Lester Brown: The Sobering Facts on Global Resource Scarcity

I have been wondering, is food the weak link in our modern civilization, too, as it was for these earlier civilizations? There was a time when I doubted that it could be. But now I think not only that it can be, but I think it likely will be the weak link. And if I were to pick one indicator to track that I think will tell us more about our future than any other, it would be the world price of grain.

Environmental analyst Lester Brown has made a lifetime career of tracking declining supplies of global resources. He is the founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization, both of which provide massive data sets on the precipitous drop in key natural resources as well as urgent policy recommendations for addressing them.

In today's podcast, Chris and Lester discuss the global depletion themes that concern Lester most greatly, including population growth, water usage, limits to food production, and climate changes. In many of these areas, the picture painted by the data is alarming.  Our future choices are quickly being limited to when these constraints will limit our way of life, not if.

About 40% of the world’s grain is being produced in countries where the yield has already reached what I call the ‘glass ceiling,’ the one that is imposed by the limits of photosynthesis.    

Once you remove the nutrient constraints on crop yields and once you remove the moisture constraints, either because you have adequate rainfall or because you irrigate, then the remaining constraint is the process of photosynthesis itself. And so, if you look at the countries with high rice yields – for example, in Japan, rice yields have not increased for at least 15 years. They have been flat, and this was after a century of rising rice yields, but they have sort of hit the glass ceiling, the one imposed by the limits of the process of photosynthesis itself.

Of more concern, China’s rice yields are not just a few percent below those in Japan. So China’s rice yields are about to level off, as well, and these two countries together account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest.

So we are looking at climate effects on food production. We are looking at the limits of photosynthesis that are imposed on food production, and this is one we cannot escape. No one has a process that is more efficient than photosynthesis for converting solar energy into biochemical energy that we and other living things can use.

So we have got a third major constraint we are facing that is going to make it very difficult if not impossible to double food production by 2050. Do you see the scarcity of water? Wherever you look now in the world where there is irrigated agriculture, whether it is in the western parts of the United States or in the North China Plains, or India, just to look at the big-three grain producers, we see serious trouble with water.

The water tables in the United States are falling in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, in western Kansas and southwestern Nebraska, and it is because they are drawing on an aquifer that is called the Ogallala Aquifer, which is an aquifer that was laid down eons ago in geological time. It does not recharge naturally. So once that is pumped out, then irrigated agriculture will come to an end in that area. And we have already seen a very substantial shrinkage of irrigated area in Kansas and Oklahoma and in the Texas panhandle, for example. China is going to see exactly the same thing. It is seeing the same thing under the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and one-third of its corn. And I should note that in the Arab countries in the Middle East, as we have settled them, the depletion of aquifers has led to substantial declines in grain production, in some countries 20-30%. In Saudi Arabia, agriculture is going to disappear entirely by 2016 because all of their underground water resources will have been depleted for irrigation.

So we are looking at very challenging issues on the technology side of expanding agricultural production, and also on the climate side.

These are difficult issues to deal with, and I think there is always the hope of those who are in office that the crisis will not come during their term, that it will be for the next guy, the next person in office, to worry about. But when you think about it, it is a real challenge to figure out how you deal with things like over-pumping aquifers, which is so commonplace in the world.

The failure to mesh water-resource availability and population policy, I think, when we look back historically, will be seen as one of the decisive factors leading to a potential breakdown in some societies.

But despite the seriousness of our global predicament, Brown believes there is much in our control to determine how hard we slam into these natural limits to growth. His books outline numerous stewardship policies and other solutions, several of which he discusses in this podcast. But swift implementation is necessary for them to make a difference. And whether enough societies will mobilize to adopt them in time is the critical unknown factor at this time.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Lester Brown (32m:29s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/lester-brown-the-sobering-facts-on-global-resource-scarcity/

Good article. Not only doubling food production seems unreasonable, but even just bringing the third world up to a western diet will be impossible. Because westerners eat lots more meat, which requires about 10 calories of plant food to produce for every one calorie of meat, it turns out that to provide everyone with the same dietary meat intake as westerners would require harvesting pretty much the majority of the total Net Primary Production of the planet, when you factor everything into it. And the total NPP of the planet has actually gone down 10% despite the Green Revolution.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, most of their domestic water now comes form desalination, which is powered by the waste heat from their thermal electricity generating stations burning … fossil fuels. Talk about ecological overshoot. I really hope they can develop their solar infrastructure in time, but I have seen numbers showing that it will not be enough to avoid huge problems.

Interestingly, at work we are designing a big copper port in South America. Basically, we will desalinate in probably one of the 50 biggest desalination plants in the world, enough water to fill a 1 meter diameter pipe and send it 150 km up into the Andes, to basically supply the same amount of water that an average stream would provide for free elsewhere. Then the copper slurry comes back down through another pipeline to get loaded onto ships.

This process of desalinating water is very expensive, and combined with pumping it up to 4000 m elevation, is very energy intense (the electricity comes from coal of course). And all of this is to simply provide a stream of water. There is nothing simple about this whole process and the fact that it is economical speaks to how low the remaining copper ores have become.

