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January 18, 2013 7:07 AM   Subscribe


 
Well, thank the lord I'll be dead by then.

But, for the rest of you:
.
posted by Mezentian at 7:10 AM on January 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's like were running out of ground water, fossil fuels, ozone, forests, and topsoil at the same time.
posted by Brian B. at 7:16 AM on January 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


The really stupid thing is that it's actually less work to farm sustainably. Check out any book on permaculture farming/gardening or just try it yourself.
posted by DU at 7:17 AM on January 18, 2013 [15 favorites]


There’s a lot we can do, we just have to choose to do it

Or, to put it another way, we're screwed.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 7:18 AM on January 18, 2013 [24 favorites]


I'm kinda surprised the article didn't talk about the salinization of soil as a result of excessive irrigation practices. IIRC there is a massive loss of arable land in many areas of the world due to severe salinity in previously productive land due to agricultural irrigation practices.

Oh well plenty of wars have been fought over control over land in the past I guess we'll have plenty of soil and water wars in the future.
posted by vuron at 7:18 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmm. Starting to look like all industrialization has really done is allowed us to obscure the effects of resource depletion but improve the efficiency with which we deplete them until it's too late to do anything and we suddenly run out of everything all at once because all our production mechanisms are on full-speed auto-pilot.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:22 AM on January 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Check out any book on permaculture farming/gardening


If you haven't read "One-Straw Revolution" by Masanobu Fukuoka, definitely check it out. There's a documentary on youtube as well.

It is absolutely possible for humans to build back up the topsoil. That's actually a problem that doesn't require a massive technological innovation to correct; it merely requires implementation on a large scale.
posted by dubold at 7:23 AM on January 18, 2013 [14 favorites]


Permaculture farming techniques particularly stuff like Agroforestry and Intercropping would definitely help conserve the top soil. Yes it might be more expensive to plant and harvest but you could definitely have trees anchoring a mixed crop use farm. Because you aren't as dependent on a single monoculture you are also less vulnerable to extreme price fluctations on commodity markets.
posted by vuron at 7:35 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


We're all going on a diet pretty soon.
posted by pracowity at 7:35 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Peak soil.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:35 AM on January 18, 2013 [24 favorites]


I completely deny the existence of topsoil.
posted by infini at 7:35 AM on January 18, 2013 [14 favorites]


Policy debate, 1986-87: Resolved that the federal government should implement a comprehensive, long term agricultural policy in the United States. We passionately argued organic farming on AFF all year long. First advantage: reverse soil loss before desertification of the nation's bread basket (and avoid the resulting nuclear war).

IIRC, we were to have already lost all of our usable topsoil by now. Still, Pascal's Wager suggests we should definitely not fuck with the chance of not being able to grow food. The big driver here, however, is population growth and there's not a chance in Hell we'll be able to stop that force without outside pressures such as not being able to grow enough food or provide enough fresh water.
posted by Fezboy! at 7:37 AM on January 18, 2013


Holy shit. I may really need to reconsider finally acquiescing to the whole having a kid thing with MrsOfEld.

Maybe I'm contemplating things like this a bit overmuch, I'm aware of that possibility. But I really can't see how the world is going to remain habitable or at the very least anything approaching pleasant in the next 50-100-200 years or so.

ffs this is depressing
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:43 AM on January 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Significant progress is technically quite straightforward. There’s a lot we can do, we just have to choose to do it
.
posted by Flunkie at 7:46 AM on January 18, 2013


While many but not all of the various diverse issues surrounding topsoil that this article casually lumps together are real, this is more or less a perfect storm of what bugs the hell out of me in what pretends to be science journalism these days. It states concrete figures without providing sources, those figures are wildly speculative without even any meaningful justification provided, it links only to yet more shallow bullshit rather than deeper understanding, it makes sweeping generalizations that are not even backed up by those unsupported numbers, pins blame on all the wrong sources for all the wrong things, and worst of all? The title is a question that is not even addressed, much less actually answered, in the fucking article. I mean fuck, I get that science journalists arn't scientists, and have no intention of actually learning anything about what they cover, but this is just inexcusable writing.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:46 AM on January 18, 2013 [26 favorites]


But I really can't see how the world is going to remain habitable or at the very least anything approaching pleasant in the next 50-100-200 years or so.

