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Part One: Closing the Phosphorus Cycle


Phosphate mine on Nauru island.
Currently part of it is reforested.
Photo: Jon Harald Søby

It might sound ridiculous, but for every container of bananas, coffee, tea or cocoa imported, we should send back a shipment of a fluffy, earth-like smelling compost. Why is that? With each container of food we import nutrients taken up by plants from the soil. We import calcium, potassium, magnesium, boron, iron, zinc, molybdenum, copper and many others. One of the essential elements imported in food is phosphorus. For every ton of bananas we import 0.3 kg of phosphorus, for every ton of cocoa it’s 5 kg and for ton of coffee it’s 3.3 kg of phosphorus. Tea is a bit more complicated, because the amount of phosphorus depends on the origin of tea – for example in 1 ton of tea leaves harvested in Sri Lanka there are some 3.5 kg of phosphorus, while tea from South India contains 6.6 kg of phosphorus (1).

Each year some 13.5 million tons of bananas alone are exported around the world (2), containing 4,000,000 kg of elemental phosphorus up taken by the plants from tropical soils. And most of this phosphorus never comes back to the soil it was removed from. Yes, but can’t the farmers replace the nutrients lost using fertilizers? That’s what the fertilizers are used for, are they not? Sure they can. Farmers can buy a bag of ground phosphate rocks or guano (bird or bat droppings) or even a bag of artificial fertilizer such as superphosphate if they don’t farm organically. No problem. They can replace every kilogram of phosphorus taken from the soil by plants and sent overseas with their produce.


Phosphorus Molecules

So, why should we send compost back on ships? This would add extra cost to the imported food and make it much more expensive! We should start closing nutrients cycle soon, because the world reserves of phosphate rocks, which are used for the production of phosphate fertilizers, are declining. They can be depleted even this century (3).

The problem with the lack of phosphate fertilizers does not start, however, when all phosphate rock reserves are gone. It starts as soon as the demand for phosphate fertilizers exceeds the supply of phosphate rocks available for export, meaning: farmers living in countries that do not have a local source of phosphate rocks would like to buy phosphate fertilizers, but there are not enough bags for everyone. And this situation may appear within the next 10-20 years.

This short timeframe is based upon the assumption that the demand for phosphate fertilizers will continue to grow and that within 10-20 years US reserves of phosphate rocks available for mining will be considerably depleted and USA will have to rely on imported phosphorus. It is unclear whether the phosphate exporting countries will be able to respond adequately to keep up with the rising demand by opening new mines or increasing production in the existing ones, which otherwise could lead to lack of sufficient amount of phosphate fertilizers on the market. A 50% rise in the US imports would require 50% rise of present world phosphate rock exports. A similar situation may exist in countries other than USA, but it was not taken into consideration due to lack of sufficient data. Demand for phosphate fertilizers in the USA may drop, however, owing to fall of agricultural production caused by droughts, depletion of water resources or by other climate related events. This could slow down domestic production of phosphate rocks and conserve these resources for a longer period of time.

What plants need Phosphorus for?


White sweetclover. Photo: Kristian Peters

Phosphorus is one of the key mineral nutrients that are necessary for plants growth. Phosphorus stimulates root growth, flowers blooming and seed development. It is an essential component of DNA, RNA, cell membranes, sugars and carbohydrates (4). Without phosphorus plants just don’t grow and there is no substitute for it. Although in many soils there are large reserves of phosphorus, it is often present in the form that cannot be used by plants (such as insoluble calcium or aluminum phosphate salts). Some plants, however, like white or yellow sweet clover for example (5), can mobilize phosphate by secreting organic acids (when harvested they can be used as a green manure with high phosphorus content), but far more efficient for this job are mycorrhizal fungi and microbes that secrete enzymes, various acids and chelating agents that turn organic and inorganic phosphate into a solution that can be taken up by plants (6). Nevertheless, when the content of phosphorus in the soil is low, all that farmer can do is to bring in some kind of phosphate fertilizer.

How much phosphate rocks is available for export?

