24 December 2013

The Triple Crunch - Facing Our Climate, Food, and Energy Challenges

The idea of a 'triple crisis' or 'perfect storm' of environmental, energy and economic problems which could pose a serious risk to the stability of our civilization as we know it is nothing new. Last year, the IMF chief warned that without a more "sustainable" approach to growth, the world risked a convergence of environmental damage, declining incomes and social unrest. 

That sort of warning is in fact derived from some of the best interdisciplinary science. In 2009, the UK government's then chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington declared based on cutting-edge research by the Government Office for Science by 2030 (that's 16 years away), the world would face a "perfect storm" of food shortages, water scarcity, and insufficient energy in the context of a business-as-usual scenario.

Followers of my work know that since my work on the Crisis of Civilization, I've been tracking these issues very closely. Over the last week or so, I've put out three major stories in the Guardian on climate change, the global food crisis, and our looming energy challenges. Each of these stories in themselves points to significant challenges in the year's ahead under a business-as-usual scenario. But together, they underscore the little-acknowledged systemic synergies between climate, food, energy - and of course economic - crises, and their mutual propensity to generate social and political instability. And of course, they raise fundamental questions about the sustainability of our current trajectory, and the urgent need to begin implementing meaningful alternatives towards new forms of post-carbon prosperity. 

The first story covers a major new set of studies published in a special feature of the authoritative journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which together show that a range of climate change impacts - droughts, famine, epidemics - are likely to overlap in ways that may have been previously underestimated; at worst (though least probable), they could potentially escalate to a planetary scale.

The second story covers another peer-reviewed study published by the multidisciplinary journal, Nature Communications, which raises hard questions about the capacity of industrial agriculture in its current form to continue to raise yields. In recent years, the study shows, the rate of growth of yields for major food crops has plummeted dramatically and in some cases it seems likely that maximum yield plateaus have already been reached. 

The third story is a major exclusive. I interviewed a former British Petroleum (BP) geologist, Dr. Richard Miller, who was responsible for producing internal oil supply forecasts for the corporation. Miller believes that for all intents and purposes, peak oil has already arrived and is likely to exacerbate the probability of ongoing recession and resource wars. He most recently articulated this perspective at a lecture at University College London as part of a postgraduate course on Natural Hazards for Insurers, as well as in a co-edited special edition of the Royal Society journal - Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A - focused on the future of oil. This development represents one of the most compelling and authoritative verdicts so far on the reality of a peak of conventional oil production and a future of high oil prices with debilitating economic and geopolitical consequences, unless appropriate mitigating measures are pursued.

This sort of reporting and analysis I'm doing at the Guardian is certainly upsetting certain apple carts. One self-styled "journalist" who really appears to be more of a closet climate-denying troll who voluntarily shills for the GM industry by misrepresenting science, pinpointed the above piece on food as a core example of unscientific "Doomer" narratives in a screed at his blog here:

"Once someone starts down this civilization-is-collapsing road, like Guardian blogger Nafeez Ahmed, it’s hard to stop.  If you want a tour guide to the apocalypse, Ahmed is your guy." 

He quickly followed up by surfacing on Twitter and repeatedly characterising me as a "Doomer" - albeit, without any actual substantiation or argument as to why anything I've written is actually wrong. 

Under Kloor's highly flexible definition of "Doomers", it would seem the US National Academy of Sciences, Nature, and the Royal Society, are in fact arch-peddlers of "eco-doomery" - an accusation he touts in the name of defending science.

It would actually be funny if it wasn't so pathetic. 

The reality is that these three pieces I've put out this December underscore the fact that cutting edge science demonstrates the unsustainability of our current business-as-usual trajectory, and highlights that without a transition to more viable alternatives, we are in for a rough ride involving more of what we've already seen in the last few years - escalating social unrest, state-failure, economic crisis, extreme weather, geopolitical tension and conflict. We can expect food and energy prices to continue to rise and contribute to social volatility as well as intensifying inequality - and as Beddington and others have warned, we can expect that at some point, a worst case scenario would involve us facing a systemic convergence of crises that undermines the capacity of our social institutions to deliver critical functions.

There's no need for things to get to that point - and there's lots of great things happening which are already playing a mitigating role: the rise of renewable energy systems, new and exciting food production practices, innovative economic models, and so on. But much more needs to happen... And we're certainly not going to solve our global challenges by laughing scornfully at the science that is warning us to change course, now.


  1. Don't let trolls distract you. They want to slow you down by making you constantly defend yourself.

  2. Hi! Nafeez! All credit to you for breaking down these issues and removing the fog of confusion. Just to point you in the direction of the Humanitarian Water and Food Award - It gives prizes to Initiatives that show they can feed people sustainably. There are 100s of initiatives that are disproving the advocates of big agri. These initiatives are in the slums of the west as well as deserts of the east. Http://wafaward.org

  3. Thank you Nafeez... you are doing great work. Mr. Kloor needs to understand that he is doing a disservice to the planet that sustains us all. How that might come about remains to be seen, but I suspect that something will come along soon to remind him.

  4. In all honesty I wouldn't really take it so bad to be referred to as a doomer. Many collapsniks self-identify as doomers - whether they be soft-core or hard-core - and this is often on the basis of highly credible information. It gets a lot harder to talk this talk when you're trying to reach those outside the choir though, and I do appreciate your efforts - they go a long way toward opening up the dialogue we need to be having.

  5. You said it: Transition. The Transition movement has been addressing these very issues at a local level for several years: find your local group here http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives

  6. To the point Nafeez. I like your style of writing, cutting to the bone but not spewing doom and gloom. If their is smoke coming from the building it most likely is a signal there is a fire and not pointing that out or making a joke about it only distracts from the seriousness of the problem.
    If we do not want our house to burn down we need to act without delay.

  7. How about a quadruple crunch? The post-antibiotic era has begun to emerge. This will deal a serious blow to the practice of surgery, chemotherapy, disease control, and modern medicine in general. Viral pathogens are also becoming resistant, as are plant funguses, weeds, insects, etc. Mother Nature does not suffer control freaks.

  8. Nafeez,

    Great post and thanks for highlighting the latest research on the climate, food and energy crises. Of course as these truths are revealed the voices of 'business as usual' will become ever more vehement (the psychology and identity of denial!).

    BTW a colleague and I have just published an article in Environmental Politics which explores the role of political myths underpinning corporate 'responses' to climate change: http://climatepeopleorg.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/ep14011.pdf

    Our basic argument is that the myths of corporate environmentalism, corporate citizenship and corporate omnipotence help to make our planetary suicide a 'rational' project while we continue to enjoy the 'magic' of our technology!

    Keep up the good work - regards

  9. Thoughtful comments above.

    Ever since reading "Limits To Growth" and its "30-Year Update," I've been a "gloom & doomer" just waiting to see how those scenarios would become our reality. Its first scenario, what happens if we do nothing, is upon us, and a few are beginning to report on it. My fear is that we are well past the tipping point to do anything effective to mitigate, on a global level, the inevitable consequences from our continued release of man-made chemicals into an environment incapable of being detoxified, even if all possible resources to do so were available and used effectively.

  10. Food and climate change mitigation using biofuels clash when one talks of land use but very few people acknowledge that the seas cover more of the earth's surface than land. If there's anybody out there who wants to know how this can be achieved contact me @ dennis@wispernet.co.za


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