I tend to think that it will be habitable and pleasant, just for an increasingly smaller and smaller number of human beings. Until we finally, thankfully, just die off.
posted by IvoShandor at 7:46 AM on January 18, 2013


No till planting and Round-up ready seeds pretty much put an end to soil eroision from farming. My friend in South Dakota says the switch to GM crops saved a lot of his fields when they got flooded a few years ago. Traditional, organic, deep plowers saw their soil wash away.
posted by three blind mice at 7:48 AM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


just for an increasingly smaller and smaller number of human beings.

So you think the trend that will produce this effect won't contradict the whole "pleasant" aspect of life/existence? I don't quite grok that logic.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:50 AM on January 18, 2013


I think it'll be increasingly unpleasant for an increasing number of human beings and then there'll be a decreasing number of human beings (and other life) until we get back to some kind of equilibrium in another 1,000 years or so. Mars is looking more attractive every day.
posted by arcticseal at 7:53 AM on January 18, 2013


Modern wheat varieties, for example, have half the micronutrients of older strains, and it’s pretty much the same for fruit and vegetables.

Really?
posted by Segundus at 7:53 AM on January 18, 2013


"Really?"

No, that is just one more thing the author pulled out of their ass or took from someplace to embarrassing to cite.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:54 AM on January 18, 2013


Really?

I don't have numbers in front of me but if you're breeding/splicing genes for shelf-life, fast growth, pest resistance, and for the product to be indestructible then something has to give. Something up to and including taste, nutrients, and texture... See store bought tomatoes for example.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:56 AM on January 18, 2013


This is hard for me to understand because the article doesn't do a good job of explaining the differences in soil to people like me who are not knowledgeable about this. The stuff that is under the St. Augustine grass in my front yard is topsoil, right? Or is this talking about something different? This seems to focus on farming, but isn't there soil all over the place that is not on farms?
posted by dios at 7:57 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


... to be clear, I'm not suggesting that claim be trusted, but I'm not surprised by the logic based upon my experience in organic commercial gardening, victory gardening, and living in the US as a consumer.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:57 AM on January 18, 2013


Dios - Grass is known for flourishing in the poorest soil imaginable. It's a weed. Crops require more nutrients from the soil - and those nutrients, most notably carbon compounds, are being depleted faster than they're being replenished due to unsustainable agricultural practices. This results in desertification, which accelerates and amplifies the loss of arable soil.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:05 AM on January 18, 2013


So you think the trend that will produce this effect won't contradict the whole "pleasant" aspect of life/existence? I don't quite grok that logic.

Life will always be pleasant for the portion of the population who can afford to have it so, no matter what shitty environmental trends await us in the future.
posted by elizardbits at 8:05 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of course, I guess I'm just saying that I see the number of people who can afford it being reduced dramatically and my hypothetical, future offspring wouldn't necessarily be in the 'life is pleasant' part of that Venn diagram.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:08 AM on January 18, 2013


I'm sorry, I can't hear the OVERPOPULATION GONG through the dust clouds from the barren plains and the muffled screams of our descendants burrowing down through the timeline.
posted by adipocere at 8:12 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Slap*Happy - thanks for that. It helps this make more sense for someone with no ag knowledge. I guess that is why my wife purchased special soil to put on top of the soil we already had for the little garden she is attempting behind our house. Sounds she is buying a topsoil like replacement.
posted by dios at 8:14 AM on January 18, 2013


"I'm sorry, I can't hear the OVERPOPULATION GONG through the dust clouds from the barren plains and the muffled screams of our descendants burrowing down through the timeline."

