Adaptation, Desalination, Depopulation

The world is facing an array of crises and, in almost all cases, the crises are of the creeping kind.  That is to say, the crises gradually and inexorably marches along as opposed to a sudden event like an earthquake.  When there is a creeping crisis (and drought in California and Brazil and so many other places in the world is a prime example), part of the response of human society is adaptation.  In other words, when there is less water human society responds by figuring out how to use less water.  Or  we figure out how to get more water.  Or we leave, a process called depopulation.  Around the world in drought areas human society is responding by doing all three.

In California, the emphasis is on decreasing water use.  Our society can do this.  We can swap out gravel front yards for lawns.  We can use low-flow shower heads and efficient toilets.  So, changes in practice and implementing new technologies can help us deal with less water.  This is adaptation and  it is a normal part of all crisis response.  Farmers can adapt as well by using technology (drip-feed instead of above-ground irrigation) and can also substitute thirsty crops with crops that use far less water.  Or, the farmer can stop using water altogether by fallowing his fields–letting them sit unfarmed for a season or a few years.

The problem with adaptation is that it invariably increases costs.  Any technology used costs money.  Any replacement strategy (replacing lawns with gravel) costs money. And of course, the resource itself increases in cost in times of scarcity.  This rule of thumb is true for agriculture as well.  When water becomes scarce, it becomes more expensive and this drives up the cost of food.  This is also true of any attempt to implement technology or pursue a replacement strategy (such as drilling a deeper well).  No matter what the strategy, costs increase.

In San Diego, California, work on a massive desalination plant (a plant that extracts fresh water from salt water) will be completed next year and up to 50 million gallons a day will flow from the plant.  The water district that is building the plant is delighted with their timing (planning for the plant started some ten years ago, long before the current drought).  The plant will supply about five  percent of all the water  used in the water district (which basically encompasses all of San Diego County).  But it will be expensive.  How expensive?  Just under a penny per gallon.  Most people would argue that less than a penny a gallon is cheap.  Fair enough.  But lets put that cost through our current supply chains and see what happens.  At that price, household water bills would rise  to about $100 a month in many parts of the  country.  This, you may argue, would drive conservation.  Fair enough, but the cost would still rise  for almost all households.  Bread, to take another example, requires water in the amount of 1608 times its weight.  This includes the water necessary to grow  the wheat, processing, etc, etc.  So, a pound of bread would require 1608 ponds of water.  A gallon of water weights 8 pounds so a pound of bread would require 200 gallons of water.  Using desalination water to grow wheat to make bread would result in a bread that costs far, far more than what we buy now.

The point I am trying to make above is  that there is a limit to adaptation strategies.  We can adapt, but at significant cost.  Only wealthy societies can do this.  Troubled and poor countries cannot do this.  Further, our adaptations really only meet human needs cost-effectively – they do not meet plant needs cost effectively.  Thus, with the crises we now see on a global scale we can expect to see food costs increase on a global scale.  Add it all up, and the increasing resource costs and decreasing resource availability mean that poor people are increasingly pressured.  This being the case, they adapt by leaving.  We have already seen some depopulation in California and are seeing it in just a little in Sao Paulo as  well.  So far, the depopulation trend is just the smallest trickle, but in both areas it could turn into a flood.

When people are forced to leave – to depopulate – it is a sign of desperation and the beginnings of an unraveling for a society.  Those who leave an area usually face a future only slightly less tenuous than the one they are leaving behind.  Depopulation is not a pretty thing and the fact that we are already beginning to see it tells us that we are in for massive problems in the foreseeable future if rainfall trends in many places around the world do not revert back to their normal patterns very soon.  What is the chance of that?  I don’t know.  But to quote California Governor Jerry Brown, “The  world is changing.”

We live in amazing times and events are progressing rapidly.

Scott Christiansen