http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=UG&feature=related&hl=en-GB&v=jvWPcSjde3s (You are advised to jump straight to the point where Nicole starts talking: 0.02.25.)
Nicole Foss, World Financial Instability Dialogue Nelson New Zealand March 31st 2012Warmwell.com's transcript here begins at 0:21.35. This part is about soil degradation brought about particularly by the strip-mining of soil fertility
One of the major problems that we have is that agriculture of any kind, whether it's industrial or not, actually strip-mines soil fertility, so what you do with agricultural systems is that you clear away a natural ecosystem that's very diverse. You clear it all away. You put in a monocrop, one form of food crop that you then turn almost entirely into additional human biomass. This system strip-mines soil fertility - you are constantly withdrawing nutrients from the soil and not replacing them.
Now, some systems are better than others. If you have systems that have fallow periods and crop rotation, you plant nitrogen fixers at one point, then you plant other things, you can keep it going a lot longer. There are ways of doing it so that you don't strip-mine - but certainly a lot of the agricultural practices that have been used in the past and even more so the intensive ones that we use now take away nutrients all the time.
So the only way you can continue to grow food in these areas is with the use of artificial fertilisers, chemical fertilisers that are energy-based that we have to have access to cheap energy in order to produce. If we could no longer do that, what we might realise in various parts of the world is that we have strip-mined soil fertility to the extent that we would now be having to farm on sub-soil. Sub soil does not have the fertility that topsoil has. So when you take away the topsoil you are killing the biodiversity in the soil, the soil micro flora that really does provide an enormous amount of the fertility of that soil - very much including the fixation of nitrogen. There are nitrogen fixing bacteria that are capable of transforming atmospheric nitrogen into forms of nitrogen that plants can access. Now the real problem with nitrogen- this is two nitrogen atoms with a triple bond between them - that's atmospheric nitrogen N2. Triple bonds are very hard to break. In other words it takes a lot of energy to be able to break the bond between the two nitrogen atoms and then take those two atoms and turn them into nitrates or nitrites and various other nitrogen compounds and proteins. So if you're having to have step number one be to break a chemical bond to turn it into a form that's useable, this is always going to be challenging for life, for energy consumption artificially, you have to put quite a lot in to be able to do that - which is why nitrogen was always a limiting factor.
So if we compromise the natural ability to do that - the way soil bacteria do - then we definitely have a problem. We do find that we compromise soil fertility.
If you look at agricultural systems of the past, you look at what was once the "fertile crescent"- this was the cradle of civilisation. What is it now? It is the desert in Iraq. So really that was the result of ancient agriculture, ancient over production. A lot of forms of agriculture leave deserts in their wake. They compromise soil fertility to the point where you can't grow anything there again for potentially thousands of years. So it's not that you can quickly recover from that kind of circumstance. And what people will have done in the past when they were leaving deserts in their wake is that they would have gone somewhere else where they hadn't done that yet and the cycle would repeat - but part of the problem we face now is that we have gone everywhere. So there isn't anywhere else we can go to repeat the cycle. Now people are going to end up being left in the places that are already depleted.
So where carrying capacity is already damaged and you take away the ability to prop it up artificially then you can have a problem really quite quickly and food access is going to be a major problem over the next hundred years.
The carrying capacity of the Earth is not 7 billion people. We don't know exactly what it is, but it is substantially less than that. We've probably overshot carrying capacity even if you look at it in terms of the artificial carrying capacity given us by fossil fuels.
When we don't have access to anything like the amount of energy that we did before, that carrying capacity will be much lower and when you have 7 billion people trying to live where carrying capacity might be one or two billion - then what are they going to do to that remaining carrying capacity on the way down?
If you look at places like Haiti where people have cut down all the trees you can see the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic from Space because of the Haitian side of the island of Espanola they've cut down all the trees. So this is what people can do when there's far too many people for the amount of land that they're trying to live on - they can enormously damage the remaining carrying capacity which then makes the problem far worse. When you cut down all the trees the soil washes away from the hills, you have enormous erosion of what soil had built up over thousands and thousands of years. Then you have less soil fertility, you can't grow the same things, plus you're exposed to mud slides and all kinds of other catastrophes - so Haiti is today what many other parts of the world could be tomorrow. A few decades hence there might be many parts of the world that look like Haiti. It really is part of the tragedy of our times.
When you have a period where you artificially prop things up and a huge growth curve in the short term, the price for that is always a sharp fall - whether you're talking about asset prices in the financial world or access to energy or the ability to sustain population, you end up with the same problem every time: when you have an exponential rise you tend to have a very sharp readjustment, a very sharp fall on the other side and then you have to recover from something where you've had an undershoot so you have your parabolic rise and a sharp fall - financial bubbles and population both have the same curve - so you look at an undershoot and then where you might start to be able to grow again from what point you might end up - but if you start to think of the implications, they are really quite significant to put it mildly.