I'm going to be asking all of you to do some hard work today - this is not going to be a short post, or an easy one, particularly if you read the referenced piece and the hundred or more relevant comments. We all have limited time and energy, and I'm not necessarily famous for my brevity, so I understand if this looks overwhelming to you, but I'd like people to try and get through it, because this is damned important.
The one time I saw Stuart Staniford speak, at ASPO Boston in the fall of 2006, he ended his analysis of oil peak data with something along the lines of "Peak Oil isn't the end of the world, folks." I'd tend to guess he may actually have changed his mind on this one. He's a guy who tends to be conservative in his estimates, and, as far as I can tell (I don't know him at all) someone who doesn't believe things until he's figured them out to his satisfaction. Since he's a brilliant data analyst, to his satisfaction is quite a high standard. But becuase he's not someone who leaps to conclusions, I tend to trust Staniford's thinking. That is, when he gets worried, I worry. When he says, as he does here, that he was "floored" - I sit up and pay attention. And in fact, I was too.
This is a very long, difficult and important piece, on the impact of biofuels on the food supply, world hunger and the future. I've been arguing intuitively from the perspective of someone whose interest is not in data analysis, that peak oil's first and deepest effects will appear in world hunger, but Staniford has pushed it further. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2431#more. I strongly urge you to read the whole thing when you can, but his conclusion is this:
Here the value for the lower-income 2/3 of the world's population is about +0.7. What this means is that a 10% reduction in income has about the same effect on food consumption as a 10% increase in food prices. This suggests that we can use the global income distribution (shown above) to roughly estimate the impact of a doubling or quadrupling of food prices. We noted earlier that according to the UN about 800 million people are unable to meet minimal dietary energy requirements. That is 12% of the world population. On the income distribution (one graph back), the 12% mark corresponds to $1020/year in income (shown as the lowermost green dot). By looking at the $2040 level (36% of the global population - second green dot up), and the $4080 level (61% of the global population - third green dot up), we can estimate that a doubling in food prices over 2000 levels might bring 30% or so of the global population below the level of minimal dietary energy requirements, and a quadrupling of food prices over 2000 levels might bring 60% or so of the global population into that situation.
These estimates should be regarded as quite uncertain. Still, it seems hard to make a case that food price increases will cause a cessation of biofuel profitability before a significant fraction of the global population is in serious trouble. The poor will not be able to bid up food prices by factors of two and four and keep eating. In contrast, the quadrupling of global oil prices, and tripling of US gasoline prices, over the last five years has had very minimal impact on driving behavior by the middle classes.
The core problem is that gasoline price elasticity in the US is about -0.05, versus the -0.7 price elasticity for food consumption by poor consumers. This makes clear who is going to win the bidding war for food versus biofuels in a free market.
I wouldn't claim to be very knowledgeable on this, but I struggle to imagine how someone who wasn't meeting minimum dietary guidelines already can continue to exist on half as much food, or a quarter as much food, as food prices come into equilibrium with the current oil price level, or perhaps double again should oil prices double again. I would imagine that if you are hungry all the time you would already be devoting most of the skills and resources available to you to the problem of eating, and you would have limited ability to increase that in the face of large increases of food prices
For those of my readers who don't spend a lot of time reading scholarly papers, let me translate a little bit. What Staniford is saying is that there will be strong economic incentives to continue biofuels growth at the expense of the world's poor, and that mass starvation could occur quite rapidly, even as he states early on in the paper, as soon as 5 years from now and under existing policies. That is, if we don't act now, we may "accidentally" starve billions of people in our quest for oil substitutes. Staniford says,
"I will use a mixture of existing data,[..] to demonstrate that there are reasonably plausible scenarios for biofuel production growth to cause mass starvation of the global poor, and that this could happen fairly quickly - quite possibly within five years, and certainly well within the life of the existing policy regimes."
Even the most jaundiced viewer of the rush to biofuels, (including myself) has probably underestimated the dangers of biofuel growth without external constraints. My own analysis was that some significant percentage of the population might starve - I admit, I didn't guess half. Here's my own work on what an ethical model of biofuel production would look like: http://www.energybulletin.net/24169.html
If this is true, how do we apply those constraints? That is, if we don't think it is morally acceptable to feed our cars at the expense of other people's children, how do we get that message across?
This, of course, is the central question of just food distribution. While practical data on yields and output of various organic and polyculture practices provides ample evidence that we can continue to produce similar, even increasing quantities of food for some time, the question of distribution offers a constraint that is deeply difficult to overcome. That is, there seems to be little doubt that we can produce enough food to create a stable decline - that is, to feed the population until it stabilizes and falls via voluntary self-limitation. But that does mean that we would have little human food to convert to meat or biofuels, and we would have to not only have more equitable distribution, but a cultural passion for justice and equal distribution.
I know people who believe that latter is utterly impossible to achieve. We are not like that, we are told. We are too selfish. We will not change until we have to.
And perhaps that's even true, but perhaps there are multiple versions of "have to" - that is, the idea that we won't do anything until it is absolutely necessary implicitly sets a real bar for what constitutes absolute necessity. One of the places we tend to set that bar is at our compassion for others as a collective people. That is, we tend to believe that things that affect us personally might move us to action, but things that mostly affect others will not.
