Last week, we learned that the UK government is planning to stockpile food in readiness for shortages if we leave the EU without a deal next year. This week, the government held a ‘drought summit’ with the NFU and is promising new help for farmers hit by the prolonged dry weather, which is having a serious effect on the harvest. It’s a rare and shocking glimpse of the fragility of our food supply chains. What should we make of it?
Like climate change, and intimately connected with it, the food system is too big and complex for humans fully to comprehend, and it takes exceptional courage and insight to look at it squarely. Someone who did was an American academic called William Catton, wrote Overshoot back in 1980, after the oil shocks of the 1970s had begun to dent American confidence in growth. In bracing but very readable prose he attempted to describe in ecological terms the impact of human activities on the planet, and the likely consequences.
It is a very simple story: economic growth has led us to exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, and some sort of crash is inevitable. Not only that, but our over-consumption has had such a damaging effect on the planet that its carrying capacity afterwards is likely to be lower than before. At the time he wrote, climate change was still an unfamiliar concept and it only has two brief references in the index. Nevertheless, he was very clear that there would be a toxic legacy to the unrestrained growth that characterizes what he called the Age of Exuberance.
Catton likened the human race to yeast cells multiplying furiously in a vat of grape juice, eventually using up the sugars which fed them, and poisoning themselves with toxic levels of alcohol, not to mention carbon dioxide. Elsewhere, he describes Homo colossus – as he terms humanity in its modern expansionist form – as a detritovore, feeding off the decomposed remains of earlier generations of life in the form of coal and oil. Like the algal bloom in a river which is polluted by fertilizer runoff, we feast now, but we will fast later.
These are not flattering comparisons, but Catton was no nihilist. He wanted to wake his fellow Americans out of their complacency and so he put his argument in the starkest possible terms, but he didn’t preach doom for the sake of it. He was a sociologist, and his starting point was a care for people.
As he says, right in the first paragraph of his preface, ‘survival and sanity may depend on our ability to cherish rather than to disparage the concept of human dignity’, and in telling the ecological story of our rise to dominance he wished to console as well as exhort. What humans have done, he explains, is not unique to us. Any species placed in a situation of abundant resources is likely to grow and multiply until it reaches and overshoots the carrying capacity of its environment, at which point a crash becomes inevitable.
What distinguishes us from other species, apart from the technological genius which has allowed us to exploit our environment in such a dangerous way, is that we know what we are doing – or we would, if we would only stop and think. The hope is that rather than beat our breasts in despair at our awfulness, which is just another way of saying how special we are, we will wake up to our actions and to take responsibility.
One of the greatest dangers Catton foresaw was not so much that we will run out of resources (most obviously food) as that the fear of this happening will precipitate struggles that will destroy us even more effectively. This was apparently the case in Easter Island, where around 1680 pressures on food production upset a delicate social balance and led to genocidal conflict.
Whether or not our present-day global civilization is headed for a crash, then, is not the point. What matters is that collapse is possible, and we are afraid of it. An awareness of what he called the ‘unfathomed predicament of mankind’ lurks not far below the surface of our comfortable lives, and it shows up when we see the countryside turn brown as farmers are forced to feed livestock with next winter’s forage, or when we realize how quickly our supermarket shelves would empty if the lorries couldn’t get to them.
Most of the time, we don’t need to think of such things. When all goes well, global trade enables us to transcend local limitations to carrying capacity, whether it’s the cold climate of the UK or the aridity of the Arab states. But economic recession or war – and of course climate change – can interrupt that comfortable arrangement and throw us back closer to the actual capacities of the places where we live. And the UK can’t grow enough to feed itself, at least not with our current diet and methods.
Face with existential threats like this, the human tendency is to band into groups and declare other races, classes or nations to be the problem. That is why talk of controlling population growth is unhelpful; it asks the appalling question, which humans exactly are we going to throw out of the lifeboat?
To ask whether the problem lies with the affluent west, with its huge per capita consumption, or the developing nations with their rapidly growing populations, is to miss the point. They are two sides of the same coin, which is our failure to see humanity in global terms. And this is why a concern for human dignity is vital. Rather than seeking to blame and exclude, we must recognize that we are all in this together and take collective responsibility for our predicament. Otherwise we become less than human.
This will mean facing the worst that could happen: not only the extinction of human life as we know it, but also the knowledge that we have all played our part in it, when it could have been avoided. And then, taking courage and organizing ourselves so that we adjust to our circumstances with justice and compassion. It is not a cheerful prospect. And yet, just as contemplating our own individual deaths brings meaning to the lives we are leading now, it might bring out the best in us.
For those of us who are working for a better food system, it suggests a new view of our task. It’s good to debate what food and farming should look like in future, weighing up the pros and cons of intensive or agroecological farming, plant-based or animal-based diets, local or global trade, artisan authenticity or lab-grown protein. At the same time, we must let the fragility of our food system wake us up to our interdependence and focus our minds on what we have on common.
We must look for shared values, and think of food not as a commodity, but as something which connects us. This means extending compassion to migrants and those in so-called ‘food poverty’, because one day that could be us. We must plan now for a world where food is scarce, because even if that day never comes, we will have built a fairer global society. And we can start doing that right here, at home, by reaching out to our neighbours.
Today, 1st August, is Overshoot Day. That is the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. It’s hard to take in what that means, but the frisson of fear that comes with the prospect of food shortages here in the UK suggests that it might be worth paying attention.