December 21, 2014

The future of an affluent society – the case of Canada (Part One)

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This article examines in depth how even Canada, a vast country blessed with abundant resources and with a relatively small population, is far from immune to the problems arising from industrialism and its associated social and economic disruption. It was published in The Ecologist vol. 7 no. 5, June 1977.

See also Part Two and Part Three (which includes the list of references).

Note: Click images to enlarge.


It is customary to base long-term planning on forecasts of socio-economic changes made by projecting current trends into the future.

It appears, however, that we have now reached a crossroads in the history of human affairs, for globally, well established trends in agriculture, fishing, settlement patterns and basic lifestyles are suddenly being reversed along with corresponding changes in basic attitudes to the most general principles governing man’s relationship with his physical and social environment.

Is Canada, with its relatively small population, huge land area and apparently limitless resources likely to be affected by such discontinuities? The answer is yes. Canada is not the cornucopia it’s supposed to be. Only 6 percent of its land area is fit for cultivation. Its usable oil reserves are running out, and urbanisation and immigration are beginning to cause problems in the cities.

The principle that Canada must move away from a consumer society to a ‘conserver society’, first put forward by the Science Council, is now accepted by the majority of those working within Environment Canada and a great deal of work is being done to determine what would be the implications of shifting Canadian society into this new direction.

The author of this report tries to show that this must be regarded as but a first step towards the achievement of an ‘ecological society’ – one in which political and economic activities are considerably reduced in scale, in which local self-sufficiency is encouraged, and mobility is radically reduced. Such a society is, among other things, the one that can make the most rational use of increasingly limited and expensive resources, and that must minimize social and ecological disruption. It is probably also the one that best satisfies real human needs and aspirations.

The object of this report, commissioned by the Advanced Concepts Centre of Environment Canada, is to suggest how Canada, in the forthcoming decades, can reduce its vulnerability to global discontinuities.

If such a report has been commissioned, it is presumably because the possibility of the occurrence of major discontinuities capable of causing large-scale social upheavals in the next decades, is taken very seriously by many people in Environment Canada, as evidenced among other things by this Department’s Perspective on the next decade published in October 1974.

If I, personally, was asked to do this report, it is that I have been examining, for some years, those biospheric and technospheric processes in which discontinuities are most likely to occur; that I edit a journal, The Ecologist, which is predominantly concerned with global problems; and that I was co-author of one of the first studies, Blueprint for Survival, which pointed out the probable occurrence of such discontinuities while suggesting a programme of change designed to adapt an industrial society to the conditions they would be likely to give rise to.

If the view of the future reflected in this and similar studies – such as the Club of Rome’s very influential The Limits to Growth – is correct (and events in the five years since they appeared tend to confirm it), then the discontinuities we must expect are of a nature to justify a fundamental change in the course upon which an industrial society such as Canada is set.

At the same time, it must be realised that the implementation of a programme designed to move Canadian society along this course would undoubtedly be slow and difficult. Among other things, it would require a radical change in the values with which people are imbued; in the conventional wisdom imparted in Canadian schools and universities, which very much reflects these values; in the way your society is organised, in its physical infrastructure and in the institutions whose influence increasingly pervades more of its activities. For this reason it should not be adopted in extremis, when all else has failed and catastrophe looms ahead, but should be decided upon in time, so that it may be carefully orchestrated over sufficient period of time.

Unfortunately, these considerations do not appear to have affected the way the Federal Government is looking to the future, nor, a fortiori, the nature of the policies it continues to pursue, which can only be regarded as being based on the implicit assumption that the future will be like the past. Indeed, the accepted methodology for making predictions remains uncritically to project the trends of the last decades into the future, without taking into account the implications of significant global changes that have already occurred, are now visibly occurring and that can logically be expected to occur in the none too distant future.

I shall devote the first part of this report to examining the nature of these probable discontinuities.

Population and Food Production

A basic assumption underlying the recent discussions at the Habitat Conference in Vancouver was that, by the end of this century, world population would be somewhere between six and a half and seven billion.