I know you do so love that gong, :), but this article isn't so much ringing it as banging its head against the edges.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:16 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


So you think the trend that will produce this effect won't contradict the whole "pleasant" aspect of life/existence? I don't quite grok that logic.

What elizardbits said . . . as long as Earth is habitable, there will always be some portion of the population that will have things "pleasant". When it's no longer the case, humanity is not long for this world.
posted by IvoShandor at 8:16 AM on January 18, 2013


Sometimes I wish Metafilter had a "No Apocalyptic News" button to filter posts like this out...Some weeks I just can't handle this.

Alright, time to go teach my kid how to compost everything.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:19 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


When it's no longer the case, humanity is not long for this world.

Hey, now. I watch TV. The government just needs to locate that time portal and start sending us back to dinosaur times. Plenty of soil there, and lots of pretty people, too. No way this can go wrong.
posted by phunniemee at 8:20 AM on January 18, 2013


"The title is a question that is not even addressed, much less actually answered, in the fucking article. I mean fuck, I get that science journalists arn't scientists, and have no intention of actually learning anything about what they cover, but this is just inexcusable writing."

Oh look, the authors even make a habit out of it.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:20 AM on January 18, 2013


NOT THAT WE'LL EVER KNOW, OF COURSE. THANKS FOR CANCELLING MY STUPID DINOSAUR SHOW, FOX.
posted by phunniemee at 8:21 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh look, the authors even make a habit out of it.

It's very kind for Time to tailor its Metafilter bait so exquisitely.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:27 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]



posted by dhartung at 8:35 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another good book, one that I liked more than "One Straw Revolution", is Farmers of Forty Centuries, which they even have at Project Gutenberg.

We could change our agricultural systems to make more soil, but that would mostly mean less (or substantially different) farm machinery, which would also mean more farmers just to do the same amount of work. Nobody pays farmers well, and there's not so much upward mobility in farming (except in the US, where we use a lot of machinery...), so, though people want there to be more farming, very few people want to be farmers.
posted by wormwood23 at 8:36 AM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh look, the authors even make a habit out of it.

The most egregious offense there is the complete lack of respect for the subjunctive.
posted by phunniemee at 8:36 AM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


What I want to know is, what is the best thing I can do to prepare for the coming war? Buy land? Buy shares of a company that sells water?

This kind of thing is what makes me go easier on Harper.
posted by windykites at 8:40 AM on January 18, 2013


I think by now it's been fairly well established that, like cockroaches and rats, human beings are a versatile species that can adapt to more or less any environment.

Speculation on our imminent extinction is probably unwarranted, although for an increasing number of people it seems to be a perfect vehicle for their misanthropy.

If you've given up on your species, step aside and be quiet. We don't need you.
posted by pipeski at 8:45 AM on January 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


windykites: What I want to know is, what is the best thing I can do to prepare for the coming war? Buy land?

Buying land, like not in a city, is probably a really good idea, especially if you don't use it. Buy some land and let some trees grow on it. Or, buy some land in the middle of a city, and build some super-dense housing on it, tenement style, hopefully with a composting toilet. Then you can take the compost from the toilet, and spread it on your fallow land.
posted by wormwood23 at 8:46 AM on January 18, 2013


Metafilter is normally very skeptical of poorly supported sensationalistic claims by mainstream publications. But it seems if those claims spell the imminent doom of all humanity they're accepted cheerfully.
posted by rocket88 at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2013 [13 favorites]


well, the good news is that if all the topsoil blows into the ocean, it might just cause an anoxic event.

oh wait, that's actually the worst possible news. Sorry, Mezentian, you might be joining the party after all...
posted by sexyrobot at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2013


What a piece of crappy journalism - see Blasdelb above for an explanation. Time should be embarrassed.
posted by caddis at 8:55 AM on January 18, 2013


It's true that some countries of the world are farming in an unsustainable nature, but this article is a wreck. Massive glossing over of the issues, lots of self admitted "rough" (VERY ROUGH) calculations, and just completely misses the point. The paragraph titled "How does erosion happen?" starts talking about "loss of carbon?" What does that even mean???

