Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Holographic System

Browsing the "environment" section of the Guardian online, I came across a couple of stories that interested me. One was from the incomparable Evan Fraser and Elisabeth Fraser, about whom the Guardian says:
Evan Fraser holds the Canada research chair in Global Food Security in the department of geography at the University of Guelph. He is the author of Empires of Food: Feast Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Elizabeth Fraser is completing her MA in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo

They list ten things that we should know about the food system. The first three points run:

1. There's enough food for everybody

The most important thing to know about the global food system is also one of the least appreciated: there is enough food for everyone on the planet to live a healthy and nutritious life. In fact, the UN tells us that there is about 2,800 kcal per person per day available. But, the global food system is deeply inequitable. There are about 842 million people hungry on the planet, while at the same time there are about 1.5 billion who are overweight or obese.

2. Price volatility

The price of food is wildly volatile. In 2008, the United Nations Food Price Index almost doubled in less than a year before crashing in 2009. Prices then shot up again in 2010 and 2011. Despite this volatility, our supply of food stayed stable throughout this period. This suggests that the price of food is not determined by our ability to produce food at a global level.

3. One third of food is wasted

Approximately one third of the world's food is wasted before it is consumed (pdf). In the developed world most of the waste happens at the consumer end, when food spoils in grocery stores or in refrigerators. Most of the waste in the developing world happens on the farm as a consequence of inefficient storage and processing facilities.
These three points alone begin to explore the incredible complexity of the modern industrial food system. The second point, that prices are unhinged from production, tell me one of the reasons the system is in such a mess--it is tied to the international speculation casino. I've written before about how after 2007, big money was looking for a safe harbour, and enormous volumes descended on agriculture futures contracts, driving up the consumer price index internationally.
But consider these points; there's enough food, the developed world wastes a third of their food, and food prices are unhinged from production. Each one of these points opens up a world of questions and concerns. If there's so damned much food, why are people starving across the world (And I include the poor in the developed world in this)? The answer is not that they are where the food isn't, but rather, as Amartya Sen has detailed, because they are unable to pay enough for food. And that opens a whole box of crazy called global capitalism. I'm not Noam Chomsky, or any of those guys that can clearly and surgically deconstruct that particular horrorshow. While I understand colonialism and the way in which people are reclassified into non-people (like First Nations around the world), and how it gets into our brains and changes the way we think and speak, I cannot casually toss off bon mots about the ruling class. Rather, I have to laboriously work my way through each side stream which slowly coalesces into a theory hedged around by doubt and uncertainty. And this leads me into thinking like an ecosystem: Everything affects everything. I talk about the food system, local, national, and global, pretty constantly. But the system is holographic; no matter what shard you pick up and look at, you eventually make your way through to neo-liberalism, globalization, and the death of democratic potential under the assault of Massively Big Money. When writes in the Guardian:
It is not only the spring of solidarity, it is also the winter of despair in the Balkans. And if we had everything before, soon we will have nothing. What lies under the surface of the catastrophic floods is not only a natural disaster, but also a social disaster. It is as if the Dutch king, Willem-Alexander, was right when last year he declared that "the welfare state of the 20th century is over". In a nationally televised annual address, the king said a new "participation society" would take its place, in which people must save and invest to create their own social safety net with less help from the government. The severe floods in the Balkans showed that the king was right. What we got here was a "participation society". People from across the former Yugoslavia were organising their own social safety nets, sending clothes, food and medicine to those in need. And, yes, we, the people of the Balkans, should be proud of that. On the other hand, as the water subsides, on the surface it becomes more evident how the Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian states failed not only to warn people or rescue them, but also were complicit in the tragedy. In these times, there is no such thing as a "natural disaster". The "natural disaster" is always enabled by social factors. In the past two decades, these Balkan states reduced investment in the construction and maintenance of dams and embankments. During the time of Yugoslavia, only in Serbia did the government plan to build 34 more dams to regulate the waterways of the Danube and Sava rivers. To date, only five dams have been built. Now the water management companies across the Balkans are gradually being privatised.
We can see the end of civilizations that Evan Fraser talks about in Empires of Food where cities are built on flood plains--an agricultural hot-spot with a frequently replaced fertility (think ten thousand years of agriculture on the Nile delta) built over by housing until the agriculture is pushed into marginal lands. The next reaction is, as in the UK, to either dredge out the watercourse, or to dam it, both of which are poor responses (see the controversy over the Three Gorges Dam project)
Three Gorges Dam, Sandouping, Hubei Province, China. Photographed 2004/07/26 by w:User:Nowozin.

to the much simpler solution of not building f*cking cities on flood plains (yeah, I'm looking at you, southern Manitoba, Calgary, Edmonton). A lot of this is based on our inability to distinguish between weather and climate. We consistently mistake weather for climate, thinking that the way the weather is today will be the way the weather will always be. It doesn't help that we're facing global climate change with this attitude either. We keep thinking that because we don't want it to happen, somehow the universe will listen to us and it won't happen. Such deep deep denial. And then, of course, we see that the dams are being shifted out of the public realm into the private, corporate-held realm, thus exacerbating the problem of inequality within society. And that just happens to be another marker of societies in decline. And still, that's not what people want; as Srecko points out, people are spontaneously self-organizing into relief committees and getting the job done.So why can't we count on the governments we elect reflect our desires? I think everyone reading this just supplied an answer to that--and it looks a lot like oligarchy. If we pick up a different slice of the holograph, we see that so much is based on an assumption that looks a lot like the weather/climate perception: all our plans and responses to the problems we face, from hunger to climate change, are based on the belief that we will continue to have the effectively unlimited cheap energy that have characterized the last century. Agriculture, for example, has changed from farming to industrial production. At a time when the difficulties facing us as a global species could stand to have a source of cheap, portable, always ready energy, we're done with that. Nafeez Ahmed points out in the Guardian, that in the US, tight formation oil and gas reserves are being downgraded by up to 95%. This, of course, means that the much-hyped energy-independent future in North America is so much bullshit. World hydrocarbon-based energy supplies are in decline. Period. And with that decline goes the modern world. We will never have this degree of energy freedom again--even if we move completely to sustainables and build a thousand-nuclear-reactor power backbone tomorrow. And what's worse, with climate change looking to be unstoppable, we may not get out of this as a species.

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