A couple of years ago I decided to leave Sydney and find refuge in a remote valley from what’s coming. This is the story of that failed escape and the refuge I find in gardening, still living in the city.
First, why did my escape fail?
Earth warned me off my escape plans, saying, “all bets are off for what’s coming.”
I could see that everywhere I looked on the east coast of Australia, with the valleys I looked at buying into still burnt from the last firestorms. I walked in creeks that had never run dry but now were, and later when they flooded the flooding of them was just as worrying as the drying up.
There’s nowhere to run from Earth’s collapsing climate. Not even to the island, Tasmania. There, too, forests that have never burnt, burned. Rainfall has forgotten its past habits on that island, too.
Second, what’s coming?
Before 2030 what’s coming is no food for us in the city and the country.
The seasons to grow food are collapsing across Earth and in both cities and the countryside.
I agree with several people who see the collapse of food now spreading Earth-wide soon.
One such, Jim Baird, a Canadian, has listed over 20 mechanisms by which climate collapse is disrupting food production. They include: heat stress; reducing crop yields; heat stress on farmers; heat stress on livestock, fish and animals; not enough rain; too much rain; too much flooding; “whiplash” between drought and flooding; declining soil amounts; declining soil productivity from fertilisers and from the decline in soil chemistry needed to create and maintain plant-growing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus; reduced nutrients in food; reduced cold hours needed for food plants to bloom (this includes many nut trees); wind storms; hoarding of food within and by other countries; decimation of pollinators such as bees; and more.
Think about it. Daily there are media stories about food failing to grow, or get harvested, or be delivered.
I’ve looked over the trends and the picture I and others see is an increase in frequency, severity and geographic spread of failure – all of Earth’s food systems are increasingly fragile, the soil, rain, nutrients, seasons, finances.
A picture of our Australian future can be seen in many countries experiencing advanced food growing failure.
In central Nigeria, for example, millions of farmers and people lived well and peacefully in the once fertile plains for centuries but the climate has collapsed there with drought, floods. Now, farmer fights farmer for food for their cattle and for themselves as the amount of land where food may be grown shrinks evermore.
Over 10,000 people have been killed in the last dozen years over food. About 60 per cent of the country has become desert, and about 350,000 hectares of arable land are being lost each year – but the population increases, as it does across Earth.
In two other high population countries with ever-growing numbers of tummies to feed, drought is fuelling conflict between India and Pakistan.
Showing its widening reach, weather has failed across the rich country of England where crops have suffered, either failing or experiencing significant drops in yield.
Wheat and barley yields are down 18 per cent from last year, with the wheat crop this year expected to be the smallest since 1981. Farmers have called for policies to help cope with changing weather and to build businesses more resilient to weather with Matt Culley of England’s National Farmers’ Union saying farmers had experienced “pretty much every weather extreme possible” over the past 12 months.
Yet, across Earth those farmers with the most land, most money and who have the most power to change climate policy and farming practices present an amazingly cartoonish, tottering, “too big to fail” figure: “more than two thirds of Earth’s farming fields, farms and orchards are owned by one per cent of farmers”.
They show almost no interest in the decaying seasons as their business model is profit. They “know” they can solve things by buying fertiliser, water or whatever they need to make things grow; this herd’s careless, closed-mindedness is another threat to food security. They’re growing food by looking at their profits in the rear-view mirror.
Banks know the trends and are reducing or refusing to lend to farmers. From the farm-rich Ukraine, where “the banking system is not lending to farmers”, to Australia, the US and other countries, agriculture is increasingly seen by banks as too risky to finance.
In the US “lenders reported that just under 51 per cent of their agricultural borrowers were profitable in 2020, a decline of six percentage points from the prior year”.
We Australian citizens might reasonably expect our regulators of prices of food, water, energy to see these resources with eyes to the future like the banks, but they don’t.
Typical of these “regulators”, IPART, a state regulator of these resources, wears blinkers blinding it to these trends (similar to the blinkers of the 1 per cent of farm owners). I’ve particularised those blinkers for our precious resource of water here.
In his book, Food or war, Australian Julian Cribb writes of the main climate killer – us, the human animal; ““Every year, in the course of wolfing through 8.5tn meals, it dislodges more than 75bn tonnes of topsoil, swallows 7bn tonnes of fresh water, generates 30 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions and distributes 5m tonnes of concentrated biocides.”
What would increase our food security whilst the seasons are disappearing and those farmers with most resources to prepare for it are ignoring the issue and the seasonal trends?
To get greater security, we need two things; land to grow that food, and time to grow it.
The land is there.
Security can be won by growing food in our back yard, in the street or nearby where we live.
A gardening book that’s my lighthouse to steer by proves we can grow vegetables and herbs in a year, One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein. Ms Houbein says growing your own food “starts with one square metre of soil to grow your chosen vegetables, providing about one tenth of your food needs”.
If the seasons favour that magic square and the gardener gardens well to produce a tenth of those food needs, where do the gardener’s other nine tenths of food come from? From another nine square metres. All up, she reckons 10 square metres can grow enough veggies for one person.
In Chippendale, where I live, we have thousands of veggie plants and fruit trees in about 20 city blocks near the city’s central business district. We grow soil by composting over 300 kg a week in our verge composting options. But that’s a trivial amount of food for the 5000 people who live and work here. Still, the road gardens prompt conversations and thoughts among ourselves and visitors and show that it’s possible to grow food in difficult inner city terrain.
As for time, it takes two to five years to secure a fruit supply.
Securing vegetables takes one to two years, and for some plants just a few months.
I suggest we town folk do this every week; let’s all plant fruit trees and veggies wherever we can, the back and front yard, in the road verges. If we do, then in five years we will have something rather than nothing.
Why is it likely we’ll run out of food before 2030, in the next ten years?
Every prediction I’ve read about the rate of climate breakdown has been overtaken by changes decades ahead of predictions.
That’s understandable as its unlikely a computer can predict accurately what will happen as a whole planet heats up. Each week we get new science showing new impacts.
For example, research published in November 2020 predicts rainfall in south eastern Australia will decline with increasing hot and dry spells. Apparently, the western Indian Ocean is warming faster than the east and this will dry out the eastern parts of Australia. This new detail about a change affecting our continent comes after climate research has been underway for a hundred years.
In October 2018 the UN’s leading climate scientists warned we humans had a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C or lose the potential to control it. I write this two years later, at the end of 2020, and there’s no chance now that humans will reduce their pollution.
Most of my reckoning is based on conversations with and visits to farmers. They know the seasons and see the changes directly and have the best primary data.
Seeing is believing for them and for me. They are seeing change speeding up, seeing the rain dry out and the dryness move eastwards about 20 or so kilometres a year in some parts of NSW.
Finally, why choose to stay in the city?
I don’t expect to live longer but I’d prefer some authority over the means of my going. Violence is more likely in the city than the country when food runs out, so it’s less safe here.
I don’t know why. My best answer is, it doesn’t feel right to run.
Michael Mobbs practised law for 19 years but seeks re-admission to the human race by gardening whenever and for whomever. Some of his sins are in two books: Sustainable House Book and Sustainable Food Book.