Great New Article by UnHerd on Climate Change

@c.d.eastmannagle

Unlikely is an understatement. We would have to abandon all other sources of power and convert our cars to coal usage for RCP 8.5 to be at all realistic. The rocky road scenario is likely to be the worst case scenario we need to worry about in the future- we are probably on course for 2.6C degrees of warming by 2100- as low as 2.2C with greater investment in technological innovation.

One thing the world desperately needs to address is methane production from paper and food in landfills through anaerobic decay. Here in the UK we’ve used drones with sensors to cut methane release from this source by 36% over the last decade. Recent research from the US shows that American landfills account for 43% of all American methane release (although scientifically unconfirmed recent methane tests from activists near fertiliser productions plants suggests the industry may be somewhat obscuring the extent and scale of methane release from this process, which could revise this more general figure downwards).

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I note dear Geary that Shellenberger’s ‘Breakthrough Institute’ and most of the names that appear in the above article are the same old same old climate emergency deniers/minimizers/pollyannas who come out of the private ‘Institute’/‘Foundation’ free market/fossil fuel funded matrix that has been running the deny, minimize and obfuscate campaign to slow down policy responses to anthropogenic climate change.

This industrial production line of free market bullshit with a scientific veneer has been going on since the 1980s and has effectively thwarted public policy designed to manage the problem, which would have been a lot easier and less expensive than it is now if we had followed the Reagan/Thatcher mitigation line in the first place.

No one can predict the future, but at least we can apply the most ordinary due diligence and conservative policy to cover ourselves against foreseeable contingencies, particularly ones as big as not just climate change, but all the other environmental stressors that are putting ecosystems across the globe under intolerable strain, which climate change will significantly amplify.

However, while Shellenberger is in my view an ideological methane leak in a firestorm when it comes to climate, it seems to be able to mount a more rational and robust assessment of the wretched mental health/psychiatry industry that in my view is not only little more than a clean up squad in a shit storm, but has exported the multiplying mental health problems onto the streets and into jails without any treatment at all, or the supervision that psychiatric crisis requires.

You might like to cast your eye across the rest of my comment.

A summary of which weather events the IPCC has concluded are related to climate change and which are not:

image

But you do accept the IPCC’s conclusion that RCP and SSP 8.5 are unlikely to the point of being practically impossible?

The extreme scenarios RCP8.5 and SSP5-8.5 account for more than 40% of all scenario mentions across the 3,000+ page report. Add in the extreme scenario SSP3-7.0 and the total gets to over 50%.

The phrase “extreme scenario” might be a little difficult to understand in the abstract. So let me explain what an extreme scenario looks like, and why it is obviously, undeniably implausible. All of RCP8.5, SSP5-8.5 and SSP3-7.0 assume that the world is going to massively increase consumption of coal in the future. The scenarios project that we will replace natural gas with coal, we will replace nuclear with coal, we will replace wind and solar, we will even chose to abandon gasoline for cars and use coal-to-liquid as fuel. If that sound ridiculous — it is!

Part of the problem stems from the fact that living in the West gives one a very flawed availability heuristic which gives climate scientists the completely unsubstantiated impression that nothing is being done about climate change, when in fact the efforts by many countries to date have been nothing short of herculean. Judging our efforts by how many cars are on the road or the fact that (until 2019) air travel was commonplace, or even that we in the West continue to eat a meat-rich diet are perhaps the worst metrics possible for judging our progress thus far- and are completely irrational. The fact that we no longer have smog in London might be a better one- or that the UK will shortly eliminate all power generation from coal.

We thought we had conquered superstition, but the fact that we tend to anthropomorphise Mother Earth, believe we owe some form of karmic debt to the planet or that so many believe that we must sacrifice for the planet with self-imposed austerity are all signs that we are little better than our predecessors with their beliefs in fairies at the end of the garden. Modern intensive farming continues to allow us to return more total land to fallow, wilding and regrown forests, it is only a matter of time before the green premium on EVs lowers to the point where they will become affordable for most in the West and there has already been significant progress towards first hybridising and then electrifying commercial air flights.

