, and water power.

Not much to say about safety.  On one hand, the argument goes that we are generally improving the quality of life for humans around the planet.  That is, of course, a self serving argument – we like to pat ourselves on the back for our accomplishments.  An alien arriving here might take a quick look at conditions and marvel at the squalor, noise, and general insult of human artifice on the natural condition.  You know, that classic night time view of the planet from outer space; all that light looks like a festering canker.  CO2 in the atmosphere etc…. does not all seem so safe to me.

This “ever increasing” aspect of energy supply leads me to the growth paradigm of capital economics.  Capital economics is, in an essential sense, the wonderful miracle of ever increasing production of everything, including human population, measured by monetary exchange.  While some may say it is a chicken or egg discussion, I suggest that capital economics is nothing more than a creed for a completely unplanned and unprecedented historical anomaly, the exponential growth of humans and human capacity to exploit their environs since, oh, say the 17th or 18th century   (fun graph). 

My apologies for harping on these population and environment facts.  You will see them in other articles that I have written.  With zero historical precedents – we are operating without a manual.  I imagine myself staring inside the window of a nice 2,000 square foot home with another 3,000 sq ft of garden space, family of five sitting comfortably at the table eating dinner.  A few guest arrive.  Joey goes out to the garden to gather an extra few carrots for the meal.  Ten more guests arrive.  Nancy goes out to the garden, digs an extra trench, plants a few potatoes, takes a bit of time, but then she comes back in with more potatoes.  Meanwhile, a couple of babies were born in the house and 20 more guests arrived.  So an extension was built, though while the extension was built, more babies and more guests.  And Eric had to double the size of the garden.  In a few days, the house has gone up a level or two, expanded its footprint, the garden was expanded again, and the fruit trees cut down to make way for more garden space, so the roof was turned to a green space garden, but the new babies in the house required a new roof extension.  No additional square footage of space, stuck right at 5,000.  From a condensed time frame of human history, that explosion of growth took all the time for me to step back from the window, look around a bit, and maybe find time to have a snack.

Wow!  Think of all the methane produced by all those people.

But that is a digression on a point that could be a footnote.

My suspicion is popular acceptance of what may be some kind of causal fallacy, the idea that capital economics, or rational thought, or science begat the world we experience today.

I think of the pantheon of Greek gods and the myths surrounding their place in the minds of humankind some two thousand years ago.  The experience of nature and the world in which we lived was described in ever expanding detail and complication.  While great for stories told in suspended disbelief, increasing complexity confuses us and fails to make sense out of that which is happening around us.

Ptolemy is famed in this regard.  Believing that the earth was the centre of the universe necessitated a complicated astronomy.  Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were a string of re-thinkers who saw things a bit differently.  The 16th century result being a somewhat revolutionized re-interpretation of how the universe functions.  Clear thinkers that they were, the trio still suffered political (religious) persecution for tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

Yip, toss the baby out with the bathwater.  That’s what you have to do when your foundational premise is wrong.  Hard work, but you do have to start from scratch.

Which is a long winded way of saying that, perhaps, capital economics, all the way from bizarre interpretations of Adam Smith through to the Chicago School and Milton Friedman, is little more than an intellectual circus. Horses and trapeze and clowns and lights and cymbals, all inside a large canvas tent.  Step outside the tent.  That is the conscious awakening experience of ceteris paribus.  Fresh air, sunlight, and open roads for thought, any which way you would like to turn.  I think there is something in human nature that likes the ceteris paribus (ostrich with its head in the sand) experience.  Dazzled by the lights and the clowns.

Being dazzled by our own belief systems is not fair to ourselves.  Yes, we all need to make sense of our experience.  And a false premise is not moral transgression.  I am just acknowledging that a belief system does not need to be true, per se.  The belief system needs only to explain or justify experience, limited contradictions notwithstanding.  Contradictions are explained by additional complexities within the belief system.  Typically, most of us don’t take the explanations too far and prefer to settle truth over a few extra beers and not worry about it the next morning.  For those who do get into the details, they are simply trusted experts who earn a living from maintaining obfuscation, elaborating byzantine arguments, and act as self proclaimed bearers of burdensome truth.

Granted, economics is always a mirror of human production systems.  And certainly, in one manifestation, we are trade and exchange creatures.  We have a theory of economics to explain this experience, in the daily routine measured through monetary exchange.  However, we are not homo economicus .  Rather something more than a bit complicated than that.

We are artisans.  Agriculture is a good example of our creative nature.  Agriculture is, also, first and foremost, an ecological system.  Nothing in nature, including human experience, is strictly speaking economic.  We use economics only to describe an experience of our presence in the cosmos.  There are many ways to describe our existence, the way we use mathematics to describe physical phenomenon, or the way we use biblical literature (of all religions) to describe our emotional and social experience of living.  Back to capital economics, whether it be the material benefit of growth (capital) or a moral imperative to improve (grow), this perspective remains simplistic.  For all intents and purposes, the evidence is in that capital economy is a useless way to describe, measure, or evaluate ourselves in an ecological system, or cosmology if you like, on a finite planet.  The earth is not growing.  We do not have more water, more carbon, or more of anything in agglomeration than there was here on this planet many, many moons ago.  Proportions change, obviously, but not growth only exists with decline.  I am not the first to suggest exploration of a steady state economy.

In reading about the growth argument for organic agriculture, competition between soil based production and hydroponic production, creating opportunities and new technologically sustained systems to enter and participate in the market place has little if anything to do with any argument about organic.  New niches in so called organic production are just humans proceeding with battling out their place in society, economy, politics, and species competitiveness for finite resources.

