What to Eat when the Stores are Empty
Simple, Localized Approaches to Food Systems Resilience and Food Security in Southeast Asia
Please note: This article is part of an ongoing series in which we explore possible solutions to our current predicament. To visit the index page for an overview of all chapters, click here.
Part Zero: Introduction – What’s the Problem?
In 2013, the world reached a climate milestone: the concentration of carbon dioxide exceeded 400ppm. We stand at about 420ppm right now. The last time the Earth experienced such high concentrations of the most common greenhouse gas, at least 2.6 million years ago (anatomically modern humans have been around for a mere 300,000 years), the oceans were almost 10m higher than they are today (Goodbye Bangkok, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Jakarta), and camels lived in the Arctic. Camels.
The planet was about 2° to 3°C warmer than it is today, and the (notoriously conservative) IPCC and virtually all climate scientists agree that we must try everything in our power to stay below the 2°C degree threshold in order to avoid catastrophic shifts in the climate that could easily end civilization as we know it. In fact, even with the 1.1°C warming we’ve had to date, it is very likely that we have reached tipping points in the form of positive feedback loops (like melting ice and forest fires) which inevitably lead to further warming.
Dryer weather leads to larger and more frequent forest fires, which release massive amounts of CO2, which in turn leads to further warming and droughts. Thawing ice causes glaciers to accumulate a black layer of dust on its surface, which accelerates the melting through an increase in temperature. The thawing permafrost contains vast stores of methane, another potent GHG, which accelerates climate change and leads to even more thawing, releasing even more methane.
To illustrate this point, let’s have a look at two graphs that show historical concentrations of CO2:
What this means is that the particular set of circumstances that allowed agriculture to evolve in the first place is an extremely volatile and transitory affair.
A stable climate is the fundamental prerequisite for agriculture (and subsequently larger settlements and civilizations), and without it, agriculture inevitably fails as a subsistence strategy. As we see in Fig.0.2, the stable climate of the Holocene is now officially over. Relatively minor changes and variations in the climate – compared to what we are facing now! – and rainfall patterns (usually accompanied and reinforced by environmental degradation) played a part in the collapse of most past civilizations, from the Anasazi and the Hohokam in North America, the Classic Maya in Mesoamerica, over Mesopotamia in the Middle East and Old Kingdom Egypt in Africa, to the Indus Valley on the Indian Subcontinent and Angkor Wat in Southeast Asia.
Global civilization, and in fact our entire way of life is utterly dependent on a relatively stable climate: we all eat agricultural products, and industrial agriculture produces the surpluses needed to feed the vast majority of the population that is not directly involved in food production. The system can handle occasional catastrophes such as floods or severe storms, but only if they are the exception, not the norm. More importantly, agriculture will become increasingly unreliable as the climate destabilizes in the coming years, and extreme weather events will become more common and, well, more extreme.
One of the most important (and most overlooked) resource for understanding where we’re headed is an article called Our hunter-gatherer future: Climate change, agriculture and uncivilization, a peer-reviewed paper by John M. Gowdy, published in the journal Futures in 2020.
Gowdy bluntly states that “Agriculture will be impossible in the post-Holocene climate”, and goes on to confirm what we’ve outlined above:
Agriculture and civilization were possible because of the unusually warm and stable climate of the Holocene. Before then, year-to-year variations in temperature and rainfall made agriculture too undependable to support settled communities with large populations. The Earth’s climate has been unusually stable for about 10,000 years. But with the human-caused increase in CO2 levels we have locked ourselves into a new period of climate instability that scientists predict will be comparable to the conditions of the Pleistocene.
We recommend reading the entire paper – it explores the issue in detail that’s beyond the scope of this article. It contains a graph similar to Fig.0.1, but with an interesting detail added: a projection for the next 20,000 years that shows the similarity to the climatic oscillations of the Pleistocene.
The trend is obvious: agricultural yields are set to decline over the coming decades: rising temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns, and extreme weather events will lead to decreased yields and crop failures, and volatile oil and fertilizer prices are set to further complicate the situation. From the paper quoted above:
By 2050, under a typical middle-of-the-road emissions scenario, you’re looking at a doubling of the volatility for grains in the mid-latitudes. In places like China, the U.S., Europe, Ukraine—the breadbasket countries of the world—the volatility from year-to-year just from natural climate variability at a higher temperature is going to be much higher. The impact on crops is going to be greater and greater.