Worldwide approximately 30 millions tons of phosphate rocks are exported every year, mainly from Africa (62.8% in 2006) (7). It sounds like a lot, but it is less than is needed for the consumption of a single country – the USA – the largest consumer, producer and supplier of phosphate fertilizers in the world. In 2006 the USA consumed 32.6 millions tons of phosphate rocks (8). Fortunately, USA is currently almost self-sufficient in production of phosphate rocks. In 2007 US imports accounted only for 2.8 millions ton of phosphate rocks (8.6%) and 99% of it came from just one origin – Morocco.


Phosphate rocks mine in Togo.
Photo: Alexandra Pugachevskaya

However, the reserves of phosphate rocks in USA are limited. In 2007 there were only about 1,200 millions tons left (9). As soon as USA runs out of its phosphorus there will be a huge demand for the phosphate rocks. When might this happen? If the consumption in the USA continues to grow, the US domestic reserves could be gone in 25 years (10). At the current rate of production this could be in around 40 years. Most of the phosphate rocks in USA are mined in Florida and according to Stephen Jasinski from the U.S. Geological Survey “production in Florida could begin to drop in about 5 years or imports will be needed if the new mines are not opened (11).”

Demand for fertilizers is growing at the rate of 2.8% per year (12). It is expected to continue to grow, because fertilizers are needed to feed the increasing human population and to satisfy the need for biofuels. The acreage of industrial farms around the world which rely on artificial fertilizers may still increase in the years to come (e.g. in Russia, Brazil or even Madagascar) and in consequence the overall demand for phosphate fertilizers will rise. Certified organic farms can also use phosphate rocks (in unprocessed form), when phosphorus is deficient in the soil.

There are many countries like India, Australia, Poland and most of the Western European countries which are completely dependent on imports of phosphate rocks for fertilizing soils and growing food. And we import it mainly from Morocco as well. Without phosphate fertilizers yields of wheat, maize, tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes and many other crops will drop and eventually they could even fail. In Poland we have huge reserves of phosphate rocks. The problem is that the content of elemental phosphate in these rocks is low, they are located under villages, forests or farmlands or there is too much water in the mines to continue extraction.

However, if we manage to close the phosphorus cycle, there’s no need to worry about phosphate rock reserves. What we have mined so far can circulate from farm to table and back again, without depleting the soils. Let’s have a closer look where the phosphorus is leaking now.

Where does the phosphorus go?

In tropical climate phosphorus can be lost as soon as the farmer burns the rainforest to clear the site. Most tropical soils are poor in nutrients, and phosphorus is stored not in the soil, but in the vegetation. When rainforest is burnt phosphorus is left in the remaining ashes, but these ashes can be washed away by rains very quickly. There may be some old branches or unburnt leaves left on the ground and microbes can feed on them releasing phosphorus to the crops for some two years. But later on, when there are no more sources of phosphorus for the microbes to feed on and to release for plants, the land becomes infertile. And the farmer? If he cannot afford to buy commercial fertilizers he burns down another patch of the rainforest or he is forced to move to the city. There are more than 300 million slash-and-burn farmers worldwide, each one clearing about a hectare of forest a year (13).

On many farms, however, fertilizers are applied and farmers continue to grow crops. Some minimal amounts of phosphorus may leach from farm to groundwater, especially when artificial soluble fertilizer is used (such as superphosphate) (14). Most phosphorus losses occur through surface soil erosion, when soil is washed away by strong rain, or through harvesting of plants. Runoff of the nutrient rich water from the fields into the streams, lakes and oceans often causes explosion of the algae population and can lead to depletion of oxygen, seriously affecting aquatic animals and even coral reefs.

And what was the former one? Harvesting of plants? That’s right. With each apple, carrot, cucumber, coffee, cherry or watermelon a small bit of phosphorus is taken away from the soil. It can be eaten by the farmer and his family or loaded on truck and transported to the market. It can be also shipped overseas to the foreign supermarkets. So long nutrients! Have a good time in Italy or France! Please come back… one day.


