The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label crisis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label crisis. Show all posts

Friday, September 2, 2022

Megalomaniacs Anonymous -- Simon Sheridan on the Current Crisis

Simon Sheridan continues publishing a series of insightful posts where he tries to understand why the West is engaging in this self-destructive, and frankly idiotic, behavior. Here are some excerpts from his most recent one, "Megalomaniacs Anonymous"

by Simon Sheridan

Until a couple of years ago, I would have counted myself in the slow collapse group. I assumed that, yes, we were pushing a bunch of dumb policies that weren’t going to work. Yes, these were mostly a combination of ambitious politicians promising what they couldn’t deliver, idealistic voters wanting what they couldn’t get and greedy capitalists profiting off that combination. Yes, it was all pie-in-the-sky fantasies that were only ever possible due to the enormous economic surplus enjoyed by modern western societies. But when the proverbial hit the fan, the people who actually understood how things worked in the “real world” would come to the fore. We would stop listening to shysters and charlatans and fall back to the things that worked.

During corona, even in the early days of the hysteria, there were such people who came forward to remind us of the things that had been shown to work. A good example was the Great Barrington Declaration, signed by tens of thousands of experts from around the world. It was little more than a reiteration of the established public health guidelines on how to respond to a middling pandemic. But, of course, it was those exact guidelines that had been thrown out the window in early March 2020. Thus, the Great Barrington Declaration was a bit like the Great Don’t Poke a Bear Declaration or the Great Don’t Stick Your Finger in an Electrical Socket Declaration. It was a statement of the obvious. But we were no longer listening to the obvious.

... If we zoom out, we see that corona is one example of a pattern that has been in play in the West for several decades. It’s the one I described above; pie-in-the-sky fantasies with no basis in history or reality. Why should anything have a basis in history anymore? With the collapse of the USSR, history was over. That’s what we told ourselves. All the old rules were gone and we were free to come up with whatever we liked. And that’s exactly what happened. We came up with a whole bunch of ideas and told ourselves that they had to work because, well, we said so.

In this sense, the Ukraine War is not unrelated to corona. Some pro-Russian commentators have pointed out that the behaviour of the West in relation to Russia since the fall of the USSR has been stunningly dumb. Russia could easily have been integrated into the European economy. It’s what everybody expected to happen. It’s what most people in Russia wanted at the time. And it happened anyway, despite efforts to prevent it. That’s why there’s an energy crisis facing Europe at the moment.

If Russia had been properly integrated into Europe, the West could have completely encircled China and prevented its economic rise from translating into political and military might. With just a modicum of common sense, pragmatism and realpolitik, the unchallenged hegemony of the West that began in the 1990s could have been kept going indefinitely, at least until other problems intervened. But we had other ideas; brand new ideas with no basis in history or reality.

Up until corona, it was possible to argue that such stupidities were allowed to happen because the damage was done in far flung countries where the western voting public didn’t notice or care. But with corona and the Ukraine War, the damage is now being done at home and is going to be felt at home for a long time to come. It is no longer possible to avoid the consequences of the mindset that led to these decisions. ...

Karl Rove put it best when he said “we create our own reality.” The “we” he was referring to were the western “elites”. They were now in the position of Yahweh i.e. all powerful. Anybody who was not a western elite was in the position of Job, although it wasn’t until corona that this fact became clear to the rest of us. It’s plainly obvious now that western elites simply couldn’t care less about representing the interests of their constituents.

It’s quite ironic that Neo-conservatism was actually inspired by postmodernism

What they do care about is a source of much speculation. Some think they are trying to usher in a new world order or a great reset. A couple of posts ago, I posited that they were possessed by their own Magic. I still think that’s true. But maybe that is just a symptom. If so, what is the disease?

I see no meaningful difference between Karl Rove’s idea that we “create our own reality” and the notion that became popular in early 2020 that we could eliminate a respiratory virus. These are examples of megalomania pure and simple. And the results of that megalomania have been identical: total failure. The difference now is that while the damage caused by the neocons was mostly suffered by people somewhere else, the damage caused by corona and the Ukraine War is being felt right here at home. Our megalomania is now actively causing damage to ourselves. I say our megalomania because, although it’s clear that western elites suffer the worst from this malady, they also enjoy much support in the general culture.

What does all this mean? It seems almost certain now that western hegemony is finished and there is going to be an extended period dealing with the consequences of the last several decades of megalomaniacal madness. Of course, this is going to have material ramifications. But it will also have psychological and, dare I say it, spiritual consequences. In our materialist culture, we don’t take psychology or spirituality seriously. These are personal issues to be worked through with your shrink or priest. But what seems up for grabs now is not just some psychological symptom but an entire worldview. What comes after megalomania?


