But this neoliberal vision has resulted in an increasingly unsustainable entanglement of nations in a world compromised by ecological overshoot. Today, many countries are dependent on others for critical resources, including food, even as population growth and increased consumption deplete and pollute the ecosystems essential for human survival. Climate change and energy uncertainty further threaten trade-dependent populations. Indeed, societal collapse is a growing possibility. The future food security of cities—or any size of human settlement—lies in greater regional self-reliance, particularly through the protection of arable land and the relocalization of both primary agriculture and food processing.
Global Context—Beyond Carrying Capacity
A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea, but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea. (Wright, 2004, p. 108)
This paper makes the case that food security is a core element of sustainability and that both depend on how climate change and the composition of energy supplies evolve in coming decades. Based on current trends, the most food-secure populations by the second half of the 21st century will be those populations that have deliberately chosen and planned to re-localize as much of their own food systems as possible.
This prescription is at odds with the efficiency- based ‘globalize, specialize, and trade’ component of the neoliberal (neoclassical) economic ideology that currently dominates human material affairs.
We should not be surprised, for both textbook neoliberalism and Ricardian trade theory date back to the 19th century, when the world was relatively pristine and, at least in human terms, ecologically empty.
That time has passed.
And the reason is simple. Consider the blind- ing pace of change since the Industrial Revolution. It took 200,000 years for the human population to reach its first billion in the early 1800s. Since then, energized by abundant fossil fuels, the human family has exploded by seven-and-a-half-fold. It hit 7.6 billion in just the next 200 years (by 2018)— 1/1000th of the time required to reach the first billion! Meanwhile, real gross world product increased 100- fold and per capita incomes (consumption) increased by a factor of 13 (25 in rich countries) (Roser, 2018).
Most people today take this recent period of growth to be the norm. The reality is that it is the single most anomalous period in history. Only the last 8-10 generations of thousands of human generations have been around to enjoy it—and the next generation will have to suffer the negative consequences. The human enterprise is well into overshoot.
The problem is that Earth didn’t get any bigger. In fact, one could argue that, in ecological terms, it has shrunken and diminished. The symptoms are the stuff of daily headlines: accumulating greenhouse gases, global climate change, dissipating soils, expanding deserts, shrinking tropical forests, acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, toxifying fresh waters, expanding marine ‘dead zones,’ collapsing fisheries, plummeting biodiversity (humans are extinguishing other species at up to 1,000 times the natural rate), etc., etc. These trends—many of which are accelerating—tell a story of gross human ecological dysfunction. The load imposed on the ecosphere by industrial civilization exceeds the long-term human carrying capacity of Earth.
The Human Eco-footprint
We can measure just how far we have overshot carrying capacity by using ecological footprint analysis (EFA). EFA estimates the physical area of land and water ecosystems (biocapacity) that any specified population requires, on a continuous basis, to support its bio-resource consumption and waste production at a defined material standard of living (Rees, 2013a; Wackernagel & Rees, 1996).
This area, composed of cropland, grazing land, forested land, carbon-sink land, productive marine area (fishing grounds), and built-up or urbanized land, constitutes the population’s ecological footprint.
EFA is unique among sustainability indicators in that it enables us to compare a population’s demand for biocapacity with available supplies. It turns out that most countries today have eco- footprints that significantly exceed domestic sup- plies of biocapacity—that is, their populations depend, in part, on biocapacity imported from other countries or from the global commons (e.g., the oceans) (see Global Footprint Network [GFN], 2018, for examples). Such countries are running an ecological deficit with the rest of the world. This is the essence of overshoot.
The bigger problem is that the world as a whole (the ‘human enterprise’) is in eco-deficit. There are about 29 billion acres or 12 billion hectares of ecologically productive land and marine habitat on Earth (most ocean area is biological desert), but by 2014 the aggregate human eco- footprint had already reached 19 billion global average hectares (gha). (That’s 1.7 gha of available biocapacity per capita, compared to an average human EF of 2.6 gha/capita.) This means that humans are using Earth as if it were almost 60% larger than it is (data from World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 2014, 2016). Freed from natural negative feedback, H. sapiens’ relationship to the rest of the ecosphere closely resembles that of parasite to host—we are literally growing ourselves by consuming the ecosphere from within.
One symptom of overshoot with which everyone is familiar is human-caused climate change.
Carbon dioxide (CO2), derived from burning fossil fuels,2 wildfires, deforestation, and soil disturbance, is the greatest waste product of industrial societies by weight. It is also a major greenhouse gas (GHG) and a contributing factor to global warming. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 averaged a record 410.8 parts per million (ppm) in June 2018, and the running average is about 408 ppm, almost 46% above the preindustrial level of 280 ppm. The rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations is itself increasing, seemingly unaffected by the unenthusiastic policy responses to the series of global climate conferences and international agreements dating from the mid-1970s.
Temperatures are therefore also rising. The past four years are the four warmest years in the instrumental record: 2016 was the warmest, 2017 was second, followed by 2015 and 2014! In fact, 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred in this young century (data from National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA], 2017, 2018; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], n.d.). (It should be noted in passing that the global food system accounts for as much as one-third of GHG emissions and associated warming.)
We will return to the implications of accelerating carbon emissions and climate change below. For now, take them as indicative of human interference in important global life support systems and our general overuse of the ecosphere.
We can summarize our predicament as follows:
• The sheer scale of the human enterprise already exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth; material production, consumption, and waste generation exceed the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosphere.
• We are “financing” the growth of the human enterprise by liquidating essential natural capital upon which civilization depends for long-term survival.
William E. Rees *
University of British Columbia
Submitted October 12, 2018 / Published online June 26, 2019 Citation: Rees, W. E. (2019). Why place-based food systems? Food security in a chaotic world. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2019.091.014 Copyright © 2019 by the Author. Published by the Lyson Center for Civic Agriculture and Food Systems. Open access under CC-BY license.
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