Sunday, November 1, 2009

For those who like eating regularly

HILLS, IA - JUNE 15:  Stalks of corn rise out ...Nope, that's a corn field, not a rice paddy. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Dmitry Orlov has an excellent piece warning about most serious threat posed by climate disruption: the fact that all our knowledge and ability about growing our food was formed in a period of climate stability:

Thus, you don't have to think that humans caused climate change, or that humans can stop climate change before it is too late, but my feeling is that either you will agree that strange and dramatic climatic changes are afoot, or you just haven't done your homework. On this issue, I just don't see that there is any room for legitimate debate. The evidence is in.

It is also not controversial that the unusual climactic conditions are affecting the ability of farmers to grow food. I don't have to look too far to find examples: in New England, where I live, farmers are receiving federal disaster aid, because they lost over half of their crop. According to the Massachusetts congressional delegation, which petitioned for federal relief, "rain was 148 percent above normal in June, which was also the sixth coolest June on record in both Boston and Worcester, and likely the second cloudiest June on record since 1885. In July, rainfall was 200 percent above normal, with corresponding lower temperatures." "Corn growers in Norfolk County saw 83 percent of the value of their crop destroyed. In Essex County, strawberry growers could not bring more than 35 percent of their crop to market" reported the Boston Globe.

New England is by no means a unique case; everywhere you look, agriculture is under assault from the shifting climate. The barrage of strange weather makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to decide what to plant and when and where to plant it. According to the paleoclimatologist J.P. Steffensen, the stable climate that has prevailed during the previous 10,000 years is what made agriculture possible:

You can ask, Why didn't human beings make civilisation fifty thousand years ago? You know that they had just as big brains as we have today. When you put it in a climatic framework, you can say, "Well, it was the ice age. And also this ice age was so climatically unstable that each time you had the beginning of a culture they had to move. Then comes the present interglacial - ten thousand years of very stable climate. The perfect conditions for agriculture. If you look at it, it's amazing. Civilisations in Persia, in China, and in India start at the same time, maybe six thousand years ago. They all developed writing and they all developed religion and they all built cities, all at the same time, because the climate was stable. I think that if the climate would have been stable fifty thousand years ago it would have started then. But they had no chance.
Steffensen is a neo-catastrophist - a climatologist who believes in abrupt, catastrophic climate shifts. So is just about every other climatologist. They base their belief not on some exotic theory or complex computer model; in fact, they are often at a loss to explain the underlying mechanisms. Instead, they simply cannot disregard the overwhelming empirical evidence they have collected. Still, even after listening to a neo-catastrophist tell it like it is, I find no reason to think that agriculture will fail everywhere at once, and result in instant mass starvation. It seems more likely that, as agriculture becomes less and less reliable, malnutrition will become chronic in many places, resulting in high death rates, low birth rates and high childhood mortality, and an overall dwindling of the population over several generations.

Anthropoclastic climate change does not have to be a catastrophe, but it can be made catastrophic by clinging on to a failing agricultural model of food production. If we insist that farmers produce monoculture cash crops on the industrial model, we shall surely all starve. But if instead people make a concerted effort to reclaim the entire landscape, both rural and urban, for informal food production, growing edible plant species on former golf courses, parking lots, cemeteries, town greens, suburban back yards, urban rooftops and balconies, and front lawns of stately homes, then it seems quite likely that, no matter which way the climate lurches in a given year, something somewhere will be bearing fruit, enough to make it to the next season.

Wild foods can make a difference as well. Last summer, the forests of New England were full of berries that went unpicked. We did not pick any berries this year, but we did get a chance to pick some wild mushrooms, which had a fine year. As I write this, garlands of wild mushrooms are drying in our hallway. Man doth not live by mushrooms alone, but it's a start. And start we should, the sooner the better, but certainly before the shelves in the shops are bare, and so are the ones in your pantry. Mitigating anthropoclastic climate change will not be up to the politicians or the scientists or the industrialists, it will be up to me and to you.

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