Peak Water

This weekend, while I was working on my three introductory posts, I came across a sobering article from the Guardian: According to Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, three of the world’s largest grain-producing countries (the United States, India, and China) are approaching “peak water.” Seriously. Industrial agriculture requires a lot of water to irrigate its vast, single-crop fields—far more water than can be reliably captured and stored through Permaculture techniques like swales. This isn’t because industrial agriculture is doing more with the water, but rather because it is less efficient at managing its resources, so it requires more water to do the same job. This extra water has to come from somewhere to make up the difference. That “somewhere,” for most places, is the ground: aquifers, vast subterranean water deposits, are tapped for wells to irrigate the farmland. But here’s the catch: like most of the Earth’s many natural resources, aquifers can be used either sustainably or unsustainably.

Simply put, a certain amount of water accumulates in an aquifer each year, mostly as a result of rain seeping through the soil and down into the water table. At the same time, industrial agriculture removes a certain amount of water from the aquifer each year, then spews it out of contraptions like those giant rotating sprinklers that have become a familiar sight on American farmlands. Much of this water does not end up returned to the aquifer. It is absorbed by the plants and shipped off to supermarkets halfway around the world, for one thing, but a significant amount of it simply evaporates under the significant sunlight that most good farmland gets. (That’s part of why it’s good farmland.) As a result, if more water is being pumped out of the aquifer than is trickling in, the aquifer starts to get depleted. And there are some aquifers that simply don’t refill—like the one that provides irrigation water to most of the farmland in the American midwest. Once the water starts running out, industrial agriculture can’t sustain itself, and the food system collapses.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that industrial agriculture is “suicidally unsustainable.” What kind of reasonable person, even one acting purely out of rational self-interest, would intentionally and knowingly burn through their water faster than it will replenish itself? It’s not as though we desperately need the extra grain yields; there is plenty of food to go around if we want to solve world hunger, we just need to distribute it properly. In fact, in the United States, overproduction of grain is a major economic problem; farmers (well, mostly agribusiness corporations) are financed with special subsidies on the American taxpayers’ dime because they produce so much more wheat than they can sell, and a substantial amount of it goes to waste, rotting in grain silos. Meanwhile, grain prices are so low (which is good for people who buy grain, in other words most of us, but bad for the folks trying to make a living selling it) that the farmers can’t support themselves on the income they get from selling what doesn’t get wasted. We don’t need to try to increase grain yields every year. Especially if it means that our grain yields are going to suddenly collapse because we overtaxed our aquifers.

This is why ecological responsibility matters. This is why we need Permaculture. We all need to eat; there’s no getting around it. And there are more of us every year. If we want to have any hope of sustaining the human population at anything close to its current level (or even anything nonzero) in the long term, we are going to need to stop actively bringing about our own destruction. Sustainability isn’t some bleeding-heart environmentalist hippie problem. Though I proudly call myself a bleeding-heart environmentalist hippie, I think my friends in the bleeding-heart environmentalist hippie community have sometimes really misrepresented sustainability as a kind of “save the whales” project. And, in a sense, it is. But the project isn’t “save the Earth.” This culture is driving many species extinct with its horrifically irresponsible behavior, but the Earth will recover. It has survived much worse things than us and kept going, kept maintaining a habitable biosphere. What’s really at stake when we talk about sustainability is “save the humans.” Because while the Earth will be fine (and in fact much better off) if our massively destructive industrial food system collapses, almost all of us won’t be. We will starve.

If we continue down this path, senselessly destroying everything we need to survive on this planet, we will inevitably destroy ourselves. Acting destructively is always, ultimately, self-destructive. So even if all you care about is humanity’s interests, or even just your own country’s interests, sustainability should be your number one priority. It should be everyone‘s number one priority.

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  1. Pingback: Blogging Every Day: Thoughts After Two Weeks | Uncivilized Thinking

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