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Energy, food, and the upside (or not) of dystopia


This piece from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner is supposed to be about the upside of the fact that we’ve transitioned definitively to a new era of elevated food and energy prices, but the upshot that Warner arrives at sounds less like a silver lining than a recipe for a Promethean desperate-dystopian transformation of human civilization into something akin to Soylent Green:

[T]here are more positive ways of looking at…the apparently catastrophe of a current spike in food and oil prices…which don’t entirely fit with the present mood of declinism that has come to instruct all aspects of debate around the global economy … It seems that every time Western economies show some sign of climbing out of the mire, along comes another oil price shock to push them back in. Meanwhile, the most severe US drought in 25 years has sent grain prices soaring, adding to the already debilitating effects on world food supply of a poor monsoon season in Asia and a bad harvest in Russia and Ukraine. In our own neck of the woods, high levels of rainfall have wrecked the annual harvest from potatoes to wheat, apples and Brussels sprouts. Looking at the phenomenon globally, this is the third such food price shock in five years. Previous such episodes have spawned mass riots, and the last one is often cited as a major factor in the Arab spring.

… So where is the positive in all this gloom? Nobody is pretending that high oil and food prices are anything other than extremely painful. But by rationing demand, encouraging efficiency, incentivising new investment and driving the search for alternatives, high prices also provide an absolutely vital market discipline … Malthusian catastrophe is neither inevitable nor actually particularly likely given these pricing disciplines. At prices like these, previously untapped hydrocarbon reserves suddenly become economically viable, as do great tracks of under-exploited agricultural land. The era of cheap and plentiful may already be a thing of the past, but is that really such a bad thing?

— Jeremy Warner, “Best to get used to high food and energy prices — they’re here to stay,” The Telegraph, August 29, 2012 (emphasis added)

Regarding those “previously untapped hydrocarbon reserves” that have “suddenly become economically viable,” it’s important to remember that the reality on (and also under) the ground when it comes to “developing” untapped hydrocarbon reserves is profoundly problematic, as seen in, to name just one example, the growing problems stemming from the rise of fracking. And on the food side, there is of course no lack of problems with the universal adoption of industrial farming practices, including troubling effects on the food itself, the land, animals, and people: physically, psychologically, spiritually. The assumption behind Warner’s views appears to be the same one driving most mainstream thought and rhetoric on these issues: that our industrial-technological way of life simply has to be maintained. For an updated view of what the reality of a future unfolding in this fashion might well look like, switch from Soylent Green and see the human and planetary wasteland depicted by Paolo Bacigalupi in Pump Six and Other Stories, which, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “explores a post–fossil fuel future where genetically modified crops both feed and power the world, and greedy megacorporations hold the fates of millions in their hands.”

Meanwhile, note that despite all of the recent triumphalist rhetoric about the supposed end of peak oil as a viable theory, the estimable Andrew Evans-Pritchard pointed out just a few days ago in The Telegraph that “Peak cheap oil is an incontrovertible fact.” And that, of course, is what the practical reality of our present energy-and-economy predicament has always boiled down to.

To assume that things have to continue operating according to currently reigning principles and trajectories is both the height of unconsciousness and a surefire method for stumbling directly into a true disaster via our very efforts to avoid one. How much more challenging and rewarding it would be to approach the present circumstance conversely by using it as an opportunity for learning to see through the old agenda and its assumptions, even if only on an individual and personal level. To quote Jesus, the Buddha, The Matrix, and Rage Against the Machine: wake up!


High food prices and global societal collapse: US researchers warn of a link

If anyone still wants to question or deny whether the era of peaking fossil fuels, along with the epic government-backed financial swindles of the past few decades, will have — is currently having — distinct real-world impacts of a severely disruptive nature, please note the emphasis on the role of biofuels and government deregulation of the financial industry in this story:

The waves of social unrest and political instability seen recently around the world have coincided with large peaks in global food prices, US researchers have found. They warn that unless something is done urgently to address rising food prices, it could trigger more widespread trouble in the near future. Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute , and colleagues, correlated the dates of riots around the world with data from the United Nations that plots changes in the price of food. They found evidence that episodes of social unrest in North Africa and the Middle East coincided closely with peaks in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index.

… [Bar-Yam said] “As we saw in London recently, even relatively affluent people … who do not have to worry about having enough food, can get caught up in conditions of social disorder and exploit them for remarkably small benefits. What we see therefore is a rising force of food prices driving a general collective transition to disorder around the world.”

… The researchers point to two main factors driving the increase in food prices. The first is the deregulation of commodity markets, especially in the United States, United Kingdom and Japan, which allows prices to fluctuate widely. The second is the use of corn to produce ethanol for biofuel.

… “This scenario we see unfolding is very much the scenario that people have been warning about as a global societal collapse,” says Bar-Yam.

Full story at ABC Science. Thank you to 3 Quarks Daily for the heads-up via a tweet.

Forgive me for quoting Rage Against the Machine, but their lyrics, so deeply laced with fury about the social and economic injustices of modern corporate-consumer capitalism, are coming to mind frequently lately as a lashing artistic expression of the reality of many things that are happening:

The clockers born starin’ at an empty plate
Momma’s torn hands cover her sunken face
We hungry but them belly full
The structure is set ya neva change it with a ballot pull

Those lines come from “Down Rodeo,” a song about riots and violence spreading from ghettos into upper-class urban districts. They show up at 1:08 in this fan-made video:

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