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“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The water-energy-food nexus is an interlocking problem. For example, biofuel production takes land and water away from food production. Besides the contamination to water reservoirs, the process of hydrofracking and tar sands utilizes massive amounts of water which could otherwise be saved for farming:

Oil sands extraction uses significant amounts of water (2-4.5 barrels per barrel of oil produced), which ends up in toxic tailings lagoons that have never been successfully reclaimed. An analysis using industry data estimated that these lagoons already leak over a billion gallons of contaminated water into the environment each year.

Hydrofracking injects large volumes of water (up to six million gallons of water per gas well) mixed with sand and toxic chemical additives at high pressures to release the gas. Most of the water is then returned to the surface as polluted wastewater – that must be treated by wastewater treatment plants already overburdened and not necessarily designed to remove these chemicals. Industry analysts predict it will cost $3 billion to treat the industrial wastewater associated with Marcellus shale development…
Groundwater supplies may become contaminated with these chemicals as they already have in parts of Pennsylvania and other states. Currently, oil and gas companies that use hydraulic fracturing are exempt from regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act that would require them to disclose the cocktail of chemicals they use.

Scaling back on the production of these unconventional energy sources in order to conserve land and water for food will increase the cost of conventional oil, and thus food prices, since industrial agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels:

Due to the vast size of these [industrial] farms, the farms are operated in a similar manner to that of large industrial factories. And these “factories” require large quantities of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel all derived from fossil fuels, which is a limited natural resource on our planet (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture, 2008). “After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent.” This high dependence on fossil fuels makes industrial agriculture heavily unsustainable. “Twentieth-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food” (Pollan, 2008).

The monkey wrench of climate change is now thrown into the picture…

What happens to the stability of the world when fertile lands become dust bowls, when rainfall no longer follows its traditional seasonal pattern, when crop yield forecasts become less and less reliable as climate change begins to bite? We don’t have to look very far back to see the upheaval caused in countries whose majority population lives on the razor-edge of starvation:

2007–2008 – Food riots in India, Peru, Morocco, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, 
Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Yemen, Guinea, Cameroon, 
Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Senegal. [64][65][66][67][68][69]

And again in 2010-2011: 

For those who think that adaption to climate change is feasible, please consider what Kurt Cobb articulates in a recent post:

…costly existing agricultural infrastructure won’t be easily moved or replaced. …soil quality is not uniform from place to place. [Do you] think that as temperatures warm and devastate the American grain belt with recurrent drought, we can simply transfer the growing of much of the world’s export grain crop north to the Canadian Shield which has soil so thin it has never supported agriculture?

The ‘Catch-22’ kicker is that the continued use of fossil fuels, the indispensable elixir of industrial civilization’s existence, is exactly what is causing climate chaos in the first place. And as I showed with one simple chart in a previous post, we are using more of this deadly ingredient than ever before. In his latest article The hunger wars in our future, Michael Klare warns us about the social disruptions that lie in the future as a result of the insidious water-energy-food nexus that grips our modern-day way of life:

…When we think about climate change (if we think about it at all), we envision rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, freakish storms, hellish wildfires, and rising sea levels. Among other things, this will result in damaged infrastructure and diminished food supplies. These are, of course, manifestations of warming in the physical world, not the social world we all inhabit and rely on for so many aspects of our daily well-being and survival. The purely physical effects of climate change will, no doubt, prove catastrophic. But the social effects including, somewhere down the line, food riots, mass starvation, state collapse, mass migrations, and conflicts of every sort, up to and including full-scale war, could prove even more disruptive and deadly…

At this point, the focus is understandably on the immediate consequences of the still ongoing Great Drought: dying crops, shrunken harvests, and rising food prices. But keep an eye out for the social and political effects that undoubtedly won’t begin to show up here or globally until later this year or 2013. Better than any academic study, these will offer us a hint of what we can expect in the coming decades from a hunger-games world of rising temperatures, persistent droughts, recurring food shortages, and billions of famished, desperate people.

Remember when both Bush, Cheney and Obama famously quipped that “the American way of life was non-negotiable.” Mother Nature and the Grim Reaper have rephrased that self-righteous slogan to read:

“The American way of life is unsustainable, non-redeemable, and a limited-time-only.”