Thursday, January 20, 2011

LIFE INTERRUPTED Food, Storms & Escape

January 21, 2010

1. "THE FOOD BUBBLE" with Lester Brown

2. "The Australian super-floods" with Professor Matthew England

3. "12 X12 - back to simplicity" with author William Powers.


You have seen food prices going up at the local grocery store. That could be just the beginning. According to Lester Brown, a leading expert in both the environment and world agriculture, those bulging supermarket shelves are part of a "food bubble", which could crash.

Lester Brown founded the World Watch Institute, with it's annual "State of the World" reports. He's written 50 books, won many honors, is recognized as a thought-leader for our era. Now in his own Earth Policy Institute, Brown's new book is "World on Edge, How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse."

Brown compares our world food situation to the real estate bubble in the United States. We are in a "food bubble" he says.

Here is a quote from the Press Release at

""Our early 21st century civilization is in trouble. We need not go beyond the world food economy to see this. Over the last few decades we have created a food production bubble-one based on environmental trends that cannot be sustained, including over pumping aquifers, over plowing land, and overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide," notes Lester R. Brown, author of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (W. W. Norton & Company).

"If we cannot reverse these trends, economic decline is inevitable," notes Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization. "No civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems. Nor will ours.

"The archeological records of earlier civilizations indicate that more often than not it was food shortages that led to their downfall. Food appears to be the weak link for our global civilization as well. And unlike the recent U.S. housing bubble, the food bubble is global."

"The question is not whether the food bubble will burst but when," says Brown. While the U.S. housing bubble was created by the overextension of credit, the food bubble is based on the overuse of land and water resources. It is further threatened by the climate stresses deriving from the excessive burning of fossil fuels. When the U.S. housing bubble burst, it sent shockwaves through the world economy, culminating in the worst recession since the Great Depression. When the food bubble bursts, food prices will soar worldwide, threatening economic and political stability everywhere. For those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder, survival itself could be at stake."

In the Radio Ecoshock interview, we also discuss the impact of climate change on world food production.

Lester Brown also explains the difference between "event driven" problems, and "trend driven." In a short example, food prices might go up for a short time, because of a failed harvest some where, or speculation. That is "event driven." But food prices will definitely go up in the long run, due to oil depletion, soil depletion, and pumping out the water tables (water depletion). That are predictable "trend driven" processes.

We also talk about the gender problem in food. In many countries, especially Muslim countries like Pakistan, but not limited to Muslim countries - men eat the most food, first. Women and children get the left-overs, if any.

I remember seeing a BBC documentary about the after-math of the Pakistan floods last Summer. In woman after woman, the fingernails were very white, a sign of malnutrition. Food aid was not getting through to them, while men were eating. And this is true for the billion or so people at the bottom of our human "food chain" - those who get perhaps only one meal a day, and go to bed hungry every night. Again, women suffer the most. That's something to keep in mind, as the food bubble bursts.

Lester Brown does not shrink from the contentious issue of over-population. After all, should we try to infinitely expand world food production, even as the eco-system deteriorates, just because humans cannot control their own population? Lester goes into various measures we could be implementing to limit, and then reduce population.

We cover a lot of other issues, please listen to the audio interview. And as a bonus, I recorded the original press teleconference for you as well. That 45 minute recording is available here (in Lo-Fi, 10 megabytes).

You may also be able to download a free preview copy of Lester's new book here.


We all saw the awful footage from Queensland Australia. People, cars, houses, indeed whole towns, swept away in fast-moving floods. The area impacted was the size of France and Germany combined.

Three river systems filled up, and powerful waters damaged the city of Brisbane.

It's not the first time. In 1974, Cyclone Wanda flooded Brisbane. But in the last 12 months, flash floods hit all over the world, from Brazil through Pakistan, to Sri Lanka. It is hardly normal weather, but is it climate change?

