Peak Everything: Eight Things We Are Running Out Of And Why
Getty ImagesWhy is everything running out at the same time? We did a series on Planet Green where we looked at why those basic things that we take for granted, like water, food and fuel are getting expensive and scarce, all at once.Peak Corn: Blame Earl Butz. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford's Secretary of Agriculture brought in the Farm Bill that dramatically increased the amount of corn produced in America. He encouraged farmers to "get big or get out," and to plant crops like corn "from fence row to fence row." Further billions in subsidies to farmers encouraged production, and soon America was awash in cheap grain, and with it cheap meat. Food costs as a portion of the American diet dropped to the lowest level in history; we became corn. Michael Pollan writes: "If you eat industrially, you are made of corn. It holds together your McNuggets, it sweetens your soda pop, it fattens your meat, it is everywhere. It is fed to us in many forms, because it is cheap- a dollar buys you 875 calories in soda pop but only 170 in fruit juice. A McDonalds meal was analyzed as almost entirely corn." ::More Peak Oil
In 1956, American geophysicist M. King Hubbert calculated that the rate of production of fossil fuels would peak in the United States in about 1970 and then start declining. He was laughed out of the conference room. However, ultimately he was proven correct; now we are probably at the worldwide Hubbert's Peak. A hundred years ago you just stuck a pipe in the ground and the oil rushed out; now it is not so easy, and America's oil comes from deep under the ocean, is cooked out of rocks in Alberta, or is purchased from nations with security issues. Now the United States, Canada, Norway, and the United Kingdom are well past their peak, while Saudi Arabia and Russia are approaching it. Oil is still being found (there was a recent big hit in Brazil, and there are thought to be big reserves in the Arctic.) but it harder to get at and a lot more expensive. ::More Peak Dirt
Really, Peak Dirt- the world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it. Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe tells us that dirt is complicated stuff, made from sand or silt, then years of plants adding nutrition, bugs and worms adding their excrement, dying and rotting.
"The resulting organic matter feeds a whole underground ecology that aerates the soil, fixes nutrients, and makes it more hospitable for plant life, and over time the process feeds back on itself. If the soil does not wash away or get parched by drought, it very gradually thickens. It takes tens of thousands of years to make 15 centimeters of topsoil, about 6 inches' worth." ::morePeak Gas
The headline in our local paper today: Natural gas bills to soar by 20 per cent. What is going on?
Blame the price of oil. Everyone knows that the price of oil is way up, but it is an international commodity. Natural gas, on the other hand, usually is subject to more local rules of supply and demand in North America alone. However it does follow the market. Director of Energy Policy Malini Giridhar of Enbridge Gas told the Star: "Oil trades between 6 to 12 times the price of natural gas,The price ratio is now 11 times, which is close to the upper end of the range." Commodities markets are pushing up natural gas in reaction to higher oil prices, she said, rather than to gas supply and demand. ::MorePeak Water
We have lots of water in the States, so much that we can let it just flow over Niagara Falls, right? How did it get to the point where there are such problems in Georgia and the Southwest?
Blame Willis Carrier. Before he invented air conditioning,not many people lived in the American Southwest, it was just too hot for much of the year. It was only after World War II, when air conditioning became common and affordable, that the mass migration of people and industry could happen from cooler Northern states to California, Nevada and Arizona. Without AC, Atlanta and Florida are almost uninhabitable. ::MorePeak Electricity
It was a cool summer in 2003; it wasn't until the middle of August that we got a serious heat wave. By then, all of the air conditioners were pumping full blast and the electrical grid was running at almost full capacity. On August 14, a branch fell on a power line near Cleveland, Ohio. A software bug failed to trigger alarms, and power started surging through other lines, causing a cascading failure that shut down 100 power plants across the Northeastern United States and Canada. In some parts of the affected area, it took almost a week before things were back to normal.
Has the system been improved since then? Do we have additional generating capacity and more transmission lines? No, we still have what Bill Richardson called "a superpower with a third-world electricity grid." ::MorePeak Rice
They are rationing rice in Costco and Wal-Mart; People have started panic buying and hoarding. In Manila, they post armed guards around it. The price of rice has trebled, and the World Bank says 33 countries are facing civil unrest. What is going on?
Blame rats. First of all, most of the rice in America is sold to Asians for whom it is a staple; it really doesn't take much of a panic to run out of Basmati rice over here. Most rice is eaten in the country where it is grown, and only 6 percent of the rice crop is traded around the world. In some countries, as much as 17 percent of the crop is eaten by rats; so good secure rice storage might be the first place to start. ::MorePeak Metal
When my dad was a teenager, his first job at the in-law's family auto parts company was to retrieve the batteries from cars that they bought before they were stolen for their lead content. A generation later, you had to pay an extra tax to the government to get rid of the batteries. Now, we are back to a time my late father would recognize- that metals are too scarce and too valuable to just leave around unprotected.
They just built a new soccer stadium in Toronto, Canada, with lovely aluminum bleachers; before the stadium even opened, someone unbolted the seats and carried them away. In Scotland, the "Great Drain Robbery" involves shipping manhole covers to China. In India, eight people have died, falling into open manholes after their covers were stolen. In Baltimore, thieves cut down and carted away 136 aluminum lamp posts. In California thieves can remove a platinum-filled catalytic converter in ninety seconds. Copper? Stealing it is a growth industry all over the world, as it hits four bucks a pound- two years ago it was a buck and a quarter. ::More