Adapting to Peak Oil

John Michael Greer suggests that composted gardens and small farms provide a fallback plan for the industrial farms that are very dependent on petroleum for energy and fertilizer. Do not read this if you think that we can continue to consume energy like we have in the past. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Little Steps That Matter.

What makes these (ethanol and nuclear energy) and similar projects as destructive as they are futile is precisely that they are meant to allow us to continue living our lives in something like their present form. That fantasy, it seems to me, is the single largest obstacle in the path of a reasoned response to the predicament of peak oil. The hard reality we have to face is the fact that the extravagant, energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past cannot be sustained by any amount of bargaining or any number of grand projects. Accept that reality, on the other hand, and redefine the situation in terms of managing a controlled descent from the giddy heights of the late industrial age, and the range of technological options widens out dramatically.

Is compost a replacement for fossil fuel-based fertilizers? In the straightforward sense of this question, of course not.

Instead, it’s a bridge – or part of a bridge – that reaches beyond the end of the industrial age. The industrial model of agriculture, for reasons rooted primarily in current economic and political arrangements, has established a stranglehold on food production in the developed world. Barring drastic political intervention – a new Homestead Act, say, meant to repopulate the abandoned farm country of the Great Plains – that situation is unlikely to change suddenly or soon.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the industrial model of agriculture will actually work well in a postpeak world. Far more likely is a situation in which soaring fossil fuel prices cascade down the food chain, turning industrial farms and their far-flung distribution networks into economic basket cases propped up by government subsidies, sky-high food prices, and trade barriers that keep other options out of the existing marketplace. In such a context, local microfarms and market gardens, and the cooperatives, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture schemes that give them a market outside the existing system, are guaranteed steady and dramatic growth.

The Future of Industrial Agriculture

Jeff Vail at the Rhizome blog analyzes the thought-provoking essays at The Oil Drum by Stuart Staniford and Sharon Astyk on the nexus of Peak Oil and agriculture, with Staniford suggesting that peak oil will not result in relocalization of agriculture because the industrialization of agriculture is a more efficient use of energy and is not practicably reversible, and Astyk rebutting that idea. Vail offers a third perspective: that we have insufficient information to reach a conclusion about when energy scarcity will result in relocalization of agriculture, but that we will likely cross this threshold in the not-too-distant future and should prepare accordingly.

Below is Vail’s summary of the arguments on industrial agriculture. Click on any of the links for more detail.

Link: Jeff Vail

A. Why would centralization of agriculture increase efficiency?

1. Economy of place: It is more efficient to grow oranges in Florida than in a heated greenhouse in upstate New York (or, to use the classic example, wine in Portugal than in England).
2. Economy of scale: It is more efficient for one man to grow ten orange trees than ten men to each grow one for a variety of reasons.
3. Specialization of knowledge processes: A contributor to #2 above, but particularly important in the era of increasingly scientific and knowledge intensive farming—farmers can afford to specialize in farming, whereas people who are only part-time farmers cannot to the same degree.
4. Justification for intensive capital expenditure: An industrial farmer can justify the expense of a complex combine harvester that automates processes, whereas a small holder may not be able to. (Stuart Staniford)

B. Why would decentralization of agriculture increase efficiency?

1. Transportation & operation cost: decentralized farming has the potential to require transportation over shorter distances to market than centralized farming, and therefore less embodied energy cost. Likewise, tractors and combines use oil, whereas hoeing and hand weeding do not.
2. Superior suitability for sustainable operation: for now, decentralized agriculture seems more capable of maintaining topsoil and is more adaptable to varying water regimes.
3. Greater resiliency to black swan & gray sway events: decentralized agriculture is less susceptible to terrorism, is more likely to incorporate the biodiversity necessary to overcome disease, and may be more adaptable in the face of global warming.
4. Less exposure to capital cost creep: decentralized agriculture is less dependent on expensive machinery that is subject to increasing cost as the cost of manufacture and raw materials increase. (Sharon Astyk)

Economic Development and Energy

John Michael Greer writes about the future of societies in relation to the abundance and concentration of energy resources to which it has access. This is especially pertinent as the realization that Peak Oil may be real dawns on the American public. In the debate over switching our energy sources from petroleum to sustainable energy, the influence of big oil companies on many policy makers guarantees a short-term outlook and possible economic decline for countries who are dependent on an increasingly scarce resouce available mainly from unstable governments.

