One of the many insanities of industrialism is the belief — so ingrained in the system that it is never even stated — that yields and profits can and should grow forever, increasing toward infinity on a finite planet. One reason the belief is never stated is that the statement is ridiculous on its face. So industrialists worship a kind of avatar they call “growth.” Somehow, the idea that growth is always good, that it can and should go on forever, does not induce hysterical laughter, but reverence. This testifies to the effectiveness of repetition as a substitute for reason.
When an organism never stops growing, reason calls it “cancer.” When an organism stops growing upon reaching maturity, reason says it has reached its peak. In nature, this is good and normal, as is the following eventual decline and death. In industrialism, peak is a dirty word, to be denied, preferably never even discussed, along with such alien concepts as decline and death.
Yet even the richest and most powerful humans cannot defy nature for long. She is implacable, and her ruling is that every system, every organism, every enterprise, matures — which is to say it reaches its peak — and then begins to die. This is true for everything from starfish to stars. So it’s time to be surprised all over again at a new study that shows that global industrial food production has, um, matured. As in, peaked.
The study, published in the journal Ecology and Society, investigated the notion that the concept of peak oil — the time when the development of a resource stops growing, plateaus, and then begins to decline — applies to other resources we need in order to to live. The results were stunning. Not only does the growth of all industrial exploitation of resources reach a maximum (followed by inevitable decline), but virtually all the resources that supply us with food have already done so.
Clarifying note: “Peak” something, as in oil, is commonly understood to be the point at which production levels off, the plateau preceding the decline. Here it is used somewhat differently, to mean the period of time in which the production of the resource was growing at its fastest rate. Therefore, in the years following the peak, the resource might still increase year-to-year, but by ever smaller amounts until decline sets in.
Thus when this study says the world reached peak corn in 1985, peak rice in 1988, peak milk and peak wheat in 2004, peak chicken in 2006 and peak soy in 2009, it means that since those years the production of the commodity has been growing more slowly, and is not keeping up with the demand curve of an ever-increasing population. Of the 21 commodities they studied, 16 reached peak production between 1988 and 2008, a breathtakingly short period of time. It suggests, rather than spot shortages and isolated crises, that the world’s food-production system is being overwhelmed.
There is ever increasing evidence that this is so. Yet we continue to see, everywhere, the feckless sentence: world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. Because growth goes on, no matter what. But to do that, food production would have to double. That of course would require more fertile land to till, more water for irrigation, more fuel for cultivation, more fertilizer…and all of those things have peaked. It would also bring more pollution, more topsoil loss, more toxicity and more genetic mutilation.
And so we sail on toward the place where constricted supplies meet a heedlessly growing population and the necessary corrections are made by famine and war. There’s another way to say that we refused to recognize the natural concept of reaching our peak: we never grew up.