Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Little Steps That Matter

Over the last few months, the uncomfortable phrase “peak oil” has started to appear more and more frequently in the mainstream media, and the usual denunciations by the usual suspects are starting to wear noticeably thin. It’s been more than half a century since M. King Hubbert first started trying to sound the alarm, granted, but better late than never.

Still, as I suggested in an earlier post, the process of coming to terms with peak oil has more than a little in common with the five stages of grief famously outlined some years back by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. We’ve already seen two of those stages displayed in living color in recent years, and of course both are still very much with us.

The poster child for denial just now is Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a petroleum industry-funded think tank that has nonchalantly churned out predictions of soaring oil production and declining oil prices for years now, while production and prices in the real world have been headed the other way. For anger, you can hardly do better than watching the current US administration, brandishing its gargantuan war machine and bellowing its rage at Arabs, Venezuelans, and anybody else arrogant enough to think that they have some sort of right to the oil underneath their own territories.

At this point, though, we’re beginning to see the next stage in the process, which is bargaining. The recent rush to pour our food supply into our gas tanks via ethanol and various flavors of biodiesel is one example; another is the belated attempt to launch a crash program of nuclear power plant construction. These and others partake of the basic logic of bargaining: we promise to mend our ways in some sufficiently large, loud, and colorful fashion that the wolf at the door will be satisfied with the puppy biscuit we throw its way, and let us go on with our lives.

It doesn’t work for the dying, and it won’t work for modern industrial society, either, but it’s not hard to see this logic in the two examples I’ve already cited, and many other grandiose proposals of the same sort. The results of this distorting factor have not been good. The rush to ethanol and biodiesel has already played a significant role in sending grain prices to record levels and, as Stuart Staniford pointed out in a recent post on The Oil Drum, will quite probably cause mass starvation in the Third World within a decade or so if it continues at its present pace.

Attempting to revive the nuclear industry on a large scale is, if anything, a more misguided proposition. Even aside from the highly dubious economics of nuclear power, the severe and ongoing depletion of fissionable uranium reserves, the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the far from minor point that nuclear reactors produce wastes so lethal that they have to be isolated from the environment for geologic time scales, the sheer cost of building enough nuclear plants to matter in the relatively narrow window of opportunity left to us could easily bankrupt any industrial society that attempted it.

What makes these 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.

I want to talk about one of those less dramatic options here, partly because it’s among the simplest and most accessible technologies in the toolkit of the ecotechnic age, partly because it could relatively easily become part of an effective response to one of the most pressing challenges the coming of peak oil poses us, and partly because it makes a good introduction to principles that will likely be central to many, perhaps most, of the key technologies of the future. The option I have in mind is the homely art of composting.

So far I’ve been unable to find an even remotely plausible figure for the total amount of compostable food, garden, and farm waste generated annually in the United States, or any other industrial country for that matter. It’s certainly a very large volume, and the amount of it that goes into landfills rather than being recycled into fertile soil through composting is not much smaller. Those of my readers who have compost bins know how much of their own kitchen, garden, and yard waste goes into it; my wife and I generate between two and four cubic feet of compostable waste in an average week.

All of it goes into a compost bin of black recycled plastic in the back yard. So does another cubic foot or so per week from a friend’s kitchen; his living situation doesn’t permit him to have his own compost bin, so he contributes to ours. All the peelings and scraps and moldy bits from the produce that passes through our kitchen and his go into the compost pile, along with garden weeds, plants that have passed their season, and other forms of yard and garden waste, leavened with double handfuls of dried leaves saved from last autumn. Those are the only inputs, other than a little labor with a shovel once a month or so to keep the pile turned and working. Once a year, the hatch at the bottom of the compost bin disgorges the output—black, damp, sweet-smelling compost, ready to be worked into our garden beds.

This output is potent stuff. The first garden my wife and I planted started out as a patch of bare dirt on the north side of an urban apartment building, so poor and barren that even the most rugged of the local weeds made only half-hearted forays into it. Two years of double-digging beds with homebrewed compost turned it into a lush cottage garden that yielded shade-tolerant vegetables and medicinal herbs three seasons of the year, and supported some of the biggest earthworms I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. Given a reasonably good mix of raw materials – which an ordinary kitchen and garden provide quite well – compost is a balanced soil amendment that works over the long term, improving fertility, tilth, and pH balance while providing a good mix of soil nutrients.

Properly handled, the composting process also takes out unwanted seeds and pathogens. Decomposition generates heat – 150° to 160°F is a fairly common temperature for the core of a good compost pile – and that sort of heat over weeks or months will kill anything in your compost you don’t want there. If you live in a warm climate, in fact, it’s usually wise to put your compost bin where the summer sun won’t shine on it, and you may have to wet it down on hot days; compost heaps have been known to burst into flames when the heat of decomposition rose past the ignition temperature of the pile’s more flammable ingredients. (The possibility that this heat could be used in other ways seems to have gotten little notice, even from the appropriate technology crowd; we’ll discuss it, and other uses for “waste” heat, in a later post.)