Phosphate processing plant in
Soda Springs, USA, operated byMonsanto.
Source: The Center for Land Use Interpretation

Before food reaches the table many crops are processed and there are various residues left which contain phosphorus, e.g. orange peels or rice husks. They are either composted or sent to landfill. Then, finally, the consumer prepares a meal from the food that farmers harvested, and then leftovers with the precious phosphorus are thrown into the garbage or on the compost pile. The meal is eaten and out of the pizzas, spaghettis and apple pies only less than 1% of phosphorus is absorbed by our bodies (15) and remaining 99% is, in industrialized countries, flushed down the toilet. The content goes to a wastewater treatment plant. Treated biosolids from the treatment plants are reused as soil amendments or sent to the landfills. Part of the phosphorus from the wastewater treatment plant is discharged with treated water into the rivers or the sea.

Not all phosphate rocks are used for production of fertilizers. Around 5% are used as animal feed supplements and another 5% for industrial applications, e.g. for the manufacture of detergents. Some of us (like the author) are allergic to phosphates in soaps or washing powders and are a living proof that we do not need to use them at all. There are plenty of natural soaps and washing powders without phosphates we can buy or we can make our own.

Phosphate is used also for production of glyphosate, a herbicide which is known under a trade name Roundup. The manufacturer of Roundup, Monsanto, owns even a whole phosphate mine and rock processing plant in Idaho, USA. Luckily, organic gardeners don’t have to spray any of these. A much better idea would be to use the remaining phosphate rock reserves to restore degraded lands, rather than to produce herbicides or detergents.

Closing the nutrients cycle

Ideally the same amount of nutrients that left the farm should come back to it. To achieve this goal we should compost or ferment all residues from farms, food processing plants and households and make them available for farmers. And yes, we need to compost urine and feces as well. There are many types of compost toilets, including the simplest sawdust toilet to the commercial types with electric fans. If handled properly they don’t smell badly and the final product of the compost toilet is just a plain ordinary compost. It can be collected in the city in special containers, standing along the curb near the containers for recycling glass and plastics. Joseph Jenkins’ “Humanure Handbook” is a great resource on the subject.

All organic waste can be collected as a part of a municipality recycling program and leftovers from the kitchen can be picked up weekly from the separate curbside container. For backyard gardeners and farmers who eat their own food there are many methods of composting to choose from – buckets, triangle cages, compost tumblers, worm composting, loose heaps or classic wooden containers. There are even composters which can be kept directly in the kitchen without any suspicious smells.

It seems also a good idea to extract carbon and hydrogen from the food residues in the form of biogas which is primarily methane (CH4). It can be used for cooking, heating, electricity generation or for powering vehicles. The exciting thing about biogas is that we don’t waste any of the minerals from the organic matter – carbon is taken by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide and hydrogen comes from water. After fermentation process in a biodigester the organic matter is still perfectly useful as a fertilizer.

If the resources of phosphate rocks become depleted this organic waste recycling program will be crucial for farmers. They will be able to buy or receive finished compost according to the amount of food they sold. It may sound absurd, but the content of phosphorus or other nutrients in crops may eventually be counted in the future, so that we can determine how much compost the farmer should receive. Ideally local food should be involved in this scheme to minimize transport needs. And what about the food from overseas farms like coffee or tea? Well, things get much more complicated here. Theoretically, we could exchange nutrients in the form of food, so that for every kilogram of coffee would send back wheat or barley with the equal content of phosphorus. What farmers can do now is to bring compost from the cities, where people eat imported food. The other option is sending compost back. Hmm… Wouldn’t it be just perfect to have a village scale economy where all nutrients would circulate without cars, trucks, cargo ships and complex municipality programs?

Growing food security


Trees in bloom in the Hunza
Valley. Photo: bongo vongo

In places like the Hunza Valley (currently northern Pakistan) and many others around the world, people have grown food in one place for hundreds of years without depleting the soil. As Rob Hopkins writes in his Transition Handbook about the Hunza Valley:

Here was a society which lived within its limits and had evolved a dazzlingly sophisticated yet simple way of doing so. All the waste, including human waste, was carefully composted and returned to the land. The terraces which had been built into the mountainsides over centuries were irrigated through a network of channels that brought mineral-rich water from the glacier above down to the fields with astonishing precision.