This is exactly what's wrong with scientific issues that get boiled down to lowest-common-denominator page views. It starts with a decent premise and then just turns into a bowl full of crap.
posted by Big_B at 8:56 AM on January 18, 2013


And flagged as crap. Not even the good kind of crap thats good for your soil.
posted by Big_B at 8:57 AM on January 18, 2013


I thought we didn't like dirty soil sands?
posted by Kabanos at 9:00 AM on January 18, 2013



The really stupid thing is that it's actually less work to farm sustainably. Check out any book on permaculture farming/gardening or just try it yourself.
posted by DU at 7:17 AM on January 18 [!]


Only to a point. Mechanization, combines, and spraying have allowed massive operations to make big profits by expanding their footprint and using "bad practices." The big money operations that are buying out small farms like crazy aren't terribly suited to sustainability and permaculture. There is big money being made in corporate agriculture. The damage doesn't end with sustainable environmental practices either, it's hard to overstate the changes going on in agricultural communities.

If I could undo any one piece of machinery, it might be the combine.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:00 AM on January 18, 2013


Speculation on our imminent extinction is probably unwarranted, although for an increasing number of people it seems to be a perfect vehicle for their misanthropy.

Metafilter is normally very skeptical of poorly supported sensationalistic claims by mainstream publications. But it seems if those claims spell the imminent doom of all humanity they're accepted cheerfully.

I increasingly see concerns about humanity's environmental impact being dismissed as 'giving up on the species' or responded to with explanations of how humanity will find a way to survive.

The issue is not humanity's extinction. The issue is how many people will die, be displaced or otherwise suffer drastic reductions in their well-being as a result of what we are doing to the environment. Characterising concern about this issue as doom-mongering adds nothing to the discussion.
posted by inire at 9:06 AM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


ahahaha this century is so fucked
posted by p3on at 9:15 AM on January 18, 2013


I increasingly see concerns about humanity's environmental impact being dismissed as 'giving up on the species' or responded to with explanations of how humanity will find a way to survive.

The issue is not humanity's extinction. The issue is how many people will die, be displaced or otherwise suffer drastic reductions in their well-being as a result of what we are doing to the environment. Characterising concern about this issue as doom-mongering adds nothing to the discussion.
posted by inire


Doomsday preaching deprives people of hope and motivation. Discussing problems that we will inevitably face allows more room for human agency.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:15 AM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Time should be embarrassed.

I just saw the worst piece on The Economist (whosis Schumpeter) ever. Guess they've all sold out to PR puff pieces
posted by infini at 9:18 AM on January 18, 2013


"The issue is not humanity's extinction. The issue is how many people will die, be displaced or otherwise suffer drastic reductions in their well-being as a result of what we are doing to the environment. Characterising concern about this issue as doom-mongering adds nothing to the discussion."

I think the biggest problem people have in this thread is not so much that the linked article is raising concern but raising ignorance - and especially that it is the smuggly defeatist variety of near willful misunderstanding and wild oversimplification. What the article is trolling is the hippy equivalent of Harold Camping's followers, sad to know that this transparently misrepresented end is on the way but so very happy that they at least saw it coming.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:22 AM on January 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Blasdelb, could you point me to a better overview of the topic? Or to a discussion of a subset of the issues? I share your distaste for uncited studies and numbers, but I don't know where to go with "the problem is real but the authors blame the wrong thing".
posted by daveliepmann at 10:12 AM on January 18, 2013




Thank you Blasdelb for that link. One of my favorite things about Metafilter is the kind of critical discussion that this thread has shown.
posted by holmesian at 10:41 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The really stupid thing is that it's actually less work to farm sustainably. Check out any book on permaculture farming/gardening or just try it yourself.

I'm skeptical of that statement, at least when it comes to farming, since I suspect that there's some tradeoff that makes permaculture less economical (like reduced yields or increased manual labor due to decreased mechanization). If it were that much easier, I'd expect organic food to be cheaper.

