People clamor for bread in Cairo. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu, the Washington Post
Out of France comes a report that, as farms increasingly flee cities and their surrounding areas, metropoli like Paris and Milan might struggle to feed themselves:
Paris used to be a city of food artisans and its suburbs a melange of lush market gardens thanks to the Seine's alluvia. The globalization of the food system symbolized by, among other things, the international wholesale market of Rungis built outside Paris in the late '60s, brought in standardized products at a much lower price. Add to that real estate speculation and the absence of proper agricultural land management and soon farms were pushed farther and farther from the city and converted to better-yielding crops.
Beyond the loss of patrimony, the disconnect from food production puts the capital in a precarious food security situation. With a food system relying on unsustainable oil-fed transportation, not only Paris but also most cities throughout the world are at risk. If the transport system were to fail, food would run out on supermarket shelves within a few days.
Keep in mind that the writer isn't talking about a notorious sprawl like Los Angeles, but far denser European cities.
The majority of humanity now lives in urban areas, a trend that probably won't cease anytime soon. While cities can be more sustainable than their detractors suggest, vulnerabilities like this leave them open to disaster or civil unrest.
Meanwhile, nations around the world practically quaked as China's rare earth embargo promised to deprive materials needed for the electronics societies have become increasingly dependent on.
Autarky — self-sufficiency, in short — has a bad reputation in economics, and rightly so. It is impossible for a society to be completely self-sufficient in any sort of complex economy. The attendant attempts to cut off trade entirely are usually the province of dictators and extremely stagnant societies. However, both of the above cases demonstrate that in targeted areas, autarky is a necessary balance in an increasingly interconnected world.
Remedying these vulnerabilities aren't impossible. Rare earth mines in more locations or writing policy in a way that preserves urban farmland (as Japan has done, with some success) are both relatively inexpensive moves that save a lot of trouble in the long run, without requiring economic cloistering.
Advanced technology and global trade networks are an important part of an evolving world. But the idea that the resources and connections they depend upon are inexhaustible or invulnerable is ludicrous. Preventing collapses depends as much on preparation as innovation.