Saturday, April 20, 2013

Dark Secret - II

Africa, the 'dark' continent, shares secrets we're just now realizing are relevant. Like the kingdom of Meroë, approximately 200 km north-east of Khartoum.

In the background, the remains
of the capital city of Meroë; ever
heard of it?

The Nubians became rich from trade on the Nile.  Around 750 B.C., they moved their capital to Meroë between the Atbara and the Blue Nile where they flow into the White Nile.  It was a green and appealing place for many reasons.

Protected on three sides, they felt secure, and the environment gave them food and industry.  Unlike the arid climate of the Nile valley further north, Meroë had summer rains sufficient to support their crops even at some distance from the rivers.  With spacious grasslands surrounding them, herds were easily maintained.

Meroë became a thriving economy, and the demand for exotic goods by rising Greek and Roman prosperity fueled their growth.  Meroë was richly endowed with iron ore and the timber needed for the great quantities of charcoal the smelting process required.  Their metal industry produced farm and carpentry tools, shears and even tweezers, as well as weapons of war.  Spears and swords, shields and axes, all in great demand.

The region was broadly successful.  Like Egypt, much evidence remains in Meroë of an expansive civilization, pyramids and walls with sculpture and bas relief along with text.  Although the written language has yet to be deciphered, the engraved stone illustrations tell us of kings and queens, wars and conquest, and of a grand kingdom.  Centuries of stability passed until environmental degradation made their end inevitable.  Trees to fuel iron-smelting furnaces were felled faster than new ones could grow.  Deforestation led to erosion and a loss of topsoil.  The region that had supported thriving agricultural populations for a thousand years could be farmed no longer.  In a brief period, the civilization disappeared.

The region had a 'carrying capacity' that was finally exceeded.
That's the secret, by the way.  In any given model, any actual region, resources are finite.  There's a max-extraction/max-consumption rate or quantity that determines the region's 'carrying capacity'.
 Interestingly, the region has yet to recover from the uninformed exploitation.
Thanks and a hat-tip to John Reader, A Biography of the Continent, Africa.

Meroë was thriving when the world's population was perhaps 200 million people. Today, population density for such developed regions is two orders of magnitude higher, and we're seeing similar problems in a high-speed replay.

Deforestation is troublesome, of course, but that's where the land is that we need for food production. Rivers are being drained before they reach the sea because our need for water now exceeds their natural capacity.  Did you know that it takes around 300 gallons per person per day for food production.  In the western world, the figure is around 900 gallons.

Seventy percent of the world's fresh water goes to agriculture, and sources are under increasing pressure.  Aquifers continue to decline with overuse.  

Humanity devotes more land to food production than anything else - roughly a third of the earth's surface is dedicated to food production.  Much of it used to be forested, of course.  

Increasing production of food hasn't kept pace with demand with a resulting price increase of 100%+ (inflation adjusted) in the last two decades.  The UN estimates that we'll need to increase food production by 70% by 2050 to feed the world.  If production doesn't rise, prices will increase, and hunger will spread.  We've made real progress against hunger in the last 40 years, but it's precarious and now increasingly difficult to continue.

While humanity has a reputation for innovation and creative adaptation, this isn't just one more hurdle.  The reality is that we're reaching natural limits of our world's 'carrying capacity'; limits that can't be pushed back.  

Reducing world population by half would resolve many of the difficulties that we face, of course.  China tried that without success, only managing to slow their growth.  In historical similarly-sized circumstances, the death rate due to deprivation balances the equation.

The next thirty-five or so years will not be business as usual.  Such reality suggests we might begin now to understand the effect it will have on our children who will have to deal with it in their lifetime.  Can we equip them to cope rationally?  Of course.  Know how?

Time for a change; always exciting!  Forecasts by economists and the prophets of old suggest we should probably not be content with the status quo, nor should we hide our heads in the sand now that change is imminent.