Feeding the World:A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century

by Vaclav Smil
360 pages,
ISBN: 0262194325

Hubbert's Peak:The Impending World Oil Shortage

by Kenneth S. Deffeyes
208 pages,
ISBN: 0691090866

2030: Confronting Thermageddon in Our Lifetime

by Robert Hunter
276 pages,
ISBN: 0771042388

Post Your Opinion
What the World is Coming to Perspectives on Impending Environmental Crises
by David Colterjohn

Whether by happy coincidence or through the medium of editorial precognition, the three books reviewed here fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that can be assembled in several different ways. It's not that the authors agree with each other (they don't), but that the differences between them open up a sort of Zen space in which certain lines of thought can flourish. We might as well start by examining each book in turn, according to the order in which they were published.

Air, water and food are the fundamental pillars of life. Working in the service economy or living in the sleek new Information Age, we can easily forget the primacy of these basic requirements. Here in North America, we can buy any food that strikes our fancy from well-stocked supermarket shelves and never spare a second thought for the basic processes that produced it. Others, of course, are not so lucky. Around the year 2050, the human population is likely to peak at, or just under, 10 billion people. Whatever the exact figure, many more people will need to find something to eat.

"Can human ingenuity produce enough food to support healthy and vigorous life for all those people without irreparably damaging the integrity of the biosphere?" In Feeding the World, Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of Manitoba, sets out to answer his own precisely formulated question.

From the outset, Smil identifies the members of two antipodal camps who offer their answers too quickly and too loudly. On the one hand are the "catastrophists", who say it just can't be done. Occupying the other extreme are the giddy optimists that Smil calls "cornucopians". Members of the first group believe that the human population already far exceeds the Earth's carrying capacity and that we face an apocalyptic future in which famine, war and all-round ecological collapse are lurking just around the corner. The opposing camp sees large population increases as welcome additions to the pool of human ingenuity and refuse to recognize any limits on the Earth's ability to provide for its human inhabitants.

Though Smil sees outcrops of rationality in both arguments, he thinks a flood of "true-believer" biases eat away at the foundations of their respective positions. Members of the one group have cried wolf too often: despite three decades of dire catastrophist warnings, food production has so far continued to surpass population growth. Extrapolating from the other extreme, we find that the world cereal harvest ought to exceed the mass of the Earth in another 1500 years.

Can we feed the world without wrecking the planet? Smil's own answer is a qualified and guardedly hopeful "yes". In order to understand how this can be accomplished, he thinks we need to discard some easy myths and build up an honest, rational understanding of the real constraints and opportunities that we face. To do this effectively he adopts a comprehensive approach that takes account of the entire food cycle. From photosynthesis through fertilizer to the search for optimum diets, he condenses a vast store of learning into a relatively slender volume. "It is not the middle ground I seek," he writes, "but the truth, be it uncomfortable or encouraging."

Since the end of the last Ice Age, agriculture has enabled humanity to evolve "from small, scattered, vulnerable, and environmentally inconsequential groups of overwhelmingly vegetarian foragers to the most numerous population of large, substantially carnivorous mammals on the Earth." Agriculture underpins our massive, information-rich, predominantly urban civilization. Despite many inequities, humanity on the whole enjoys more freedoms, greater prosperity and longer, healthier lives than at any time in the past. Take agriculture away, and it will all soon collapse.

Despite these impressive accomplishments, modern, intensive agriculture is attended by heavy costs. It requires massive inputs of energy, most particularly in the form of fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilizers. It generates pollution and destroys both soil and biodiversity. Improper land use and tillage causes soil erosion. Field runoff can pollute and silt up streams and rivers. Aquatic life dies off and dangerous toxins build up along the food chain. In some localities, irrigation has caused water tables to fall at alarming rates. Agriculture often competes directly with industry and cities for rights to the same limited water supplies.

It can also be an inefficient and wasteful endeavor. Often less than half of the nutrient value of the fertilizers used actually reach the target crops. Such waste is even worse in the developing world, where the problem is compounded by the loss of vast amounts of water due to inefficient irrigation practices. In the lipid-saturated North, domestic animals raised in factory conditions create massive wastes of their own. Worldwide, animals consume enough staple grains to feed around three billion people. On top of all this, a large portion of the food we grow is lost at every step from harvest to transport, storage to processing, supermarket to those questionable things that you really ought to clear out of your refrigerator.