Apricot trees were everywhere, as well as cherry, apple, almond and other fruit and nut trees. Around and beneath the trees grew potatoes, barley, wheat and other vegetables. The fields were orderly but not regimented. Plants grew in small blocks, rather than in huge monocultures. Being on the side of a mountain, I invariably had to walk up and down hills a great deal, and soon began to feel some of the fitness for which the people of Hunza are famed. The paths were lined with dry stone walls, and were designed for people and animals, not for cars.

People always seemed to have time to stop and talk to each other and spend time with the children who ran barefoot and dusty through the fields. Apricots were harvested and spread out to dry on the rooftops of the houses, a dazzling sight in the bright mountain sun. Buildings were built from locally-made mud bricks, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And there was always the majestic splendour of the mountains towering above. Hunza is quite simply the most beautiful, tranquil, happy and abundant place I have ever visited, before or since (16).


Rakaposhi mountain near the
town of Gilgit, Hunza Valley.
Photo: bongo vongo

Villages can provide a good life and it is easy to design a local food system that ensures food security there. Food security means that all people have access to safe, nutritious and affordable food, at all times, without degrading the supporting systems (17). No matter if your food comes from the grocery store or the backyard garden, it contains some amount of nutrients it has taken up from the soil where it was grown. If we wish to sustain fertility of our soils, and thus food security, we need to return these nutrients to the soil, so that our tomatoes, corn and apple trees will be able to grow and produce crops forever.

In a natural environment this nutrients cycle is supported by a myriad tiny creatures. There are bacteria and fungi in the soil that hold the nutrients and extract them from rocks or the air. There are nematodes, protozoa, arthropods and earthworms that cycle these nutrients and make them available for plants (18). We, humans, are also a part of the soil food web. Our job is to return the wastes to the soil. We can design our farms so that they will work just like natural systems, cycling the nutrients over and over again. A good example of such a system in an old growth forest. It doesn’t need fertilizing, weeding or irrigating. It grows by itself and it is always productive. That’s a clever system, isn’t it?


Beach in Sopot, Poland. Photo: Marcin Gerwin

We can design for food security in cities as well, but it’s not as easy as in villages. Most people living in the cities buy food rather than grow it on their own, so the whole economic system must be working properly, so that they will be able to afford it. The food shortages in 2008 around the world were not caused by a lack of food, but because people didn’t have money to buy it. The first thing to do would be to start growing food right in the city. On vacant parking lots, on roofs, in backyards. But what if there is not enough space? I live in a small city on the coast of the Baltic sea. Sopot is a summer resort bordered by the sea, a landscape park and two large cities. The land here is among the most expensive in Poland. There is no way one could buy a vacant lot for a vegetable garden, it would cost a fortune. We do have many allotments, but there’s not enough for everyone. So, what can we do?


Wooden pier in Sopot. Photo: Marcin Gerwin

Right now access to food is not a problem. It is available in every grocery store and in all supermarkets. It’s not an issue. With peak-oil or unexpected weather events this could change. With the lack of phosphate fertilizers it could change as well. A large portion of food in Poland is grown in the conventional way and farmers apply artificial fertilizers and spray pesticides. Some of them believe that plants without fertilizers don’t grow, so I think it may be a little hard to try to convince them to use compost instead of the factory-made fertilizers.

I also find it hard to believe that everyone in Sopot could easily accept compost toilets. We would have to recover nutrients from the treatment plant, which is located… er… I must admit I don’t know where our sewage goes to. We will have to collect organic waste, however, that’s what the European Union regulations will make us to do in the years to come (you see, there are some positive aspects of our county being an EU member). We could also start a co-operation program with the farmers from the area, who could supply food directly to our city, rather than through distributors. We could have long-term contracts with them, just like in the Fairtrade scheme. We could set a guaranteed minimum price for farmers, so that their security would improve as well. And what if the economic system collapses? Then we need a land reform.

Continue to: Phosphorus Matters II – Keeping Phosphorus on Farms

References:

(1) Phosphorus content in food based upon: Organic Farming in the Tropics and Subtropics: Exemplary Description of 20 Crops, Naturland, second edition 2001.

(2) Calculated from: Banana facts, IITA Research for Development Review, http://r4dreview.org/2008/09/banana-facts/, accessed on 14.09.2008.

