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Food production is not a problem, because for the last 20 years we’ve produced more calories at a greater rate than we’ve produced more people.^ But still 1 in 6 people in the world is hungry.* Because they don’t have enough money to buy food.^ So the 2008 food crisis is good, because higher food prices = more money for poor farmers. Except that it didn’t, and isn’t.* And calories turns out not to be a good measure of human food energy or nutrition anymore, because the raw food calories increasingly go to animals and to fuel,* and in the US continue to be wasted en masse or converted into unhealthy, non-nutritious calories.^
You would think that we’d have collective agreement about the future of food, being that we do need it to live and all. But I haven’t found much agreement or straight story or people even doing the math. I see the population projection of “9 billion people by 2050″ everywhere, for example, but never accompanied by any explanation or even theory about how those people are going to be fed. With the loaves and fishes of superscience, I guess.
The problem with the Santa Clara Magazine story, and with a lot of what I read about food, is that it talks just about food. It fails to take into account what I call the Iron Triangle, the fact that food, water and oil are today locked in an ironclad fate with each other, and it makes no sense to talk about one without at least mentioning the others. Food supply, after all, was one of the most pressing concerns raised by the World Without Oil game.
The alarming thing, of course, is that all three are said to be heading toward crisis independent of the others. For food, the crisis is arable land: the Economist reports that the thing that lifted the world out of the 2008 food crisis was Europe’s decision to rush its fallow-land reserve back under the plow. Water faces a multitude of crises, the top two may be climate change (megadroughts) and pollution. And the oil crisis, as talked about all along in this blog, is its inevitable stricture combined with the lack of alternatives and the lack of time or will to create an oil-independent economy.
Taken as a triangle, the weakness of each feeds the crisis of the others. The 2008 food crisis is creeping back in 2009, the Economist reports, due largely to the upcreep in oil prices and droughts caused by climate change. Water in turn is a huge energy consumer, and obviously essential to any food production. And as the price of oil creeps up, it sparks more food-to-fuel conversion and processes such as oil sands development, which is water-intensive and climate-changing.
The bottom line for food is that today, people are hungry – even in America, which produces so much food that as much as 40% of it goes to waste. If the system couldn’t take care of its hungry in the fat years, what will it do now that we’ve entered the lean years?
The Economist magazine ran a cool democratic experiment in which they created a Global Electoral College online and allowed the world to vote on the American election. The result: Obama sweeps the world, capturing 9,115 out of a total of 9,875 electoral votes. Which explains my inbox, crammed with election excitement and good wishes from friends outside the U.S.
Curious to see the McCain-leaning red states around the world: Iraq, predictably, but Algeria? The Congo? Cuba? Click on through to check out the interactive map.
The credit crisis is grabbing the headlines in America, as Fannie and Freddie starve on the empty calories of their bad loans, IndyMac Bank goes into federal conservatorship, and so on. The latest Harper’s Index gives the underlying numbers:
Chance that a U.S. home is currently vacant: 1 in 35
Rank of this among the highest recorded vacancy rates in U.S. history: 1
An article in The Economist (July 12) backs up the numbers: 18,600,000 U.S. housing units stand empty. It goes on to say that “formerly vibrant neighborhoods have taken on the dilapidated air of ghost towns” and “municipal taxes go unpaid” and “boarded-up homes invite looting, drugs and other criminal activity” – all outcomes foreseen in the WWO game. What we didn’t foresee: that cities would respond by demolishing the homes. But that’s actually being contemplated, according to the article.
The media hasn’t yet connected the 2008 credit crisis to the 2008 oil crisis, but again WWO teaches us the connection is there. As explained in an earlier post, the Petro Razor is at work here. Communities with forced commutes are on the wrong side of the Razor are likely never to recover; I’ve already heard anecdotal evidence that this process is underway.
Meanwhile, in a short article on Page 10A, we learn that Russia has reduced oil flow to the Czech Republic without warning or explanation. The move comes three days after the CR inked an agreement enabling the U.S. to build a missile-tracking radar station on Czech soil, So now begins the petropower plays among nations, also foreseen in WWO? The event that set off the global oil crisis was this: oil suppliers “unilaterally renegotiated their contracts,” delivering less oil than promised, which is exactly what’s happening to the Czech Republic. So is this a one-off, or a canary going thud in the coal mine? Stay tuned. Photo by judepics via Flickr.
Alert reader Cathy sent me the link to this article by Damien Cave which begins: “Higher fuel prices are forcing cities across the country to cut public services, limit driving by employees and expand public transportation in what has become a sprawling movement to conserve energy.” The article goes on to cite that 90% of 132 cities surveyed are altering operations in response to higher fuel costs. This forced cutback in public services was a big item in the WWO game: almost every service a city offers consumes fuel, and cities draw up their budgets in advance, so sudden increases catch them flatfooted (as we’re seeing now).
But the article goes on to quote the mayors at the conference: “some of them also acknowledged that higher gasoline prices could eventually make their cities bigger, better and richer.” The mayors are reporting transit use is up, the movement to resettle pedestrian-friendly downtown is accelerating, and new interest in bike lanes.
In Newsweek, Robert J Samuelson acknowledges that the equivalent of Peak Oil is here – demand has outstripped supply – and quotes economist of CIBC World Markets as saying that this will help U.S. manufacturing: no longer can jobs go overseas with such impunity. Relocalization works for manufacturing as well as food. Indeed, I’ve already read of a case where IKEA moved a manufacturing plant to the U.S. for this reason – it was cheaper to build bookcases here than to ship them in from elsewhere.
Samuelson can’t see past the current infrastructure, unfortunately, but the Economist can. In their most recent issue, entitled “The Future of Energy,” the editors cite this “failure of imagination” as the key to our problem with energy. They put forward instead ideas for “a world where, at one level, things will have changed beyond recognition, but at another will have stayed comfortably the same, and may even have got better.”
What patently doesn’t work is to cling to a wasteful system that’s loaded with problems and is incontrovertibly beginning the decline of its useful life. To quote the out-of-game “addiction” teaser for World Without Oil: “You know that it’s bad for you. You’ll cut back someday.” More drilling and more wars are the addict’s groping for one more fix: they solve nothing and don’t change the fundamental forces at work.