Is compost a replacement for fossil fuel-based fertilizers? In the straightforward sense of this question, of course not. It’s possible to make compost on an industrial scale—and there are businesses and public utilities that do this—but compost is not well suited to the industrial model of agriculture. It works best when applied in intensive small-scale truck gardening, where it can be combined with other low-energy but labor-intensive techniques for maximizing soil fertility and productivity. Composting is not, in other words, an effective way to maintain business as usual.

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.

In a decade or so, in fact, American agriculture may well resemble nothing so much as the agricultural system of the Soviet Union in its last years, with huge and dysfunctional corporate farms filling the role of the sprawling industrialized kolkhozii while a large proportion of the food people actually eat comes from backyard garden plots. It’s in that secondary economy of small gardens and microfarms that composting has its place – and just as the collapse of the Soviet Union would have been far more devastating in human terms without the underground economy that kept people fed, the downward arc of the industrial age can be made less traumatic if technologies such as composting, relevant to an underground food economy already being born, become widely distributed and practiced in the near future.

Thus the homely, humdrum, and vital art of composting offers a model for the kinds of adaptive, flexible, and scalable responses to the predicament of industrial society we need to locate and deploy. It’s not a total solution, and it makes a very poor bargaining chip in the sort of haggling with fate I discussed earlier in this post. Rather, if the twilight of the industrial age is going to be anything but an uncontrolled crash, it’s one of the little steps that could actually make a difference. In the months to come I plan on talking about more of these. In next week’s post, however, I want to talk a little more about composting, because it offers several crucial insights to the ground rules that will very likely define the successful technologies of the deindustrial age.


FARfetched said...

Since you're talking about composting…

I have two piles going, one I started two summers ago, one last summer. Both run "cold" — as in, there were frozen chunks when I turned them. Is it possible to turn them too often? I've been doing it once a week.

yooper said...

Forgive me John, are you not alluding to a possible "uncontrolled crash"? Damn! Like you, I can't agree more with Danby's thoughts on the previous post. Doesn't this sound like the Titantic going down, instead of a schooner ship being lost a sea? I'm confused..Which is it now?
I'd like to invite Danby to my site. Perhaps, he can better explain what "industrailized" means? I should have made time to reply on the latter part of the last post. ahauah b, poses a very good question about reversiblity...
I'll be back..
Btw, I like the idea of little steps, but this better be a "Long Emergency" in order for anything like this to succeed.

Thanks, yooper

Danby said...

I don't think the Titanic is going down, because I'm not sailing on her, nor is anyone I know.

By that I mean that very few people I know are so totally caught up in the urban/suburban industrial lifestyle that they couldn't fend for themselves if they need to. Unlike a ship in the mid-North Atlantic, bailing out of the industrial economy doesn't mean death, even without a lifeboat.

As I pointed out earlier, the main crisis I see coming is an economic one, fuel and electricity prices will go up, and up and up. People are adaptable, they'll find ways to make do. A backyard garden, wood heat, moving closer to work, telecommuting, those are some of the options that can make a real difference in an individual's ability to cope.

In fact, many people will find lots of opportunity. When Diesel hits $40/gallon, it suddenly makes sense to do local deliveries with a wagon and team. When industrially-produced food gets outrageously expensive, micro-scale farming becomes a handy 2nd income.

One helpful facet I see is that the collapse will take time. A crash that takes 40 years to reach it's nadir is not typically catastrophic. It'll be hard, and many people will suffer, particularly, as always, the poor. Some areas (I'm thinking Phoenix, AZ, for starters) will depopulate, others will over-populate. Crime will likely go up, and yes some will go hungry, but most people will suck it up and adapt.

I think the attitude that will help the most to get through it is generosity. People who can share their little bit will do better than those who cannot share their sufficiency.

Yourmindfire said...

"The possibility that this heat could be used in other ways seems to have gotten little notice, even from the appropriate technology crowd"

In relation to the use of heat generated by decomposition, I've found the most interesting experimentation to be Jean Pain's. See his book "Les Methodes de Jean Pain" and many web references eg.:

RAS said...

Hey JMG,
I agree that composting is a good idea -I do it myself -but I'm concerned about all the people who don't have space to compost. Many, many people live in apartments. And then there are all those homeowners who are losing their houses -a million this year, without the recession. Homeless people can't compost. Or grow gardens. That's the difference between the Soviet Union and the U.S. When they collapsed, almost nobody lost their home. Here, millions may be on the streets. (And, after a time, the rich will no longer be safe in their little enclaves, but that's another story.)

