Unless you have spent the past summer under a rock on a remote island, you have probably heard about the severe droughts besetting Asia, Europe, and the United States. Rivers turning into mere trickles. Crops failing or delivering less than half of their usual yields. Power plants shutting down due to a lack of cooling or fuel. The less advertised side of the story is that we have mostly done this to ourselves.
Drought is a sure killer for civilizations. A few years, let alone decades of persistent drought, have forced many civilization to their knees. The Akkadian Empire. The Mayans. The Tang Dynasty… The lack of water have forced people in the past to leave their settlements or die in trying to make a living where crops grew no longer.
Our current version of agricultural civilization is no different in this regard either. We rely heavily on agriculture to grow food, which in turn relies heavily on predictable rainfall patterns and a nutrient rich soil to grow crops. The only reason there are this many of us on the planet at the moment is that we’ve managed to break — or at least weaken — this link between land food and water, and the bond between locations where food is grown and where it’s consumed. At least, for a while.
The magic ingredient — of course — was energy, and in our current civilization’s case this meant: fossil fuels. As I wrote many times, energy is the economy, but not only that: energy is agriculture. There is an intricate and inseparable connection between food, water and energy.
We have used the power of long dead creatures to create fertilizers (solely responsible to keep at least 4 billion of us alive through artificially boosted yields) and to pump water at a previously unimaginable scale. Where all our ancestors could do is to use divert water from rivers via canals, with an occasional help from windmills and with an awful lot of digging, we now utilize vast arrays of pumps to remove water from all sources. Surface waters. Underground reservoirs. Even from the sea itself, by desalinating it.
Agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources, and water is used to produce most forms of energy. […] 72% of all water withdrawals are used by agriculture, 16% by municipalities for households and services, and 12% by industries.
— writes the UN report on water. With the help of steam, and later with diesel powered machinery, we’ve dug immense arrays of canals, lined with concrete made by burning coal. We have built dams out of even more concrete, made by burning even more fossil fuels, to withheld large amounts of water.
Tasks, which cannot be electrified in any meaningful way, at least no where near the scale required. And these tasks are far from being the only ones sharing this trait… Our civilization needs a constant and ever increasing flow of energy to stay alive. There is no steady state in this model.
We’ve become more dependent on energy from outside our bodies than any time in human history. There is simply no other way to keep 8 billion of us alive, with this many of us inhabiting large cities. These settlements suck an immense amount of energy from their environments to keep an unnaturally dense population well fed and (relatively) pest free. Imagine life without trucks hauling food from far away lands, or pumps forwarding fresh water and removing sewage 24/7, 365 days a year. Or life without heating and cooling provided by electricity or natural gas.
Goodies, we all place our bets on to continue our lavish lifestyles and which help us entertain beautiful images of 10 billion of us mingling around in clean green cities, are also built from metals mined by diesel excavators, smelted in coal and gas fired plants, and transported to your doorstep by ships and trucks burning oil. Yes, including shiny solar panels, pearly white wind turbines and your latest Tesla.
We have managed to put the fate of our entire global civilization in the hands of long dead plants and plankton morphed into coal, oil and gas. Carbon, which is now eager to return into the atmosphere by our hands to restore the climatic conditions under which those long dead creatures thrived.
Pumping water to irrigate crops is considered to be the ultimate “civilizational good”: turning deserts into flowering gardens of Eden, feeding gently the humble people who made it possible. One of the less known side effects of irrigation though is salinization, the accumulation of salt in our soils. A mineral originally destined to the seas, carried there by rivers from the mountains, is getting trapped in our lands. This is a curse besetting not only prior civilizations, but ours as well. The more you water crops from rivers, the more salt you put into the soil which, when it reaches a critical threshold for plants, makes the very effort of growing food futile. But it doesn’t stop there: salt eventually finds its way to underground reservoirs and poisons drinking water. A true progress trap — one of the many.
Another predicament with watering plants reveals itself when one takes a look at the problem from an underground reserve perspective. Water, which took aeons to accumulate in aquifers like the Ogallala under the Great Plains, or the one under the Central Valley of California is being pumped at an unsustainable speed. At a pace, which not only exceeds the natural replenishment rate, but also collapses the very caverns used to hold that accumulated water — making their eventual refill impossible. If this makes you feel that we are chopping the limb on which we and our future sits, then your feelings are not entirely misguided. Another trap threatens to close its jaws on the believers of progress.
At this point it is perhaps needless to say that the magic fuels, which made this rather shortsighted strategy possible, are of the very same finite nature. Stored in underground reserves fossil fuels are just as prone to depletion as any finite reservoir of water. Did we use this one time resource wisely then?