What if we either can’t or won’t find anybody else to blame? This would make sense. Yahweh had nobody else to blame. He was an all-powerful God. The megalomania of our culture puts us in a similar position, at least psychologically. If we are all-powerful, if we create our own reality, then how can Putin or China be the cause of our problems? Like Yahweh, we must be the cause. Is it possible that it’s precisely the megalomania of the West that opens up the possibility for individuation to occur?

In some respects, corona represents an ideal possibility for that to happen. I’ve been fascinated to see that in just the last few weeks the powers that be have begun to float the idea that lockdowns were a mistake and maybe, just maybe, the vaccines were too. For reasons that I don’t really understand, perhaps raw political survival instinct, the politicians seem to be getting ready to throw the “experts” under the bus. Leaving aside why and how this might happen, what would it mean if it does?

The lockdowns and the vaccine had majority public approval. Many people were vociferously in favour of both and not just in an abstract, idealistic sense but in a real, emotional sense. A sizeable portion of the public really thought we were going to stop a respiratory virus. This wouldn’t be the usual business of somebody supporting a political party and then the party not delivering. This would be a real, tangible error made by individuals.

Spengler predicts people will deal with the cognitive dissonance by looking for external things to blame but there is good reason to think that we may not be able to find anybody to blame but ourselves. ..

It seems to me that one of the central points of the Integral Consciousness is to transcend this bias against the unconscious and perhaps even to transcend the whole conscious-unconscious dichotomy. Megalomania can be seen as the complete identification with the Ego-conscious mind. The belief that nothing else matters; that we create our own reality.

What if the unconscious is simply what is not currently elevated to focus. In that case, what is currently elevated to focus has no necessary superiority. It is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but simply one perspective among many. The imperative then becomes to ensure that other perspectives are integrated too. To understand that is to overcome megalomania and also to begin to see the Integral.

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis

Despite evidence that the rise in the number of cases is stalling, the Chinese lockdown in Shanghai and other cities continues, with hundreds of millions of people forced into their homes or in quarantine centers. What's happening? I argue that the Chinese government may have acted -- and still be acting -- on the basis of a meme that has its origin in a military perception of the pandemic.  

A "meme" is a small unit of information that can easily move from one human mind to another. It is the virtual equivalent of a virus in the sense that it "infects" people and influences their behavior. To explain the concept, maybe the best way is with an example: how my grandmother was absolutely convinced that nobody ever should drink a glass of milk without having boiled it first. She was infected with a meme that we could describe as "boil the damn milk." It was simple and direct, but, unfortunately, completely useless in the 1960s, when pasteurization had become common. 

My grandmother was not stupid: she was simply applying a tested method to deal with things she knew little about. The problem is that memes can be (or become) wrong or harmful, and yet they are very difficult to dislodge. In the photo, you see Colin Powell, in 2003, showing a vial of baby powder while claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed largely on the basis of a meme that turned out to be completely false. 

The Covid pandemic is another case of a complex story that most people are unprepared to understand. We should be trained in microbiology, medicine, epidemiology, and more -- no way! So, we rely on simplified snippets to guide our everyday activities. "Wear the damn mask," "stay home," "don't kill granny," "flatten the curve," and the like. That includes our leaders, and even many of the so-called "experts".

But how can we tell whether a meme is good or bad? One way to decide is to look at its origin. All memes have a story. Sometimes they begin as sensible precautions ("boil the milk before drinking it") but, in some cases ("lock everybody inside their homes"), they have a more complicated story. Where does the lockdown meme come from? Its origin can be found in the evolution of the concept of "biological warfare." But let's go in order. 

The Militarization of Biotechnologies

Biological weapons have been around for a long time in history. Ancient writers tell us of cadavers of infected people shot into besieged cities using catapults. It must have been spectacular, but it doesn't seem to have been common or especially effective. The problem with biological weapons is similar to that with chemical weapons. They are difficult to direct against specific targets and always carry the risk of backfiring. So, in modern times, bioweapons were never used on a large scale and, in 1972, a convention was enacted that outlawed biological warfare. That seemed to be the end of the story. But things were to change.  

You see in  Google Ngrams how the interest in biological weapons started to grow from the 1980s, onward.


The Ngrams results are confirmed by an examination of the scientific literature, as you may see by using Google Scholar or the Web of Science. The figure shows the number of papers dedicated to biological weapons (note that in the figure years go right to left in the graph and that the 2022 data are still incomplete.)

