Connoisseur of disaster

The weather has turned bad. It is rainy and cold, with the temperature below 60 degrees this morning. Our thoughts turn gloomy, we give the cat some extra food.

“It seems to be happening all over the whole world”, said a friend. “The climate is changing. Here in this part of France, it used to be reliably sunny and warm in the summertime. Now, you never know what you’ll get.”

Some people believe the ‘global warming’ hypothesis. Others are convinced that the globe is cooling.

“Yes, that is what is really going on”, says an old friend. “The earth’s climate has little to do with carbon emissions. They are just a drop of water in the ocean, from a climatic point of view. What really matters is the sun. I’m greatly simplifying, but when the sun’s radiant heat is strong, the earth warms. When it is weak, the earth cools.

“We’ve been in a warm period. Now, we’re entering a weak period. It’s not global warming you have to worry about; it’s global cooling. And it will be a catastrophe much greater than the financial catastrophe caused by Janet Yellen and the Fed.”

Today, south of the Loire, in the summer of 2014, it looks like he may be right. So, we turn away from the looming man-made disaster caused by the feds to the looming natural disaster caused by the sun. And to disasters generally.

As long-time readers know, we are connoisseurs of disaster.

Just as some people have a palate for wine, we have a keen nose for disaster. Yes, we are the Robert Parker of catastrophe. We have sampled hundreds of varieties. We roll them around in our brain and pick out the subtle differences. We remember the little nuances. And we can smell one coming a mile away.

Will the weather cause a major disaster? Maybe. But what interests us most is the following thought: there are an infinite number of known unknowns and unknown unknowns – any one of which could cause a disaster.

In many ways, we are more vulnerable to a disaster than at any time in human history.

What might cause a major disaster? Weather, war, disease, famine – the horsemen of the Apocalypse are still very much with us. But now they have iPhones in their hands.

Imagine a few years of colder-than-usual summers in the northern hemisphere, and droughts in Australia and South America, the only substantial food producers south of the equator.

This could easily reduce current food output by 10%. Stocks would quickly be drawn down to the point there was nothing left. What would people eat? And here we turn our attention to the obvious: there are many more people around than there used to be.

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France’s last major disaster occurred in 1940. The Germans invaded, routed the French army and there was complete chaos all through the country. Everyone who could took to the roads, heading south, to escape the invading army.

It was a political and military disaster. It was a social upheaval. But it did not cause millions of civilian deaths. Because 70% of the French still lived on farms, they had a ‘safety net’ that worked.

There were no extensive government welfare programmes, people were still used to looking out for themselves. They stocked wheat and potatoes. They knew how to grow a garden, and even if they lived in a city, they usually had close relatives on a farm not far away.

For thousands of years, they had grown accustomed to protecting themselves from famine. Cows, sheep, horses – all could be turned into dinner. In extremis, so could pets, rats, and pigeons.

The French still recalled the siege of Paris in 1870, when restaurants served up rat, cat and dog, as well as animals from the zoo. Cotelettes de chien aux petits pois (dog’s ribs with peas) was a favourite.

But today, in France as in America, most people live in vast urbanised conglomerates. They have only a few days of food in stock. And to get more, they depend on a sprawling, complex and delicate system of ‘just in time’ shelf stocking.

This, of course, depends on a number of things, any one of which could render the whole system inoperable. First, there must be enough food produced to feed the world’s population.

There are seven billion people on planet Earth today. That’s twice as many as there were in 1940. And the world’s output of food is just enough to feed them. In the simplest accounting, should food output decline by 10%, as many as 700 million people could starve.

Nor is the food where people need it. It is not on small farms spread throughout the countryside. It is on large farms, often a continent away from the people who will eat it.

Fuel is vital. And as Gary North showed in the run up to the Y2K non-disaster, the transport system is regulated and controlled by computers, which are vulnerable to their own disasters. Experts say a large electromagnetic pulse could fry the switches, shutting down electricity and electronic communications for as long as six months.

Fourteen years ago, Dr North calculated that such a shut-down could leave millions dead. But this could be a much bigger disaster today.

A breakdown in the internet, or in the computer systems that operate credit cards and ATMs, would leave 320 million un-medicated Americans wandering around in cold, dark malls, unable to communicate or to do business with one another, with no way to get money or to spend it.

Remember, our money system today is no longer based on either coins or paper money. It is a system of credit that depends on electronic transactions to keep track of who owes what to whom. If the electronic system goes down, so does the economy.

Then, our ‘safety net’ institutions will fail, too. In America today, there are approximately 100 million people who depend on handouts from the government, including those on Social Security. Those handouts are almost all delivered electronically.

Many of these people typically have no savings, no supplies of food or medicine, no gardens, no fuel. In a matter of hours, they will be desperate.

And of course, there is the money itself. As we recently saw in Zimbabwe, when money loses its value, the whole economy falls apart.

Workers do not take the bus for nothing. Producers do not produce. Truckers do not truck. The shelves at Walmart, so recently groaning under the weight of products from all over the world, suddenly are stripped bare.

That is when we’ll be glad we have so many fat pets!

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  • PJV

    Bill, I am a regular reader and fan of your independent and razor sharp analysis. So I am shocked that someone such as you should equate weather with climate. Please apply your normal high standards of research to the climate issue and you’ll see the evidence is overwhelming and your “old friend” is mistaken.

  • A fool

    I think you mean “palate” rather than “palette”. And 10% of 7 billion is actually 700 million not 70 million. But the point made by the article is very well made

  • Ben Judge

    A fool,

    The article here does say ‘palate’. But you are right about the maths. We’ve changed that.


  • Food Grower

    The scenario may be a real risk, but right now this week in the UK we are awash with unwanted food that farmers are harvesting – wheat and potatoes as mentioned and we are selling them below the cost of production due to simple oversupply.

    So a bit of a crisis would be welcomed to create a shortage!

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