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We’re Running Out of Buffer

— August 1, 2016

A given population, whether it is the yeast in a homebrewer’s carboy or nation-state of people, will tend to expand to fit or exceed the size of the available resource base. If a population exceeds the budget of resources that can be reasonably accessed, the inevitable result is suffering, as the overshoot resolves itself. (In a vat of yeast, this can end up producing some tasty beer. In humans, though, the result is usually misery.) A wise society will leave some play in the system as a way to buffer itself from the worst effects of resource deprivation. It’s key for us to realize that we’re running out of buffer between ourselves and a number of building hardships.

Jared Diamond wrote about one of these buffers in his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?. Here, he describes the way that some New Guinea highlanders subsist on their crops of sweet potatoes, but sweet potatoes only last a few months in storage before they spoil. The solution that worked for the New Guineans is to grow a larger crop of sweet potatoes to feed both people and pigs. That way, the extra roots are stored on the cloven hoof as pork chops and ham. When a bad year for sweet potatoes comes around, that’s when they get to feast on barbecue instead: a particularly effective and flavorful way to store perishable root vegetables, while reducing the total number of (porcine) mouths to feed when times are hard! Contrast this to what would happen if there were no pigs around, and all of the sweet potatoes fed people directly: when the crop failed, it would be people, and not pigs, dying of starvation.

Paul Worley, who’s been a cattle rancher for 32 years, has been forced to sell off his entire herds of cattle because he simply cannot feed them anymore. Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Al Jazeera English.
Paul Worley, who’s been a cattle rancher for 32 years, has been forced to sell off his entire herds of cattle because he simply cannot feed them anymore. Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Al Jazeera English.

We do something similar here in the developed world during a drought. When water no longer falls for free from the sky and irrigation from shrinking aquifers and reservoirs becomes prohibitively expensive, farmers tend to give up watering lower value crops first, such as alfalfa or grazing pasture, which are mostly used to feed animals, not people. The result of a lowered supply of animal feed will then ripple outward through the food system, with the animals that can no longer be affordably fed being slaughtered in greater numbers, causing a temporary dip in the price of meat, followed by a rise as the livestock take one for the team. If we did not have a meat industry, and instead grew all of our crops to feed directly to people, as is widely popular in vegan- and vegetarian-populated online fora, we wouldn’t be able to buffer ourselves against the drought-induced reduction in the food supply by externalizing that suffering onto livestock, nor would we be able to use animals to “recycle” so much of the overproduction and waste of food inherent in our industrial model, such as unsold cereal and oatmeal, that are often used as feedstock.

However, not all buffering is as formal, or as relatively benign, as the practices described above. A diverse and culturally fractured country like the United States can easily turn against itself, by throwing our own under the metaphorical bus. During the economic decline of recent years, as we shovel jobs offshore and automate the factories that are left, a significant number of Americans have been left bereft of the ability to make a steady or honest living. TV shows like Doomsday Preppers have become popular because they speak to a certain fear that is beginning to hit the middle class and in turn stoke the insurgent candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump: what is going to happen when they come for my job? (Un)fortunately, we don’t have far to look for a sobering answer: the cities of the Rust Belt and their inner-ring suburbs, where the African-American community has felt the effects of outsourcing and automation since the 1970s. Until police broke it up, there was even a tent city in the middle of Silicon Valley, where people who were priced out of San Jose homes or who were chewed up and spit out by the tech industry pined for luxuries like flush toilets as they scavenged scrap metal for a few bucks. Racial minorities and the poor and working classes have become the buffer for the well-off, the first to be sacrificed to Mammon when the hard times come. Externalizing the costs onto other people is a sign we long ago began to run out of buffer. The slow collapse proceeds apace.

There are changes in climate upon us that will alter weather patterns in unpredictable ways, but which will certainly have more in store as far as droughts, floods, and wildfires. Demands and protests don’t seem to be putting the brakes on trade agreements that will usher more jobs out of the country in order to increase profits for capital. We’re reaching into ugly and unconventional fuel sources such as tar sands and fracking as resource substitutes at the bottom of the oil barrel. In short, we’re running out of buffer as we increase the intensity of the hard times. No wonder there’s such a demand for the products of those yeast vats!


Diamond, Jared M. The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? New York: Viking, 2012. Print.
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