In our joy felt over by the abundance of this ancient store of energy, and the amount of water it made accessible, we have quickly got rid of the wetlands and forests which withheld sufficient amounts of moisture for dry periods. We have turned these valuable ecosystems into croplands now requiring watering instead of acting like a buffer storage, or in case of forests, a conveyor belt for rain. Adding insult to injury we have also straightened up the rivers with our fuming machinery, and turned them into fast lanes through which spring melt and sudden downpours could be get rid of as quickly as possible.
It takes me an immense effort not to call this whole approach batshit crazy. We are effectively drying up the lands we inhabit both from the above and from below, salinate them to death, then complain about the lack of rain — caused or at least made greatly worse by the fumes we sent up the air during the whole process. Insanely ingenious.
Europe is a basket case full of examples. It’s energy woes — threatening not only its industry, but effectively shutting down its fertilizer production altogether — has been just made worse with this recent drought. As a direct consequence of the suicidal ‘dry your lands’ mission combined with climate change melting glaciers, river levels are now at a record low: making the shipment of coal ever less effective and in some cases impossible. Barges could not be loaded full unless they want to end up stuck on a sand bank in the shallow waters. This has created an acute shortage of the fuel at power plants, further decreasing power output.
These installations, besides fuel, all require cooling by water. Water, which is not only flowing at historic lows, but as a result of persistent heatwaves, has also warmed up considerably: making cooling less effective, and the release of the warmed up coolant back into the rivers more deadly to fish than ever. It’s not only Europe though. Record low water levels at Lake Mead in the US, or on the Yangtze in China made electricity generation much less effective in these places as well. And before you start pinning your hopes on solar: heat also makes it 10–25% less effective by increasing internal electrical resistance within the panels themselves. (No to mention the immense amounts of freshwater needed during the mining and fabrication process of these and many other “green” products.)
This is a global phenomenon caused by our insane fossil fuel powered business model — which we are so busy hoping that can be electrified — prioritizing short term outputs of food, humans and their gadgets above all else. It is no wonder then, that as a result, four billion of us could be living in areas facing water scarcity by as early as 2025. Half of the world’s population — in three years.
Civilizations are such: they create predicaments for themselves by pretending to solve lesser issues — which could’ve been avoided altogether by applying a little self-restraint and a pinch of common sense.
The damage we have done to the planet in the name of progress is coming back to haunt us in all areas at once. Fossil fuel use has enabled polluting industries (including industrial scale agriculture) to scale well beyond nature’s capacity to cope. It has resulted in the loss of underground aquifers, forests and wetlands, as well as in increased temperatures; all leading to droughts and pollution, causing yields and energy ‘production’ to drop in turn. The higher the temperatures rise and the more forests and wetlands we consume, the more drought we will get — and Nature will not care whether we have sacrificed these ecosystems to open a lithium mine, or to grow crops to produce biofuels.
Well, as usual though, that which is unsustainable will simply not be sustained. We have set some really nice negative feedback loops into motion, preventing the further expansion of energy use and food production — all this in addition to our woes owed already to resource depletion. Agriculture based on irrigation and enjoying a one time boost from fossil fuels in the form of power, fertilizer and chemicals will simply falter as the finite resources sustaining it vane and as the consequences of ever more frequent droughts come home to roost — whether you water your lawn or not, take shorter showers or not.
This is systemic issue, which could be only addressed by getting rid of the short term profit motive and aiming to reduce consumption on all fronts, while trying to restore the ecosystems which have been lost in the process. Not something large societies with a senile ruling class are especially good at, but a concept which explains why all civilizations follow a similar pattern of rise prosper and fall — and why ours has just entered its own phase of terminal decline (1).
Until next time,
(1) At this phase all you can do is to adopt: learn how to grow food, how to spare and withhold water on your land, protect existing ecosystems from destruction and restore what has been lost. Learn the skills you deem necessary in a time when industrial agriculture is no longer viable and where the systems of civilization slowly disintegrate. Note that this an awfully long process, preceded by wealth (and land) accumulation then hallmarked by sudden crashes (a collapse of a state here, a crisis there) — something which has a feeling of a never-ending emergency to it. It is important to note however that there will be life after this civilization is over and thus preventing a world war making things a lot more worse is more important than ever.
This post was based on the Oilprice.com article titled Water And Energy Shortages Are Fueling A Global Food Crisis — a topic I felt deserved a more holistic look than what was presented there.
Title image from pixabay