The Iowa Floods Send America Into a Season of Hoarding

With the Iowa floods we’ll see more evidence of how the problems of weird weather (climate change) combine and ramify the problems associated with Peak Oil. In this particular case they lead to an inflection point sometime around the 2008 harvest season, which will also be our time of political harvest.

A catastrophe for Iowa farmers in the United States will not be just a catastrophe for Midwestern Americans. In the Iowa floods, we’ll see more evidence of how the problems of weird weather (climate change) combine and ramify the problems associated with Peak Oil. In this particular case they lead to an inflection point sometime around the 2008 harvest season, which will also be our time of political harvest.

These are not your daddy’s or granddaddy’s floods. These are 500-year floods, events not seen before non-Indian people starting living out on that stretch of the North American prairie. The vast majority of homeowners in Eastern Iowa did not have flood insurance because the likelihood of being affected above the 500-year-line was so miniscule – their insurance agents actually advised them against getting it. The personal ruin out there will be comprehensive and profound, a wet version of the 1930s Dust Bowl, with families facing total loss and perhaps migrating elsewhere in the nation because they have no home to go back to.

Iowa in 2008 will be an even slower-motion disaster than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Beyond the troubles of 25,000 people who have lost all their material possessions is a world whose grain reserves stand at record lows. The crop losses in Iowa will aggravate what is already a pretty dire situation. So far, the US Public has experienced the world grain situation mainly in higher supermarket prices. Cheap corn is behind the magic of the American processed food industry – all those pizza pockets and juicy-juice boxes that frantic Americans resort to because they have no time between two jobs and family-chauffeur duties to actually cook (note: reheating is not cooking).

Behind that magic is an agribusiness model of farming cranked up on the steroids of cheap oil and cheap natural-gas-based fertilizer. Both of these inputs have recently entered the realm of the non-cheap. Oil-and-gas-based farming had already reached a crisis stage before the flood of Iowa. Diesel fuel is a dollar-a-gallon higher than gasoline. Natural gas prices have doubled over the past year, sending fertilizer prices way up. American farmers are poorly positioned to reform their practices. All that cheap fossil fuel masks a tremendous decay of skill in husbandry. The farming of the decades ahead will be a lot more complicated than just buying x-amount of inputs (on credit) to be dumped on a sterile soil growth medium and spread around with giant diesel-powered machines.

Like a lot of other activities in American life these days, agribusiness is unreformable along its current lines. It will take a convulsion to change it, and in that convulsion it will be dragged kicking-and-screaming into a new reality. As that occurs, the U.S. public will have to contend with more than just higher taco chip prices. We’re heading into the Vale of Malthus – Thomas Robert Malthus, the British economist-philosopher who introduced the notion that eventually world population would overtake world food production capacity. Malthus has been scorned and ridiculed in recent decades, as fossil fuel-cranked farming allowed the global population to go vertical. Techno-triumphalist observers who should have known better attributed this to the green revolution of bio-engineering. Malthus is back now, along with his outriders: famine, pestilence, and war.

We’re headed, it seems, toward a fall crunch time, and that crunching sound will not be of cheez doodles and taco chips consumed on the sofas of America. I think we’re heading into a season of hoarding. As the presidential campaign moves into its final round, Americans may be hard-up for both food and gasoline. On the oil scene, the next event on the horizon is not just higher prices but shortages. Chances are, they will occur first in the Southeast states because oil exports from Mexico and Venezuela feeding the Gulf of Mexico refineries are down more than 30 percent over 2007.

Perhaps more ominous is the discontent on the trucking scene. Truckers are going broke in droves, unable to carry on their business while getting paid US $2,000 for loads that cost them US $3000 to deliver. In Europe last week, enraged truckers paralyzed the food distribution networks of Spain and Portugal. The passivity of U.S. truckers so far has been a striking feature of the general zombification of American life. They might continue to just crawl off one-by-one and die. But it’s also possible that, at some point, they’ll mount a Night-of-the-Living-Dead offensive and take their vengeance out on the system that has brought them to ruin. America has only about a three-day supply of food in any of its supermarkets.

The yet-more-ominous thing here is that shortages of food and oil are two fiascos that are pretty clearly predictable for the second half of the year. That’s bad enough without figuring in the unknowns that could kick up American hardship a few more notches. The hurricane season just got underway – obscured for the moment by the bigger weather story in Iowa. The fate of the banks is a train wreck still waiting to happen. As it occurs – also heading into the high political and hurricane seasons – we could find ourselves not only a nation wet, hungry, and out-of-gas, but also completely broke. I’m sorry that Tim Russert will not be here to talk Americans through it all.

James Howard Kunstler
for Markets and Money

James Howard Kunstler
(born 1948) is an American author, social critic, and blogger who is perhaps best known for his book The Geography of Nowhere, a history of suburbia and urban development in the United States. He is prominently featured in the peak oil documentary, The End of Suburbia, widely circulated on the internet. In his most recent book, The Long Emergency (2005), he argues that declining oil production is likely to result in the end of industrialized society and force Americans to live in localized, agrarian communities.
James Howard Kunstler

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8 Comments on "The Iowa Floods Send America Into a Season of Hoarding"

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500 year flood ba humbug, the only thing that makes this a 500 year flood is all the bloody leves they have built to “tame” the river. They have removed all the flood plains from the equation. Flood plains are a rivers natural soloution to much water. If there was no leves built and you left the river to behave as a river does and not try and make it a big storm drain. Than this problem would never of happened. Its just simple poor land management that has caused this. The simplest thing is to accept that rivers flood… Read more »

de ja vu Mr. born 1948



Agreed that building in an environment not around will always land you strife.
Hey do you think that cavemen were burning massive amounts of fossil fuels, before they went into the last ice age? Or do you think this global warming thing is part of a natural cycle?
Regardless though I would much rather breath air of a plant where everyone drives a prius or better…
Perhaps it’ll just be better if we do burn it all up or speculate on oil if thats whats happening…it’ll force and is forcing us to actually advance ourselves.


Well at least the Catholics told everyone that condoms and abortion is wrong and got everyone to play along-…wait, is that where we went wrong? No wait its selfish for everyone not have 2.5 kids, right?
And to the Chinese we need more of your kids to support our lifestyles in your factories!

Greg Sola

Readers may also want to check out:

for a another perspective on the Midwest flooding.

Greg Sola

Al Ortiz
Guest Commentary Michael Beatty: American spirit shines through tragedy 2008-06-27 BALTIMORE – Growing up on a farm in Iowa, the last thing I thought I would ever see is National Guard trucks traveling familiar roads, helicopters in the air, emergency vehicles in the baseball field parking lot where as a high school freshman we played a state championship and the downtown I cruised to meet girls now flooded. My trip home last week was not a typical vacation. We did not go to Disneyland or the beach to relax. Instead we experienced determination, support, concern for others, sadness and even… Read more »

If from hereafter new money cannot be invested in commodities of any kind, where would all that excess paper go? Aside from using it to wipe our R$, what would be the next best value-adding alternative?

Americans Are Entering a Season of Food Hoarding

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