Below are some excerpts from a lecture Richard Heinberg delivered to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on October 28, 2006. Strangely enough, Cuba emerges as the model for low-energy farming.
…there are reasons to think that our current anomalous abundance of inexpensive food may be only temporary; if so, present and future generations may become acquainted with that old, formerly familiar but unwelcome houseguest—famine.
The following are four principal bases (there are others) for this gloomy forecast.
The first has to with looming fuel shortages…. Modern industrial agriculture has been described as a method of using soil to turn petroleum and gas into food.
An attempt to make up for fuel shortfalls by producing more biofuels—ethanol, butanol, and biodiesel—will put even more pressure on the food system, and will likely result in a competition between food and fuel uses of land and other resources needed for agricultural production.
The second factor potentially leading to famine is a shortage of farmers…. Who will be growing our food twenty years from now? With less oil and gas available, we will need far more knowledge and muscle power devoted to food production, and thus far more people on the farm, than we have currently.
The third worrisome trend is an increasing scarcity of fresh water. Sixty percent of water used nationally goes toward agriculture.
Fourth and finally, there is the problem of global climate change…. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms in general (hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, hail storms)—in short, unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a climate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year’s production…. We have embarked on a century in which, increasingly, freakish weather is normal.
While we were achieving miracles of productivity, agriculture’s impact on the natural world was also growing; indeed it is now the single greatest source of human damage to the global environment. That damage takes a number of forms: erosion and salinization of soils; deforestation (a strategy for bringing more land into cultivation); fertilizer runoff (which ultimately creates enormous “dead zones” around the mouths of many rivers); loss of biodiversity; fresh water scarcity; and agrochemical pollution of water and soil.
In short, we created unprecedented abundance while ignoring the long-term consequences of our actions. This is more than a little reminiscent of how some previous agricultural societies—the Greeks, Babylonians, and Romans—destroyed soil and habitat in their mania to feed growing urban populations, and collapsed as a result.
I believe we must and can de-industrialize agriculture. The general outline of what I mean by de-industrialization is simple enough: this would imply a radical reduction of fossil fuel inputs to agriculture, accompanied by an increase in labor inputs and a reduction of transport, with production being devoted primarily to local consumption.
Once again, fossil fuel depletion almost ensures that this will happen. But at the same time, it is fairly obvious that if we don’t plan for de-industrialization, the result could be catastrophic.
In short, it is possible in principle for industrial nations like the U.S. to make the transition to smaller-scale, non-petroleum food production, given certain conditions. There are both precedents and models.
However, all of them imply more farmers. Here’s the catch—and here’s where the ancillary benefits kick in.
The Key: More Farmers!
One way or another, re-ruralization will be the dominant social trend of the 21st century. Thirty or forty years from now—again, one way or another—we will see a more historically normal ratio of rural to urban population, with the majority once again living in small, farming communities. More food will be produced in cities than is the case today, but cities will be smaller. Millions more people than today will be in the countryside growing food.
They won’t be doing so the way farmers do it today, and perhaps not the way farmers did it in 1900.
What I am proposing is nothing less than a new alliance among environmental organizations, farmers, gardeners, organizations promoting economic justice, the anti-globalization movement, universities and colleges, local businesses, churches, and other social organizations. Moreover, the efforts of this alliance would have to be coordinated at the national, state, and local level. This is clearly a tall order. However, we are not talking about merely a good idea. This is a survival strategy.
It may seem that I am describing and advocating a reversion to the world of 1800, or even that of 8,000 BC. This is not really the case. We will of course need to relearn much of what our ancestors knew. But we have discovered a great deal about biology, geology, hydrology, and other relevant subjects in recent decades, and we should be applying that knowledge—as Holmgren, Mollison, Jeavons, and others have done—to the project of producing food for ourselves.