From Australia, I'm pleased to have Professor Matthew England on the line. He's from theClimate Change Research Centre, at The University of New South Wales, in Sydney.

We learn that the increase in water in the atmosphere, as a result of global warming, is just one factor encouraging bigger storms to come more often, dumping unheard of amounts of rain in short periods.

The other big factor is warming oceans. The heat from warmer seas, even in a "cooler" water period like El Nino, adds force to tropical cyclones, typhoons, storms. Scientists have been measuring ocean temperatures not only around Australia, but around the world.

Most of the excess heat from the greenhouse effect is going into the oceans. As you know, water takes much longer than air to heat, but then water holds that heat longer. Dr. England expresses the worry that humans have not yet felt the real impact of the heat created by the greenhouse gases - that will continue to warm the oceans, with unpredictable results. And these oceans, once warmed, may determine the climate for centuries to come.

We cover briefly the research showing people are more likely to believe in global warming at the end of the summer, than after a winter storm. Newscasters in the media play on that, and it's pathetic - the kind of logical mistake I would expect my dog to make, but not millions of viewers. My own theory is that people put up all those "where is global warming now?" posts on the Net, after a winter storm, to re-enforce our general hope that we can keep on driving and flying around, that the threat of a high-carbon atmosphere isn't real after all. I hope I haven't insulted any dogs. Maybe they would be smart enough to recognize that the species are changing, the seasons aren't what they used to be, things aren't right....

For whatever reason, the floods and deaths in Australia touched me deeply. Maybe they seem so much like us here in North America. That is could happen to us here.

But the death toll from incredibly fast and heavy rains in Brazil is much higher. I've been to a "Favella" (slum) of Rio. I've seen those homes perched on hills, with no building codes, must people building whatever shelter they can. There is no government support, not even police and fire, for those people. It's no wonder so many died, when the flash floods took down hillsides of mud. I'm worried about the poorest people in the world.


Even Californians should be worried. Look up "ARkStorm". That stands for "atmospheric river 1000." Yes, a river of water in the atmosphere, hitting the U.S. West Coast.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is warning a big storm could flood California any time soon. The results would be more devastating that "The Big One" - the expected big earthquake there.Raw Story covers this well, Science daily even better.

The USGS just convened a big meeting about preparing for the super storm.

The USGS just issued a report on the flooding that could happen. The Central Valley, which is the heart of the State, and produces not only massive amounts of food, but also the main economic products of California, would become one giant 300 mile long lake. San Francisco and Los Angeles would suffer hundreds of billions of dollars in damages.

Just imagination? Hardly. A storm of that size hit California in the winter of 1861/2. Scientists can still find the high water marks from that one. Now with warming oceans, and a disturbed Jet Stream, there is a much greater chance a super storm could hit California. The new report calls for local, regional and state planning on the same scale as for the earthquake. Disaster drills for every city to be affected. There is even a warning video from USGS on You tube.

You can also download the full 200 page USGS report as a free .pdf file.


There is an emptiness that invites us all to escape. I did, for a while, living for 10 years without electricity in a self-built cabin in Northern Ontario, Canada.

William Powers did. And who is he? Google tells me about an American from Long Island, an international development and aid worker in poorer countries, a man concerned with the extinction of people, languages, and Nature.

William Powers' writing appears in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and many others. He's got degrees from Brown University and Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. He's even worked for the World Bank, - we'll forgive that. Bill is now a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

But Williams Powers had to leave all that, to find himself. In a Twelve by Twelve cabin in North Carolina. A place with no power, no address, and a creek with no name.

We learn a lot about our consumer society, when we leave.

If we can leave. I ended up near a uranium mine. With the wind just right, Bill Powers could smell the industrial chicken barns that power obesity in America. It's hard to be Henry David Thoreau, on Walden Pond, with military jets screaming in the sky.

I think you'll like the interview. It sure comes out we don't need 3,000 square foot homes to be happy.

