Global suicide 2020: We can’t feed 10 billion

Article by Paul Farrell.


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (MarketWatch) — Welcome, you’re now on the new “Innovation Saves the World” team. We’re working together, searching for positive solutions. If you’d rather complain about what’s wrong, stop reading. Otherwise, imagine you’re now a member of a “skunk works” research team at a secret Pentagon think tank with unlimited funds.

In fact, let’s also assume the best solution will be awarded $10 million, call it the “10X-Prize,” to finance and build a new company on our proposed solution and achieve our goals.

Hope for the orphans of Myanmar

Orphans in Shan State on the Thai-Myanmar border hope for a better future amid Myanmar’s recent democratic reforms.

So if you’re with us, imagine this is as deadly urgent as if NASA predicted a huge asteroid will hit Earth by 2020, destroying billions. Do nothing? Game over. We must act now.

Our team is tasked to solve this problem: “How to feed the 7 billion people already on Earth today plus another 3 billion by 2050?” Feed 10 billion. And we can’t wait till 2050 to start. The clock’s ticking. We’re already at the tipping point. We must start planning now.

In fact, the Pentagon has already warned our team that by 2020, the planet’s “carrying capacity” will be so drastically compromised that they are already preparing military defense systems for the coming “all-out wars over food, water, and energy supplies.”

World’s biggest survival task is food: Earth cannot feed 10 billion

First, a crucial research paper from a leading consultant, Jeremy Grantham, whose firm manages $100 billion. He predicted the 2008 meltdown a couple years in advance. Now looking ahead to 2050, he reinforces the Pentagon’s worst fears, warning of an “inevitable mismatch between finite resources and exponential population growth” with a “bubble-like explosion of prices for raw materials” and commodity shortages that will become a huge “threat to the long-term viability of our species when we reach a population level of 10 billion,” making “it impossible to feed the 10 billion people.”

Yes, the planet’s “carrying capacity” cannot feed 10 billion people. So that’s a constraint on known research solutions. Grantham concludes, “as the population continues to grow, we will be stressed by recurrent shortages of hydrocarbons, metals, water, and, especially, fertilizer. Our global agriculture, though, will clearly bear the greatest stresses.”

Get it? Agriculture is the world’s biggest commodity problem. Agri-business has the “responsibility for feeding an extra two billion to three billion mouths, an increase of 30% to 40% in just 40 years. The availability of the highest quality land will almost certainly continue to shrink slowly and the quality of typical arable soil will continue to slowly decline globally due to erosion, despite increased efforts to prevent it. This puts a huge burden on increasing productivity.”

An impossible equation … but we must solve it.

Agriculture will decide the Earth’s fate in 2050, not ‘Peak Oil’

Grantham’s an optimist, believes “humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability. The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth.” Our “human ingenuity” can even solve the energy problem, even shortages of metals and fresh water.

But agriculture is facing a huge loss of non-renewable resources. That’s why agriculture in the world’s No. 1 time bomb. And why you must deal with these five constraints in developing a solution to our “Innovation Saves the World” research task:

  • We’re running out completely of potassium (potash) and phosphorus (phosphates) and eroding our soils … Their total or nearly total depletion would make it impossible to feed the 10 billion people …
  • Potassium and phosphorus are necessary for all life; they cannot be manufactured and cannot be substituted for …
  • Globally, soil is eroding at a rate that is several times that of the natural replacement rate …
  • Poor countries found mostly in Africa and Asia will almost certainly suffer from increasing malnutrition and starvation. The possibility of foreign assistance on the scale required seems remote.
  • Many stresses on agriculture will be exacerbated … by increasing temperatures … increased weather instability … frequent and severe droughts and floods.

Grantham doubts solutions based on the usual short-term thinking will work in the future: “Capitalism, despite its magnificent virtues in the short term — above all, its ability to adjust to changing conditions — has several weaknesses” Capitalism “cannot deal with the tragedy of the commons, e.g., overfishing, collective soil erosion, and air contamination.”

The “finiteness of natural resources is simply ignored, and pricing is based entirely on short-term supply and demand.” In short, a solution to our new “Innovation Saves the World” project will challenge a fundamental tenet of capitalism: That the public good is best served by the “invisible hand” of competing individuals, acting solely in their own separate special interests. No cooperation, no global solution, dead end for everyone.