Though he relentlessly exposes these problems, Smil sees them primarily as opportunities. It means that there is plenty of slack at every level of the entire system. Though more research is needed, much of the knowledge we need to produce food more efficiently and in less harmful ways is already available to us. Rational policies, like charging realistic water fees to promote irrigation efficiency, applying fertilizers in the correct ratios and at the right time, rotating crops to help restore soil fertility and dismantling harmful subsidies could all add up to make a significant cumulative difference.

Some of the fixes Smil suggests are surprisingly simple, like planting more suitable crops, leaving higher stubble on winter fields to retain more snow, or irrigating every other furrow in a field. Though he never adopts a preachy tone, he convincingly demonstrates that our taste for fast food and soft drinks is unhealthy and wasteful. Optimal diets are discussed at great length, clearly in the hope that individuals will also learn to make better choices. While there may not be any single, dramatic solution to the problem of feeding three billion more people, there are hundreds of small, rational steps that can be taken to render it an entirely feasible proposition.

In Feeding the World, the impact of agriculture on the environment is a strong second theme. Smil looks at ways to restore wasteland and improve yields sustainably on existing farmland in order to leave the natural world more space. He shows how we can feed animals more of the waste nutrition humans can't use and fewer of the real crops that they can. He discusses with approval possibilities for reforestation and restoring wasteland as productive fields.

All this is good news, but a couple of caveats ought to be mentioned. First, Smil treats this as the sort of significant challenge where all concerned (i.e. everyone) roll up their sleeves and set themselves to some serious work. Though there are some promising signs, persistent inequities between the voracious North and many parts of the South are widening; with enough food for everyone, people still starve. He knows that the improvements he recommends won't come about without "widespread and effective economic, political, and social transformations." This sounds like a call for inspired leadership and a thoroughly-engaged public. Would anyone claim to be seeing this on the six o'clock news?

We will also see two of Smil's most important assumptions challenged in the reviews that follow. The first regards the continuing availability of adequate supplies of fossil fuels, the second the rate at which global warming will take place. But even if these more extreme eventualities were to come to pass, Smil's basic argument remains intact. If we refuse to shape up voluntarily, a sudden oil shortage or rapid global warming could force us to reconsider.

Readers can choose to see Feeding the World as either a practical roadmap or a tightly restrained warning. Either way, this is a solidly informative and ultimately encouraging book. Though he is confident that we can produce enough food for everyone, Smil aims at the kind of hope that you earn. It won't happen automatically and there is the possibility that we will wait too long.

If you haven't yet honored your New Year's resolution to read at least one book about Petroleum Geology, the time to stop procrastinating is nigh. A substantial portion of Hubbert's Peak, The Impending World Oil Shortage is devoted to this arcane subject, and author Kenneth S. Deffeyes manages to impart a great deal of fascinating information without inflicting too much pain. For the lay reviewer expecting a heavy slog, this book comes as a delightful surprise.

Deffeyes, who started out as a working petroleum geologist and later taught Geology at Princeton University, sets out his most important thesis at the start of his book: World oil production is likely to peak in this decade, sometime between the years 2004-2008. A major crisis will then ensue, with "chaos in the oil industry, in governments and in national economies." Though he would be happy to be proved wrong, Deffeyes favors the earlier date and says it would take "a lot of unexpectedly good news to postpone the peak to 2010." In the meantime, we ought to be preparing for the shock through conservation measures and by developing alternative energy sources. So far, politician, executive and citizen alike have managed to ignore the issue altogether.

Deffeyes' prediction is based on the work of American geophysicist M. King Hubbert. In 1956, Hubbert forecast that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in the early 1970s. This prophetic analysis was confirmed in the spring of 1971, and the U.S. domestic oil industry has been producing at full capacity ever since. In Hubbert's Peak, Deffeyes shows how he and other professionals have applied the same techniques to world oil supplies in order to arrive at the impending global production peak.

Though he likens the ensuing scenario to the opening scenes from a horror movie, Deffeyes insists that his readers make up their own minds. He then proceeds to devote well over a hundred pages to a series of fairly technical expositions on everything from how oil is formed and found, to how it is produced, marketed and used. Learning about rock formations, oil windows and drill bits may not seem like light summer reading fare, but the dire warnings contained in Deffeyes' first chapter have wonderfully concentrated the mind. The author helps his readers along by including a generous sprinkling of homespun anecdotes, jokes and asides which all help to keep the pages turning at a rapid clip.