Link: The Archdruid Report

White’s law holds that the level of economic development in a society is measured by the energy per capita it produces and uses. Since the energy per capita of any society is determined by its access to concentrated energy resources – and this holds true whether we are talking about wild foods, agricultural products, fossil fuels, or anything else – it’s worth postulating that the maximum level of economic development possible for a society is measured by the abundance and concentration of energy resources to which it has access.

…a society’s maximum level of economic development will be reached, on average, at the peak of a bell-shaped curve with a height determined by the relative renewability of the society’s energy resources. A society wholly dependent on resources that renew themselves over the short term may trace a “bell-shaped curve” in which the difference between peak and trough is so small it approximates a straight line; a society dependent on resources renewable over a longer timescale may cycle up and down as its resource base depletes and recovers; a society dependent on nonrenewable resources can be expected to trace a ballistic curve in which the height of ascent is matched, or more than matched, by the depth of the following decline.

Don’t Cry Wolf Too Often

Most of us exist in an emotional state where we balance fear and denial. Determining which potential disaster scenarios are real and which are scare tactics is very difficult but necessary. Think about Y2K, terrorist attacks, ozone depletion, peak oil, bird flu, illegal immigration, and global warming — how do we assess which are real dangers and which are public figures pontificating?

John Michael Greer describes several of the scare tactics used by leaders to motivate the masses and the consequences of crying wolf too often, in the context of Peak Oil and the future. More good writing and insight from this excellent blog. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Twelfth Hour

Jonathan Edwards’ harrowing 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God … bent all his talents to the task of convincing his listeners that as they sat their in their pews, right then and there, the ground might suddenly open up beneath them and drop them screaming and flailing into the jaws of eternal damnation.

It was a great success at the time. Like so many preachers before and since, though, Edwards discovered the homely moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf: you can only scare the stuffing out of people in the same way so many times before the impact wears off, and your listeners become irritated or, worse yet, bored. Few things in popular culture have less cachet than last year’s imminent disasters.

That’s the hidden downside of the story of the eleventh hour. When you’ve told the same story often enough, people become used to the fact that you’ll be back again shortly with another catastrophe du jour, and another one after that, and so on. They stop being scared and become irritated or, worse yet, bored. At that point it doesn’t matter how many more changes you ring on the story or how colorfully you describe this year’s imminent disaster, because they’ve learned to recognize the narrative as narrative – and, not uncommonly, they’ve learned to glimpse whatever agenda lies behind the story and motivates the people who tell it.

The awkward conversation about Peak Oil in today’s industrial societies, I’m convinced, cannot be understood at all unless the spreading effect of these paired recognitions is taken into account. For decades now our collective discourse has been filled to overflowing with competing renditions of the story of the eleventh hour, from every imaginable point on the political and cultural spectrum. Whether it’s the missile gap or the ozone layer, fiat currencies or emerging viruses, immigration policy or trade deficits or the antics of whatever set of clowns is piling into or out of the executive branch this season, somebody or other is presenting it as a source of imminent disaster from which, at the eleventh hour, their proposals can save us.

The irony here, and it’s as rich as it is bitter, is that this is one of the cases where the crisis is real. Depending on how you measure it – with or without natural gas liquids, oil-sands products, and other marginal sources of quasipetroleum fuel – world oil production peaked in 2005 or 2006 and, despite record prices and massive drilling programs in the Middle East and elsewhere, has been slipping down the far side of Hubbert’s peak ever since. Dozens of countries in the nonindustrial world are already struggling with desperate shortages of petroleum products, while the industrial world’s attempts to stave off trouble by pouring its food supply into its gas tanks via ethanol and biodiesel have succeeded mostly in launching food prices on a stratospheric trajectory from which they show no signs of returning any time soon.