We don’t need to give up mass consumption, we only need to change it- but something about our primitive brains forces us to believe that we will need to heavily sacrifice, when the real victims of this sacrifice will be those in the Developing World, through the loss of their export markets- many of whom are only now beginning to recover from the horrendous impediment imposed by having foreign advisors who were alternately Soviet, failed Keynesians or Western Statists in their economic orientation. During the pandemic between 120 and 150 million people were plunged back into the deprivation of having to live on less than $1.90 a day- and although many are now trying to rewrite history to suggest that this was caused by internal restrictions, in truth almost all of the renewed poverty was caused by the shrinkage of foreign consumer markets- when Westerners don’t buy flowers, people starve.

Well, I actually agreed with that part of your comment. I can remember living in London when they first shut many of the care facilities. The thinking was that they could be cared for in the community- funny, it didn’t seem to stop them rooting through public bins for discarded food…

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Some years back I was involved in the peak oil scene. Had some articles on The Oil Drum, even, like The Freezing Point of Industrial Society. Anyway, the interesting thing is that the prominent guys in the peak oil movement were, almost to a man (and they were mostly men), climate change denialists.

Then I went over to a climate change site, a place where they had a big computer simulation of climate change. And as I read through their scenarios, I saw exponential increases of fossil fuel usage. And it occurred to me: was there actually enough accessible coal, oil and natural gas for the particular scenarios? Like, if your scenario has us burning 200 million barrels of oil a day - sorry, it’s never happening, pure fiction.

So anyway, I posed this question, and… I was very rudely dismissed. They just breezily stated that there was more than enough carbon in the ground (they didn’t seem to understand the concept of accessible carbon) to set the world on fire. No calculations were provided for this, and when I asked for them they banned me. So they were peak oil denialists.

The peak oil guys were climate change denialists, and the climate change guys were peak oil denialists. From which I derived the

Problem Exclusion Principle,

which states that

once someone has recognised a world-changing problem, all other problems must either be denied, or stated to derive from the original problem.

This is true for climate change, peak oil, the patriarchy, atheism, terrorism, income inequality, or whatever.

Now, as to Geary’s statement, I don’t know if it’s true or not. Because it’s not just about how much carbon is physically in the ground, but how economically accessible it is, and how energy accessible. Currently, 50% of car journeys in Melbourne are under 2.5km - that’s with fuel at $1.75 or so a litre. How expensive does it have to be before we get out and walk?

I focus on fossil fuels because they enable everything else. Geary talks about landfill and fertiliser and so on, others talk about meat production - but most of that’s not possible without fossil fuels. Nitrogen fertiliser needs methane, large amounts of meat exports require refrigeration which requires coal, oil or natural gas, things being cheap made in China or wherever requires diesel, and so on. Take away fossil fuels and at least 90% of all the other emissions disappear whether we want them to or not, all we’d have is some residual landfill, deforestation, slash and burn agriculture and rice paddy farming. Fossil fuels are it. So how much have we got?

In principle we could scoop up hydrocarbons from the surface of Titan, but at a billion dollars a barrel it is not economically accessible, and more importantly it’d cost far more energy to get it than we’d ever get from burning the stuff. Sorry, crew of the Nostromo.

Let, “how much carbon we can drag out of the ground at a reasonable price?” be X. And let “how much can we get while spending less energy to get it than we get from burning it?” be Y. At some point before X we have economic shocks and “demand destruction”, which helped precipitate the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. At some point after X, we get economic collapse. At some point just before Y, we get a deindustrialisation of society.

Considering what X and Y might be, what’s our carbon budget? Not, “how much can we spend without having such-and-such happen?” but “how much can we spend?” Then we let Z be “how much can we burn before such-and-such happens?” where “such-and-such” is whatever we consider some awful disaster, whether that be the entire country of Bangladesh disappearing under the sea and killing 50 million people, or Mr and Ms Wasp missing out on their annual European vacation.

We don’t really know what these variables are, but the focus has been on Z. I would suggest that X and Y matter, too - Geary breezily dismisses them as obviously being under Z, but this has not been demonstrated any more than their being above Z has been. We just don’t know, and nobody seems to have tried to model it. I was thinking about this 14 years ago in Freezing Point, but of course it was just a start and my analysis was incomplete - nobody’s followed up, though, and when peak oil didn’t lead to Mad Max most of those guys lost interest and drifted off.