Furthermore, a 2010 report for the US National Intelligence Council titled Southeast Asia: The Impact of Climate Change to 2030 – Geopolitical Implications bluntly states that “the combination of climate change and other environmental, social, political, and economic factors could cause the failure of one or more states in the region by 2030 [emphasis added].” That’s eight years from now! And while climate change undoubtedly will contribute greatly to the unfolding crisis, the panelists concluded that “Southeast Asia faces a greater threat from existing manmade environmental challenges than from climate change to 2030 [emphasis added].” This doesn’t mean that climate change is not dangerous (it is!), it means that modern humans’ activity is even more dangerous. But it also contains a possible solution: if people stopped destroying the environment, our collective chances of survival would increase, even when considering climate change. Again, we recommend reading the entire report (or at least the Executive Summary) for anyone doubting the seriousness of the situation we’re facing.
We are still a few years, maybe even decades, away from any serious trouble. Yet after a mere two years of Covid-19 and the outbreak of a new war, the economy is tanking, inflation is rising faster than ever before in our lifetimes, oil, fertilizer and food prices skyrocket (it’s all connected!), and food shortages of some sort or another are becoming a global phenomenon. The increase in food prices itself reflects some scarcity or another, of ingredients, or fuel needed to plant, harvest, transport, process and distribute foods.
Sure, the shelves are still fully stocked in most parts of the world, but don’t allow yourself to be lulled in a sense of (false) security just yet. The last few years? A sneak preview of what’s yet to come.
If this all sounds overly dramatic to you or if you’re surprised how dire the picture is, we recommend reading the book The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, or the Deep Adaptation paper by Jem Bendell (both available as Thai translations). Both David and Jem spent months reviewing research relating to climate change from all around the globe, and both independently came to the conclusion that, if everything is taken into account and nothing changes in our behavior, civilization will likely collapse in the next years or decades (the timeline is somewhat disputed: it all really depends on what we do in the next few years). Many climate scientists are pretty outspoken (and pessimistic) as well, and the only reason why some readers might be surprised or even shocked after reading this article is that the mainstream media utterly fails to adequately cover the issue – for fear of sparking widespread panic. What they don’t seem to consider is that the problem only gets worse if people are being left in the dark about it and if nobody is even aware of the true scope of the crisis we’re facing. Climate change will not simply go away if we don’t talk about it. The elites (corporate and government) and the media they control don’t want you to know the truth about climate change, because they are afraid that the system that keeps them wealthy will be toppled and they lose their privileges! They think that if you know the truth about what the future holds, you will quit your job, move to the countryside and start planting your own food – and stop making profits for them. Or they think that fear will paralyze you and make you depressed. But fear can be a great motivator! And remember that you’re not alone in this.
While trouble is on the horizon (and approaching fast!), there is still time left to mitigate, prepare, and adapt. Certain tipping points have been breached, so drastic climatic changes are now inevitable, and this shift means the end of the relatively stable Holocene in which agriculture and, concomitantly, civilizations first arose. But we can still avoid the worst – if we start preparing now.
Sure, all this sounds quite apocalyptic, but it is important to remember that the collapse of civilization doesn’t mean the end of humanity, and that it is very likely that at least some humans will survive over the next few centuries (one popular estimate says that at 4°C warming the planet might sustain less than one billion people, and the current prediction by the IPCC is that we reach this point around the year 2100 – if we change nothing). Moreover, the collapse of civilization will look nothing like something out of a Hollywood Blockbuster such as Mad Max or World War Z. “Collapse” simply means a reduction of complexity – a simplification of certain aspects of society, to put it more optimistically. In any case, the world is changing fast, and we have to adapt even faster. The sooner we start, the better.
As we try to navigate this increasingly unstable world, the most pressing issue is how we (and our descendants) will feed ourselves – without relying on agriculture. As conventional agriculture becomes ever more unreliable, we need to switch to different, diversified modes of subsistence to avoid widespread starvation.
This series is set to explore some strategies to cope with climate change by adapting an alternative (and, at first, complementary) subsistence mode, a form of arboreal horticulture: a mixture of permaculture, agroecology and agroforestry, inspired by our native ecosystems, indigenous subsistence techniques, and our own experiences and experiments here at Feun Foo. The goal is to create dense and highly productive multistrata “Food Jungles” (see Part One) that are more resistant to extreme weather events, less prone to crop failure, and that can supply people with a diverse and healthy diet without requiring too much work – all the while sequestering carbon, creating cooler microclimates, aiding cloud formation, and creating habitat for wildlife.
Such a resilient, diverse, secure, and localized food supply (basically a relatively dense network of Food Jungles) is needed to mitigate and/or avoid suffering on an unprecedented scale as the climate derails, agricultural yields decline, and global civilization slowly collapses under its own weight.
The question we are trying to answer is: How do we adapt to this new situation, and what will we eat in a world in which supermarkets and amber fields of grain are a thing of the past? If the best option might be to eventually become hunter-gatherers again, how can we prepare for this and smoothen the transition? How could such a future hunter-gatherer society look like?