(3) D. Cordell, S. White, The Australian Story of Phosphorus, 2008, p. 1.

(4) S. B. Carrol, S. D. Salt, Ecology for Gardeners, 2004, p. 149.

(5) Sweetclovers, UC SAREP, Online Cover Crop Database, http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/cgi-bin/ccrop.EXE/show_crop_41, accessed on 15.09.2008.

(6) Ibidem, p. 116 – 117.

(7) Production and International Trade Statistics, International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA), http://www.fertilizer.org/ifa/statistics/pit_public/pit_public_statistics.asp, accessed 14.09.2008.

(8) S. M. Jasinski, Phosphate Rock, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2008, p. 124, (available at: minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/phosphate_rock/).

(9) Ibidem.

(10) D. Cordell, S. White, op. cit.

(11) S. Jasinski, Phosphate Rock (Advance Release), 2007 Minerals Yearbook, p. 56.3.

(12) P. Heffer and M. Prud’homme, Summary Report “Medium-Term Outlook for Global Fertilizer Demand, Supply and Trade: 2008-2012”, 76th IFA Annual Conference, Vienna, May 2008, p. 4.

(13) D. Elkan, The Rainforest Saver, The Ecologist Magazine, 01.02.2005, http://www.theecologist.co.uk/pages/archive_detail.asp?content_id=424.

(14) S. B. Carrol, S. D. Salt, op. cit., 117.

(15) T. N. Neset, L. Andersson, Environmental impact of food production and consumption, in: Water for Food, 2008, p. 102.

(16) R. Hopkins, The Transition Handbook, 2008, from the introduction.

(17) For more information on food security watch presentation given by Bruce Darrel: Converging Crises, Policy Responses: Planning For Food Security, Festa Seminar Series, June 19th, 2008. http://www.feasta-multimedia.org/2008/seminars/Bruce_Darrell.mov

(18) The soil food web is described in detail in the excellent book Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfells and Wayne Lewis.

6 Responses to “Phosphorus Matters”

  1. Thomas Fischbacher

    For those who like to provide sound scientific bases for their arguments:
    The following bit is taken from the soil science textbook “The Nature and
    Properties of Soils” by Brady & Weil (I once used that excerpt in a
    discussion, hence just had it available):

    Table 20.14: Average N, P, and K Balances, kg/ha/yr, of the
    Arable Land in Several African Countries Projected for the Year 2000

    Such negative balances (inputs minus outputs) represent a literal mining
    of African soils that simply must be stopped if the quality of all life
    on this continent is to be sustained.

    Balance, kg/ha/yr
    Country Nitrogen (N) Phosphorous (P) Potassium (K)

    Cameroon -21 -2 -13
    Ethiopia -47 -7 -32
    Ghana -35 -4 -20
    Kenya -46 -1 -36
    Malawi -67 -10 -48
    Nigeria -37 -4 -31
    Rwanda -60 -11 -61
    Senegal -16 -2 -14
    Tanzania -32 -5 -21
    Zimbabwe -27 2 -26
    Average -39 -5 -30

    From Stoorvogel, et al. (1993)

    Stoorvogel, J.J., and E.M.A. Smaling, 1990. “Assessment of soil nutrient
    depletion in SubSaharan Africa: 1983-2000. Report no. 28 (Wageningen,
    Netherlands: Winand Staring Centre for Integrated Land, Soil and Water
    Research.)

    Reply
  2. Fred Howie

    Although this article is principally about soils the author fails to mention the role of phosphorus in the human/animal body.
    It’s role in RNA & DNA in plants is matched in animal bodies along with the use of it for energy production, ADP & ATP not to mention in our teeth, Calcium phosphate hydroxyapatite.
    This article would have more impact on those who choose to ignore organic chemistry as being too difficult to understand if they realised that when all the phosphorus is gone, then so are we.

    Reply
  3. Marcin Gerwin

    Fred, the author is aware of the importance of phosphorus for human nutrition :), but it is beyond the scope of this article. If we make phosphorus available for plants, we will be also able to receive it with food. That’s why keeping a sustainable level of phosphorus in the soil is fundamental.

