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Dec 20

How do we choose?

I’ve hit a crossroads in my writing and I need your help. I’ve come to the ugly but inescapable conclusion that attempting to feed more people in the near term will mean that the population ultimately crashes harder to a lower number of people sustained long term than if we forget about trying to feed everybody and switch to truly sustainable methods of food production as soon as possible. This outcome shouldn’t have surprised me, it’s the way every facet of our western lifestyle is structured – we consume government services that our grandchildren will be paying the bill for, we consume durable goods on a promise that we will pay for them in the future.

This looks easy from a national perspective, we’ll just look after our own and if other countries don’t have the resources then that’s too bad for them. For me that’s an ethically challenging decision framework. Plus, the outcomes of that framework may surprise a number of you. It won’t necessarily by the countries that currently have starving populations that will be the hardest hit. With a little training on nutrient recycling and the value of tree cover, coupled with diminished interference from white do-gooders, many of their local subsistence economies  could return to supporting their populations. I haven’t completed all the math yet but it looks like both Europe and the US have populations that may not be completely sustained by a level of food production that is sustainable. North American food production will drop precipitously towards the end of the 21st century if present methods continue simply because most of the productive topsoil will have washed into the rivers, lakes, and oceans. Plus climate change may return the prairies to desert-like rainfall patterns.

The decision is easy if you look at what is best for humanity on a 10,000 year timeline. It’s trying to make the right decisions for the 10,000 year time horizon when their impact in the 50 year timeline is painful. In a world where most people’s planning horizon only extends out to their next paycheque and the true planning horizon of most companies (despite what their leadership says) only extends to the next quarterly result, making decisions based on a millenial timeline seems impossible.

I have it easy in my family. The best choice for my next generation is also the best choice for the next 10,000 years. I have a large enough land base to completely switch to permaculture methods and sustain my families’ immediate needs and the needs of future generations. But when I try to scale up that decision framework, it becomes troublesome. I will survive because I am a land owner. Less than 2 percent of the Canadian population has land wealth. The figure is smaller when you move into the developing world.

So my question to all the brilliant minds of the internet is this: Has anyone written at length on choosing between feeding your brother or feeding your grandson? Is there a branch of philosophy that would provide enlightenment around this subject? I’d appreciate any and all comments. Just post them below.

1 comment

  1. Martin Penfold

    I am not a supporter of large farming. I am a small farmer and am surrounded by the larger farmers. Their practices are very different. However, there are a few things that could change our supply and demand. Firstly, North Americans and Europeans, of whom you mentioned greatly at risk, would do far better eating 50 – 60 % of what they do actually eat. We are gluttens and consume and waiste a huge amount of food. Food prices, when food gets to be in a smaller supply, should go up in price. This will reduce consumption and more people will have the supply of food to enable them to eat.

    Although some will tell that the prairies will come under a severe draught pattern into the future, because of climate change, as I look out of the window and across the prairies, there’s no shortage of moisture! Less moisture would be great.

    Modern farm practices are different but they are also more sustainable in some ways. The change to zero tillage has meant that soil erosion is mostly a thing of the past. Summerfallow has gone and the prairies are generally seeded with minimum tillage or zero tillage.

    Anyway, that’s a few of my thoughts.

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