In the news today, Russian Prime Minister Putin has extended the grain export ban up to the end of 2011. Wheat futures are up 70% since before the first ban.

Protectionism in the face of mounting challenges with food security in a globally interconnected world was one of the several dangers flagged in a review of journalist and science writer Julian Cribb’s neo-Malthusian book titled (a bit doomerishly!) “The Coming Famine”:

… in his chilling book The Coming Famine, journalist and science writer Julian Cribb warns we are headed towards global food shortages in the next 40 years because of scarcities of water, good land, energy, nutrients, technology, fish and, significantly, stable climates. You can add to that population growth, consumer demand and protectionist trade policies…”

In the same book review article linked above, there are references to recent estimates by The Economist concerning the scale of the food challenge we will face in coming decades:

The Economist notes that by 2050 world grain output will have to rise by half and meat production will need to double to meet demand at a time when growth in grain yields is flattening out, there is little extra farmland and renewable water is running short.

The Economist, as blue-blooded a part of the money & politics establishment as any magazine can be, goes on with what some might describe as a sinister effort to implicitly discredit the Limits to Growth study of 1972 by “carelessly” associating in the same paragraph the LTG study with a commentator who had fretted that we would run out of food in the 1980’s. As we didn’t run out of food, the reader is led to fill in the blanks about LTG’s credibility by association with the discredited doomster who was unrelated to the LTG authors! This is of course very unfair and unbalanced reporting of the relevance of LTG to the grain export ban story, since peer reviewed studies have shown that the LTG 1972 predictions were a good match for observed events over the 30 years from 1972 a 2002.

Having dealt with the “Cassandras” in the time-honoured way, The Economist then offers the standard cornucopian rose-tinted view of the future, clearly ignoring the physical limits that we are steadily approaching with each passing decade. Despite the high quality info in the Economist article, the bottom line is the usual “Nothing to see here, move along…”

Civilizations have collapsed before for mundane reasons such as running out of food. To elevate the impossibility of collapse to an article of faith on the basis of vague notions of human “ingenuity” and “adaptability” must surely be the embodiment of a mortal’s arrogance and recklessness that the Gods of Ancient Greece really enjoyed punishing. Our celebrated ingenuity and adaptability have been around since we diversified as a species about 200,000 years ago, yet dozens of previous civilisations of homo sapiens just like ourselves have presumably failed to “ingeniously adapt” and have indeed collapsed in the run-up to the modern era of our currently blooming globalised civilisation.

Why should overshoot and collapse be impossible for our modern civilisation, if overshoot and collapse proved impossible to avoid for dozens of historical civilizations? Indeed, Joseph Tainter has documented the overshoot and collapse of the Western Chou Empire, the Harappan Civilization, Mesopotamia, the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the Hittite Empire, the Minoan Civilization, the Mycenean Civilization, the Western Roman Empire, the Olmec, the Lowland Classic Maya, the Mesoamerican Highlanders, the CasasGrandes, the Chacoans, the Hohokam, the Eastern Woodlanders, the Huari and Tiahuanaco Empires, the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, the Kachin and the Ik, and the Norse tribes of Greenland.

Humanity can use more humility, more studying, more thinking and also less gullibility, and less flippant arrogance, in the face of these historical examples.