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Really? Zeke Hausfather, Richard Betts, Gavin Schmidt are climate emergency deniers?
Personally I think they’re all smart people with damn good knowledge of their subject.

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We do not need to talk about 8.5 degrees when 3 degrees of warming would be enormously disruptive, and go on being so for many centuries.

The broader issue is that human populations cannot go on living at their present levels of resource through put from and two the biosphere and climate warming is just one of numerous indicators of much larger environmental crisis

The time has come to galvanize ourselves globally to both recognize and meet the challenges that climate change and co-existent environmental problems pose for us and to stop listening to voices coming from private foundations and institutes, ideological reluctance to face chronic market failure by externalizing environmental cost, pandering to fossil fuel rent seekers and continuing denial of the overwhelming scientific consensus.

The bullshit has to stop and we need to get on with the job and learn some of the lessons as to how easily public discourse can be corrupted by small but well funded agencies…

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I am not speculating on their knowledge or necessarily disagreeing with everything they say. I am merely noting their association with the Breakthrough Institute, its neo-con track record and close connections to industries in need of political defense through science advocacy.

Wikipedia notes that Breakthrough has been characterized as a quasi lobbying organization.

'Climate scientist Michael E. Mann questions the motives of the Breakthrough Institute. According to Mann the self-declared mission of the BTI is to look for a breakthrough to solve the climate problem. However Mann states that basically the BTI “appears to be opposed to anything - be it a price on carbon or incentives for renewable energy that would have a meaningful impact.” He notes that the BTI “remains curiously preoccupied with opposing advocates for meaningful climate action and is coincidentally linked to natural gas interests” and criticizes the BTI for advocating “continued exploitation of fossil fuels”. Mann also questions that the BTI on the one hand seems to be “very pessimistic” about renewable energy, while on the other hand “they are extreme techno-optimists” regarding geoengineering.

Shellengberer, who is one of the co founders is little more than a polemicist and his latest book is typical of the genre.

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Buzzfeed News, really? And as to the second source, the amount of land we use for farming has gone down in those parts of the world which use technology to drive higher yields. The US is a prime example where agriculture now accounts for 200 million acres down from 214 million acres, between 2012 and 2017, with total production continuing to rise during that period. The answer is the faster rollout of more modern and intensive practices to the Developing World, so they can free themselves from the nightmare that is ‘traditional’ subsistence farming.

In most African countries, the agricultural sector employs an average of 54 percent of the working population. In Burundi, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar, more than 80 percent of the labor force works in agriculture. The American agricultural sector accounts for less than 2% of their workforce. With a shift to a more intensive model of farming they could not only free themselves from a life of gut-wrenching subsistence, but also preserve huge tracts of land as nature reserves as a legacy for future generations.

That’s not the problem. The problem is that both politicians and media types continuously over-catastrophise the actual science of IPCC. Otherwise, why do so few people realise that the IPCC itself has stated that a business as usual model following our current course of climate investment will only result in a global loss of income for real people per year of 2.6% by 2100, set against income levels which would have otherwise been 450% higher- so around 430%. This is the IPCC’s material- not some fringe or special interest.

I’ve supported Michael Mann’s work on Paleoclimate many times on many forums over the last two decades, the hockey stick is proven. But he’s increasingly an arrogant prick who’s become driven by an obsession and as a result gets things wrong.

The only one of the three I mentioned associated with Breakthrough is Zeke Hausfather, I’m familiar with his work at Berkeley Earth, which was supportive of the IPCC findings on global climate trends.

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Mann’s answer on Twitter…

Predictably, the “Breakthrough Institute” is not happy about their early fossil fuel industry connections being called out in The #NewClimateWar (thread)…see thread

Breakthrough has not had to declare its funding sources since 2011, so we only have their word

TBI is not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit; it operates under the umbrella of nonprofit Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors so it files no IRS Form 990s documenting revenues, programs or expenditures.(Talk:Breakthrough Institute - SourceWatch)

Prof Mann has had to wear a lot of crap coming from the climate science ‘private sector’, so it should not surprise anyone if his attitude to it is a tough one. Its obstructionism, obfuscation and defamation of legitimate science are in some measure why actually dealing with the problem has been left so late and become so urgent. Mann is entitled to be very angry with them…

Geary there is a race going on between new tech apps and a rapidly deteriorating environment, which the former will lose if an environmental clean up doesn’t happen soon enough.