Thanks very much, Chris, for bringing Lester Brown onto PeakProsperity.  I found the interview to be very interesting and motivating, and I will listen to it again on Wednesday, after a busy day at work tomorrow.
Also, thanks Mark from BC for the sobering example of desalinating seawater and then pumping it up to 4000 meters for a copper operation.  What a dramatic picture!  I'll be sure to pass that along.

Chris noted that Europeans use about half the amount of energy as do Americans.  For anyone who would like a visual perspective on the differences in oil use around the world, here are some pictures that my students took on that topic.

I'll add four here, but there are more at that link.



All of the images found on this poster are here.

  • For myself the best point was the one Chris made about the doubling problem for the needed increases for food production in the next 37 years, that we'll need to grow the same total amount as what has ever been grown in human history.....that is a very, very telling comment which has been sitting in my heart all day causing me to reconsider all the planned projects for this up coming year to make sure I'm not wasting my time and that I'll be on the best track as possible.

To add that this point, I recently viewed a video that Mr. Brown made in which he commented that organic farming is nice, but you can't feed the world with it.

If you can't feed the world with organic farming, then how was the world fed before 1940, when pretty much all there was was organic farming?  In my opinion, the move away from organic farming is what caused this whole mess.  We upped production to an unnatural level with unnatural fertilizers and methods.  So, with abundant food, we did like any species does.   The natural limits to our population, our metabolic debt ceiling, if you will, was raised, so we grew our population to where it is now, in overshoot. 
After we use up what is available and affordable, there will be nothing left except organic farming.  To which our population will have to adjust during very unpleasant times.  Can you think of a non-organic method of growing food which is sustainable?  I can't.

Organic farming could possibly work if we spread our sewage back over the land, but we aren't in any way set up to do that. So we have to replace, using unsustainable fertilizer inputs, what we take from the site via the harvest and flush down or sewers and throw into the landfills.
But if we could use solar energy to make nitrogen fertilizers that could be sustainable. However, phosphorus depletion is a serious problem since there seem to be no other sources available besides the mining supply.

So the thing that I didn't hear in the podcast was the nitty -gritty of the loss of land, crops and water on the human population. Civil unrest was mentioned but when I project my imagination into the future, not only increasing violence but famine on a huge scale comes to mind. We're talking many millions of people who will migrate in search of food and water that doesn't exist, placing enormous stresses on those areas that still have them. What will countries do when climate refugees come pouring in just looking to survive? How will already unstable governments handle it? My guess is that countries will start out by closing their borders and the interlopers will be persecuted and thrown out or killed. See Greece.
I read Mr. Brown's book "Plan 3.0" and he does a good job of laying things out. It certainly taught me a great deal about resource depletion. But the big elephant in the room in this podcast to me was the real affect on real people. Riding bikes and such are great but they aren't doing enough to change the trajectory we're on. Energy conservation isn't enough. Too many tipping points have been reached. Maybe that is a topic for another podcast. But I am frustrated by cerebral discussions about the situation. Where is our grief when we imagine our brothers and sisters starving to death? The lives disrupted and lost. How can we talk so objectively about the loss of so much - and not only human life? Humans appear to be causing a Sixth Great Extinction event - 2000 species disappearing every day. You can bet that any wild game will go quickly, endangered or not, when it is the difference between starving and living another day. We will devour the planet. There are enormously difficult situations facing the human race and most don't even know they exist. Most assume we'll muddle through somehow because we always have. But there are planetary limits that we're reaching that say otherwise. The future looks catastrophic to me, not even including the insanity of Fukushima. I am continually amazed at the lack of a sense of urgency except for a relatively small group who are willing to see.

I guess I needed to vent, and I don't mean any disrespect towards Mr. Brown. It's the situation I'm angry about. Om . . . . breathe.


Yeah. I get it.
So why do we not talk of a solution? Too Hard? You don't know the meaning of Hard. You will. Hard is burying your kids.


When I was a kid I was always with the losers in sport. I was forever cheering them on. Pushing a piece of string. I am still doing it. Losers.

Nasty as it may sound, we will need to get to the point where our own waste isn't so toxic that we can't return it to the place we got the food from.  China has done it for a few thousand years now, I think.  But as long as we live over crowded and spread disease, and pickle ourselves with pharmaceuticals, our waste won't be suitable to re-use.  We will need to close the loop.  And it doesn't need to be with human waste.  My chickens produce wonderful fertilizer with the right nutrient balance to feed the garden. Organic practices fed humanity from the beginning.  We have no choice but to eventually go back to that.  Nature runs on a closed loop system.  Until we learn to close that loop again, we'll be struggling against pollution, resource scarcity, and inefficiency losses.
Part of our failure is our arrogance to think that we can exist outside of the nature that grew us. 

