Resource Depletion, and Identifying the Real Problem

A little reminder from Tom Philpott about peak phosphorous:

The N in NPK, nitrogen, can literally be synthesized from thin air, through a process developed in the early 20th century by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (as its known) carries its own vast array of problems—not least of which that making it requires an enormous amount of fossil energy.[…]But phosphorus and potassium cannot be synthesized—they’re found in significant amounts only in a few large deposits scattered across the planet, in the form, respectively, of phosphate rock and potash. After less than a century of industrial ag, we’re starting to burn through them.

85% of the world’s mineral phosphorous is in the colonized, politically disputed Western Sahara region of Morocco.  We are rapidly depleting it.  Most of the world’s calories and nutrients currently come from big agribusiness farms which depends on this mineral.  This, in a simple nutshell, is the story of the industrial food system.  The ecological and social costs are extraordinarily high; the resource math doesn’t add up in any way; and most people now depend on it for their survival!

Now, the good news.  The solution to this problem is fully known, exhaustively documented, strongly supported by both modern science and traditional knowledge, and already successfully practiced worldwide by millions of people.  Small-scale, diversified, ecological agriculture growing for local and regional markets does not have this problem.  The math adds up, for the long term.  It’s the only viable future for the food system.

Let’s remember this, in the 21st century, when doomsday comes knocking on our door.  The problem does not lie in finding a solution – we’ve found them.  The problem now lies in figuring out how to replace what’s not currently working with those solutions that we already have.  And that problem, in turn, is not about technology or information, as compelling as those approaches may seem.  It’s much more fundamentally about incentives, power, and belief systems.

Bottom line: if world changers want to be as effective as possible in our lifetimes, much of our work will focus on these deeper leverage points.  And that may mean developing very different strategies and skill sets than the ones we’ve inherited and focused on so far.

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One Response to Resource Depletion, and Identifying the Real Problem

  1. Pingback: Glimpsing the End of Mountaintop Removal Mining | Renewing the Commons

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