There is a method to this madness. The oil companies have been pursuing their profits and perfecting their techniques for several generations now. Geologists have waded along every river and tramped up every valley in the world. The only major oil "province" that hasn't been explored is the South China Sea, and Deffeyes doesn't think that's likely to be the next Saudi Arabia. He is trying to persuade doubters that they shouldn't count on any easy reprieves: "there is little expectation that something dramatic will come riding to the rescue as world oil production starts to decline."

Declining production does not mean that oil will simply disappear overnight. What he expects in the very near future is a bidding war that will send oil and other energy prices through the roof. If this means that SUVs are quickly cleared off the roads or that we all have to get better at turning off the light switches, things might not be so bad. When we consider problems like urban smog and global warming, it actually sounds like rather good news.

Yet at several points Deffeyes discusses the fact that oil and other fossil fuels (like natural gas) are used for more than just energy. The "petrochemical industry" provides you with a lot more than the gasoline in your tank. He suspects that our descendants will be aghast at the notion that we used to just burn this precious resource!

If we recall Vaclav Smil's recognition that intensive agriculture is heavily dependent on inputs of fossil fuels, one can be excused for beginning to feel distinctly uneasy. When Deffeyes describes the process of making ammonia (for nitrogen fertilizer) by combining atmospheric nitrogen with the hydrogen molecules in natural gas, uneasiness is transformed into outright alarm. It is almost an axiom of his cautious optimism that Smil tends to assume manageable instabilities and incremental changes. It is quite clear that he has not factored the mother of all oil shocks into his carefully constructed models.

A comfortable member of the American middle-class, justly proud of his professional achievements, some of Deffeyes more off-hand comments would probably enrage an active environmentalist. For one thing, he thinks our fears of nuclear power are overblown, and seriously discusses expanding our nuclear power generation capacities in a late chapter on "alternative" energy sources. Though clean, renewable solar and wind power have distinct long-term potential, the author explains that their "low energy density" means that we need large energy collectors. The capital and energy costs of installing this kind of equipment will be very high. He is dubious about the chances of deriving really significant amounts of energy from these eco-friendly sources anytime soon.

Though Deffeyes expects a major economic shake-up when oil production begins its long decline, he sees this as a difficult adjustment, not the start of civilization's collapse. It took nature hundreds of millions of years to build up its stores of fossil fuels, and we have managed to burn much of them up in a couple of hundred years. Since the author himself played no small role in their extraction and use, perhaps it is fitting that he should write their epitaph: "the fossil fuels are a one-time gift that lifted us up from subsistence agriculture and eventually should lead us to a future based on renewable resources."

Where Vaclav Smil painstakingly adds up cumulative efficiency gains and Ken Deffeyes shouts out a neighborly warning, Robert Hunter engages in a bracing and unabashed jeremiad. His new book, 2030, Confronting Thermageddon in our Lifetime is composed in equal parts of stirring invective and ruthlessly honest confession.

In his prologue, Hunter sets out the parameters of a moral paradigm. He describes a conversation with a Newfoundland cod fisherman who admitted, "We knew we was overfishin'. We knew it couldn't go on. We did it anyway." The man's justification was that people had mortgages to pay off. Though Hunter sympathizes with the social and economic devastation that followed the fisheries' collapse, he wonders why it was so easy for supposedly rational people to let immediate economic advantage override their clearly perceived, long-term interests.

This anecdote serves Hunter as a parable to which he can return at need. No matter how destructive the loss of the cod, the effects on human being and fish alike were more or less confined to Atlantic Canada. The prospect of permanently changing the Earth's climate regime by continuing to spew out greenhouse gases is a far more serious matter. Yet in his view, the human collective is hell-bent on doing just that. Despite our vaunted foresight, Hunter thinks we have a propensity to behave like lemmings.

Or drug addicts. Though Hunter fondly recalls his own adolescent love affair with the automobile, he explicitly compares our dependence on fossil fuels to heroin addiction. Ever since our ancestors discovered fire, humans have been releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The effects were negligible for many aeons, but they have been gathering speed ever since the coal-fired Industrial Revolution began.

And now we're headed for real trouble. In February 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Third Assessment, which established two separate but key points: the Earth's climate is warming at an accelerating clip and that they are beginning to make out a discernible human fingerprint. They concluded: "Projected climate changes during the 21st Century have the potential to lead to future large-scale and possibly irreversible changes in Earth systems, resulting in impacts on continental scales."

