End of the Gravy Train

The United States is currently engaged in depleting the Ogallala aquifer in the Great Plains region. The aquifer turned arid grassland into productive farmland. At current rates of depletion, agriculture in Kansas is forecasted to peak in 2040, and decline thereafter.

The great corn-growing regions in the central plains area are made possible because of the richness of the topsoil. This topsoil is the result of millennia of prairie grassland. This topsoil, too is vein depleted, and eroded into the gulf of Mexico. Average topsoil erosion in Missouri is estimated to be 35% of the original depth.

Click to access 0185-Duncan-IL.pdf

It may be argued that we can adapt and change our agricultural practices to adapt to increasing constraints, but the effect of these adaptations will be to decrease the marginal return on labor of agriculture in the United States. This may not happen in my lifetime, but will very likely happen.

Cheap food is what enables a large portion of the population to be engaged in other activities. I had originally envisaged that poor agricultural practices in the states would eventually lead to retrenchment in the states, and decrease in standard of living for people there, on a horizon of 50 to 100 years from now. However, speaking with a commodities trader in Taiwan, it is now clear to me that the entire world is benefitting from cheap US imports.

Taiwan imports large amounts of food raw materials in the form of corn and corn derived products such as high fructose corn syrup, corn-fed beef, corn-fed fish, corn starch for noodles and other starch-rich products (like packet of instant noodles I just examined.) My intuition is that other countries similarly import these large quantities from the US.

This means that decreased agricultural output in the states could have reverberating effects through the world economy. The US is essentially exporting its topsoils and aquifer water, and will probably do so until these become critically depleted, because of political pressures to maintain high productivity. Man-made fertilizers made with the help of heat from fossil fuels may help compensate for topsoil loss, especially as fracking has made fossil fuels cheap, but the total available fuel yielded by tracking may start to decline as early as 2020.


In any case, I appears that the US will eventually run out I water and topsoil.

I wonder if we are where the Romans were in the second century, at the peak of their population, before falling agricultural productivity led to population declines led to spiraling population declines and loss of territory to German tribes.

I wonder if all this sense of progress is an illusion, we are seeing diminishing return on investment as easy opportunities are taken. Already we see this I the US stock market, where average 12% returns in the nineties have giveaway to average 9% returns of the recent decade (with increased volatility). We are no longer sending people to the moon. Expected return on investment in a college education is dropping. Eventually everything will converge to saturation, like it has in Japan.

In Japan, migration of young people to the cities has led to depopulation of rural areas. In 30 years, the current crop of people who are taking care of the elderly in the countryside will be in their 80s and 90s. Fertility in the cities is low.

The pattern of urbanization and thinning of the countryside is to me reminiscent of the western roman empire, and eerily foretold in this experiment on a mouse population.


Demographic and economic collapse, and reversion to a simpler global order does not seem an impossibility.

We seem to be on a treadmill of diminishing satisfaction. People in the states live in bigger and bigger houses, drive more and more expensive cars, have less and less time because of the work required to maintain such a lifestyle, and get more and more unhealthy as they get more sedentary and eat more processed foods. Collapse would not necessarily be a bad thing. It would give us some time to reflect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s