Nine meals from anarchy

December 11, 2008

Andrew Simms is policy director and head of the climate change programme at the London-based New Economics Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.

andrewsimmscroppedNothing reveals the thin veneer of civilisation like a threat to its fuel or food supply, or the cracks in society like a major climate-related disaster. But that, increasingly, is what we face: the global peak and decline of oil production; and a global food chain in crisis due to multiple stresses including imminent, potentially irreversible global warming.

The vulnerability of our system was revealed in the year 2000 when fuel protests in the UK disrupted food supplies and left the nation just, “nine meals from anarchy.” At the time, the government were able to force the restoration of fuel supplies. That was a short-term protest, but what if it’s the ground itself protesting that there is no longer enough oil to go around?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said of world oil production that there will be, “a narrowing of spare capacity to minimal levels by 2013,”making, “significant downward revisions” from the previous year. Economic and social impacts from such a market shock could be even faster, deeper and more global than any banking crisis. They could also be potentially irreversible.

The IEA’s motto is, “energy security, growth and sustainability,” which is fine, except that there doesn’t appear to be any. Our food system depends on oil not just for transport, but also for chemical inputs without which intensive farming would fail. The UK lost its “energy independence” in 2004, and our reliance on external supplies, the subject of hotly competing interests, is steadily growing.

In Britain, until the early 1990s secret food stocks of easily stored basics like biscuits and flour were held officially. Now, the government depends on the retailers whose vulnerable distribution networks are built around “just-in-time” delivery. But the supermarkets have undermined the resilience of our food chain equally by presiding over the hollowing-out of its infrastructure, in terms of the number, diversity and independence of producers, suppliers, and services.

On top of that is our collective de-skilling with regard to the preparation and storage of food. These are all things essential to resilience in the face of external shocks. Against this backdrop, our national food self-sufficiency is in long-term decline. It has fallen by over one fifth since 1995. So, we are increasingly dependent on imports at precisely the time when, for several reasons to do with climate, energy, economics and changing consumption patterns, the guarantee of the rest of the world’s ability to provide for us is weakening.

In April this year, 37 countries faced a food crisis due to a mix of climate-related, conflict and economic problems. From Haiti to Egypt, India and Burkina Faso there was rioting in the streets. Stocks of rice, on which half the world depends, were at their lowest level since the 1970s. Around the same time, U.S. wheat stocks were forecast to drop to their lowest levels since 1948.

The fabric of the food chain is wearing thin. Energy issues, global warming and energy-intensive eating habits are now poking holes through it. For example, intensive farming’s big weak point is its dependence on fossil fuels to defy ecological gravity. As much a contributor to climate change, farming is uniquely and immediately vulnerable to warming. Against the background of terrifying long-term projections for global drought from the UK’s Hadley Centre, a single extreme weather event can tip any season’s global food cart.

Our approach to natural resources is more related than we realise to the catastrophic creation of unsustainable levels of financial credit. The latter, for example, helped finance the over-consumption of the former. And, the idea that we can have limitlessly rising resource consumption is even more dangerous than the illusion, now shattered, that credit can be extended without end.

At an international level, to reinforce social and environmental resilience, a massive transformation of our energy, transport, food and construction systems is needed that also compresses global income inequality, raising the incomes of the poor and lowering the consumption of the rich. Roosevelt’s original new deal brought stability, developed new infrastructure and radically reduced income inequality. A green new deal for environmental transformation today could do the same.

To prevent chaos in the face of external shocks, we need an economic system that builds strong human and communal relationships and steers us towards living within our environmental means. Recession, fuel and food and fuel prices are spurring a dramatic growth of vegetable gardening and urban agriculture. Elsewhere, Transition Towns are attempting to break our carbon chains, and, through diversity and decentralisation, strengthen the nation’s community and economic fabric. A sort of cultural self-medication is happening. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has begun alerting government to the scale of the problem — the challenge now is to ensure that government policies don’t, through out-dated market-obsessed economic thinking inadvertently increase the nation’s vulnerability, rather than strengthening our resilience.

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hmgov could cure the problem by scrapping one nuclear missile a year for ten years.

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