It would be ironic if increased manufacturing automation coupled with environmental degradation led to smaller cities and larger agriculture-focused rural populations, more like we had prior to the industrial revolution.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:41 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blasdelb, could you point me to a better overview of the topic? Or to a discussion of a subset of the issues? I share your distaste for uncited studies and numbers, but I don't know where to go with "the problem is real but the authors blame the wrong thing".

NRCS is a fantastic resource, and one of the best ever retorts to the common right wing fallacy that government can't do anything right. A tremendous, undervalued and underfunded program that pretty much ended the dust bowl and made America the breadbasket of the world. Seriously, tell your friends. I am the first generation in my family to not be a farmer (and I have some cousins in my generation who still are farmers, foresters and such), a pretty right wing, religious bunch. This is the one I trot out when someone goes off about the government not doing anything right (FDIC is another great one, but not the point of this article).
posted by bartonlong at 11:29 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was saying peak oil.
posted by stltony at 12:11 PM on January 18, 2013


Bartonlong, Al Franken had a great chapter in one of his books where he asked several conservative authors (not of the modern rabid breed) to name their favorite government programs, or those they considered the most successful. It was a fascinating list: the GI bill, rural electrification, interstate highways...
posted by daveliepmann at 12:21 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bartonlong, Al Franken had a great chapter in one of his books where he asked several conservative authors (not of the modern rabid breed) to name their favorite government programs, or those they considered the most successful. It was a fascinating list: the GI bill, rural electrification, interstate highways...

I am aware of that. That book was actually the beginning of my...decline in listening to conservative pundits for my news...and realization that all media pundits were just equally full of shit and more interested in scoring points than the truth. (And yeah, I really liked that book, and that was the best part).

The reason that one works so well is they all know how valuable it is, the good work they do and how damn helpful, hardworking and sincere those people are. BTW I am a civil engineer that has specialized in hydrology and they will always be the SCS (soil conversation service) to me.
posted by bartonlong at 1:24 PM on January 18, 2013


Cool. Something new to deny.
posted by bz at 2:39 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to speculate about our extinction, but I'm willing to speculate on about half of the world population dying when we don't have fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer to pour on the fields, and fossil fuel vehicles to bring crops to market, and fossil fuel vehicles to get anywhere significant from our homes because our towns aren't laid out for pedestrians or bicycles, et cetera.

In college my professors talked about regional specialization as if it were this wonderful thing the invisible hand of the market was doing. Completely ignoring the fact that the world is the 'flattest' it has ever been and likely will ever be. Just for fun, look at what transit times were in the Roman Empire.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:31 PM on January 18, 2013


There never was any topsoil.

We have always been at war with Eastasia.
posted by neuron at 9:38 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]




Well I guess we'll be eating more "frankenfood."

Sixty years seems a bit on the short side to say, as the article seems to, that agricultural will funcionally cease across the globe. I'd like to know more about the assumptions and caveats involved in the prediction Dr. Crawford describtes. I suspect there are quite a lot of them not presented in the FPP article.

Population growth is actually slowing, and if we get lucky will bottom out and maybe even go negative while much of the world catches up on modern soil conservation practices and moves toward sustainability. It's not a beautiful picture, especially with climate change thrown in, but we may not be entirely doomed yet.
posted by zennie at 9:58 AM on January 19, 2013


one more dead town's last parade: Peak soil.
Peak soil happened just prior to the Homestead Act.

The county I grew up in held two records: thickest topsoil layer in the state, and fastest erosion rate. When I was a kid, it was an ordinary sight to drive by a farm with rows of crops planted straight up the hill, like some sort of plant-decorated aqueduct.

Mind you, not every farmer in 1970s Missouri was that fucking stupid. My dad was raised on a Depression-era farm, and would point out those rows with sorrowful scorn. But the soil was so rich and thick, the dumbest (and most dangerous) of land tenants could thrive.

And the Mighty Muddy carried it away.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:08 PM on January 19, 2013


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