This assumes that the present rate of population growth of about 2 percent will be maintained, or will taper off but very slightly, during this period.

It is indeed the case that the present very appreciable reduction in fertility in many industrial countries, including Canada, will not have significantly affected population levels by the end of the century because of the age-distribution of the population today. (The parents of the children who will be born during this period are to a large extent already here, and, because of previous population growth, they constitute an important segment of the population. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

However, the rate of population growth is not determined exclusively by the birth rate, but also by the death rate; and this we assume, will continue to fall, as it has done since the introduction of modern sanitation, modern medicine, and more recently with our apparent conquest of major infectious diseases. However, it is in this latter field that we are beginning to witness a major discontinuity. These diseases are staging a comeback. Pathogens are developing resistance to antibiotics, their vectors to pesticides and logistical problems are developing all along the line.

In the industrial world, gonorrhoea has returned with a vengeance, and has been admitted by WHO to be out of control. Pneumonia and tuberculosis are beginning once again to take a heavier toll of human life, [1] and in the tropics dengue and schistosomiasis are spreading to countries where these diseases were previously unknown.

Much more likely to affect population levels, however, is the reappearance of malaria whose ‘eradication’, according to WHO, has allowed five hundred million people to be alive, who would otherwise have perished by it.

This disease is now beginning to affect populations deprived of the natural controls which previously made the disease endemic, killing off mainly the old and the weak. Already, in the last two years, millions of people have died of it, and one can predict that its ravages will increase still more drastically, as resistance to insecticides builds up still further among malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, as spraying programmes are trimmed for lack of funds, and as humans resistance to the disease is still further reduced by even more predictable malnutrition and famine.

This brings us to another major reversal of previous trends. In the 1960’s FAO was predicting on the basis of previous trends, that world fishing catches would go on increasing from about 60,000,000 tons [2] at that time to over 100,000,000 tons by the year 2000. In 1971, with the failure of the Peruvian anchovetta catch, they began to fall, and as a result of previous over-fishing and of the growing pollution of coastal waters, have fallen ever since. [3]

In the case of agricultural production, discontinuities have either occurred or are visibly occurring in almost all of its major aspects. The most obvious is that there is very little more land to bring under the plough. Growing populations throughout history have been accommodated by systematically clearing forests for agricultural land. In this way more agricultural land has, up till now, been found when required, though it may have had to be sought ever further afield – sometimes in other continents.

A point has been reached where this will no longer be possible: The world is indeed finite, and yet another implication of this truism is being brought home to us. The world’s forests, which have so far provided the main source of new agricultural land are shrinking rapidly, and from the ecological point of view, disastrously. What is more, in most cases, their further clearance, especially in South America, Africa and South East Asia, would yield only marginal agricultural land, unlikely to bear crops under modern intensive conditions for very long. [4]

In reality, the amount of agricultural land available to us is actually decreasing – as the result of two processes whose seriousness has been generally underrated: I refer to soil deterioration and urbanization.

Soil deterioration has occurred ever since the first development of large sedentary populations that tried to obtain, for their sustenance, more from the soil than it could provide on a sustainable basis.

North Africa, once the granary of Rome, has, as a result of such agricultural practices been transformed into a desert – a desert that is studded with the remains of once majestic and populous cities. [5]

However, modern intensive agriculture has vastly accelerated this process. According to Borgstrom, [6] in the last seventy years, we have caused more soil deterioration and desertification than during the rest of man’s tenancy of this planet.

In the principal agricultural areas of the USA, on which the world increasingly depends for its sustenance, soil deterioration is already very advanced:

  • Surveys have revealed losses of from 34 to 314 tons per hectare in the southern plains. [7]
  • The US National Academy of Sciences has estimated that the US has already lost about one third of its topsoil. [8]
  • Commoner [9] has calculated that the organic content of mid-West soil has declined by about 50 percent in the last 100 years. By the end of the century, erosion will probably have caused another 25 million acres of arable land to be lost.