Does this mean that we’re finally, for real, at the eleventh hour? That’s the richest and most bitter irony of all. As Robert Hirsch and his colleagues pointed out not long ago in a crucial study, the only way to respond effectively to Peak Oil on a national scale, and stave off massive economic and social disruptions, is to start preparations twenty years before the arrival of peak petroleum production. The eleventh hour, in other words, came and went in 1986, and no amount of pressure, protest, or wishful thinking can make up for the opportunity that was missed then. Listen carefully today and you can hear the sound of the clock tolling twelve, reminding us that the eleventh hour is gone for good.

The problem with this realization, of course, is that the story of the twelfth hour doesn’t make good melodrama.

You know you’re a Green-Neck when…

You get excited when you see a hybrid car.

You like the way solar panels look on the roof of a house.

You download music to your music player instead of buying the CD — because it reduces pollution and waste.

You think people who drive Hummers are stupid.

You don’t use bug spray in your home.

You’d rather plant a bush than elect one.

You feel sorry for trees when they get cut down.

You know intuitively than global warming is real and caused by pollution.

You wonder how the people who run Exxon sleep at night.

You’d rather visit a mountain waterfall than a shopping mall.

You know that trout are the "canaries in the coal mine" for water quality.

You’d like to see the OPEC countries run out of money before they run out of oil.

Your mouth doesn’t salivate when you see a deer.

You hunt bears with a camcorder.

You know Cradle To Cradle does NOT involve babies.

You tinker with the power-saving features of your computer.

You invest in green companies even when their track record doesn’t look good.

You are suspicious about Wal-Mart selling organic food.

You don’t scare a snake in your backyard even when you have a shovel in your hands.

You can’t get all the stuff to be recycled into your car when its time to haul it off.

Green-Necks Unite!!!

Copyright © 2007 The Better Information Group, Inc.

Preparations and Possibilities for the Decline of Fossil Fuels

The Archdruid Report describes an energy future in the middle ground between today’s energy inefficient American lifestyle and the apocalyptic collapse envisioned by the doom sayers. It looks like deep insight combined with common sense to me.

Denial about the implications of our oil addiction will boomerang on us. This kind of realistic guidance is most welcome.

Link: The Archdruid Report: Energy: Preparations and Possibilities

One of the many ironies of our present situation is that today’s energy-squandering lifestyles actually give us more room for maneuver as energy supplies decline. Especially in the United States, we waste so much energy on nonessentials that a large fraction of our energy use can be conserved without severely impacting our lives. Consider the suburbanite who mows his lawn with a gasoline-powered mower, and then hops in a car to drive down to the gym to get the exercise he didn’t get mowing his lawn! From Christmas lights and video games to three-hour commutes and Caribbean vacations, most of the absurd extravagance that characterizes energy use in America and other industrial countries only happens because fossil fuel energy has been so cheap so long.

Mature technologies and proven lifestyle changes already exist that can save half or more of the energy the average American family uses in the course of a year. Nearly all of them were already on the shelf by the late 1970s. At this point it’s simply a matter of putting them to work. Since most of them require modest investment, and prices for many of the materials involved are likely to soar once energy prices shoot up and conservation becomes a matter of economic survival for all but the very rich, getting them in place as soon as possible is essential.

Read the whole essay here: The Archdruid Report: Energy: Preparations and Possibilities

Who Needs Oil, We Have COAL

Here’s an excerpt from a presentation at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) by Jeremy Leggett, who worked in the oil industry until 1996.

Link: Transition Culture » ASPO 5. Jeremy Leggett Intertwines Peak Oil and Climate Change..

The tipping point in terms of climate is 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is the point of no return. We look set to go soaring through that. We need a mass withdrawl from carbon emissions. We must leave the coal in the ground. The bottom line is that coal is the killer. We have plenty of it, and we do have the option of seeing if every Government research lab IN THE WORLD is wrong. If we panic and use coal it will be our epitaph.