The origin of this renewed interest lies in the development of modern genetic manipulation technologies, supposed to be able to create new, and more deadly germs. But they can do much more than that: what if you could "tailor" a virus to the genetic code of specific ethnic groups, or even to the DNA of single persons? That remains (fortunately) for now in the realm of science fiction, but there is a simpler and more realistic approach. You can direct a virus to harm the enemy while sparing your population. You can do that if you have a vaccine, and they don't (like the old Maxim gun in colonial warfare). Considering that biological weapons are also cheap, you can see how the idea of biological warfare has become popular, with China often believed to be a leader in this field. You can read an in-depth discussion on this point on Chuck Pezeshky's site.

Before going on, stop for a moment to remember that these are just ideas: they have never been put into practice. And you are discussing lethal viruses that can kill millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of people. What could go wrong? Nevertheless, the idea of a weapon that only kills your enemies while sparing your forces is an irresistible meme for military-oriented minds. Then, once the meme is loose in the memesphere, it starts acting with a force of its own. The increasing interest in bioweapons indicates that during the past 3-4 decades, military planners started believing that "genetic warfare" was a real possibility. At this point, strategic planning for a biological war became a necessity, in particular about what should have been done to prepare a country to react when targeted with bioweapons.

The diffusion of this meme generated a revolution in the views on how to contain an epidemic. Earlier on, the generally accepted view favored a soft approach: letting the virus run in the population with the objective of reaching the natural "herd immunity". For instance, in a 2007 paper, the authors examined a possible new influence pandemic and rejected such ideas as confinement, travel bans, distancing, and others. On quarantines, they stated that "There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza." 

But when the military meme of biological warfare started emerging, things changed. A bioweapon attack is nothing like a seasonal flu: it is supposed to be extremely deadly, able to cripple the functioning of an entire state. Facing such a threat, waiting for herd immunity is not enough: the virus has to be stopped fast to allow the defenders to identify the virus and develop a vaccine. 

You can find several documents on the Web advocating an aggressive attitude toward epidemics. One was prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006. Another comes from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2010, where you can read of a scenario called "Operation Lockstep" that described something very similar to what came to pass in 2020 in terms of restrictions. Possibly, the most interesting document in this series is the one written in 2007 for the CDC  by Rajeev Venkayya. The document didn't use the term "lockdown" but it proposed a drastic series of measures to counter a possible outbreak that leading nearly two million victims in the United States only. It proposed a series of restrictions on the movement of people and, for the first time, the concept of "flattening the curve." It had a remarkable influence on the events that took place in 2020. We'll go back to this graph later. 

Up to 2020, all these ideas remained purely theoretical, just memes that floated in the memesphere. Things were soon to change. 

The Wuhan Lockdown meme

In early 2020, the Chinese government reported the discovery of a new virus, that they labeled SARS-Cov-2, rapidly spreading in the city of Wuhan. The authorities reacted by enacting a strict lockdown of the city and a partial one in the province of Hubei. The lockdown lasted from Jan 23 to April 8, a total of about 2 months and a half. 

It was an extraordinary event that finds no equivalent in modern or ancient times. Of course, quarantines have been known for centuries, but the idea of a quarantine is to confine people who are infected or who have been in contact with infected people. A lockdown, instead, means locking down everybody in a large geographical region. It had been tried only once in modern history, when a three-day lockdown was implemented in Sierra Leone with the idea of containing an outbreak of Ebola. It had no measurable effect on the epidemic. 

Many people proposed elaborate hypotheses about how the Chinese government may have been planning the pandemic in advance for strategic or political reasons. I don't see this idea as believable. Citing W.J. Astore, "People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing." I think the Chinese government is not different. Governments tend to react, rather than act. They also tend to be authoritarian, and a drastic lockdown is surely something that they favor since it enhances their power. 

Seen in this context, it doesn't matter if the SARS-Cov-2 virus was a natural mutation of an existing virus or, as some said, it had escaped from the biological research laboratory in Wuhan. What's important is that the Chinese authorities reacted "by the book." That is, they put into practice the recommendations that could be found, for instance, in Venkayya's CDC paper, although, of course, that doesn't mean that they actually read it. The Chinese surely had their own recommendations on preparedness that we may imagine were similar to those fashionable in the West. They may have believed that the virus was a serious threat, and they may even have suspected that it was a real biological attack. In any case, it was an occasion for the Chinese leaders to show their muscles and, perhaps, also to test their preparedness plans.

Here are the results of the first phase of the pandemic in China. We see how the number of cases moved along a typical epidemic curve that started in January 2020 and went to nearly zero after two months, and there remained for two years.


