The Global Citizen

Donella Meadows
For the Valley News [August 10, 1996]

PLAINFIELD--I'm just back from a meeting of forest-products companies in which everyone was enthusing about fiber that doesn't come from forests. Proud entrepreneurs were handing around kenaf paper, boards made from wheat straw and cardboard made from hemp.

These products, they said, can stop deforestation. Over the last 50 years, one-fourth of the world's forests has disappeared. The human population is growing by 90 million a year. World paper demand is doubling every 20 years. These trends can't last forever or even much longer. Some companies at the meeting are already facing wood shortages.

The folks who make pencils, for example, say they're running out of incense cedar, which has provided pencil stock for decades. They're experimenting with pencils made from recycled cardboard. Paper companies are fooling around with bamboo, flax, sugar-cane waste and fast-growing tropical trees, sown and fertilized like corn fields, harvested every seven years. With such plantations, one guy told me, we can grow all the world's paper on an area the size of Sweden.

I would find this news cheery if I knew there were enough chunks of unused tropical farmland to add up to a Sweden (and in 20 years two Swedens), and if I hadn't also been listening to the energy industry. Low oil prices may be lulling consumers, but suppliers know how many oil fields are nearing the end of their productive life, and they're watching global conferences get serious about cutting back fossil-fuel burning to ease the greenhouse effect. We'll need substitutes for oil, coal and gas sooner or later. One alternative they're talking about is biomass.

The North Dakota company making kitchen cabinets from straw may have to compete with the Danish company making boilers that burn straw by the bale (loaded with forklifts) to make electricity and steam for district heating. Sugar-cane waste is already a major fuel in sugar mills. Those fast-growing tropical trees are needed for village cooking. We subsidize Archer Daniels Midland to make car fuel from corn, and millions of cars in Brazil run on ethanol made from sugarcane. The Germans and Swedes are perfecting cars that run on vegetable oil. Is there enough farmland to relieve depleting forests and depleting oil wells at the same time? And depleting fisheries? Thirteen of the 15 major ocean fisheries are in decline, primarily because of overfishing. That industry, too, has thought of a substitute: aquaculture. The trouble is, the feed for fish farms comes not from the ocean's food chains any more, but from grain raised on land.

So we are planning to transfer the burdens currently borne by the forests, the oceans, and the oil wells to the farmland, while feeding an additional 90 million people each year, though we are not feeding everyone sufficiently now. Meanwhile, in one of the least noted and most historic shifts of this century, total food raised per capita worldwide peaked in the mid-1980s and has gone down ever since. There are many reasons for that turnaround, but one of the big ones is the loss of cropland.

In the last 10 years, the United States has buried 3.8 million acres of prime soil under buildings and pavement. Over the same period, booming Asia lost 10% of its grainland to urbanization. Erosion, salinization, and other forms of bad management have destroyed, according to the United Nations, 16% of global cropland, with another 52% "moderately degraded" and showing "greatly reduced productivity."

While the world's swelling cities are paving farmland and demanding food, they are also sucking in water. San Diego and El Paso are buying water away from farmers. Parts of India, Indonesia, and Malaysia will have to irrigate 15 to 30% less land to meet their urban water demands. From China to Mexico to California's Central Valley, irrigation is pumping out groundwater far faster than it recharges. When the water is gone, some of the world's richest soils will no longer be able to grow food or fiber or energy.

The agriculture sector is planning to solve these problems, of course, by using more fossil fuel for fertilizer, by expanding forests to renew water supplies and control erosion, and by composting staw and other fibrous wastes to bring back the humus content and water absorptive capacity of the soil.

Something here does not compute.

I have no doubt that we can increase crop yields, make fish and fiber plantations, turn almost any plant into fiberboard or paper, recycle massively, run cars on biofuels, and use the Earth's resources with much higher efficiency and more careful stewardship. I hope we will. I just don't see how we'll get there, if the managers of every resource plow heedlessly through it, assuming they can turn to some other resource when theirs is gone.

Maybe we should set up a simple rule: Before you try to impress us with your brilliant plans for invading some other resource base, please show us how efficiently and sustainably you can manage your own.

Donella Meadows lives in Plainfield and is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. Her column appears here every Saturday. @Copyright 1996 Donella Meadows.
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