For instance the Green revolution is starting to look very dicey as ground water supplies keep falling, salinating and becoming polluted with the miracle chemicals that were going to save us all. Check out what is happening in the Punjab and Africa…not good…

Most of the world does not think anyone is catastrophizing. 2.6 degrees of warming is not going to be good, and to keep it below that will require enormous amounts of decarbonizing, with a combination of incentives to innovate and taxes on carbon.

Fundamentally the ‘private’ climate industry is in denial about the real costs of production, because the environment is not an economic ‘externality’. If it isn’t costed into production, that does not mean it doesn’t cost in terms of a degraded environment. For well over a century now we have been living beyond our ecological means and at some point we are going to have to start paying, not just for what we currently owe each year, but the accumulated debt. And the longer we leave it, the more expensive the invoice becomes…

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My original side reference to Shellengber’s environmental propaganda campaign was as a contrast to his quite sensible and disinterested discussion of the history of mental health treatment. And I only mentioned it because I was not prepared to let my well founded prejudices about the man get in the way of acknowledging when he is contributing something of value that is worth listening to.

The mental health narrative that he discusses is worth further discussion, as we delve into the Woke handling of the area. In my view, the Woke handling of its ‘soft’ social administration bailiwick is every bit as miserable as the as the corporate oligarchy’s ‘hard’ production handling of the environment, which is its bailiwick.

Both sides can see the egregious mishandling of the other guy’s turf, but not their own, and the reason for that is that the overall regime deregulatory and privatization agendas destroy the commons, no matter what that commons happens to be.

So, the Wokes get stuck into the ‘hard’ production corporates for their abuse of the environmental commons and the ‘hard’ producers get stuck into the Wokes for their abuse of the social commons, and it cancels out very nicely so that the audience take sides rather than see the bigger picture.

The regime Tweedle Dees and Dums play this quarrel out with great success at obfuscating the otherwise obvious fact that they represent the same regime that does exactly the same things to everything it touches…

And the thing is, deregulating and privatizing seem so benign up front, where everyone only sees the immediate benefits. It takes time to see the costs, but after 50-70 years of rolling out Indulgence Capitalism, where you can have any fantasy you want, it is all catching up and the devil wants his due. And like poor 'ol Faustus, he knows he cannot redeem himself and that is soul is forfeit.

Traditional mixed agriculture is overall a net carbon absorber, not emitter. Bringing in tractors and artificial fertiliser doesn’t reduce emissions. Sorry.

In any case, agriculture is not the big bikkies in climate change - though it certainly is in other environmental impacts, such as the depletion of groundwater, salination, algal blooms and so on. The Big Issue, among others, made the point about the COP26 delegates having high-carbon impact foods, and they are correct.

But let us compare with the trip there. Our own illustrious leader and his numerous hangers-on - including the ones who travelled there to demand action on climate change - would have had taken a Sydney to London return flight, which is 9,540kg Co2e, though first class is 49,780kg.

The culinary and carbon abomination that is haggis with its 3.4kg CO2e falls well within the margin of error of the flight calculations, which I do not think are accurate to the last few kg. This is 2,800 to 15,000 haggises.

And we see a similar picture worldwide. Electricity, heating and cooling and transport are by far the biggest contributors. This does not mean we should ignore agriculture and eat 10 burgers a day. It does mean we should look carefully at where our actions can have the biggest impact. And the delegates eating burgers are far from the most carbon-offensive part of the event - that happened the moment they got on the plane to go there.

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Other than the Africa source, a well-reasoned argument (Green Revolution tech works at scale, small farms need to grow and merge into bigger farms, if it is to have any hope of succeeding)- this is the lesson of Venezuela’s once thriving agricultural sector, where events went in reverse.

Look, I’m not opposed to carbon taxes- especially if they can be invested back into the system to reward businesses and people who make positive decisions. But we need to be clear about pricing and the types of strategies we deploy.