There is no doubt that the Chinese government saw this result as a success. Actually, as a huge success. Don't forget that the initial reports had described an extremely deadly virus, of the kind that could cause tens of millions of victims. In practice, the deaths attributed to the SARS-Cov-2 virus in China were about 5000. Over a population of a billion and a half, it is an infinitesimal number, and the probability for a Chinese citizen to die of (or with) Covid during 2020 was of the order of 2-3 in a million. Infinitesimal, indeed. But was it was a success of the containment policies? Or simply the result of the virus being much less deadly than it had been feared to be? Whatever the case, whoever took the decision of enacting the lockdown also took the merit for its perceived success. It was a personal triumph for China's president, Xi Jinping. 

The apparent success of the Wuhan lockdown generated a new, powerful meme about the effectiveness of the drastic NPI measures based on lockdowns, distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, masking, etcetera. They seemed effective not just in terms of "flattening the curve", but also as methods to control the epidemic and arrive at a condition of "zero covid." Memes such as "stay home" spread to the Western governments, just as the SARS-Cov2 virus spread to Western countries. The memes of "flattening the curve" and of "zero covid" were remarkably successful, as you can see in these data from Google Trends: 

Initially, it seemed that the Covid epidemic in Europe would disappear after the first wave, thanks to the NPIs. European leaders may have been genuinely convinced of this. For instance, in November 2020, the Italian Minister of Health, Mr. Roberto Speranza, published a book titled "Why we will be healed" taking credit for the successful eradication of the epidemic in Italy. But shortly afterward the number of Covid cases in Italy restarted to grow, and Mr. Speranza hastily retired his book from bookstores and from the Web. It was as if that book had never existed. In no country in the West, the number of cases could be lowered to zero, nor the epidemic could be limited to a single cycle as it had been done in China. The comparison of two years of data for China and the US is simply dramatic:

Many Chinese people seemed to take this result as a demonstration that the Chinese society is superior to the Western one because of the better discipline and self-control shown by Chinese citizens. It is an opinion (another meme) that could be maintained as long as the epidemic was at a truly zero level in China. 

Maybe, but a little more than two years later, things changed in China. The virus started spreading in the Southern areas of the country despite a new, drastic lockdown enacted by the authorities. Here are the most recent data available.


And you see that China went along the same path that several Western countries followed. After a lull in the spread of the virus, they concluded that the virus was eradicated. But then a new, stronger wave arrived. China didn't do so much better than the West, after all. 

The Memes that won

Up to March 2022, the China lockdown policy was seen as an exemplary case of successful containment of an epidemic. But the Shanghai lockdown changed everything. I argue that what we are seeing is a meme that got loose in the mind of politicians and led them to make several bad mistakes. 

The point, here, is to define success and failure in the containment of a pandemic. But what metric would you use? Let's go back to Venkayya's diagram in the 2007 CDC report, reproducing it here again. 

Do you notice what scam this diagram is? This figure is not based on data, has no experimental verification, no references in past studies. It is just something that the author, Mr. Venkayya, thought was a good idea. The problem is that the diagram cannot be quantified: it shows two nice and smooth theoretical curves. But, in the real world, you would never be able to observe both curves. Think of the epidemic in Wuhan: which of the two curves describes the real-world data? You cannot say: you would have needed two Wuhans, one where the restrictions were implemented, another where they weren't. Then, you could compare. 

Of course, in the real world, there are no two Wuhans, but there are 51 US states that applied different versions of the concept of "restrictions" during the pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economics Research went to examine how the different states performed and found essentially no effect of the restriction on the health of the citizens. There are other studies based that show how the effect of NPIs such as lockdowns, distancing, masks, etc., is weak, if existing at all. 

That leaves open the question of why the first lockdown in Wuhan was perceived to be so effective that it was replicated all over the world. The key, here, is the term "effective." If the virus had been as deadly as it was believed to be, maybe even a biological weapon, then, yes, you could claim that the Wuhan NPI had contained it. But later experience showed that the Covid virus was not much more lethal than that of normal influenza. Some data show that it may have been endemic before the outburst of 2020, so the immune system of the Chinese may have been already equipped to cope with it. That would also explain why the 2022 wave was so much stronger: the Chinese had not exposed their immune system to viruses for nearly two years, and they had become especially vulnerable to new variants.  

At this point, I can propose an interpretation for the reasons for the recent Shanghai lockdown as a good example of the power of memes. It is possible that the Chinese authorities were genuinely convinced that the Wuhan lockdown of 2020 demonstrated that restrictions work (in different terms, they remained infected with the relative meme). So, facing a new wave of the COVID virus, they reacted in the same way: with a new lockdown, convinced that they are doing their best to help Chinese citizens to overcome a real threat. 

