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Can We Evolve Fast Enough to Avoid Global Famine?

03/31/2012

This post has been submitted to TckTckTck‘s Rio Blogger Prize. Post it on Twitter or Facebook if you think it deserves to be a finalist!

Creative Commons: TckTckTck, 2012

On this planet, approximately 97% of all life lives in the oceans. In other words, marine life is not only an essential part of our food systems, it is also the bedrock of the biosphere.

Since 1950, 90% of big fish stocks have been depleted.

Overfishing certainly contributed to this alarming outcome, but it isn’t the only factor. Ocean acidification has also played a significant part in the ocean’s plummeting biodiversity–a process driven by climate change. Climate change also threatens our globalized system of agriculture (AKA the life support system for billions), with rising temperatures, drought, spontaneously migrating pests, and extreme weather.

Humans are generalists, capable of surviving in a wide array of environments, from desert to tundra. For most of our evolutionary history, we were able to migrate to another region whenever food became scarce. Then again, for most of our evolutionary history, there were fewer than 100,000 of us.

Then we developed agriculture, and human population shot upward. Whereas our biological evolution permitted us to survive in almost any biome on Earth, our cultural evolution took a very specific path. Gradually, it became completely dependent on a globalized system of agriculture, which, in turn, depends on the current planetary climate.

Creative Commons: TckTckTck, 2012

During the last 10,000 years or so, we’ve grown used to there being vast tracts of land suited for a variety of crops. But the stability we’ve enjoyed since the last ice age ended is actually unusual for planet Earth. During the billions of years before the glaciers receded, the climate was mostly unstable, often switching from ice age to global sweat to ice again in a matter of decades.

Humanity caught a lucky break, evolving at a time like this. There weren’t many other periods during which today’s global civilization could have emerged.

And how are we showing our gratitude? By pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, screwing with a planetary climate that until now was characterized by great instability.

We’ve evolved to thrive in this climate, and right now humanity certainly is thriving. But if we can’t curtail our abuse of the climate and of the environment, we will find ourselves living on a very different planet.

Given all the carbon dioxide we’ve pumped into the atmosphere, a certain amount of climate change is now inevitable, and we have some quick evolving to do if we’re going to avoid suffering that is more widespread than it already is (in a world with 1 billion malnourished people).

Creative Commons: TckTckTck, 2012

The field of hydroponics offers techniques that reduce resource consumption while increasing agricultural yield–we would do well to employ them. As well, there are several policy adjustments that would further the goals of feeding the hungry and improving food security, such as making it legal for U.S. food aid to be sourced in the regions where it is needed.

Finally, there is a way to reduce civilization’s carbon footprint while improving food security: replace the global system of agriculture with localized agriculture. Countless studies show that local food has a much smaller impact on the climate than food that is imported. As well, getting our food locally makes us much more resilient to disruptions of the global supply chain–disruptions such as climate change, for instance.

In the 21st century, evolving entails transitioning to a local diet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrea permalink
    04/04/2012 9:39 PM

    Great post, Scott. I look forward to a future post where you expand on the options mentioned in the last coupe of paragraphs. There are lots of ways to make local food work!

    • 04/05/2012 5:20 PM

      Very true! I listened to an interview recently that talked about organic farms in northern Africa, I believe, where they were able to get a bigger yield than industrial practices. There is much to be gained from synchronizing our efforts with our local environments!

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