Thursday, January 19, 2006

give me a minute; i just need to irony my shirts

As I discussed in Loot, I picked up Collapse by Jared Diamond for Christmas. I finished reading it a while back, but one thing or another stopped me from posting about it (the one thing was laziness; the another is a propensity for being proud of talking totally bollocks). After reading Collapse I am convinced of several things:
  1. We're fucked. The world is going to slowly decline into subsistence living or medievalism; in all likelihood it will start happening within our own lifetime (if we're very lucky we might die before it gets too bad).
  2. We might have the slight satisfaction of watching Australia slide into anarchy first.
Three words people: Australian. Boat. People. If the sea voyage doesn't kill them, the irony certainly will.

Here's what Diamond has to say about Australia:
Ecologically, the Australian environment is exceptionally fragile, the most fragile of any First World country except perhaps Iceland. As a consequence, many problems that could eventually become crippling in other First World countries ... such as overgrazing, salinization, soil erosion, introduced species, water shortages, and man-made droughts ... have already become severe in Australia.
He goes on to say:
Australia is the most unproductive continent; the one whose soils have on average the lowest nutrient levels, the lowest plant growth rates and the lowest productivity. That's because Australian soils are mostly so old that they have become leached of their nutrients by rain over the course of billions of years.
And further:
Australia's first farmers were inadvertently mining their soils for nutrients. Thereafter, nutrients have had to be supplied artificially in the form of fertilizer, thus increasing agricultural production costs compared to those in more fertile soils overseas.
What does it all mean? As the global system degrades all those agricultural inputs that Australia needs to sustain crop production will become harder to source and more expensive. The same system degradation will affect the importation of food. And eventually those frequent droughts will equate not to loss of export income but loss of life. Presto! Instant Mad Max-land.

Before we get too comfortable at the thought of our cousins being repelled by the Indonesian navy, we should remember that a smaller world will cause problems for us as well - for starters, when most people's attention is focused on where the next meal is coming from, the labour value of bureaucrats like me will fade to nought; hell, they'll probably burn us at the stake as witches. New Zealand does has an advantage in the agriculture stakes over Australia because our happy slice of volcano alley gets refertilized on a regular basis (on a global timescale anyway); but I'm not sure the land will support all of us for long without inputs like fertilizers (weed killers are not so much of a problem; with the death of bureaucracy there will be a glut in the labour market of people willing to spend their days scrabbling around on their knees in the dirt).

Survivalists should probably start considering buying some land (preferably near a river or a stream) and learning how to
grow crops without inputs (or at least inputs you can't improvise from the land around you). If you can site yourself close to coal country all the better - trees are too valuable as a nutrient source for the land to be used for firewood. And as pointed out by Bruce Simpson on Aarvark, your local landfill could be a goldmine for metals and other useful stuff that will be scarce after the long slow apocalypse.

Of course, it may never happen - in which case you've got a nice place in the country to retire to.


span said...

"...when most people's attention is focused on where the next meal is coming from, the labour value of bureaucrats like me will fade to nought; hell, they'll probably burn us at the stake as witches."

I think you are missing the very obvious use for bureaucrats that's already inherent in your statement...

Maybe we should start feeding you (and me for that matter) on corn now.

span said...

how come it looks like this article has 0 comments? are my comments not good enough for you anymore?!

This is like the post 1 debacle all over again!!

*flounces off*

Herr Dummkopf von Kranken-Brainen said...

I get this all the time (which I was putting down to the new version of Firefox) ... I have to refresh my browser constantly to see changes (comments, new posts, etc). It's very odd.

span said...

Except - look at the time of comment 1 (10.25am) and the time of comment 2 (3.59pm). Trust me, I did do some other things in between making these two comments, including the fact that the comments were made at two different locales...

Anyway, what do you think about the idea of sustaining ourselves through the hard times by eating supernumeraries?

Herr Dummkopf von Kranken-Brainen said...

well, I guess I have no real great philosophical objection to cannibalism, although I would prefer some say in the matter in my own case.

Of course, one can only hope that when the rabid fear-crazed crowds do come for us, the clearer-thinking ones among them will still proclaim us as witches, and then decide our fate is to slowly burn on the stake which also doubles as a handy rotisserie.

kebab anyone?

Xavier said...

Jared Diamond gets a lot of slack for what he writes (mainly from frothing neo-lib/neo-con hybrids), but I really find his books to be superb (except maybe Guns Germs and Steel). His work in Western Pacific Island Biogeography is exceptionally seminal.

Rich said...

I haven't read the book - but: Australia is basically five city-states and a whole lot of nothing. The cities are economically viable through tertiary industries (like investment banking, or holding sports events). The "nothing" is currently viable - if in the future it stops being so (agriculture stops working and the mineral reserves run out) that will have a limited effect on the cities.

Unless of course, the banking and sports events go off to other places with cleverer and less xenophobic people - then they're really stuffed!

Herr Dummkopf von Kranken-Brainen said...

Diamond's opinion is that Australia's agricultural resources will be exhausted long before the mineral resources will ... although he thinks Australia is a good model for optimism (i.e., if they can dig themselves out of their hole then there is hope for all of us).

Jared Diamond's books are definitely nice easy reads. I always come away feeling as if they are a little too light tho - which may mean that I need to have a trawl through his bibliography

Rich said...

But Australia doesn't *need* agricultural resources (any more than Singapore does) - just a way of generating enough cash to import food.

Interestingly, I suspect that the demand for a lot of Australian minerals (e.g iron ore) will run out before the supply does. The world is coming close to having extracted all the iron it will ever need - future demand being met by recycling scrap rather than processing new ore.

Herr Dummkopf von Kranken-Brainen said...

Ah yes, but we're talking the long slow apocalypse here: peak oil, global warming, MechaStresiand attacks... when the world goes belly up it will either be sail power moving food to famine-stricken Australians - or you'll have to go overland, through the Australian badlands (of course they'll choose ships, but overland makes for a better movie).

span said...

i've seen that movie, Mad Max wasn't it?