If this is true, the Chinese authorities -- and the Chinese citizens, as well -- y must have been surprised when they saw that the new Covid wave refused to be flattened, as it had seemed to be during the Wuhan lockdown. The problem, at this point, lies with the stubbornness of memes, especially in the minds of politicians. A politician, in China as everywhere else, can never admit to having been wrong. When they find that some of their actions don't lead to the expected results, they tend to double down. Of course, a larger dose of a bad remedy does not usually help, but it is the way the human mind works. We may imagine that the leaders of the inhabitants of Easter Island did the same when they increased the effort in building large statues there. Incidentally, these statues were themselves another stubborn meme infecting a population.

Conclusion: a memetic cascade

Two years of the pandemic are summarized in a single graphic from "Worldometers." What you see is a series of seasonal peaks, one in the summer for the Southern Hemisphere, the other in winter for the Northern Hemisphere. There is no evidence that the various campaigns of non-pharmaceutical interventions had a significant effect. Every day in the world, some 150,000 persons die for all reasons. The graph tells us that, on the average, only about 7-8 thousand people died of (or perhaps just with) Covid every day. Even assuming that all those who died with Covid can be classified as dead from Covid (not obvious at all), more than 95% of the people who died during this period died for reasons other than the Covid. 

The question that we face, then, is how was it that the world reacted with such extreme measures to a threat that, seen today, was much exaggerated. It may be still too early to understand exactly what happened, but I think it is possible to propose that it was a typical "feedback cascade" in the world's memesphere. A convergence of parallel views from politicians, decision-makers, industrial lobbies, and even simple citizens, most of them truly convinced that they were doing the right thing. 

I don't mean here that there were no conspiracies in this story, in the sense of groups of people acting to exploit the pandemic for their personal economic or political interests. Lobbies and individuals do ride memes for their own advantage. So, when the pharmaceutical industry discovered that they could make money with vaccines against the Covid, they pushed hard for the meme to spread. The surveillance industry did the same. And governments, of course, pushed for more control over their citizens. They are naturally authoritarian and the Chinese government may not be especially more authoritarian than the Western ones. 

But, overall, memes can be a force that moves infected people even against their personal interests. My grandmother had no advantage, just a slightly higher cost, from her habit of boiling her milk before drinking it. It is much worse for the Covid story. A lot of ordinary people fully believed the memes that the government's propaganda machine was pushing and they did things that were positively harming them, physically, socially, and economically. They still do, memes are resilient. Daniel Dennett said that "a human being is an ape infested with memes." and the Covid story shows that it is true. 

Fortunately, the number of cases in China seems to have reached its peak and from now on, it can only go down. But the recent news from Shanghai is worrisome. If the Western media are to be trusted, the Chinese government is engaged in fencing apartment buildings to keep people locked inside. It may still be way too early to say that the time of the requiem for an old meme has come. 

See also the work by Jeffrey Tucker, and Chuck Pezeshky.

Note added after publication. Latest news from China (May 9th, 2022):

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. ("our measures are scientific" -- yeah, sure.....)

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Coming Global Food Crisis: Learning from the Great Irish Famine

A 19th century "soup kitchen" providing emergency relief for people without food. These kitchens could have saved millions in Ireland during the great famine of 1945-1850, but the British government refused to keep them open long enough. The main lesson we can learn from the Irish experience is how fragile is a food supply based mainly on a single crop, potato in the case of Ireland. In our case, the fragility is the result of basing our food supply system on a single energy source: fossil fuels.

Below, you'll find a post by Jesús Pagán about the food supply situation in the world. Pagán understands the basic concept that could cause a food crisis in the near future. It is a problem of food supply, not a problem of food production. In a previous post on "Cassandra's Legacy, " I wrote:
The world's food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors..... and more, including the fact that people don't just eat "calories", they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as "you can't do just one thing."
Pagán's ideas are consistent with the concept that the world could see a major food crisis if the system collapses, even just in part. Transporting food from a region to another requires a complex technological network able to transport, process, refrigerate, package, and do more things to the food we eat: it is an energy-intensive system. If there is an energy shortage, then we are in trouble, but we may not even be able to recognize a problem that will appear in the form of a financial crisis that will make it impossible for people in poor countries to purchase the food they need. 

We have already made a mistake similar to the one that led to the Ireland famine in mid 19th century: that of relying completely on a single technology: the potato for the Irish, fossil fuels in our case. Then if things get truly bad, we may need to learn from Ireland how to manage in an emergency situation.

