Senate Doom N Gloom Report: - "On the verge of a global food crisis"

Discussion in 'Archive: The Senate Floor' started by Jabbadabbado, Mar 18, 2010.

  1. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    "On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."

    -Tyler Durden

    This is essentially the message of Bad Astronomer Phil Plait's wonderful book "Death from the Skies! The Science Behind the End of the World." The book came out in 2008, the paperback, with a slightly changed title, perhaps because of slow sales, in 2009, but I didn't find this little gem until a few months ago. I advise you to get hold of a copy now.

    If you're looking for a cheerful, matter of fact discussion of all manner of potentially cataclysmic and human-life ending astronomical events, and why wouldn't you be, this is the book for you. Each chapter is devoted to a different potential catastrophe, ranging from nearby supernovae (not likely) to catastrophic asteroid impacts (very likely on the time frame of human civilization) to gamma ray bursts and wandering black holes, invasion by intelligent extraterrestrial life and finally the end of the solar system and the ultimate death of the universe on time scales when even protons may start to decay.

    Among the interesting arguments Plait makes is that developing the technology now to change the course of dangerous asteroids would be money well spent, perhaps more useful for us, in terms of cost-benefit, than heavy spending on anti-terrorism/homeland security.

    I'm not qualified to judge the likelihood Plait suggests for a Tuguska-size meteoroid airburst over a large metropolitan area, but I think preparation for diverting asteroids would be a hugely fun way to spend NASA dollars.
  2. Alpha-Red Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Apr 25, 2004
    star 5
    the ultimate death of the universe on time scales when even protons may start to decay.

    I'll bet this is what people in the galaxy far, far away worry about. Galactic collisions and proton decay, yup.
  3. Lowbacca_1977 Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jun 28, 2006
    star 6
    Galactic collisions aren't that big of a deal. We're only about 4 billion years away from one of those, ourselves. They're overhyped, really.


    On impacts, I'd point out that within the last two years, Jupiter's been hit by two objects that left marks large enough that they were fairly easily observed from Earth, and that's meant dramatically rethinking how often we thought this stuff occurred, as we thought it was more in the realm of 'once a century'.
  4. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Just as the story of Noah's flood could be (the theory is heavily disputed) a garbled cultural memory of a Black Sea deluge occurring around 5,600 B.C., maybe the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by brimstone and fire out of heaven is a literary artifact, evidence of a Tunguska style event over a populated area. It's a stretch, and maybe not worth speculating about since we can't find out the answer.
  5. Rogue_Follower Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Nov 12, 2003
    star 6
    There are at least 1138 (heh) known potentially hazardous asteroids, some of which will pass within 0.05 AU of Earth before 2178. Harvard has a nice plot of them, as well as an animation of our "neighborhood", the inner solar system. Likewise, here's one for the mid system (out to beyond Jupiter.) Note that the plot was updated in February, but the animations are eight years old, so I'm sure there should be more many dots on them by now.

    I agree that additional money put into asteroid research would be money well-spent, even if it turns out that we do not have to confront a potential impactor within the next few centuries. Better to be prepared for the possibility than to be blindsided or have to rush out a solution. Plus, we would certainly get useful scientific data out of the research, whether it comes from additional observation satellites or from testing technologies like gravity tractors.
  6. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Gravity tractors are discussed in the book. The technological hurdles are not much different from those of other extended space missions that have not yet been undertaken because of those technological hurdles: how do you launch a spacecraft big enough, and with enough fuel (what kind of fuel? What kind of propulsion?) to do the job. The advantage of the gravity tractor is that it could be robotic/remote controlled.

    The fundamental problem of mastering space travel is energy. It's why we haven't been to Mars and why we can't yet build gravity tractors. A 100 years of R&D may not solve the problem either, seeing as the first half century of space programs hasn't brought any significant advances in the fundamental energy challenges of getting things into space.
  7. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    I actually find this very interesting. Consider the 459-ton mass of the Saturn IB booster needed to lift a 20-ton Apollo spacecraft to low earth orbit. On liftoff, the majority of the 800-ton thrust from the first stage goes into lifting the booster. Simply carrying all the fuel onboard is a significant hinderance, which is why the question of energy is very problematic. If you had transporter technology like in Star Trek, that alone would significantly improve a spacecraft's performance and reduce how much energy it demands.

