Having already proven unable to meet even the smallest threat, our civilization now faces something that will destroy our way of life:
Scarcity and Famine
Few governments and civilizations ever survive such calamity, and our turn has come. You might not feel the effect of this disaster right now. It might take months or even years to see it for yourself, but I hear the hoof beat of the black horse in our streets.
Natural gas supplies are tight, and China is already banning phosphate exports to ensure domestic fertilizer supply. This and more will ultimately mean starvation and unrest in the Third World – and eventually, violence and mayhem at your doorstep.
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Scarcity and Famine
In 1909, Fritz Haber changed the world. In Europe and North America, population growth had reached the point where crop yields needed to increase, or food scarcity would become a serious problem. And, the one thing that everyone needed the most was the nitrogen component of fertilizer – more specifically, ammonia. Most of our air is nitrogen, but getting it into a form that we could use to grow food was a problem. And, this is where Fritz came in.
Because he was an expert in catalysts and the equipment for putting gasses under high pressure, he was in a unique position to mix air and hydrogen, under intense pressure and high heat to create the ammonia that we needed to create fertilizer. The German company Badische Anilin- und SodaFabrik (BASF) bought his process and assigned Carl Bosch to scale it up and make it efficient. By 1914, they were making 20 tons of ammonia per day – just in time to use it for German bombs instead of food in World War 1.
The irony is that Germany could never have done so much damage during WW1 without the Haber-Bosch Process for creating the nitrogen compounds that their bombs and bullets needed. The British Royal Navy was blocking Germany’s access to Chilean saltpeter, so this new process was all that the Kaiser needed to make a world war happen – which is proof that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean that you SHOULD.
However, for all the death and destruction that came from both world wars, billions of people owe their existence to Haber and Bosch. Without the ability to produce 235 million tons of ammonia every year (as of 2019), there is literally no way that we could feed our current population – or have an obesity epidemic. Without the Haber-Bosch Process, crop yields would collapse, food would get horribly expensive and the poor would go hungry.
Yes, I know that there are all these wonderful notions of how great it would be if we all went back to fertilizing our crops with cow poop. Cow poop is great, and I’m all for it. But, there isn’t enough of it, and we wouldn’t be able to put enough cows on enough land to generate enough of the bovine smelly stuff to grow your daily bread. It. Just. Isn’t. Going. To. Happen. (Don’t make me run the data. You’ll regret it.)
So, we can’t live without this Haber-Bosch thing.
With me so far?
When The Poor Go Hungry
The problem is that Haber-Bosch requires natural gas. Lots of natural gas. In fact, it takes as much as five percent of the world’s natural gas production to make the nitrogen part of our fertilizer. And, we’re starting to have trouble finding enough natural gas to keep our fertilizer plants going. And, if we have a cold enough winter, we might one day find ourselves having to choose between heating our homes and having enough food to eat.
That probably won’t happen this year. Or the next. Lord willing, it might be years before any of us feel the bite of falling natural gas production.
But, what about the poor?
People have short memories, so most don’t remember the food crisis of 2007 and 2008. The cost of food rose dramatically, and it had everything to do with the oil crisis that began in 2006. Rising fuel cost pushed up the price of food, and the Third World starved.
Do you remember the Arab Spring?
That was about food. And, governments fell because fathers and mothers could no longer feed their kids. And since then, we’ve added almost a billion people.
What happens when we can’t get enough fertilizer to help feed all 7.9 billion people?
What happens when we can’t transport the fertilizer or run the tractors that harvest our food?
Doomberg put out a great article about a little problem that few people know about:
How to Brick an Entire Economy
Diesel trucks and tractors are now required to use DEF (diesel exhaust fluid). Without it, they literally stop working. And, I’m all for this DEF requirement, since diesel exhaust is terrible without it. But, you’ll never guess what a key component to DEF is:
There’s that Haber and Bosch thing again.
Then there’s China. You should never forget China. I live in Taiwan, so I can’t. But, there’s something that the insane leaders of China are doing:
Banning the export of phosphates
Without phosphates, you can’t have fertilizer. And China says that you can’t have any theirs. To be fair, they’re just trying to make sure that their own people have enough food to eat, but ‘being fair’ isn’t going to feed people if there isn’t enough fertilizer. And, the article where I saw that is also from Doomberg, and they had an excellent summary of the problem we all face:
To keep the chemistry lesson as simple as possible, you need natural gas to produce ammonia and energy from fossil fuels to mine for phosphate. You need ammonia and phosphate to make fertilizer. You need fertilizer to grow food at scale. You need food to keep the peace.
Yeah. Those Doomberg people. Always fun to have around. Especially that green chicken.
Okay, one more thing. And yes, there’s always ‘one more thing’. Let’s put all this in perspective by looking at a graph:
That graph comes from here:
World Population Growth
None of us like where that data comes from, or the values that these people have. But, the data represented by that graph is still correct. And, it’s not an accident that our population has exploded right about the time when our ability to grow food did the same. But, maybe you would like an easier to read graph:
It took a little while for the Haber-Bosch Process to have a population effect. After all, we had two world wars to get through. But, look what happened after World War II ended in 1945. And no, that wasn’t just a ‘baby boom’. That’s the result of people eating well.
That’s fertilizer, kids. Lots and lots of fertilizer.
The bottom line is that our civilization is beginning to unravel. It might be hard to see it from where you sit, but it’s happening. And as key elements of our existence fail, like the ability to make inexpensive fertilizer, people will go hungry. And that means unrest and violence will rule our streets.
I truly hope that you’ll be ready for this
A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished. – Proverbs 22:3
If you find a flaw in my reasoning, have a question, or wish to add your own viewpoint, leave a comment on the website. Your input is truly welcome.
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