During the famine, the British government did at least one good thing: they set up a number of "soup kitchens" that could have saved hundreds of thousands of Irish people from starvation. One of the basic problems with the famine was that the Irish families were only equipped to cook potatoes at home using peat as fuel. But it was not just potatoes that were cultivated in Ireland, some grain was also cultivated. But the Irish had no capability to process grains at home because peat is a poor fuel and, besides, grains need to be milled and turned into wheat before they can become edible in the form of bread or soup. Milling is an energy intensive process, and so it was expensive for the Irish who had no way to turn the local cereals into food. Soup kitchens solved the problem having sufficient financial resources to buy grains, also importing it, and then using a better fuel (coal) and better equipment to produce food that could be distributed to everybody, even the poorest. 

Unfortunately, the Irish soup kitchens were dismantled by the government just when they were most needed. We cannot say whether that was done with the specific intent of exterminating the Irish, or just because of incompetence. But as long as the kitchens were operating, people could stay alive. Would we find ourselves in the same situation, in our times? That is, would we need an equivalent of the 19th century soup kitchens in order to survive? 

Jesus Pagán has been reasoning along these lines after having examined the situation with the world's food supply. He proposes an emergency solution to a possible food shortage consisting in part in growing food locally but also processing it locally using a technology that he calls "Foodtopia Termopolios" which has several points in common with the old soup kitchens of mid 19th century. The idea is to cut the really expensive costs of the current food supply system: processing, refrigeration, packaging, and transportation. It means producing and treating food locally, using as little energy as possible. Is it a viable idea? The future will tell us, 


By Jesús Pagán


In the introduction to his 1979 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Prof. Theodore Schultz stated:
“Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the economics of poverty, we would understand a lot about economics that really matters. Most of the poor people in the world subsist on agriculture, so if we knew the economics of agriculture, we would understand a lot about the economics of poverty”
Our society, "thermodynamically blind and deaf", is suddenly discovering a new reality that questions its immediate future. It sees and hears things that it had never seen or heard or understood: Agricultural vulnerability, food insecurity, supply failures, peak oil, melting, droughts, fires, floods, inequity, energy transition, price rises….

Maybe you would like to flee, but where to go? You can leave the urban centres for rural areas, but nothing is certain anymore. The root cause is too much energy consumption:

1 kW energy consumption per capita is now the aim of IEA in the face of the dubious energy transition. It has been talked about for decades: “Basic needs and much more with one kilowatt per capita” was proposed in 1985 by José Goldemberg. But this idea was never put into practive. The reason is simple: in Europe, the energy inefficiency in food system already consumes 1 kW per capita. It leaves no room for other energy uses. Our food system consumes 1/3 of the world's energy and 70% of the planet's fresh water and produces up to 57% of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, it is the root cause of more than 60% of illness cases. In summary, it poses a deadly risk to humanity.

Years ago, I prepared this image to visualize how the world's population grew with oil. Oil has guaranteed food for the world's population and allowed its devastating growth.

Today, the food system generates consumption equivalent to the entire world oil production. However, the International Energy Agency (IEA, World Energy Outlook 2020) foresees a 50% reduction in oil production in 2025. 

The threat at this time is not the very serious climate change; the great threat is the lack of oil in a global food system that depends vitally on it.

Consequently, the survival of 8 billion people depends on oil. The following graph expresses how oil is the main ingredient in the diet since there is an evident correlation between the price of oil and that of food:

How will we feed ourselves?


What background do we have of this little-debated question in society? We were already seriously warned on the decline in oil (Peak-oil) by Admiral Hyman Rickover's report "Energy resources and our future" in 1957, but never before has the IEA proposed a probable scenario of a 50% lack of supply in production.

In his appearance before the Senate of Spain, Antonio Turiel, a researcher at the CSIC said: “We should equip ourselves, as soon as possible, with the ability to be self-sufficient in food production. We should ensure the supply of water, in drinkable conditions, and the ability to purify wastewater”.

Would it be possible to define the energetic homo? How much energy do we need to be alive and how much energy do we actually consume? All our vital activity, thinking, inventing, loving, getting excited, etc. it is covered from the energy of our diet; On average, this is approximately 2,500 Kcal/day, that is approximately 100 W .

Of this energy, our basal metabolism, and being a warm-blooded mammal, consume 70 W. We only have 30 W left for activity. But on a social level, to maintain our status, in Europe we consume an average of 6,000 w per capita, that is, 60 times more than the energy to be alive: we maintain airports, we travel to the other side of the planet, we drive, we have Formula 1, international sports leagues, we buy what we do not need, eat meat, cruises, Olympics, etc.

