Monday, September 3, 2012

A Quiet Word To Anyone Listening

Eleven years ago I moved to Tasmania because my wife wanted us to have kids. I felt then, as I do now, that Tasmania would be a useful place to raise children, and I said quite clearly to those who asked back then that I thought there were some difficult times coming to the mainland.

I didn't foresee the 9/11 shit, no. But I did foresee the decline in oil and energy availability, and I guessed at the economic problems which would result. I also guessed that Queensland was going to cop some real problems from a climate which was already quite obviously beginning to change, and I'd point out that in the last couple years, we've seen record-breaking storms up north, and unprecedented floods in the south. 

I'm not claiming any kind of prescience. I just saying that I read carefully from a wide variety of news sources, and I'm good at pattern recognition, and I've been prepared to make very big life-decisions for myself and my family based on these things. Decisions which have stood up very well for us.

Well. It's that time again, folks.

There's trouble ahead.

Now, I'm well set for this trouble - or as well as I can imagine, short of getting a decent solar installation up and running. But I'm going to talk here, briefly, because those of you who might not yet have discerned the pattern of what's coming might want to maybe think about what steps you want to take for yourselves.

Here's the problem: the world's biggest exporter of food, particularly staples like corn, grain and soybeans, has been in the grip of a once-in-a-century drought for several months now. That would be the USA, of course. There's already been a very significant uptick in basic food commodity prices, and there's more due.

On top of that, it turns out that America's biggest single highway is also badly fucked by this drought. I'm referring to the Mississippi river. Something like 60% of US grain is moved along that river, and God alone knows how much of the soybean crop. Moving the stuff by barge costs a third what it would by rail (if they could find enough rail capacity) and moving it by truck costs maybe six times the cost of barge travel. And again, the sheer volume of river carriage is such that there just aren't enough road-trucks to handle it.

Unfortunately, the river is now so low, and so narrow, that it just can't carry all those big barges. And nobody really knows what to do about it. There's a lot of crops in storage, and in those barges right now. From what I read, they've got maybe two weeks to shift them before they start to go bad.

This, obviously, is not good. But let's add a few things.

Turns out that the grain/corn belt in Europe is also drought-struck at the moment, though not as badly as the US. Badly enough to make things difficult, though.

Now, one more thing: according to CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, it looks as though the El Nino phenomenon is building up once more in the Indian Ocean. And of course, El Nino means drought in Australia -- particularly in the Victorian and NSW wheat-belt areas, probably in about a year's time. Maybe two. (Or not at all. El Nino is hard to predict. We might get lucky. Maybe.)

All of this is already on the table. Any further crises of any sort will only intensify the problems we're already going to face. It would be nice if we didn't get any unexpected floods, fires, tsunamis, crop blights, giant storms, etc... but that's not how the world works, is it? 

A few years ago the world had a food production/distribution crisis. (I should point out that there is a large body of evidence to support the very interesting argument that it was precisely that food crisis which sparked off a series of riots, uprisings, and outright rebellions throughout the Arab world.)  We got through it, but as a result, the world's ready food stores are low. We haven't got a big safety margin here.

I don't pretend to know what kind of ramifications will result from a really serious, world-wide shortfall in food production. I don't know where the wars and riots will start. I don't know which countries will be thrown into turmoil. I don't know which aspects of our global economy will be damaged or destroyed.

I do know this: over the next two years, it's going to be extremely hard to feed seven billion people. And that is, without question, going to cause some very big problems.

You might want to think about your plans fairly carefully. 


  1. Yah. And people think we're weird for trying to grow so much of our own food. I just wish we had a wood stove and a pond for summer water storage.

    1. Sue -- you know about rocket mass heaters? Hyperefficient woodburning heaters. Building one shouldn't be beyond your abilities, and would likely prove very helpful.

    2. Hadn't encountered them previously, but it looks like they merit further investigation. We have wood aplenty. Problem is, we are also currently living in a shitty manufactured home (please don't step on that spot in the main bathroom, maybe avoid that one in the hallway too). But the Better Half is talking about another five years here and I'd like to have SOMETHING.

  2. I live in the I (and my family) may have to learn to eat the dates off the calenders. At least the ocean is just down the road, so fish are always a possibility.

    1. I don't imagine it will be about food shortages in countries like this one. But I wouldn't be planning holidays in more marginal countries such as Indonesia, for example. And I'd be really careful about making investments that depended on the status of governance in a wide range of places.

      Other things, too: supposing certain countries that are already dependent on food aid or food imports wind up on shorter rations than ever, their populations will be more vulnerable to diseases of all kinds. And if you get a really good outbreak going in a heavily populated but poor nation, that can easily affect wealthier countries in the vicinity.

      I truly don't know what's coming up. But you can fact-check everything I've written, and draw your own conclusions. Tough times ahead.

    2. Not food shortages maybe, but it's going to be getting more expensive. Already has been here, which is why they don't include the cost of food in their inflation figures.... But even if we did live in the city, we'd still have a few chickens and a garden.