Book review: Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe, by David Denkenberger and Joshua M. Pearce.
I have very mixed feelings about this book.
It discusses some moderately unlikely risks – scenarios where most crops fail worldwide for several years, due to inadequate sunlight.
It’s hard to feel emotionally satisfied about a tolerable but uncomfortable response to disasters, when ideally we’d prevent those disasters in the first place. And the disasters seem sufficiently improbable that I don’t feel comfortable thinking frequently about them. But we don’t yet have a foolproof way of preventing catastrophic climate changes, and there are things we can do to survive them. So logic tells me that we ought to devote a few resources to preparing.
The authors sketch a set of strategies which could conceivably ensure that nobody starves (Wikipedia has a good summary). There might even be a bit of room for mistakes, but not much.
The book focuses on the technical problems, with the hope that others will solve the political problems. This makes some sense, as the feasibility of various political solutions is very different if the best political strategy saves 95% of people than if it saves 30%.
It’s a bit disturbing that this seems to be the most expert analysis available for these scenarios – the authors appear fairly competent, but seem to have done less research than I expect from a technical book. They may have made the right choice to publish early, in order to attract more support. I’m mainly disturbed by what the lack of expertise says about societal competence.
The book leaves me with lots of uncertainty about how hard it is to improve on the meager preparations that have been done so far.
For example, I expect there are a moderate number of people who know something about rapidly scaling up mushroom production. Are they already capable of handling the needed changes? Or are drastically different preparations needed? It’s hard for me to tell without developing significant expertise in growing mushrooms.
There’s probably an urgent need for a bit more preparation for extracting nutrition from ordinary leaves. In particular, I expect it to matter what kinds of leaves to use. The book mostly talks of leaves from trees, but careless people in my area might include poison hemlock leaves, with disastrous results. A small amount of advance preparation should be able to cause large reductions in this kind of mistake.
Another simple preparation that’s needed is a better awareness of where to look in a crisis. The news media in particular ought to be able to quickly find this kind of information even when they’re overwhelmed with problems.
I’m guessing that a few hundred thousand dollars of additional effort in this area would have high expected value, with strongly diminishing returns after that. I’ve donated a small amount to ALLFED, and I encourage you to donate a little bit as well.