The Current Situation

As Juan Bordera Romà says:

“We are before a black elephant in the room. A problem that we all see, or at least most of us, but we hardly talk about it, or how to approach it, especially because of its enormity and its overwhelming nature. Ignoring it makes it gain even more weight, grow by the hour. The indifference and lies we tell ourselves to move on will inevitably end up crushing those in the room” (in this case the planet).

We must avoid the scenario "Who can save himself" described by the International Energy Agency when it contemplates a halving in oil production in 2025. "Who can save himself" is the impression that remains after reading the TEEB report of the UN that says our food systems are broken; "Who can save themselves" is the impression given by the SCIENCE publication arguing that "with this food system, whatever we do, we lose", since by itself, the current food system will increase the temperature above 1.5ºC, if there is no change in strategy.

So, what happens when we go to the supermarket? The source of the problem is that today, in the EU, a High Tech territory without oil production, we consume more than 25,000 kcal to produce a simple average daily diet of 2,500 kcal, that is, EROI (Energy Returned in relation to Energy Invested) = 0.1. Much of those 25,000 kcal comes from oil, the "life energy" of the global food system. That is, of the 25,000 kcal: 7,000 kcal are consumed and processed at home, 3,250 kcal in restaurants and catering, 4,500 kcal in the supermarket, 4,750 kcal in industry, 1,500 kcal in transport, and 4,000 kcal in agriculture (see table below).

This is the evidence for "technology as a systemic destroyer of habitat." When we go to the supermarket and see, for example, a milk carton package (which was packed in a high-speed filler under aseptic conditions from a reel of paper), we don't believe what we see, it's magic! We proudly call that R + D + i. We go crazy with the holy grail of today's society: "TECHNOLOGY." This wonder does not allow our minds to see what is behind it. Scientific progress and technological development hide reality to forget about the by-products (CO2, plastics, etc.) that it produces and the energy inefficiency with which it is processed. What happens when that machine starts filling at 7,000 containers per hour is hidden.

It is not only in the food sector, it is the trend in any industrial activity; we live among the songs of sirens. When we are shopping in the supermarket, where everything is digitized and mechanized, we are not informed that behind our simple diet, there are hidden about 3 kg of oil, which emitted more than 8 m3 of dirty CO2 into the atmosphere, in addition to Nitrous oxide, methane, plastic, paints, glass containers, aluminum, and hundreds of toxic materials, some of which, like microplastics, are already in our bloodstream We use technology in a way that defeats its purpose, which should be to ensure a sustainable and comfortable environment to live in. On the other hand, it has helped to generate on our planet about 8,000 million individuals, an overload in the energy / environmental impact where three-quarters of them live under threat, in eco-social misery, walking towards the Seneca cliff.

In 2008, in an interview with James Lovelock in The Guardian, he was asked what could be done in the face of the climate threat. The reply was: “Enjoy life while you can: in 20 years global warming will hit the fan.” James Lovelock described the eco-social collapse from the climatic perspective but he forgot the invisible enemy that was extraordinarily described in 1906, by Alfred Henry Lewis when he declared: “There are only nine meals between humanity and anarchy”. Climate change becomes secondary when our food depends on oil shortages. Lovelock's phrase should have been: "Enjoy life as much as you can before the decline in oil production causes the collapse of the food system."

The discourse today is the circular economy, urban gardens. It is undoubtedly educational for young people. However, in Leningrad besieged by Germans (and by the Spanish "Blue Division" as well), vegetables were cultivated in public parks, but when winter came there even were cases of cannibalism. The amount of food that can be obtained through traditional farming techniques would inevitably cause a mass exodus to nowhere.

How did we get here?
In 1972, with the report of ("The the Limits of Growth") we should have reacted, now it may be too late.

Today our society suffers the consequences of a poor and common view that food is calories, neglecting its biological functions. Currently we have gone from blessing food on the table to throwing it to the garbage container; and we have forgotten about nutritional balance.

"We are what we eat". Before we did not eat based on calories, we followed a traditional recipe book of formulations and mixtures made from the imagination that gave the famine or the bonanza of the moment, and that moment was impregnated with the energy, environmental, health, cultural, social, economic situation, religious, etc.

The daily practices of feeding ourselves transcend beyond being biological energy, nutrients, pleasures, sensations and are the main cause of the worldwide energy waste, tremendous environmental pathologies, hunger, social exclusion, relocation of resources, an unbearable healthcare expense, identities, individual lifestyles, etc.