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8 replies »

  1. Capitalism is the ONLY way to deal with the tragedy of the commons. Any definition of capitalism will include reference to the private ownership of resources. The owner, naturally motivated by inate self interest, stewards his resource to maximise returns. The above writer lists a number of resources as suffering the tragedy of the commons – their common link? Their lack of private ownership. The state coercively prevents ownership of these resources and thus ensures their exhaustion.
    Simply compare the fish farm and the ocean. In which will the fish resource risk destruction. The farmer will not jeopardise his own future by over hunting his own stock.
    Statists such as the above writer, will tell you that it is this very same incentive to profit that motivates people to ‘exploit’ the commons. They blame capitalism for shortages of natural resources. But It is the coercive prevention of capitalism that generates the tragedy of the commons. Statists claim the evil profit motive incentivises private fishermen to dredge the oceans to barren extinction. It is in fact merely evidence that when natural incentives, such as stewardship of a private resource, are perverted through coercive prohibition, then unintended consequences will inevitably result.
    Search Rothbard or Mises and tragedy of the commons.

  2. I’m a big proponent of common property, particularly common resource control of fisheries. To pull it off you need cultural values that don’t fit with western individualism and liberal economics, though. What you need is an entity that with a multi-generational consciousness, such as a clan, tribe or gang. Now that might not be your preferred method of social organization, and that’s A OK by me.

    Here’s how the lobstermen of Maine formed harbor gangs to defend their turf, socialize their children, and maintain commonly owned resources without over exploitation. I’d point out that these folks are white, and exhibit tribe/clan like behavior in their resource control.


  3. Capitalism is not the solution to the problem of the tragedy of the commons (which in any case is a theoretic problem conjured by a thought experiment rather than a real problem. Commons get destroyed when capitalists get access to them, otherwise they tend to be fine. Outside a psychotic profit motive there isn’t any real motive to over exploit a resource). Private ownership does not imply capitalism, I can own a thousandth share in a field without feeling compelled to do whatever it is necessary with it to increase my capital resources.

  4. terminology can be an obstacle so let me say that by use of ‘capitalism’ I do not mean or endorse ‘corporatism’. Corporatism is undesirable and can only be enabled through constant symbiosis between the state and crony big business. I think we can all agree that a Rothschild Fisheries monopoly or a JP Morgan trawler cartel would be bad from both consequentialist economical and ontological natural rights positions.
    I should also make clear I am an anarchist so when I use the term capitalism I do not refer to the bastardised economic fascism we suffer under now but the idea of free and peaceful exchanges between individuals and voluntary groups of individuals. I also do not imply that interaction would be limited to purely commercial trades. A stateless society of voluntarism can include charity, voluntary collectivism and anything that does not violate the objectively rooted non aggression principle.

    Vince – one of the things that has put ATS in the top of my blog reading are the ideas of secession, non state nationalism, and smaller scale political groupings that get posted here. Ive read a few articles about the history of fisheries and property rights and I know that historically non-commercial, non-state social systems have controlled resources. For example I recall reading that american east coast fishing communities had strong social codes involving ostracism etc that kept over fishing in check. An over successful fisherman hauling in catch after catch of bumper loads would be looked down on and shunned. And as you say with these generational cultural values and on these scales such systems can, did and do function. Perhaps I was overly definitive by stating that ONLY private property rights/capitalism etc can control and maintain resources.
    Back to the pan-secessionist and poly-nation themes of ATS when you say that alternatives to anarcho capitalism aren’t my preferred mode of social organisation and thats ok I could not agree with you more. The way I see a stateless world is not, as some an-caps do, simply the same large scale homogeneity that is foisted on us today except without a state. Or that forms of voluntary collectivism would be somehow completely impossible. I relish the idea that absent the state enabling and promoting common culture through state communication and transport infrastructure instead, due to higher travel costs and reduced dilution of cultures, there would naturally emerge micronations, commercial proprietary-communities, ethno-nationalist enclaves, and areas of complete individualist anarchic isolation etc. I mean if the state crumbled tomorrow and everyone naturally homesteaded the roads, charging tolls if they even let anyone through at all, there’s a drastically reduced likelihood that outsiders are going to move to your neck of the woods.
    What Im trying to get at is without the state everyone’s preferred mode of social organisation will emerge. I might be in a proprietary city state of western individualist liberalism whilst 50 miles away there is an ethnic nation based on cultural communitarianism. However the overall principle is still private property. whatever area an ethno-nationalist group or communist collective claim exclusive control over is private property. it may be communally held and arrangements within it may not adhere to commercial forms of transaction but that property, by its very nature as an exclusive territory, will be private and it will thus be stewarded in the interests of its owners. unlike the currently unowned oceans.
    it has just occurred to me there is a body of material available on the web explaining somali piracy as non-state oceanic homesteading. I wish I could remember where I saved the link. The piece Im thinking of explained that many of the ‘pirates’ were originally fishermen who, with the fall of the state lost the last vestige of security over their resource. foreign trawlers decimated stocks and dumped waste leaving the local economy destroyed. So they turned to what statists call piracy but radical an-caps might call charging tolls for passage through their homesteaded property. Now just imagine what if, absent the state, coastal communities, voluntary groups, companies etc homesteaded radial areas of the seas? Without super-state coercion funded bodies such as the world bank etc building container ports and motorways into every national culture that remains uncorrupted only due to their until recent isolation, and the people of those areas homesteading their seas as private property, both the natural, cultural and ethnic environment would be preserved. It is the state and its annihilation of property rights that destroys all three of these environments.
    the statist elite prefer to keep the oceans unowned as it permits their cronies to travel the world for free. even now the global powers that be are trying to crack down on groups in the relatively stateless horn of africa who are rightfully homesteading their natural resources – because it threatens the shipping lanes of our corporate fascist masters. they dont want to pay tolls.