    Unfortunately there's no indication that we'll be beaming up fuel anytime soon. Just wanted to show some figures to let people know why energy is such a problem.
  8. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Just finished Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilization
    by Evan D.G. Fraser
    .

    It's a fairly decent introduction to the problems of modern and historical civilizations and their food supplies. I found it a bit haphazardly organized and written at a modest reading level, and for me there wasn't much new. I'm already well versed in the doom and gloom of our agricultural production.

    But if you don't know much about how global trade built up around the logistics of supplying urban populations with food and would like to find out more about the basics of how Romans made fish sauce, this may be the book for you. It addresses fundamental problems of modern civilization that I like to go on and on about ad nauseam:

    - depletion of irrigation sources
    - topsoil loss and soil depletion
    - loss of farmland to urban sprawl
    - the risks and challenges of monocrops
    - salting of soil from over-reliance on irrigation
    - dependence of our food production on the availability of inexpensive fossil fuel inputs.
    - how an abundance of inexpensive food tends to either bid up a population's size or, er, the size of the population by increasing the prevalence of obesity, or both.

    I would have liked to have seen a better discussion of potential paths toward a sustainable future although of course I respect the book's underlying sense of resignation about how the collapse of food networks is an inevitable stage in the life cycle of civilizations. We're all rolling along on the wheel of history, and there's no stepping off.
  9. Neo-Paladin Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Dec 10, 2004
    star 4
    I think resignation isn't particularly useful here. We managed to defuse the population bomb last time around, it seems to me we have the tools to do it again. At this point the only question is if we'll hit upon a solution that will make us sustainable in time to stave off a crisis.

    Anthropogenic soil would mitigate a number of fundamental problems listed, and the rest are at least in principle manageable when a crisis point is reached. Given my way, there would be intense research into biochar to be used both for CO2 sequestration as well as land management.

    I may be overly Cornucopian, but I'm an engineer so I come by it honestly.
  10. SithLordDarthRichie London CR

    Chapter Rep
    Member Since:
    Oct 3, 2003
    star 8
    A sustainable future will require everyone in the world to be more equal in the resources they consume. Everyone should be alloted consumption of up to 2 Global Hectares each. More then that and the resources available for a population as great as the Human race will start to suffer.

    This is how usage currently works out:

    [image=http://iheartdocumentaries.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/vlcsnap-2010-05-31-16h50m35s134.png]

    As you can see it is not very even or sustainable. Until this is addressed or the population of Humans on Earth is significantly reduced, crisis is coming.
  11. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    In the best case scenario, the human population increases by more than another third before it levels out. And given trends in consumptions as wealth increases in places like China, that will mean a 50% increase in food calories demanded globally when the human population peaks.

    One of the astounding things about human history is that our global population is almost entirely dependent on the achievements of the neolithic revolution. Neolithic farmers spent centuries creating wheat, barley, rice, corn and potatoes for us, not to mention domesticating cows, pigs and sheep. We've innovated at the margins with genetic modification, but mostly we haven't brought anything new to the table except economies of scale and the use of geologically stored solar energy.

    Our stone age ancestors would be surprised that we are such morons, that we still have to grow and raise their food to survive. They would think to themselves: if we had your resources and technology, we would have invented an alternative to agriculture by now. We would have invented a machine that manufactures food from gravel and seawater.

  12. darthdrago Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Dec 31, 2003
    star 4
    Not necessarily. One the one hand, they'd gawp at the fact that we still have to use the same techniques they did. But on the other hand, that same technology that you think they'd use to make food out of rocks & seawater would blow their minds. The Industrial Revolution streamlined the production of many of these same foods, both in the harvesting of food and in the usage of fertilizers to reap more of that same food in less time.

    Sure, you can say that our ancestors' food production tech was more organic, but their food production was more of a self-subsistence effort than it was to feed others in addition to themselves. Forget the cavemen--a livestock rancher from 1800 would be astonished at the idea that his meats could be sold in neighboring states or even foreign countries. The Industrial Revolution made this possible: transportation, refrigeration, sanitary advances, etc.

