Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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The Great Disruption — Drought

Barges forced through a narrow Mississippi channel near St. Louis — Photo: USDA (see note below)

This is the fourth part of a series on what Australian author Paul Gilding, in his 2011 book on the climate catastrophe, has called “The Great Disruption.” (Read Part 1, 2, 3) Gilding’s thesis, and that of this series, is not that we are necessarily headed toward the end of the world, or even the end of civilization, but toward a significant disruption of our economic and social systems caused by the biosphere’s loss of much of its resilience, and large swaths of the planet becoming unproductive or uninhabitable. In this series, we’ll examine disruption caused by climate migration, flooding, droughts and other environmental shocks to the planetary system, and discuss how these impacts can overlap each other, disrupting many of global civilization’s functions.

“If agriculture can make global prosperity, it can also break it.” — William Allen Reinsch, Center for Strategic and Global Studies

Agriculture is the basis of civilization. It’s as simple as that. Without agriculture, there is no food, and without food, there is no stock market, tech industry, medical establishment.

While this obvious fact can be overlooked, especially by city dwellers as they rush around shopping, working and playing, we are likely to be reminded of it — emphatically and soon — because climate change is putting our food supply at risk.

While the crisis is universal — famine conditions are ramping up in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, and droughts, heat waves and unpredictable weather are affecting food production worldwide — the American Midwest, hitherto known as the world’s breadbasket, is on the cusp of a calamity with global implications. The entire region has been afflicted by an ongoing drought that will almost certainly worsen in coming years.

Although we can’t give a complete account of the extensive recent (2022-23) drought here, a development in the agricultural transportation sector is representative of its disruptive impact. If we think of Midwestern farms as the heart of America’s agriculture, and the Mississippi River as the principal artery through which its products are transported — especially to foreign markets, which absorb our surplus production and yield the highest profits — that artery is clogged.

The drought caused the river’s water level to fall steadily, hitting record lows in each of the past two years. Levels along some stretches dropped so low that grain barges actually struck bottom, sinking or getting stuck and temporarily blocking the waterway. To prevent bottoming out, the load-per-barge had to be significantly reduced. Caution also dictated slower transportation speeds, and the downsizing of the barge fleets that had to thread through ever-narrowing navigational channels.

In late 2023, the Associated Press reported that the drought had reduced the flow of goods on the Mississippi by a whopping 45%. Grain shipments alone dropped by 40 million metric tons per year between 2020-21 and 2022-23. Thus, according to a Bloomberg News article, shipping prices on the river spiked as much as 92%.

Meanwhile, much of the harvested grain ended up stuck in overloaded warehouses, which raised their storage prices to farmers who, in turn, raised their prices to domestic consumers, contributing to food-price inflation.

The cavalry, in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers, tried to gallop to the rescue. An October 2022 CBS Evening News article described the Corps as desperately trying to maintain just a nine-foot-deep shipping channel near St. Louis by dredging nonstop for three months. But, as one Corps spokesperson quoted in the CBS news article said, “We can dredge it to a certain point, but then Mother Nature wins.”

“Rain across the Mississippi River Valley is what we really need,” another officer chimed in, “and in the Ohio River Valley, the Missouri River Valley.”

Eventually that rain came, bringing temporary relief and restoring some of the Mississippi’s shipping capacity toward the end of 2023. This winter, the Corps even declared the drought “over” — meaning that the need for constant, expensive dredging has abated, for now.

Even so, the recent drought has also reduced agricultural productivity throughout the region, and many farmers are struggling. Meanwhile, the massive Midwest aquifers that serve as backup water supplies during droughts are running dry. And while the Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s have yet to return, they could soon arrive — and remain.

Some optimistic farm journals have pointed out that climate change means highly variable weather, so maybe the future will bring years of abundant water, with concomitant bumper crops.

But climate science points to expansive, long-term drought throughout the Mississippi region.


Note on Photo: Although this photo dates from 2012, the same situation, only worse, was repeated in 2023-2023. Note the exposed sand shoal in the upper right hand corner of the picture. Here’s the USDA’s description of the photo:

Barges navigate through a narrowed section of the Mississippi River near St. Louis, MO on Dec. 14, 2012, due to the drop of water levels in the river. The 2012 severe drought has affected current flow conditions in the Mississippi River and caused low water levels exposing shoals and potentially putting river traffic at risk for running aground. Barge movements on the Mississippi River are important to U.S. Agriculture for the transportation approximately 50 percent of U.S. grain; such as corn, soybean, wheat and rice. Though water levels are low, the Mississippi River is still open to transportation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to work with Federal partners to monitor conditions on this critical waterway for U.S. commodities. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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Articles in This Series


Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.