    The way I see private property with regard to ocean resources can be explained with reference to that article you linked to. http://www.gma.org/lobsters/allaboutlobsters/lobsterhistory.html
    The example given of the isolated fishing community of Monhegan Island – I would argue, is an example of private property rights and capitalism. The private property right is owned and controlled by a group but its a voluntary collective. there is no state coercion at work on the tiny island of 17 fisherman. I would accept that arrangement into the definition that I have argued in favour of. What is a property right if it is not a territory established according to the lockean homesteading principle that enables exclusion from and control of a resource? The 17 fisherman on Monhegan Island have homesteaded a 2 mile radius property right over this fishery resource in their own interest. Its not corporatist large scale commercialism but I would argue it still fits the true broader definition of capitalism as private property and peaceful interaction.

    one last point – I enjoy discussion and I think, as enemies of the status quo we can all benefit despite having differing preferences. I try not to be confrontational, dismissive or disrespectful. absent the state we will all be free to be as different and exclusive as we like. thanks for responding.

  5. s e pearson. I think in my initial comment I failed to clearly define my terms which may have lead to some misunderstanding. by capitalism I merely refer to private property and peaceful interaction. When I refer to motivation and incentive I should explain that my concept of profit is not limited exclusively to commercial gain. For example even an autonomous small holder is motivated by self interest when he plants vegetables for himself. He is investing time, effort and material resources in the expectation of future reward. This reward may be material, in this case a vegetable crop, or psychological or social but the individual is always motivated by self interest. Why do you obtain a thousandth share in this field if you do not expect it to benefit yourself, even if only in the form of personally enjoying the benefit it gives to others and call it altruism?

    These capitalists you say ‘get hold’ of the commons. I imagine you refer to commercial operations and you consider the individual owner of a small traditional dingy fishing purely for self sufficiency to be some other category? Is he not the private owner of a capital resource (the dingy)? is he not motivated by self interest? does he not expect the endeavour to be worth his while? he must believe that he will get more out of the fishing than he puts in otherwise why bother? if he does believe this then the difference between his inputs and his outputs is profit. and unless he gives all the fish away to ‘society’ then this is private profit. If private profit is not capitalism then what is? Even if the scenario is upscaled to a group of fisherman sharing a fishing dingy, the dingy is still private and likewise the motivations and the private nature of the profit remain.
    Even if the scenario is upscaled to a tribe or some other larger grouping, it is still private and thus my original argument that anyone and everyone should own all resources still holds.

    I dont care who owns scarce resources or what they do with them. But the nature of humans as input minimisers and output maximisers can only be understood in terms of private property. commonly owned resources are in fact owned by noone. Ownership is exclusive control. without ownership there is no exclusion and thus a free for all. without ownership there is no control and thus exploitation, exhaustion and destruction.

    You are absolutely correct that, motivated by profit as we naturally are, the commons will be decimated. capitalists given access to a resource, unrestricted by natural controls such as prices, will race to catch, fell, hunt, mine as much as they can. because if they dont the next guy will. Conversely if someone or some group own the resource they can control access to it. high demand is met by higher prices which informs market actors to seek alternatives or moderate their desires.
    The rainforests are destroyed precisely because noone owns them. private forestries survive and thrive because the owners are motivated to protect them and only take as much as the resource can stand. If noone owns the resource and I cannot claim it because the state prevents my homesteading it, then I lose nothing by wiping it out through exploitation. I am in fact incentivised into doing so.

    however psychotic your profit motive you do not behave the same way with your own property as you do with ‘the commons’. if you own a cattle farm you could get a tiny fraction more profit by slaughtering your entire stock including the breeding stock. however you realise that to do so would harm your long term profit. now apply that to the oceans.