ŠProjected,' Špotential,' Špossibly': while the peer-reviewed scientists at the IPCC have to mind their Šp's, these words represent an ominous warning. Hunter points out that this admonition has had no observable political impact. He describes a debate that seems to be permanently deadlocked. On one side an unholy alliance between the "Carbon Club" (a powerful lobby financed by oil interests) and "Juice Cans" (a handful of oil-guzzling, industrialized countries) who are determined to sabotage any practical proposals to curb emissions put forward by the storm-battered, green-minded Europeans and the threatened Pacific island states.

Hunter's chapter on the diplomatic machinations at the original Kyoto conference makes for a gripping read. Thanks to the dramatic intervention of American Vice-President Al Gore, the agreement was just barely hammered out in time. The Kyoto Protocol calls for a collective 5.2 percent reduction of 1990 emission levels on the part of the developed countries. Outside the environmental movement, few people seem to be aware of how anemic and inadequate these provisions are. Some climate scientists claim that emissions will have to be reduced by 60 or even 70 percent if global warming is to be kept within manageable limits. Despite their promises, most of these countries' emissions have continued to rise in the five years that have since elapsed. Even if the Americans hadn't pulled out, the Kyoto agreement would have had about the same effect as "chipping away with spoons at the foot of a cliff."

As if that's not bad enough, Hunter argues that steadily increasing greenhouse gases could result in consequences that are far more dramatic than a correspondingly uniform rise in global mean temperatures. He discusses "accelerated positive feedback loops," whereby events like the upcoming disappearance of Arctic ice sheet (which is basically a heat-reflective shield) could have a lurching "domino" effect. Hunter rather arbitrarily sets the point of no return at the year 2030.

The "thermageddon" of Hunter's subtitle was coined by yoking Šthermal' to the biblical ŠArmageddon,' the final battle of good against evil that precedes the Day of Judgement. In Hunter's view it not God but our descendants who will condemn us, "the ancestors from hell," who have left them a poisoned and degraded biosphere.

Hunter addresses his book to his grandson Dexter. He admits that as a Canadian he belongs to the most extravagant tribe of "energy mammoths" on the face of the planet. On a per capita basis, Canadians actually consume about 15 percent more energy than do the gas-hungry Americans. As a globe-trotting environmental activist, Hunter estimates his own energy consumption and corresponding gas emissions are fifty times above the already high mean of his fellow citizens.

Every prophet worth his salt knows that it is more effective to address his audience's will than their reason. Though the odds are stacked heavily against us, Hunter thinks the solution must come from within. He refuses to give up and makes a solemn pledge to Dexter that he will cut his own energy consumption and emissions by 70 percent. "If I fail to change," he concludes, "I invite you to spit on this book."

There are times that Hunter's rhetoric gets the better of him. At its worst, his message is so bleak and discouraging that his audience will want to cover their eyes and stop their ears just to try to get some sleep at night. A committed "positive thinker" won't even be able to hear his voice. Though this book will provide much pithy ammunition for the converted, others will find that its authority would have been greatly enhanced had it included notes, bibliography and an index.

Though all three authors make predictions about a relatively near terrestrial future, one doubts that any of them would want to be revered as the next Nostradamus, and we are certainly not obligated to treat these books as scripture. They do seem to agree on one point, which is that the Earth and its resources have limits. We do not want to find out exactly where Nature has drawn these lines.

Deffeyes and Hunter both explicitly hope to be proven wrong, yet at the same time they offer strong challenges to two of Smil's most critical assumptions, the one by warning of the scarcity of a critical resource, the other of abrupt and unmanageable climate change. But Smil still holds an ace or two up his sleeve. "We would not even have to increase the existing agricultural inputs" he writes, "in order to feed many more than ten billion people in a global economy guided by concerns about consumption equity and offering everyone frugal, largely vegetarian, but nutritionally adequate diets." Who's up for a plate of rice and lentils?

Smil also points out that weiji, the Chinese word for crisis, is composed of two characters, the first means "danger", the second "opportunity". The Latin equivalent might be carpe diem, seize the day. ˛

David Colterjohn was born in North Vancouver but grew up as a ŠMK' (missionary kid) in India and Nepal. He purloined a degree in English Literature and Asian Studies from UBC before returning to Asia, this time as an EFL teacher and journalist in Tokyo. A lifelong procrastinator, David Colterjohn is looking for a publisher for his unfinished novel, Limited Sympathies.


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