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, it's probably not a matter of turning them too often -- though once a week is unnecessary in any but the hottest compost pile -- so much as size and ingredients. Stu Campbell's book Let It Rot! may be worth picking up -- it covers the details.

Yooper, nope, I'm not suggesting an uncontrolled crash -- just the sort of sudden downward lurch that happens over and over again in the decline of a civilization. Think of what happened between 1929 and 1945 for an example -- depression, political turmoil, and war. We'll come out the other side, and then have a respite before the next wave of crises hits.

Dan, no argument there -- though I suspect the approaching round of crises will extend well past the economic sphere. As I hinted to Stephen in last week's comments, the possibility of a Soviet-style political collapse here in the US is, I think, underrated.

Yourmindfire, many thanks for the links! I'll look into this.

Ras, none of the technologies that will play a role in the ecotechnic future will be accessible to everyone. Still, remember that the popping of the housing bubble is already sending the price of homes plunging, and that means that plenty of people who didn't buy into the bubble or got out early enough will be able to buy homes once the dust clears.

As for rich people sitting pretty in their gated enclaves, er, who do you think owns all the imaginary wealth that's turning into twinkle dust right now? The rich get clobbered when a speculative bubble pops. The Great Depression saw the huge 1920s income and asset disparity between the rich and everyone else collapse, as the people who owned all those stocks found their value dropping like a stone -- and the same thing is already starting to happen now. The foreclosure rates in those gated communities is rising steeply.

BTW, I'll be away from email access for most of the next week -- if I get the chance, I'll put comments through, but otherwise they'll land in a lump when I get back online. See you then!

marielar said...

The component which is often left of the organic gardening movement is the animal guild. When one compost kitchen and garden wastes, many nutrients leave the pile, as well as lots of energy being dissipated without being used. The catabolic chain is unnecerily short, except for vermicomposting. Two options are available to get better used. One is to feed kitchen and garden leftover to monogastric animals such as chickens and pigs, which in turn, are sources of eggs, meat, leather, insects control, highly concentrated fertilizers, work (pigs are great rototillers). Another option is to use fresh materials in cold frames. The heat of composting will turn them in hotbeds which can extend the growing season. The best blend for hotbeds has traditionally been fresh horse manure mixed with bedding (straw).

The decoupling of animals and plants has been a very wasteful and destructive practice of modern agriculture. Without animals, its very difficult to close the loop of nutrients cycling. Seeing animals as strictly a source of protein is also one of the blindspot of industrial agriculture and a fair chunck of the organic movement. The Navajos dont say that "Sheep is life" for nothing. Unfortunately, land zoning and regulations are major impediments in bringing back animals in small scale agriculture intitiatives close to urban centers. Maybe this state of affair is for the best, considering the level of cruelty we have reached in this century toward farm animals. I am not referring to the necessity of culling, either for compassionate reasons when an animal is in pain and cannot be saved, or to remain inside the carrying capacity of the land (that is why young, mostly male animals are butchered). I am talking of turning them from sentient beings into units of production. Sacrificing farm animals as mostly been done in a spirit of "so that others may live" up to recent times. Now we are mostly nobles and bourgeois who dont care for them, who dont know them and who use them for our pleasures and slaughter them in the most callous ways after a life lived in concentration camps. In the past, life was not always easy for animals, but neither was it for peasants. But I like to believe that many shepherds, teamsters, cattlemen took upon themselves a duty of compassion, a moral obligation to treat animals with decency, if not respect. After all, it is very difficult to care for them day in, day out without a recognition of the universality of suffering, of how similar we are in pain, in fear, in joy. That spirit is still alive on the small familly farms which survive to this day.

Many religious traditions do not come to life without the intimate bond between man and animals. "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine ". Too many so called spiritual leaders thought of themselves as shepherds, claiming the priviledges, rejecting the duties, without any understanding of what it means to be Shepherd, to walk the flock to safety in snowstorms, to stay up in the middle of the night to help deliver a lamb, to mourn the passing of an old ewe. They surrounded their mind to abstractions, missing the living core of the tradition. The Pope crosier is an example of perversion, a symbol of power but useless, emptied of significance. The Verb has not been made flesh. That is why the Catholic Church and other Christian right can still go around preaching against birth control in the face of overpopulation. A good shepherd knows the limit of the pastures.

I have strayed a bit from composting, or at least from its technicality. But not that far...I am always wary of promoting the benefits of animals in the light of their exploitation devoid of compassion and of the disregard for their behavioral needs. Case in point: chickens needs dust baths, foraging, good roosting sites etc. IMO, before one just jump into raising chickens, one must be willing to get into a covenant encompassing duties of care, of compassion,of respect for the land carrying capacity and neighbouring wildlife. IE, dont raise sheep if the only answer to predators is shooting or poisonning rather than comprehensive none lethal control. These cautionary points made, the ideal carbon:nitrogen ratio at the beginning of composting is 30:1, which is quite difficult to achieve with only plant based material. Also, most of the pile turning work can be done by animals, such as chicken.