    Reply
  4. Thomas Fischbacher

    I do perceive a major problem here in that *we* are well aware of a number of things most people out there are not. In particular, I vividly remember a discussion with a professional neoclassical economist in which he claimed the solution to the phosphate problem would be an export tax on phosphate-rich produce, so that “the market” would take care of punishing extensive stress on the phosphate cycle.

    This discussion taught me some important things:

    (1) Many economists seem to suffer from the problem of not being able to understand a process such as SADIMET, believing that by coming up with a (questionable) suggestion, they did in fact manage to “solve the problem in a way that turned out to work” – not being able to distinguish between a plan and its implementation. I identify this as one major reason for the mess we are in: Many planners neither really know what a “model” is, nor what a “plan” is, nor what the role of “assumptions” is.

    (2) Maybe you know the saying “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Economists are trained to think in terms of “conflicts of interest”, and helping people to “make decisions” by giving them “more freedom” to weigh one thing against another, where a “useful tool” is “monetarization”: If everything is expressed in monetary terms, this gives the individual maximal “freedom” to achieve X by deciding whether to cut back on A, D, and F, or A, E, and H. The problem with such “conflict-focused” thinking is that it misses a very important point: Nature is like a big jigsaw puzzle we only understand very partially. The pieces are made to fit – to the greatest extent, co-evolution took care of that – and we have to use clues from paying attention to detail in order to find out what works and what does not. If we try to make something work which cannot, we will get feedback in multiple ways that something is wrong – high energy requirements, loss of nutrients, species loss, social unrest, etc. Whereas the sane approach would be to find the root cause of these problems and address that, people schooled in conflict-oriented thinking will not try to address multiple symptoms symultaneously by solving the core problem, but instead find ways how people get the “freedom” to choose whether they rather want to invest effort into “fixing symptom X” or “fixing symptom Y”. It is precisely this form of stupidity which leads to patently absurd ideas such as “protection of the environment is something that needs effort, so it will be the easier the stronger our economy is, for if we have the capacity to satisfy many needs, we also will have a strong capacity to care for the environment – and hence, ‘we need high economic growth to save the planet'”.

    (3) Education is a key issue. People will not be able to make good decisions unless they know a bit about the true role of some key resources. Literally, we have the “freedom” to rape the soil, but if we do so, in the end, the soil will rape us, even in the precise sense of the word. What do we think brutal armed conflict, with organized mass killings, mass rape, and all its atrocities comes from? Destruction of the natural resource base easily leads to such forms of destruction of a civilization.

    Reply
  5. Chris Kelly

    Thomas, some very good thinking. We are in the mess we are in precisely because of the ideas and strategies implemented on a worldwide scale by miseducated economists. Economists need to understand the underlying laws of abundance of nature and her resources. The apple tree, which is born from one seed, and springs forth to give thousands of apples each year is a model we need to study and try to implement. The disconnect from concept to imlementation may never be fully satisfied, but the underlying beliefs and philosophy of abundance, will more accurately reflect the laws of abundance of nature. In other words, it is precisely miseducated consultants and advisers and economists, ignorant of the lessons of Hunza(and other locales) who need to be removed from positions of influence, replaced with wholistic minded men and women. These fresh minded visionaries, will usher in the revolution of nature so needed globally. Keep up the good thinking, Thomas.

    Reply
  6. Thomas Fischbacher

    There are two very important aspects to this:

    (*) You remember that bit in the Permaculture Designer’s Manual in the beginning about connecting up the chicken as a component in such a way that it can provide a lot of useful functions by just living in a context which is stress-free as it is close to its co-evolutionary one? This is the way of thinking resulting from the “problems often are symptoms of confusion about something fundamental” approach – the Fukuoka approach, basically. In contrast, the “conflict-oriented thinking” approach also “optimises” the design, but with respect to a very unwisely chosen objective that leaves many important aspects out of the equation. Essentially, it leads to ideas such as optimising with respect to conversion efficiency only, hence feeding antibiotics to chicken so that the bugs healthy animals have (and need) in their intestines get killed and do not compete with the chicken organism for calories. Of course, such “optimising” will give the single clear-cut answer to a single clear-cut question, but: is it the right question to be posed? Even if we only included the issue of breeding antibiotics-resistant diseases into the analysis, this would completely shift the picture.