    Of course, I'm just as eager as anybody else here for the day when Star Trek replicators will be invented , so we won't have to rely on the Earth so much. ;)
  13. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Here's a partial time line of the 2007-2008 food crisis, from http://www.seattlepi.com/business/360096_foodshortage23.html

    Sept. 7, 2007: Vietnam, the world's third-biggest rice exporter, restricts rice exports to slow inflation.

    Dec. 4: Argentina temporarily restricts grain exports.

    Jan. 1, 2008: China, the world's biggest grain producer, starts to curb overseas sales of wheat, corn and rice by issuing export permits.

    Jan. 19: Egypt bans rice exports.

    Feb. 8: The American Bakers Association asks the U.S. Department of Agriculture to curb wheat exports.

    Feb. 27: At least four people are killed during three days of protests over high commodity prices in Cameroon.

    March: Philippines authorities begin to crack down on hoarders.

    March 17: India halts all exports of non-basmati rice. It also extends an existing export ban on crops such as peas and beans.

    March 28: Vietnam extends rice export restrictions.

    April 4: Haitians riot over rising food prices. At least three people are killed.

    April 6: Egyptians riot over rising food prices.

    April 9: Corn commodities on the Chicago Board of Trade reach a record $6.16 a bushel.

    April 12: Police clash with 10,000 workers in Bangladesh who smashed vehicles and attacked factories, demanding higher wages to pay for food.

    The Haitian prime minister is forced to step down in an attempt to defuse anger over food prices. A U.N. police officer bringing food to his unit in Port-au-Prince is killed.

    April 14: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that a global food crisis has reached "emergency proportions." The World Bank has forecast that 33 nations from Mexico to Yemen may face social unrest.

    April 16: Malawi plans to restrict corn exports.

    April 17: Kazakhstan, the world's sixth-largest wheat exporter, bans wheat exports between April 27 and Sept.1.

    April 18: India permits rice exports to Bhutan.

    Indonesia, the world's third-largest rice producer, says it will hold back surplus rice.


    And then, of course, the global financial meltdown and the collapse of commodity prices and global trade across the board.

    This year, it's all about the Russian wheat.

  14. darthdrago Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Dec 31, 2003
    star 4
    Jabba, I don't remember what you've posted in the past, but what's your opinion of genetic-modified corn & grains? Given the natural disaster of the droughts/fires damaging the Russian harvest this year, one would think that this would push the drive for more gen-mod grains on the state level.
  15. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    If we have to double the food supply in the next half century, then genetically modified grains and other foods will almost certainly have to be a part of that, particularly if we face climate change of as we face water table drawdown and loss of glacial runoff. The problem as I see it isn't that gm crops are potentially dangerous to humans. Public fear of GM foods especially in western Europe is mostly irrational. The challenge as I see it will be modifying crops for multiple problems in the same place. The super strain of wheat that grows well without water in heavily salted, depleted soil without heavy doses of fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers may be too much to expect.
  16. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Fears grow over global food supply
    In Mozambique, where a 30 per cent rise in bread prices triggered riots on Wednesday and Thursday, the government said seven people had been killed and 288 wounded.

    The crop problems in Russia, which suffered its worst drought on record this summer, and elsewhere, have heaped pressure on US farmers to supply the world?s wheat. The US Department of Agriculture has increased its estimates for US wheat exports to $8bn for the current crop year.

    The 2007-08 food shortages, the most severe in 30 years, set off riots in countries from Bangladesh to Mexico, and helped to trigger the collapse of governments in Haiti and Madagascar.

    The FAO said that ?the concern about a possible repeat of the 2007-08 food crisis? had resulted in ?an enormous number? of inquiries from member countries. ?The purpose of holding this meeting is for exporting and importing countries to engage.


    Obviously, the world population has increased significantly since the 2007-08 crisis, so regional droughts have even more potential to cause significant price disruption.

    You'll know a tipping point has come when instead of third world riots over food prices ever few years, we have third world famines every 2-3 years.
  17. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Study: World's 'Peak Coal' Moment Has Arrived
    Bottom line, say the paper's co-authors, Tadeusz Patzek, a University of Texas engineering professor, and Greg Croft, a St. Mary's College of California earth science professor, is that the 7 billion tons of coal the world is now mining and burning each year is about the best it can do.