Why don't we ask ourselves about these things, which put our lives at risk? Philosophizing is asking, philosophy has shown no real commitment to the implications of diet. We should have given a “philosophical approach to food” that goes beyond a scientific understanding of nutrition, but also beyond a purely cultural, aesthetic vision ... insofar as it takes into account all the various economic, political, animal-ethical, agricultural, industrial, environmental, energy, health, practical and aesthetic daily worldviews of food. In other words, it is necessary to nurture a food philosophical conscience that really studies all the factors about "how we humans eat in the world."

The "great acceleration" that began in the 1960s, produced an enormous expansion of wealth in society, for the first, and perhaps last time in the history of mankind, allowed, thanks to false abundance, a large number As consumers in rich countries, to eat whatever they wanted. Today almost no food practice is prescribed by cultural tradition, religion, class or gender.

The result was a food system that generates up to 57% of greenhouse gases, consumes 1/3 of the world's energy, 70% of fresh water and causes 70% of premature deaths, among others.

Is there information at the institutional level about this food dystopia? 
The most complete study on our way of eating was carried out by the TEEB initiative (Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) promoted by Germany and the European Commission in response to a proposal from the G8 + 5 Ministers of the Environment meeting in Potsdam, Germany, in 2007, which resulted in the report: “MEASURING WHAT MATTERS IN AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SYSTEMS”, synthesis of the results and recommendations of the TEEB Report on the Scientific and Economic Foundations for Food and Agriculture.

It says: “There is more and more evidence that current agri-food systems are broken; "And adds:" If you take into account the food value chain as a whole, including deforestation to clear land, processing, packaging, transport and waste, our food systems represent approximately 43% and 57% of greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans”.

And even more: “The eco-agri-food value chain significantly affects the SDGs, sustainable development goals, and endangers half of these goals: climate (SDG 13), fresh water (SDG 6), biodiversity and ecosystems (SDG 14 and 15), human health (SDG 3), social equity (SDG 5 and 10) and livelihoods (SDG 1 and 8).

If this is so, how is it that nobody puts his or her finger on the food sore?

Food and health.

Different sources highlight a high percentage of premature deaths due to specific foods (at levels of 60% or more). A meta-analysis carried out by the American Academy of Sciences, a true work of art, shows in two diagrams: one radar and the other Cartesian, the impact of diet from a health and environmental perspective:

Nine of the top 15 global morbidity risk factors are the result of poor diet quality, while associated diseases, including coronary artery disease (coronary heart disease), type II diabetes, stroke, and colorectal cancers, they represent almost 40% of world mortality.

This second graph shows the death rate versus the environmental impact.

The Future

If these figures for our food system are true, do they threaten the existence of the human species on the planet? In fact, it is right. The magnitude of ratio of the energy consumption / greenhouse gas emissions is such that a new report in SCIENCE carried out by researchers from the universities of Oxford (UK), Minnesota, California and Stanford (USA), says: “even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5°”. They have it clear: “with this food system; Whatever you do, you lose”.

What is really going to happen and when?

We are facing a unusual event, a frontal train crash, The first train: the exponential demographic growth that reached around 8 billion in just 150 years and continues to grow at more than 8,000 individuals/hour. The second train: the exponential decrease in oil and other fossil fuels.

But if the origin of the problem is the food system and at the same time the solution, is it possible to quantify the problem, to put numbers on it? From the energy perspective, when an American, for example, goes to buy his diet at the supermarket, he pays 15 times the energy contained in that diet. For a diet of 2,500 kcal that is equivalent to 4.9 kg of oil. In the EU, it is about 10 times, the world average is 6 times.

These figures include the fuel required by the agricultural sector, transportation costs, retail costs and household energy consumption related to food. Unfortunately, the numbers may be grossly underestimated because the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) study does not consider the cost associated with waste disposal, water supply, and the governance of the food system from related organizations, or the increasing health expenditure induced by food.

If we look back, at the beginning of the 20th century, more calories were delivered than the expense of preparing the land and planting the seed cost (We went from an average EROI of 3 to 5, to the current EROI of 0.1 to 0,06). Nothing can survive those EROIs, life on earth evolved from energy return rates greater than 1.

Foodtopia: a proposal for a solution

FOODTOPIA TERMOPOLIOS is a new local, community food preparation system in the (almost total) absence of oil or other fossil energy sources. The goal is to cook locally produced resources in "Dumbar" groups of prosumers, no more than 150 people, using little energy and bypassing the need for transportation, refrigeration, processing, and so on. It is an urban food system much more sober and less spectacular than the one promoted from the uninformed elitist techno-optimism or the apocalyptic catastrophism of popular culture, but the result is  much more pleasant, fair and less risky than continuing with the status quo. You can learn about this idea at the Foodtopia site