There is no doubt that a massive move to biofuels will affect us - is affecting us now. Rising food prices are hurting Americans who have to pay for gas and food and mortgage, and have little flexibility in both. But there is also, as Staniford notes, little doubt that the biggest victims will be the poor of the world, people far away who we do not know. What would make it possible for us to care so much about them that we are willing to change our lives in profound and difficult ways to preserve their lives? Is that entirely unthinkable.
I think to many of us, it is. That is, we look at the way we live now, and do not see or recognize a part of ourselves that cares so deeply about distant others.
Which is why I think the following information is so important - we once did care that much, and not so very long ago.
As Amy Bentley documents in _Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity_, there was a time, about 60 years ago, when Americans were prepared to endure food rationing and hardship in order to keep other people alive. No, I'm not talking about World War II, but about the last time in our history that a signficant percentage of the world faced death from famine.
At the end of World War II, in 1945, the US was thriving, but up to 1/4 of the rest of the world's population was facing hunger. Whole economies had been destroyed by the war, and a subsequent drought dramatically reduced crop yields. In 1945, food production world wide was 12% below pre-war levels, and the 1946 harvest was similarly affected.
Europe's harvest levels were 25% below normal. Mexico was in the grips of massive inflation, with tortilla prices out of reach of many - more than half of all Mexicans were spending 90% of their income on food. In Korea, the whole year's food donation supply was consumed by June. Rations in Japan were at 520 calories per per person, per day, vastly below the 2800 calorie norms. 500 million people faced death by starvation. Only a few nations, most notably America, were in any position at all to export grains for relief.
Meanwhile, the US was newly released from wartime rationing, and food consumption rose to 3300 calories per day on average. People celebrated unlimited meats, sugars and fats that they'd been denied during the war. And Americans were preoccupied with the return of family and the recreation of American society - they did not care very much about the starving masses, if they even knew they existed.
In the winter of 1946, Harry Truman made a radio address on the world situation asking Americans to help conserve food in order to earmark 16 percent of the total US harvest for food relief. Among his policies were included the prohibition of wheat use in alcohol production and strict limitations on feeding grains to livestock. He also asked Americans to voluntarily restrict their food consumption, to free up more food to be sent for relief.
What is remarkable is that when Americans turned their attention to the subject, they showed willingness to endure even stronger restrictions than the voluntary ones that Truman and his Aid czar, Herbert Hoover, proposed. 70% of Americans indicated their willingness to endure shortages of meat, butter, sugar, gas and other goods to give food to the hungry in Europe.
Herbert Hoover gave the following speech, after travelling to famine struck regions:
"I have seen with my own eyes the grimmest spectre of famine in all the history of the world. Of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the one named War has gone, at least for a while. But Famine, Pestilence and Death are still charging over the earth...Hunger hangs over the homes of 800 million people - over one-third of the people on the earth. "
Americans were further moved by this - and by the recognition that much of the world viewed them as gluttonous and selfish. Millions of Americans recognized that critics who claimed that America could only meet its commitments to provide food aid with rationing demanded its reinstitution, in face of the powerful opposition of Hoover and the Famine Emergency Committee. Americans wanted to see rationing instituted to ensure fairness, as they reduced their consumption.
In 1944, in the heart of World War II, 85% of all Americans believed that rationing should be retained after the war to prevent hunger and shortages. In March, 1946, 59 percent of the American public was willing to reinstitute full scale rationing to be able to relieve hunger in other nations. After Truman spoke eloquently about the world's suffering, the numbers rose to 70%.
Women's consumer groups spoke out in favor of national rationing. The OPA consumer Advisor Committee, made up of many well known and powerful women castigated Truman for not reinstating rationing, saying,
"The first step is immediately to withdraw large quantities of these foods from the domestic market for shipment abroad...Simultaneously measures must be taken to so allocate the domestic supply so that all the people will be able to get their share at home...Voluntary rationing is patently inadequate..."
More than 700 women's groups signed a letter demanding the reinstatement of rationing. 300 presidents of women's colleges did the same. It is worth noting that women took a leading role here - they they consistently demonstrated greater support for the reinstitution of rationing than men. Since the burden of food rationing fell more heavily on women, this is important - the people who would to give up the most were the most anxious to help
Perhaps the most astounding statistic was that almost 1/3 of the American public acknowledged a willingness to reinstitute rationing *to save the starving Japanese* - that is, despite national fury at those who bombed Pearl Harbor, at the most demonized enemy we may ever have had, fully 1/3 of the American population was willing to give up food to save the lives of their enemies.
In fact, voluntary rationing didn't work very well - America failed to make its food commitments, and people did starve. When America finally did meet its goals, it was because of a growing security threat from starving people in Russia. But that doesn't change the fact that Americans effectively begged their government to help them help others. That is, what matters most in this statistic is this - we not so very long ago believed that we would do a great deal in order to help others.
Does this stand as conclusive proof that we won't starve half the world? Absolutely not. And of course there are real and practical differences between the people who lived during World War II and ourselves. And yet, those differences are not so very vast that they might not be overcome, that we too might stand up, and perhaps do so with greater success, and demand that the need of others to be fed exceed the rights of the internal combustion engine.