    "Our ability to produce this resource at 8 billion tons per year, in my mind, is a dream," Patzek said.


    Contrast this to:
    If world coal production peaks around 7 billion tons then China's energy growth strategy is not going to work, nor will enough coal be available to mitigate peak oil production through coal-to-liquids technologies.

    The nightmare scenario for global energy is that peak oil, natural gas and coal occur relatively simultaneously, within 10 years of each other.

    The good news if any of that is true is that climate change is unlikely ever to become as bad as worst case scenarios suggest.
  18. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Jabba, please. Even this particular scenario is too much for me to get my mind around.

    I'm as skeptical as the next person... maybe a bit more... but this particular doom and gloom scenario sounds a bit over the top, even for me.
  19. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    It may be wildly off the mark, but at the very least it is a peer-reviewed article published by actual scientists as reported in the NYT. Not some random, half-crazed doom crier spouting off on a Star Wars internet site.

    Realistically speaking, say we have 150 years of coal left at the current rate of consumption. If coal demand doubles again, which it surely will do if we are trying to mitigate the effects of peak oil and will come close to doing even without that given the population growth we know is going to happen worldwide, then quite quickly we only have 75 years left.

    Also, peak coal only suggests the moment when coal production peaks - the moment when about half the available supply has been used. It's not the lack of available coal that causes the peak, but the exhaustion of easy to reach and inexpensive to exploit resources. The last half is harder and more expensive to get at, and also of course will be lower quality coal with lower energy content. The energy return on energy invested to get at the resource will be much lower for the last half of actual reserves.
  20. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    And we have to take into consideration the rate of what coal can be extracted. Your 75 year mark may not be so accurate, so much as the inability to double the volume of coal which can be extracted resulting in much higher coal prices. So where demand would probably double, the amount of coal extracted annually might ultimately be left on a perpetual post-peak production curve.

    Does that make any sense? My wording isn't very good, but I have to take off. Be back in an hour or so.
  21. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    But there you seem to be agreeing with the authors of the study. It's not so much that we're about to run out of coal but that we may never realistically be able to increase production beyond what we're producing right now.

    Oil seems to be at that point. Oil production has more or less been on a plateau since 2005.
  22. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Actually coal mining should be very open for expansion for at least another hundred years or so. The major hurdle with that is dropping environmental regulations and establishing new mining operations in places that are not currently open for extracting coal. Pretty much as long as current mines are pushing their capacity and meeting demand, opening new grounds for strip mining isn't desirable. Even if current demand stays fairly consistent, they would have to move to more 'fertile grounds' in the future. But if they were to break ground on new mining operations, those reserves will last for a long time.

    The limiting factor with coal really isn't that it's getting more expensive and difficult to extract, but that it's hell on the environment. So much so that they'll leave pristine coal deposits in the ground because of the damage it would cause to the local ecosystem.
  23. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    But that's the issue isn't it. With an increasing population and other critical demands on land use, the opportunity cost of additional coal extraction rapidly becomes unacceptable.
  24. Radical_Edward Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    May 2, 2002
    star 3
    So, I take it none of you have seen the latest US Geological Survey report on the condition of coal stocks in the US?


    Sure there's enough coal sitting underground to power the country for decades, perhaps centuries, but less than 10% of that lies in beds which can be rationally accessed.

    The other 90% is so far down, or located around such difficult conditions, that it would require more energy to dig down and bring the coal up than could be retrieved from said deposits. So, while there's fantastical volumes of coal down there, it is more energy-efficient to not bother going after 90% of it than it is to dig it up and burn it.

    So, that leaves us with, what, 10 years of non-stop coal burning? Even with the most optimistic estimates, that's still only about 40 years. Hardly the ace in the hole that the coal industry has been promising once oil becomes uneconomical.
  25. SithLordDarthRichie London CR

    Chapter Rep
    Member Since:
    Oct 3, 2003
    star 8
    It's becoming more and more apparent that fossil fuel dependancy is no longer viable. Instead of worrying how to get the most out of the Oil & Coal available, more effort should be put into making alternatives better.