    (*) Another extremely important issue about orthodox economics: what we see right now is a situation that may be at the brink of bloody riots in some countries that suffer from the financial meltdown. People are angry at the very same politicians they elected. Why is this? I think it is extremely important here to pay very close attention to our built-in mechanisms of self-justification. As the population cannot accept having made major mistakes, they need a scapegoat, and for sure, it is the politicians.

    Concerning climate change, once we, the
    population (and I deliberately include myself here, for reasons that should become clear from what I’m saying) see how dramatic the situation *really* is by now, facing the truth won’t be easy to every one of us. So, the natural reaction will be to find scapegoats. Now one does not have to look further than to William Nordhaus’ book “The Economics of Climate Change”
    (which won a prestigious prize in 2005) to discover that our collective planning was based to a very large degree on our economist’s thinking, which is just full of very fundamental and obvious errors far beyond any imagination. Once this happens, people will start a massacre and the whole world will drown in blood.

    The only way I see in order to prevent this is to teach people about self-justification, cognitive dissonance, other forms of cognitive bias, and the scientifically well-established built-in “software bugs” of the human mind, and fast. The only possible way forward is a constructive approach which starts with the idea “if we as a society could not make sure such enormously dangerous nonsense does not make it to the planning stage but gets thrown out early on, then this means we all failed, and to some degree are responsible for, this horrific mess.”

    Neoclassical economics may take much of the blame, but so does every scientist who learned about this and looked away rather than ensuring that the academic process eliminates such nonsense. (I personally actually am an active academic and in fact do work towards making the huge errors in these “scientific publications” widely known.) And so does every journalist who learned about it and did not write about this. And so does every citizen who did not take the time to check whether our economists’ ideas seem anyhow reasonable and allowed this madness to continue. So, we really are all responsible for this, maybe to a varying degree, but unless we learn to accept that we cannot just unload the blame on the economists, we will go down the road of civil war and total annihilation, rather than the road of “how amazing to live at the time when the biggest blunder of our species’ entire history got cleared up: We have been so VERY wrong, but more important than taking revenge and killing those people responsible for destroying the young generation’s future is to actually get the problems sorted out. We have to collectively talk about self-deception, and once we understand it, everybody must face one’s very own.” So, we have to invest collective effort into educating people about what self-deception has made of us, and got us into, and we must ensure every single person who manages to discover their personal share of guilt is treated with highest respect. Our biggest problem is that our western culture did not really evolve a collective concept of honoring the ability to *overcome* self-deception above anything else. Prestigious prizes should not go to people who can point at having found out very clever things, but to those who manage to admit and see the true mechanisms underlying their most extreme forms of failure.

    It is out of the question that quite a lot of published work done by economists such as Nordhaus has to be reclassified as “unscientific due to deep conflicts with the most obvious immediate observations”. But it is also out of the question that the only viable way to get there is to employ the engine of self-justification to our advantage, rather than having to fight it. Essentially, this is what Gandhi’s non-violent strategies boil down to: Every person has to retain a positive self-image – many would rather die than giving it up. Hence, the way to sort out problems is to ally with this engine of self-justification in the opponent by persistently pointing at the problems while never using violence, but kindness even when confronted with violence. All that the utilisation of even the slightest bit of violence manages to achieve is to give the opponent’s engine of self-justification a handle to explain to itself why it also has to resort to violence. Thanks to the engine of self-justification, human beings would probably stand a better chance trying to resist gravity than to resist getting into an enormously serious inner conflict by fighting somebody who persistently keeps on responding with kindness, while still sticking to their point – which after all suggests it must be more important than one originally thought it to be.

    Gandhi called it “non-violence”. The problem with this term is that our culture does not understand the true nature of violence, so trying to stick a label to a most profound idea which tries to define it in terms of the negation of something we do not understand either will not be met with much success.

    Hence, we need a better term for Gandhi’s idea. Rather than “non-violent struggle”, or “Satyagraha”, how about using some notion that is intriguing because it is outrageously paradoxical? My own suggestion would be: “Organic Warfare”.

    Reply

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