In the tropics, the situation is far worse. Modern agriculture is destructive enough in temperate zones. It is considerably more so in the tropics where climatic and hence ecological conditions are quite different – as is eloquently shown by Biswas [10] of Environment Canada. In many countries desertification is now highly advanced, especially in mountain areas which are most vulnerable to erosion. In Africa, the Sahara Desert is said to be advancing across a wide front, in some places at the rate of 30 kilometres a year. [11]

Loss of agricultural land to urbanization is possibly equally serious in industrial countries – especially as development tends to occur in the rich plains and valleys. It is probable that in the UK the best agricultural land, in the valleys of the Thames and the Mersey for instance, has already been built over. In all, something like 100,000 acres are lost every year. [12] The Fens, from which most of the country’s vegetables are derived, are particularly vulnerable. Dust storms are frequent – and it is estimated that within 50 years this area will cease to be of any agricultural value. [13]

Loss of agricultural land to urbanization is equally serious in the US, and has been estimated at about a million acres a year, [14] which means that if soil deterioration and urbanisation were to continue at the present rate, the US would be deprived on anything up to a tenth of it agricultural land by the end of the century – which, if one takes into account that this country’s population will have probably increased to 300 million people, may be sufficient to deprive it of its exportable food surplus.

This, needless to say, would have terrible consequences for a world increasingly composed of food-importing nations which currently derive 75 percent of their imports from the US and Canada, [15] and whose requirements are expected by then (unrealistically as we shall see) to have doubled.

It would also, needless to say, have disastrous consequences for the US economy, which is becoming increasingly dependent on the foreign exchange earned from the sale of agricultural produce to finance its growing imports of minerals and fuel.

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Climate

Another assumption that underlies current policies is that of the continuance of present climatic conditions. Thus, the new hybrid strains of the major cereal crops, whose introduction heralded the much vaunted Green Revolution, and whose imposition on Third World farmers is still our only answer to the population/food gap, were designed to provide higher yields with the appropriate inputs and in present weather conditions. How they will respond to climatic changes is not, I believe, known. In any case, the possible effects of long-term climatic changes have not been taken into account by those who predict a world population of 6.5 – 7 billion people by the end of the century.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, we have, witnessed new climatic conditions in almost every part of the world. These have been held at least partly responsible for the Soviet food shortage of the last few years, and for the famine in Sahelia, Ethiopia and Maharashtra Province of India. [16]

The climate of the last decades, which we have taken to be quite normal, and which we assumed would continue into the foreseeable future, appears instead to have been abnormal and we now seem to be entering a period during which climatic conditions will be far less favourable to man’s welfare and indeed survival.

As Winstanley [17] of Environment Canada writes,

“The view held by some climatologists is that human activity has become ‘locked in’ to the climatic conditions that prevailed during the first half of this century. There is considerable evidence to suggest, however, that these climatic conditions were, in many parts of the world, the most benign for several hundred years. The global cooling and high frequency of anomalous weather events during the last ten to twenty years are seen as indicators of climatic deterioration which, if it continues, will have an adverse effect on human activity, and in particular, on our ability to meet the rapidly increasing demand for food. In short, the mean climate conditions over the so-called climatic ‘normal’ period 1931-60 cannot be projected with any degree of confidence to forecast climate for the next 30 years.”

The C02 content of the atmosphere, for instance, is increasing at 0.2 percent per annum and could by the end of the century cause an increase in the temperature of the earth by 0.5C. [18]

The increase in the injection of particulate matter into the atmosphere could lead to a decrease in global temperature by as much as 3.5C in the next 50 years [19] which would be enough to trigger off another ice age. [20]

Were the present level of human activity to increase at the present rate for another 250 years, emissions of man-made heat would reach 100 percent of absorbed solar flux, causing a 60 percent increase in the Earth’s temperature, which would be sufficient to render it totally unsuitable for human habitation. [21]

Heat emissions, however, only have to reach 1 percent of solar flux for noticeable perturbations to occur, and if economic activity increased at the rate of the last 20 years, this point would be reached within 40 years.

