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Peak oil means peak food as well

By Michael Lardelli - posted Monday, 13 July 2009

Optimism about our future is compulsory. It is politically incorrect to profess anything else. No matter what problems we face - ecological overshoot, global warming, energy decline, overpopulation - we must nevertheless be optimistic and hopeful that we will find solutions. People who do not believe that we will overcome our difficulties and continue ever upwards on a path of continuing economic growth and progress are "doomers". They spruik "doomer porn". They utter their nonsense because they hate the human race. If we fail and fall it will be their fault for being so pessimistic! They are undermining our resolve and ability to respond. Human ingenuity can always find a way if we only believe it!

I like to think of myself as a scientist (but that is always for others to judge). For a scientist the principal we hold most dear is objectivity. We must try to interpret data without superimposing our own beliefs, values or desires upon it. Even when it tells us what we do not want to believe. Even when the data make us sick to the pits of our stomachs with terror.

I am pessimistic about the future because I have seen and understood the data on resources. I know that oil production peaked in July 2008. (I have seen the unpublished reanalysis of the International Energy Agency’s own 2008 report that shows this conclusively.) I know that our use of other resources - such as water and phosphate - is critically unsustainable. Now that energy is declining there will not be enough to invest in building the alternative energy future that many of us dream of.


The nature of our economic/political system means that the declining fossil energy supply will go to the shorter term priorities of growing food, supporting armies and maintaining (as far as possible) the comfortable lifestyles of an ever-contracting circle of the wealthy. The time needed to build any form of alternative energy infrastructure - and the scale of the expansion needed in the face of the current and worsening energy decline - mean that it will simply never happen.

If I am so pessimistic, why do I bother writing about it? What good does it do? As a scientist I know that you must understand a problem in order to solve it. To have any chance of coping with this developing disaster we need to see it for what it truly is - not pretend that it does not exist (for example, the population problem) or that it will never happen (for example, peak oil). If we do not understand the true nature of the problem the "solutions" we attempt may make the problem worse. Like supporting future population growth through more efficient use of resources. Or growing biofuels on marginal land without considering how you will replace the soil nutrients they deplete. Or planning to electrify of the car fleet without considering the load that will place on an overstretched grid or where the energy and materials will come from to maintain the road network it requires.

If we objectively understand our true situation and what, feasibly, we can do about it then we can take appropriate action and not waste our precious remaining fossil energy on optimistic - but ultimately futile - "solutions". We will not end up where we want to be (there will be no return to the peak of the oil age and the extravagant technologies it supported) but we may avoid falling the entire distance to the brutal bottom of the energy curve that awaits.

"Optimism" is the problem, not the solution. We use it as an excuse to avoid thinking about the desperate measures we must take to cope with what is coming. We use it to put off actually doing anything. As long as Dr X, CEO Y or Minister Z says, "I’m optimistic that we will develop new energy sources" then we can go back to sleep because someone is obviously taking care of the problem - aren’t they?

When Einstein and Szilárd wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II warning about German interest in uranium and nuclear fission (the letter that ultimately spawned the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb) they did not do it because they felt, "optimistic" about the future. They were shit scared the Germans would develop nuclear weapons first! Winston Churchill did not rally the British saying, "I’m optimistic we will develop new solutions to the Nazi problem". Rather, he declared, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat … It is victory, victory at all costs, … however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival".

Today we are often told we need a new "Manhattan Project" for alternative energy but we will never make the sacrifices necessary for this in our already worsening economic situation if we are not truly, deeply fearful of the consequences of failure. Only fear - not optimism - can motivate populations sufficiently when they are already struggling with rising food prices, falling incomes and unemployment.


Tragically, our sensationalist media also know that fear grabs people’s attention. Our collective crisis fatigue is now so great that we ignore truly significant threats such as climate change and energy decline. Our anxiety is diverted into worrying whether it’s safe for our children to step outside the 4WD (SUV). But soon we will be worrying if we can find or afford to put food in their mouths.

Declining oil and water supplies, climate change and increasing population numbers are undermining Australia’s food security.  We who formerly prided ourselves on our ability to feed other nations have now become a net importer of fruit and vegetables. Statistical stupidity by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) has led us to believe we export 80 per cent of our agricultural production. However, as Mark McGovern of the Queensland University of Technology has shown, in fact we export less than 30 per cent.

This may not sound like much of a difference but it means that instead of producing 400 per cent more food than we ourselves consume it is less than 40 per cent! What will we do as energy decline, water shortages and climate change drastically cut our food production - or as our current record population growth rate doubles Australia’s population within 37 years - or both!  As other nations struggle to feed themselves, who will feed us?

My grandmother was a refugee during World War II in Europe. She would skip her meagre rations to give her toddler daughter (my mother) more to eat. Unlike most Australians, she knew real hunger! Australia needs a "Manhattan Project" for local, sustainable food production. But it will take unaffordable staples, empty shelves at the supermarkets and empty middle-class stomachs before we wake up to our food insecurity. Optimism will not put food on the table as oil, water and fertiliser dwindle. I’m shit scared of the future and what it means for my two children. How about you?

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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