Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Vulnerabilities of Complex Systems

One of the things we are seeing with climate disruption is that its impacts, such as the disappearance of polar ice caps, are happening much faster than predicted.

Phenomena like this serve as a reminder that we humans are just, as EO Wilson points out, a tribal and aggressively territorial species of primate, and as we impact the earth's systems, we really have no idea, ultimately, what we are messing with.  As Jared Diamond details in Collapse, all we need to do is look to the history books to know what's happened to past civilizations that have failed to live sustainably.

Providing further food for thought about the darker path that humanity faces if we don't get our acts together on climate disruption and other challenges to our well being, is Chris Nelder's latest GetRealList post.  Nelder reports on insights about complex systems presented at the 2009 ASPO-USA Peak Oil Conference, including the interdependencies of energy, food, and water.

Of the security of our current food system, Nelder reports that:

Dr. Jason Bradford, the biology brains behind Farmland LP (more on that here), ticked off a few of the key vulnerabilities of the U.S. food system in his presentation on sustainable agriculture:
  • Commercial agriculture consumes 10.3 quads (quadrillion BTUs) of primary energy in order to produce 1.4 quads of food energy. The inputs are mainly fossil fuels used in running tractors, producing artificial fertilizers, producing seeds, trucking, refrigeration, processing, freezing and cooking.
  • Commercial agriculture not only depletes non-renewable resources and degrades soil, air, and water, but it also releases 5 billion pounds of harmful chemicals and massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the environment per year.
  • Animal waste provides critically important fertilizer to small distributed farms, but in the modern massive feedlots of concentrated animal populations it becomes an environmental hazard. All the feed transported to the feedlots uses petroleum fuels, and the hay is grown using ancient “fossil water” pumped from deep, essentially non-renewable aquifers.
  • Over the last four decades or so, runoff from commercial agriculture has resulted in massive “dead zones” near our shorelines caused by algae blooms that suck the oxygen out of the water and create anoxic environments where nothing can live. (The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has grown to an estimated 8,500 square miles.)
  •  Just three crops comprise 71% of U.S. crop acres: corn, soybean, and wheat.
  • Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta — all basically chemical companies — dominate the seed industry with patented GMO seeds. Those seeds are finely tuned to the temperature, rainfall, and so on of the recent past, making climate change a major threat to the whole food regime (more on that here).
  • Likewise, a handful of giant companies now control the vast majority of the food supply system — a stark contrast to the millions of small family farmers who dominated it prior to the 1960s.
  • Nearly all of the food delivery system uses just-in-time inventory methods, so there is only one to three days’ supply at any point in the distribution chain.
In short, Bradford explained, we have built a complex food supply system with very low diversity and strong connectivity. Yet in nature, those characteristics lead to instability. Stable systems are highly diverse with weak connectivity. The very complexity and interconnectedness of our food web is, in itself, a dangerous vulnerability.

Bradford aptly compared our blithe faith in the food supply system to “the hubris of Wile E. Coyote” just before he realizes he’s about to plunge into the canyon.

The rest of the piece looks at the energy-water nexus (complications that could arise from the fact that we use water for energy, and energy for water), and the relationship between Peak Credit and Peak Oil.

What's the take home, in terms of how to navigate and solve the challenges we face?  Says Nelder:

My guiding lights here include the likes of E. F. Schumacher, Paul Erlich, Paul Hawken, and Thomas Malthus — they were right, if a little (or a lot) early. And of course Henry David Thoreau, who exhorted us to simplify.

They would tell us to focus on simplicity in our investing strategies: Think locally, not globally. Small and distributed is more resilient (and more beautiful) than big and centralized. Using less energy to accomplish the same thing will succeed over trying to produce more energy. Imitating nature’s low-energy, low-impact, non-toxic methods in our industrial activities — a study now known as biomimicry — will succeed over inventing wacky new chemicals that nature has never seen before.

From now on, we should let the K.I.S.S. principle be our guide: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

It's worth your read.  If you approach it with a solution-oriented mindset and get some good ideas in response, I'd love to see 'em in the comments below.

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