A $5 tax per tonne is net positive, in economic terms, at least in the West. it remains positive up until about $15. Here in the UK, a while back Simon Dietz a climate economist at the LSE advised the government to set the rate at $35 per tonne, because this weighed current expenditure and the risk of future greater expenditure from doing too little early, and having to overcompensate for a failure to act later. I agree with this- it was hugely successful and allowed us to formulate a strategy which completely eliminates coal in favour of gas (a 50% reduction). It also allowed us to mildly incentivise solar for domestic consumers and business and build our offshore windfarms (it would have been far more efficient to build them on land, but never mind).

At the same time the Obama Administration was far more prescriptive in their approach. They offered massive subsidies to certain sectors, whilst almost completely ignoring other stopgap or potential solutions. According to some sources, the spent a whopping $2600 per tonne for mitigation as a result- and the UK was more successful in their approach than America was! In 2020, America burned 477 million tonnes of coal, by 2020 we had it down to 8.2 and will shortly be eliminating it completely from our grid.

In any event, there are no circumstances in which we should spend more than $100 a tonne, because that is exactly how much it costs at the moment to extract carbon from the atmosphere, and this price is sure to fall in the future. The other thing to consider is that many countries have refused to take the lead in policies which have proven to work. Congestion taxes may be unpopular in urban areas, but they can be used to subsidise public transport options. Such schemes don’t work in rural areas- so carbon taxes should be weighted through congestion charges towards urban areas.

But in this case the fact that politicians and their families are likely to pay the taxes themselves surely ways on the issue. Fuel price rises usually do attract protests and resistance, congestion charges do not- because the very people they are imposed upon often have children and elderly relatives who benefit from the cleaner air. One thing to consider is that catalytic converters don’t work anywhere as efficiently as most people think. One source I read claimed that 17% of the carbon monoxide produced wasn’t eliminated by the process. And that’s before one considers the benzenes and various other carcinogens.

Here is the problem with the African Green Revolution in more detail. To be fair your source does mention soils, but it doesn’t address the root cause- different soils and more variable soils. What would probably work is more agricultural colleges. My friend’s girlfriend from Sweden was telling me about her countries problems with nitrates and herbicides and their impact on fisheries. Like most countries in the West, they solved the problem with better testing of soils and using inputs calibrated to cut costs on fertiliser and herbicide usage.

But of course, agricultural colleges can only work if there are the economies of scale to support the endeavour. This is not to say that small farms can’t work- here in the UK they average around 200 acres, but there is a clear differentiation between smaller farms which specialise in providing high value added or organic good to wealthier parts of the market, which would more appropriately be called value farming rather than green, and larger farms which mass produce foods for ordinary pocketbooks. Whole Foods in America is referred to as Whole Paycheck, after all.

Thanks for the stimulating discussion in this area, it helped correct a couple of misconceptions on my part. Perhaps the nature of African farming is such that it should model the approach of Asia. That being said, they will always be poor unless they can develop some from of communitarian capitalism which still eliminates vast swathes of labour. Greater affluence only comes from increases in productivity and the surpluses it generates.

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I don’t disagree with this statement. It’s just that the higher yields from more intensive Green Revolution farming have allowed for huge amounts of more marginal farmland to be put back to fallow, through the process known as wilding. The Economist highlighted a study which proved this process, if taken to its logical conclusion, could allow for a total of 20 years worth of global CO2 emissions in carbon sequestered through the regrowth of natural forests.

Of course, in isolation, it is possible to achieve similar rates of yields from the more traditional farming, but the problem is in order to get close, it entails increasing labour inputs by at least a factor of 15, which would obviously have a huge impact on food prices. Don’t get me wrong- traditional or organic farming does have a market- but it more properly construed as value farming, creating niche foods for the wealthy and upper middle classes.

There is good news on the desalination issue. The solar desalination technology developed by Cranfield University and being deployed in the Saudis NEOM project could have a profound impact on future desalination technology, removing a major carbon source.

Other than that, I completely agree with the rest of your comment.