It is maintained by some climatologists, notably Reid Bryson, that man-induced pollution is already having noticeable effects on weather. He believes that the drought in Sahelia is at least partly attributable to air pollution over Western Europe. Whether this is so or not, [22] the fact remains that man’s activities are now one of the most important influences on world climate, and it is but a question of time for them to lead in some way to largely unpredictable climate modifications, which, among other things, must introduce further instability into world agriculture.

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The Price of Inputs

Another factor which makes reduced world food output is the radical increase in the price of the inputs into modern intensive agriculture, such as fuel, fertiliser, pesticides and machinery.

Fertiliser prices went up by as much as 3 times in the US corn belt in 1974. Since the main energy source for producing fertiliser is natural gas, whose price is still very low relative to other energy sources, it is likely that they will rise still further in the immediate future.

Already fertiliser is beyond the reach of all but a small minority of farmers in the Third World. This in itself makes nonsense of the Green Revolution, since the high-yielding hybrid strains on whose cultivation it is based, are only high yielding because they are sensitive to fertiliser applications which, very often, traditional strains are not.

It is now but a question of time before it ceases to be economic to use fertilisers even among farmers in the US and Canada. The reason is simple. It is well documented that the use of artificial fertiliser eventually meets with diminishing returns. In the UK, for instance, the amount of nitrogen fertiliser used has increased by eight times since the last war, [23] with an increase in yields of less than fifty percent. In the US, between 1951 and 1966, there was 146 percent increase in the use of nitrates and a 300 percent increase in that of pesticides for a 34 percent increase in yields. [24]

Such diminishing returns were tolerable so long as the price of fertiliser was falling, which was the case for decades. It ceases to be tolerable, however, once it starts rising – for then one meets with diminishing returns not only on the inputs, but – what is more serious – on the capital employed. (A series of studies by the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University [26] reveals that we have just about reached this situation already. Farms in the US cornbelt that use chemicals earn a little more per acre than do organic farms, but this advantage is largely offset by higher costs, which in 1974 (though not in 1975) more than compensated for these earnings.)

With regard to the use of pesticides, in fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that, in the long run, they have actually led to increased food production. In the US, for instance, despite a many-fold increase in pesticide applications in the period between 1948 and 1970, crop losses to insects have actually increased from 32 percent to about 36 percent. [25]

It would thus seem economic for the farmer to give up the use of chemicals especially in a period of capital shortage, since such capital could be put to more fruitful use elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, it will take some time before farmers understand the implications of such trends, and still more time for them to make the changes required to switch over to organic farming. Eventually, however, they must do so.

We are faced here with a major reversal of recent trends – a situation which no agricultural expert has predicted, and few would probably be willing to face today. Needless to say, it has major implications. It means among other things, that even in the most agriculturally favoured countries, overall yields are no longer likely to increase, for it will be more economic for farmers to aim for lower yields so as to reduce costs.

In fact, worldwide agricultural yields, though they have been systematically increasing for several decades, have already started to fall. Lester Brown attributes this to five principal factors (see figure 2):

  1. the release for production of the 50 million acres of idled, below fertility cropland in the United States that, added to the global cropland base, almost certainly reduced the average crop yield;
  2. the high cost and tight supply of energy;
  3. the high cost and tight supply of fertiliser;
  4. the build up of population pressures that reduce the fallow cycles of shifting cultivators in large areas of West and East Africa, Central America, the Andean countries and Southeast Asia to the point where fallow periods are now too short to allow soil fertility to regenerate;
  5. the growth of the demand for firewood in developing countries to such an extent that local forests could not keep pace and that more and more animal dung was used as fuel and less and less as an essential source of soil nutrients.” [27]

Figure 2

The same point has already been achieved in the fishing industry. If, for many years, catches have been rising, it is mainly as a result of the introduction of increasingly elaborate technology, and at the cost of seriously depleting stocks in a way that could not have been done with conventional fishing methods. Since this has been the main reason for the subsequent fall in fishing catches, further technological innovations, and in general, further investment in technology can only have the effect of further reducing catches. In this case, we have encountered not merely diminishing but negative returns on inputs, and hence, even before the increase in their price, on the capital employed to purchase them. [28]

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