I’m about to delve into some politics, economics, resource constraints, and context-building for the next series of the blog. Before I get into that, it’s important to keep the end in mind, and understand where i’m going.
We live in the oil age. I’m not sure what’s going to come after the oil age, but we’re not there yet. Everything human society runs on is derived from oil. Agriculture depends entirely on oil, and I don’t mean because bananas make it from Colombia to wherever you are. Food is produced with oil-derived nitrogen fertilizers, and mined phosphates and potash, using oil-driven machines. Without those fertilizers, conventional agriculture collapses. The planting, the fertilizers, the synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and the harvesting are all done using oil-driven machines, processes, or materials. That’s just the agriculture. There are other oil-driven fields that determine a lot about our way of life:
We depend on oil for almost everything in our lives. Put that thought on a shelf for a second and let’s talk about saudi Arabia.
Not only does Saudi Arabia depend on oil for everything that everyone else does, but it also depends on oil for its national revenues–about 90% of them. Since Saudi Arabia is a desert country, with no rivers or lakes, its capacity to be resource self-sustaining is very very small.
The way our societies are designed, and the way we produce, distribute, consume, and discard the products and goods of 21st century civilization is turning much of our world into water-stressed desert as well.
Look at the American Southwest: the Colorado River no longer reaches Mexico. There are otherwise intelligent people seriously advocating for a pipeline of water from Lake Superior, once the Ogalalla aquifer runs out. Finally Southern California is on the verge of building its first desalination plant, and you can never stop with just one. All so we can have ranches and cotton.
Look at the Aral Sea, once the world’s 4th largest lake. It will be gone within 15 years, at which point the surrounding countries, which have sucked it dry for cotton production and other agricultures will also start to desertify. Here’s what NASA has to say about it:
As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
Look at the fertile crescent; it’s not fertile anymore. Northern Syria’s severe drought and agricultural destruction was one of the causes of the ongoing revolution, and Turkey’s damning of the Euphrates, so it can grow cotton, is decimating Iraqi farmers, and will eventually lead to the destruction of the Euphrates itself.
Look at Egypt, which was once the bread basket of the roman empire, and now the greatest importer of wheat in the world, with rapidly salinating soils, and a falling capacity for agricultural production.
China, Pakistan, India, Australia, Central Asia, and many other countries are experiencing massive desertification, and in most cases this is caused by short-sighted, unsustainable oil-based agriculture systems. This is well documented in Fred Pearce’s “When the Rivers Run Dry.”
The whole of human civilization is in a pattern of overdrawing resources. We mine our soil to produce food, destroying soil in the process. We turn forests into fields, and then the fields turn into deserts, as the waters and lakes dry up. We are mining our oceans until they are full of plastic & jellyfish. We are consuming every non-renewable resource we have and after we are done with them, we discard them in unreusable forms, ruining the renewable resources we have in the process. Our ability to affect our environment increases more quickly than our ability to perceive that effect. This is not an issue of global warming–this is an issue of how humans manage their resources.
What seems to be the near future of Saudi Arabia, a barren land with drastically few renewable resources, and a dependence on mining oil, gas, potash, and other minerals, is very much like the future many countries face, unless the way they manage natural resources changes. The truth is, unless we redesign our societies to cooperate with nature and its cycles, and redesign how we produce, transport, consume, and discard all the facets of peopledom, that is the future we all share. Keep that in mind as you follow over the next few months the series on food security, water security, and the challenges Saudi Arabia faces over the next generation.