Most wars have been fought about food. At the cutting edge, if you excuse the pun, lie grand claims about democracy or religion, but below the surface lies the control of land and people.

This dominance of territory is all about natural resources, which these days include oil, rare earths, or underwater mineral rights. But historically, the two most important goods are food and water.

If you write down the things you need to do every day, and compare with lists made by those around you, the verbs will differ. If you have a large enough sample size—and I wonder how large that would have to be—the only common items to all will be: EAT, DRINK.

Anyone who fails to write those two down wouldn’t last long making lists, or doing any of the other stuff they listed.

These two requirements are immediately obvious if you have pets or small children. Of course in our world, those fortunate to be able to satisfy both needs neglect to think of them—but the vast majority of people on this planet are forced to think and worry about them daily.

So resource scarcity, and its companions malnutrition, weakness, and susceptibility to disease keep populations in check.

We can print money, as all nations do, and overprint money, as the big blocks have done since the 1990’s—this is a weapon for promoting growth, re-balancing economic sectors, and winning elections.

In August of the year 1260, Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, created Chao, a paper currency with no expiry date, to be used throughout zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom.

This singular idea caught on everywhere else, albeit with centuries to spare—in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the great European empires dealt exclusively in coins of gold and silver—although the concept of promissory notes existed, in order to avoid the transport of huge weights of bullion.

It was only toward the end of the XVIIth century that bank notes came into use in Europe, first through a Swedish bank in 1661, then at the turn of the century by the bank of England.

The Chinese system conserved mass, i.e. the piece of paper corresponded to a physical quantity of precious metals. The English bankers changed the system in two ways. The first was to introduce smaller denominations, which generated a brisk trade in the pieces of paper, which could then be used to transact a barrel of beer or a brace of fowl.

The second was the realization that they could issue more paper than the gold reserves they held, since not everyone would claim the guarantee at the same time. As a consequence mass was no longer conserved.

This situation worsened when the link to precious metals disappeared altogether. The banknotes of my childhood which promised to pay the bearer the corresponding gold or silver are long defunct.

Three scenarios for the evolution of the earth's population until 2100.

Three scenarios for the evolution of the earth’s population until 2100 (United Nations)

To most inhabitants of the planet, food and drink are the scarcest commodity, and the most precious. In coming centuries, this will become true for everyone. This is much more important than climate change or energy independence, it is the big question.

Without food you won’t operate factories. You won’t drive cars. You won’t worry about cancer. Or pollution. Without food, you will die.

You’ll trade your new smartphone for a loaf of bread. When that’s not enough, you’ll throw in a huge pile of banknotes—or digitally grant access to the equivalent amount on your credit card. And there will be no takers. The bread will be worth more.

That’s pretty much where we’ll be in the UN’s red line in the chart above, which pushes the human population to sixteen billion by 2100. The green line takes into account thermodynamics—in other words, it closes the mass balance of people, food supply, and energy availability.

A 2013 model from the Autonomous University of Madrid converges with this green scenario, by focusing on limited supply and the consequent limit to growth. The red line spells disaster, but the green line is equally scary—it means the net removal of two billion people from the planet over fifty years.

That’s forty million per year, or the disappearance of the entire US every eight years.

God's own land. The view to the west from Cacela a Velha, a tiny Moorish town in the Algarve, dating from 713. It was colonized by Arabs from Syria and Yemen.

God’s own land. The view to the west from Cacela Velha, a tiny Moorish town in the Algarve, dating from 713. It was colonized by Arabs from Syria and Yemen.

The three UN models begin to diverge at 2015, which is interesting because er… that’s this year. The divergence is so huge that the end-point forecast in 2100 shows a difference of ten billion between highest and lowest prediction—this is evidence both of the power of non-linearity and of our complete inability to make accurate predictions.

2050 is often mentioned as a target year when world food supply is discussed. By then, an extra thirty million metric tons (sixty-six billion pounds) of aquatic foods will be needed a year, for a world population of nine billion souls, roughly the orange curve in the diagram.

All thirty million will come from aquaculture.

A surprising number of people in North America and Europe would object to the view in my photograph of Cacela taken Tuesday morning. What would upset them are the oyster trestles, because they are not part of the natural environment.

Farmland (or the accompanying smell of shit) doesn’t upset them, although we can hardly defend that the eradication of hundreds of species from large areas of land, the operation of heavy agricultural machinery, or the construction of silos and barns are evidence of a pristine landscape.

These people too will change their views, as more of our seafood is cultivated. It will become a natural part of the land(sea)scape, and it will provide food security in a very uncertain world.

Two land(sea)marks slipped by recently with hardly a whisper.

In 2011, cultivated fish production topped beef production, which currently stands at sixty-three million short tons (fifty-eight million tonnes).

In 2013, world production of farmed aquatic animals overtook capture fisheries for human consumption.

Neither of these trends will invert, and both for the same reason: we have reached the limits of production for cattle on land, and we have overexploited wild fish stocks.

We speak a lot about conservation and sustainability in the Western World. Do we walk the walk? It takes seven pounds of food to produce one pound of beef. Three pounds for pigs, slightly more than two for chicken.

A well-run fishfarm uses less than two pounds of feed per pound of fish produced, and the Norwegian and Canadian industry set a standard of less than 1.2 lb of feed for a pound of salmon or steelhead.

If we understand mass balance, the simple concept that we cannot take out more than we put in, we understand why the austerity policies in Europe have driven more people back to the land—we are animals, much as we hate the idea, and our DNA encodes mass balance as a fundamental strategy for survival.

In this paper and plastic money equivalent of the lemming run, we all know we’re only fooling ourselves.

And no one talks about the emperor’s new clothes.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.



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