It's seems that the UN is saying the only way we have a change to feed the world going forwards is to convert to organic holistic farming methods. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-09-23/new-un-report-calls-for-transformation-in-agriculture 

I soooo hear you Joyce,
I believe Mr Brown chooses to make points that can give people some kind of hope or power to act. He knows how bad it reallyyyy is…
We need to start finding ways to cooperate to build replacement systems, as simple and basic as possible that can be replicated fairly easily. Look at this clip of what Michael Pollan said about the Polyface farm, yes we can receive from the earth all that we need while the system increases in vitality.

There are two fairly recent developments in agriculture that give me hope. One is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) where yields are increased significantly ( 50-100%) using low tech cultural methods (including organic). Contact Erika Styger, Cornell Univ.
The second is a shift away from a chemical analysis of the soil to a microbiological one. For farmers/researchers see the work of Dr Elaine Ingham, Rodale Inst. For gardeners, read "Teaming With Microbes". This is the science behind why organic agriculture works. 

We used the concepts from Teaming With Microbes this summer, and seemed to have a healthier garden and definitely had improved soil quality.  I think Wendy recommended the book here but I can't recall for sure.

Deleted to do some math.

This is a continuation of the comment I deleted because I needed to think it out a little more.  I believe Digging and I may have misunderstood Chris's comment about doubling.
I believe the statement cited for the UN means we will need to double the annual yield between now and 2050, or the next 37 years.  I don't believe that means we would need to produce a cumulative amount over that time period equal to the total cumulative production for the last 10-15,000 years.  Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that would only hold if the rate of production had been doubling at a steady rate for the entire time being considered. In other words, the rate doubling in equal time increments over the whole timeline.

Instead, I'm pretty sure the curve would have a very long tail followed by the hockey stick shape we're all familiar with.  The area under the curve for the entire time period up to now could be a lot larger than the area under the curve for the time period between now and 2050.

Anyway, I'm just making the comment because it looked like a couple of people had pretty strong emotional reaction to that idea.

Not that doubling annual production over the next 37 years is likely, either, but it's at least in the realm of the imaginable.

Hopefully Chris could comment on that but I think that still could be right because it is only very recently the human race has been over 1 billion and heading to 9 billion?


All of these observations as well as Chris's excellent summation in TCC book, are an accurate representation of the truth and our future.  We are, in fact, running on fumes in many critical areas, poisoning our own environment, and ignoring the problem.  Just as the data suggests, we WILL run into a wall and collapse.  Some of us have known it all along because it was made plain.  No data necessary.

I believe people are being poor stewards of the resources we have been given, and there is no excuse for the waste and destructive manner in which we have chosen to live.  Conservation and sustainable living is part of the natural design and should be our personal aspiration and example.  However, there is nothing mankind can do to stop our decline and destruction.  

We have an expiration date as a species and these observations are simply external confirmation of that fact.  Like rats in a cave, we are heading towards an eventual die-off that has been known from the beginning.  Exponential growth, and the eventual depletion of resources is a law, and if you think about it, can at best be delayed, never stopped cold.  The system was designed to run for a period of time and no longer.  Our purpose here is NOT to figure out how to exist in perpetuity, but something more meaningful.  We should number our days, because they have a number.

Consider:  if the universe has always existed, why is it still in motion, and still full of energy?

We all know the laws of thermodynamics: an infinite past should have tended toward disorder entirely by this point, right?  With an infinite amount of time behind us, why hasn't all the energy in the system achieved thermodynamic equilibrium?  It has not, because we do not have an infinite amount of time in our past.  The universe had a beginning.

So, nothing existed, and then something existed. How did that happen?  What does that mean?

The answer to that question will provide a "lens" that allows one to understand the fact that we cannot and will not go forever on this planet; people will not do the right thing for the planet, and the end is nigh.

If you think I've gone off the deep end are a worried about my health, feel free to send me a PM.  I will tell you all about it.  You may also exhale sharply, and move onto the next comment.




I'm 100% with you Rector in your big picture perspective (the really big perspective!). I've often wondered if what we're doing to ourselves is like what the Easter Islanders did. I always wondered what they were thinking as the trees on their little island were all being cut down. And what did they think/do when they cut down the last one. Now I think I know, because we're going through the same thing, just on a bigger scale. We're just as self blind and self destructive and short sighted. And I fear we'll have the same results. Future people , if there are any, will wonder about us "How  could they be so short sighted? What were they thinking?"

I'm also with you Rector and thc in terms of the big picture.  The universe we inhabit began at some point. But were there/ will there be other universes?  Humans most certainly do have an appointment with extinction at some point in the future.  I'm guessing that what I'm about to say here you both agree with , but haven't stated.The Easter Islanders carried on with reduced numbers even after the impact of deforestation had run its course.  While near term extinction is certainly not out of the question, my gut tells me it would take the combined effects of several not-so-likely worst case scenarios to reduce our numbers below the threshold for a viable population.  A more likely scenario is that our numbers will be reduced substantially (let's say 90%).  In that case, most of us will not have surviving descendants, kind of like a little extinction for our bloodline.  Getting from here to that reduced population is likely to be very unpleasant for most people too.  Of course this scenario comes in many shapes and sizes with smaller adjustments generally associated with less pain.