  6. Will…. you must come from Anti-State.com? Either way, welcome!

    Somali pirates as homesteaders of seaways…… totally. I imagine as time goes on and on it will become less violent and more formalized.

    It’s interesting how you express a tribe’s territorialism as an expression of private property. I’ve made that argument myself: that from the outside it looks like private property while on the inside it’s commonly owned property. I’m sure I picked up the proper anarcho-whatever terminology along the way somewhere, but I’ve also seen in action in traditional tribal nations which is where I like to think that all my anarchist tendencies come from…. but who knows?

  7. “If private profit is not capitalism then what is?”

    I don’t object to the principal of private property, indeed I would expect it to be upheld in the absence of a state to the last extremity, and that those who for ideological reasons or out of pure greed did abandon it to ultimately suffer all that can be suffered and more. (That’s their prerogative thought if that is what they want to do)

    However I would dispute that private property = capitalism. The concept of private ownership pre-dates anything we could recognise as capitalism by tens of centuries and thus must be distinct. Obviously what we mean by capitalism varies massively between people and ideologies. However I would suggest that we take the most specific and minimal definition of it in order to arrive at a concept which is usable. Capital refers to surplus wealth in monetary form (and therefore in a readily convertible and liquid form). Capitalism sees this wealth as giving its owners the right to control economic activity through the purchase of economic enterprises (and more usually implies fractional ownership through share holding).

    Advocates of capitalism usually argue that this arrangement indirectly fosters a maximisation of the productive capacity of a society. It does this by creating competition and by having the single objective of the profit motive measured in monetary terms. This is usually referred to as “the invisible hand” (usually attributed to Adam Smith). And, by the terms of their own assessment, they are right. Capitalism demands of its economic captains that any economic activity which they are charged with command of be solely devoted “the bottom line” to the exclusion of any other goals save that of avoiding the wrath of the state.

    However obviously this myopic view fails to appreciate what is actually in the interests of society resulting in the classic “socialisation of costs and privation of profit” syndrome. Moreover it does not even necessarily encourage good stewardship of resources, to take your example of fishing stocks, if a fishing stock is held as a private resources it could well make sense to harvest it to destruction if it was thought that the price of the resource would decline in the future. Alternatively it frequently makes sense to “profit take” even at the cost of the destruction of the resource if investment in it can not guarantee a much better return in the long run. If your fishing boat has a lifetime of five years left, and if you know that you can’t afford to replace it or that replacing it will cost you 80% of your profit over the next 20 years then it makes perfect sense to simply extract the largest profit you can in the five years you have free of the need for investment.

    This is not some theoretic problem. Asset stripping, a perfectly logical activity under a capitalist mindset, destroyed whole industries and communities in the West in the last half of the 20th century. It may well be that this practice has weakened the fundamental viability of those societies to the extent that under no circumstances can these societies be restored to functional industrialised economies. If that is correct then, obviously, the consequences are going to be dire.

    In practice we have seen capitalism create all sorts of problems which did not appear to be inherent to it as a doctrine. Particularly the increasing centralisation tendency brilliantly demonstrated by Waddington’s Monopoly. And additionally in the propensity of capitalist enterprises to seek to modify their environments to maximise their effectiveness by subverting control of state power.

    I think capitalism can only be made workable outside of a state, when the consequences of (for example) BP’s activities in Nigeria would have resulted in those activities coming to an abrupt end. Only when responsibility is forced on capitalists by them having a strong possibility of being brought to account for their actions can we expect any sort of rational behaviour from them.

  8. And of course this is where conventional libertarianism reaches a deal break situation with conventional anarchism because:
    A. What’s the point in getting rid of the state if all that does is allow Walmart to issue its security guards with .50s and it acquisition dept with Apaches and M1 tanks?
    B. How could Walmart operate in a society in which every community could make its own law and, if it felt like it, appropriate resources on its land?

    For the practical minded secessionist the problem is a serious one; how do organisations with massively more resources than any prospective individual self determining community fit into a secessionist society? One possible outcome is to create a need for increasingly tight federation as a counter balance to the economic/social/political and perhaps military power of giant corporations. A current which leads straight back to your Big State.

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