The book has lots of good ideas about rethinking ourselves, as well as our society. And what if feels like to reconnect to Nature again.

Alex Smith
Radio Ecoshock


Martin said...

Always great programs, but I think there is a split in Ecoshock growing, and since I think the world needs more debate rather more yes-manning, I'll just allude to it briefly.
On the one side, you have the increasingly "frank" scientists like Tim Barrett and this excellent prof from New South Wales. They speak of truths, both scientific and political, though I don't think they are entirely comfortable extending their visions to the nihilism of climate catastrophe in a public forum.
On another side (there are at least three camps), you have the woo-woo "deep green" side, exemplified by Derrick Jensen and William Powers. They are not mean-spirited people, they try to lead exemplary lives, but their rhetoric is of absolute purity, and it is part of the greenwash that has accompanied the privileged life in the West. Jensen talks of exploding dams, Powers of giving lectures to Fulbright big-wigs, but this is fully marginal thinking, denying the social reality we live in. No one gains from pie-in-the-sky, even if there are facts about ecological collapse that are present in the deep green analysis.
This is the lameness also bedevils the more corporate greenwashing of Lester Brown. He talks of "tipping points," but "tipping points" is nothing but a fashionable euphemism, covering up deficient sociology. The Berlin Wall did not fall out of the blue, but seemed to because of inadequately respected analysis.
In truth, we have every right to see the future as arising from the forces of the past - we just have to disregard nonsensical piffle like those talking about "God," those flattering corporate interests, and those seeing every local egg at their breakfast table as presaging their own divinity.

Alex Smith said...


I like thoughtful posts like yours, although I'm not sure the outspoken scientists and radical activists are on different "sides."

Still, you make me think - and I like that.

Alex Smith

John Russell said...

Lester Brown says, "...the food bubble is based on the overuse of land and water resources. It is further threatened by the climate stresses deriving from the excessive burning of fossil fuels..."

While I don't disagree with the concept of 'the food bubble' -- in fact it's spot on -- I do find myself disagreeing with the causes Lester outlines. Sure, we're over-pumping water and degrading soils -- and this is made worse by climate change -- but by far the most important cause is the massive input of fossil fuels powering agricultural mechanisation since the 1950s. Without his 200hp tractor, with its 60 gallon fuel tank, a modern industrial farmer cannot produce any more food than you or I in our back lot.

As a consequence, the rapidly rising oil prices that mark the end of 'easy oil' are going to ensure that growing enough food rapidly becomes civilisation's biggest issue: and hungry people don't take it lying down as the food riots we saw in 2008 attest.

Lester has it right; a food bubble indeed.

Excellent programme, Alex!

Colin Wright said...

Alex, long time fan and religiously listen every week. But I've noticed your last 7 guests are all men. It drives me nuts to hear so many male voices one after another! I feel I'm in a monastery or something or part of a weird male cult! (Loved the Judy Rebick talk!)

Alex Smith said...

I totally agree with you.

It's been a challenge finding women guests. I usually go out of my way to find them, but I haven't tried hard enough lately, as you say.

Radio Ecoshock has had a half dozen top women climate scientists - but again, most are men.

For this coming week's show, I tried (many times) to get a female campaigner from Brazil, but only a man was available.

I have another show in the making, but I am waiting to interview a woman about the subject.

Hopefully, we can improve, and get more balance. Thanks for pushing me along on that.

Alex Smith

Colin Wright said...

Alex, thanks for sharing. I know it's hard even for me to come up with suggestions for you. But I think it's encumbent upon us to ask why women are under-represented in peak oil/enviro circles, and find out what they are interested in.

What about a show on ecofeminism?(

Or Caroline Lucas on Green party organizing or TEQ's?

Just a couple of quick suggestions. Thanks again for all you do.

Colin Wright, Seattle

PS I'm listening to Eliza Gilkerson right now. Thanks for turning me on to her.