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But it usually isn’t, it’s usually just brought into production, and existing farmland has more dragged out of it. The tale of the goose and the golden eggs was invented for a reason, it’s a class Western mindset problem - the mindset of “growth” - short-term economic growth, not long-term economic or any other kind of growth.

Yes, and studies show that commercial fusion power and Mars landings are 30 years away, just like they have been for the last 60 years. It’s not going to happen, and even if it did, as soon as you remove the fossil fuel input, it all falls apart.

A sustainable economy needs to exist on the surplus which comes naturally to the Earth, which is the energy we get from the sun. The first known city in the world was Uruk some 4,900 years ago. Some 4,650 of those 4,900 years or 95% people lived without significant fossil fuel use. In another century at most this will be true again, but it won’t be with Science! because that all requires significant fossil fuel inputs.

“But what we could do is -” Yes, maybe. But we won’t. Passive solar, for example, has existed for thousands of years, and was used in building in the 1950s. Australian soils can’t hold enough carbon to offset our emissions, and even if they could then we’d be doing without a lot of agricultural production, so we’d have to get other countries to do it for us. “Dear Indonesia, please stop growing rice and go hungry, because we want to keep the airconditioning on and don’t want to walk to work.” I can’t see that going down terribly well.

What will happen is that we will ignore the problem until the costs of doing so become prohibitive. The costs can become prohibitive because of a carbon tax or some indirect version of the same, or because we keep having tropical cyclones and we get blackouts or bread becomes $20 a loaf or something. But once it all gets too expensive to ignore, then we’ll act. Not before.

I don’t think it’d be a factor of 15. You can look for example at the US,

Tractors and the like were pretty much a novelty until the 1920s even for well-off farmers, and the Green Revolution wasn’t until the 1960s. Something like the 1900-1920 period with ~25% of households involved in agriculture seems reasonable.

But having only 5-10% of household income spent on food is historically unusual, and is rare worldwide. The RoK spends proportionally twice as much as the US, as do Japan and Italy, the Turks four times, and so on. They’re also not as obese and have lower healthcare costs, so maybe by having higher food costs you end up with lower other costs, and overall a better life?

Obviously there’s a point of diminishing returns, all the highest food cost places have a lot of malnourishment. Saudi Arabia’s kind of an outlier because almost nobody would live there without lots of cheap energy simply flowing from the ground, but generally 25+% of household income going to food indicates hungry poverty for a significant fraction of your country.

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I was using an estimate of around 30%, so we are not far off. Regardless, even if we look at your lower estimate, that would entail an increase in food prices by at least a factor of 5 to 7 (more likely seven given the period you are modelling- in real terms, the same money now would have only bought you 1/7th the food in the 1910s to 1920s). We also know that America, Australia and New Zealand were unusually abundant during this period, given the absence of systemic shorter stature in their fighting men due to poor childhood diets.

Remember, there is little in the way of wiggle room in terms of profits- agriculture operates on tight margins, and one we exclude branded goods, finance and a few other high PM areas of the economy- the return on capital for most areas of the real economy are 6%, after accounting for risk, inflation and taxes. Obviously, I’m using the growing economy here- with which I am much more familiar, and I fully realise that crops such as grains are capital intensive rather than labour intensive, but this shift would also probably require a larger shift away from fruit and most vegetables, and towards a substantial increase in breads and potatoes- because of the relative labour requirements of these types of produce.

It would also require a shift to crops grown locally. The whole reason why shifting to a plant-based diet only entails a 2% drop in the carbon footprint for an individual, is because most Westerners lack the discipline to cut out most beans, peppers, tofu, most tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, avocadoes, grapefruit, grapes, melons, apricots, oranges, bananas and other non-local produce.

Plus, most advanced economies cannot even attract the labour for farming from their own workforce at a requirement of less than 2% of all labour in their economies- who is going to do all the work? I don’t blame them- I spent a couple of teen years farming labouring in my youth and it was hard, difficult work, even for someone young and fit- and would probably lead to high rates of long-term absenteeism, due to physical damage and injury. Western workers aren’t even really able to cope with the care industries lifting requirements without systemically going long-term sick, and having done both (although only caring on a family basis) I can tell you care work is a lot physically easier than farming- at least if you are growing things.