I use the word battling not lightly.  Humans have been battling out access to and control over resources from, probably, the dawn of time.  There is every evidence that in recorded history that humans have been battling over resource access with increasing intensity, coloured by dramatic success and failures.

Organic is hardly the argument.  All food production is organic.  At least as we understand from the scientific method of understanding the material world.  Organic, carbon, is the foundation of life as we know it.   However, the word organic infused with moral and ethical value will be cause for argument, defense, and justification of ways or interpretations of life.  So be it.  People like to argue.  I only wish to point out in parallel, to make an example, that the word God is pretty much exactly the same thing.  There are few philosophers and religious types who allow for God to be absolute and universal;  in the universal God there is little discussion to be had; you simply raise up your hands and give up the ghost of defining God, let God be God, and humble yourself to knowing that you will never truly know anything in life.  Once accepted, we can move on to other discussions that could produce fruit.   Yet, most of us have a propensity to argue what God is, believing that we know, or can know, and from time immemorial have used such a God to justify one battle after another.  Same thing with organic.  If people are battling over the meaning of organic, they most likely have ulterior motives.

My suggestion is to let people fight over ownership of organic.  Battles will be won and lost.  Perhaps that playground is inevitable.  Let people create divergent brands of organic, faith systems on what is truly healthy and fruitful and due its rightful place in a market economy.  Have your way, so to speak, so long there is a market to buy it.

However, we still need to attempt to address fundamental premises.   And that attempt will need to identify the big difference between what we like to believe and what is reasonably true.

Questions arise.

Yes, more questions.

I know, please, I just want some answers.

Well, the answers, I suspect, are found hidden in the practice and pursuit of questions.  The answer is trying to answer.  The answer must be unshackled from ceteris paribus and expose itself to what’s outside the doors of the circus tent.  Answers exposed to sunlight and rain and fresh air morph, evolve, and dissolve in the hands of time.

So be it.  So here are some questions.

Does organic address the world’s problems?  Will a fixation on soil and soil health save humanity from it own demise?  What is ecology?  Will technology and growth and innovation be our saviour and provide the world’s hungry mouths with wholesome food?   What is my perspective on the matter – called standpoint epistemology – which simply recognizes that we all have baggage behind our eyeballs, brains, hearts, and souls and that we interpret the world through those lenses?

In an argument, both sides will always be right.  Which is why I suspect that the fears and concerns and aspirations of attentive human beings will not be addressed by these singular types of questions.  First, I say attentive humans because there is really no way of knowing how many or what proportion of human beings are conscious of the doubtful certainty of our food supply system.  How many billions of humans hardly think of the matter?  Just this past week I engaged in heated discussion with a post graduate student, who is employed with the Federal government and has all the technology in the world in his hands.  His Christian faith is absolute that humans have every right to exploit nature in their own interests, that the problems of the world are only resolved through faith in Christ, that concerns for climate change and population growth are distractions since all of us deserve to live with the blessings that come through our hard work and earnings… in short, not his problem and “I” deserve the world in which “I” live today.  A classic ostrich with its head in the sand, if you ask me.  The point, though, is that our next door neighbour, sharing our own language, same schools for our kids, same road signals for our cars, can have diametrically opposed and even completely alien belief systems.  No hope in that for collective resolution in addressing the world’s problems!  And that small, anecdotal personal experience extends infinitely around the globe.  No clue whatsoever what billions of people are thinking or where their energy and will to survive will be steering us!

Enough said.  Carbon is carbon.  Organic is organic.  Humans are humans.  As soon as you  imply a moral and ethical imperative, then there is no end to the infinite argument, conflict, parting of ways, coalescing of ideas and sympathies, swirls and eddies of like minded thinkers, explosions of anger and outrage, an endless cacophony of the existence condition.    No way out of this existence thing.  We are all in it, for better or for worse, even though there is nothing in any way shape or form that we can do about it - existence.  It is somewhat wishful and pompous to think that after infinite years of evolution, history, and cosmic universes of space, that our little species has much control over anything.

To me, that boils the questions down to my own sets of available rights and responsibilities.  I call that boiling down to right living, judging ourselves by ourselves, about how we wish to live in this world during our blink of a journey through it.  Our choices do not make us right.  Our choices, if we judge ourselves in their making, make the days liveable.  Pain, suffering, despair included.  Joined by some pleasure, joy, laughter, and the occasional sense of grace.

When it comes to food economics,  I like to eat well, with food grown by my own hands, from soils that I have cared for.  I enjoy and perhaps share the intensity with which others seem to share those experiences.  I believe that I also understand that even others again have different experiences, joys to pursue, and crosses to bear.  I note, I think responsibly, that few are truly wealthy and have significant choice in how they live in the temporal, economic, and political world.  Even for most Canadians the choices are limited.  With 80% + of the population living in cities, it is not like many of us have choices for deep engagement in food production.  Just a fact and not much anybody is going to be able to do about that.  For most people in the world, especially with over 50% of the human population now living in cities, and many of the majority of our 8 billion or so people (soon to be a few billion more), daily decisions are largely restricted to survival and the integrity of their families, with quite limited access to or control over resources beyond some financial income, some modest skills, a few tools perhaps, and not much more.

I consider myself blessed in this regard.  Lucky.  Privileged.  Wholly undeserving.  And at best only moderately unselfish.

For better or for worse, decisions on an ecological food economy, given the historical context, will have to be radical and, I suspect under the unusual historical circumstances, hardly democratic.

On with the battle !!!!

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