Shrimppop said...

Composting is great for what it's worth, but sheet mulching is better. Composting is too much work- you either have to turn it all the time or it takes forever, then you need to transport it to the places its needed.

Sheet mulching, on the other hand, composts and creates soil in place. On trimmed lawn, put down a 1-2" layer of rotted manure. If your soil need special amendments like phosphate, put these down first.

On top of this put down a layer of cardboard or newspapers, 6 sheets thick, as a weed barrier. You can also use wool carpet or cotton clothing as a weed barrier. On top of this barrier, put a little compost, if you already have it, then a couple inches of topsoil, then 6-10" thick mulch, especially straw. This whole thing is like a layer cake for soil organisms. You can plant into it day one if you build a little pocket of soil around the plant. Ideally build your sheet mulch in the fall and it'll be ready in the spring. I did two raised beds, each 4' x 8' in about two hours.

I have a 1/3 acre village plot in upstate New York and I'm working to convert most of that to a Permaculture-based forest garden. See Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Gardens for more on small scale Permaculture.

My blog is at

David Spangler said...

Hey, John (or anyone else commenting) thing that would be nice is if somewhere you could give references that a person might use to learn more. So are there one or two good books you would recommend about composting that could get a new person started up in a good way? A kind of "Composting for Idiots" or a "Dummy's Guide to Composting"?

LJR said...

"Agriculture" is not monolithic. A modern combine can cut, thresh and make ready for sale one acre of wheat (30 bushels) in ten minutes for $30 including depreciation and fuel at today's prices. Of that, the fuel portion is approximately $10. This highly labor intense step is performed for $1 a bushel. A reasonable estimate is that one person can scythe, rake and thresh an acre of wheat in a week of hard labor. Who would do that for $30?

On that basis the industrial production of corn, soy and wheat are in no danger of being replaced by truck farming even with energy prices several times higher.

The argument that food will become more expensive because of increasing energy costs is true. Let us note, however, that industrial grains and legumes can become five times more expensive and still be a fabulous deal if the comparison is to production costs using human and animal labor. This doesn't contradict your basic point that we need to take steps to become more self-sufficient but it implies the need for a more nuanced look at what kinds of small scale farming are appropriate.

I bring this up not to disagree with your proposal that we compost and grow as much locally as possible, but to encourage you and others who speak of "agriculture" as a monolith to reconsider. Our gigantic farm machines are destined to be with us for a long time. That our grains will remain mass produced has important implications.

I suspect the most important of these is that local food self-sufficiency will remain out of reach even in many rural communities. The cost to plant and harvest a bushel of wheat will remain many times higher than industrial production costs even as hydrocarbon energy becomes more dear. Like it or not, grains remain the primary source of food carbohydrates. Man does not live by lettuce and carrots alone.

Perhaps the best immediate strategy is to grow high value organic crops that can be sold at a premium to those produced on industrial farms. This produces some income and encourages the growth of farmers markets. Perhaps you might devote a post to exploring what kinds of local crops can be profitably raised and where they can be sold. I realize this is regional and hard to generalize.

The important reason I see for making local agricultural efforts at least modestly commercial is that this is the transitional path we need to take. Growing exclusively for home use creates a sense of insularity that doesn't serve the situation well. And if my prediction that we will be buying our corn, wheat and soy from industrial farms for the next ten or more years is true, we will need to run our local food production as a business simply so we have cash to trade for industrially produced bulk carbohydrates.

I don't believe we are going to have an "uncontrolled" crash because I believe the "system" we live in actually has many more stabilizing feedback loops than we can possibly understand. The system we live in is not and never has been "controlled" in the sense that is propogandized by the "democratic myth." Individuals eke out a living, day to day. From that activity a system arises. This was probably what Adam Smith meant when he spoke of the "invisible hand." The system is always outside of conscious human control and is never controlled by political processes in a schematic way. Better to think of politics as a manifestation of the system - and only a small part at that. Something like human consciousness but without the winnowing power of natural selection to keep it sane.

The most important question of the day is whether the world's financial pump has fibrillated. Liquidity flows are based on investors' faith in the predictive models of financial risk. The models have broken down and this has brought on a crisis of confidence. How this plays out is anyone's guess but probably not well. The pump, heretofore, has worked to circulate money between the US and China. The way it has worked until now is that we buy Chinese merchandise and the central bank relends us the money via US treasury purchases so we can buy more goods. Various local asset bubbles have created the debt necessary to keep the flow of credit going. The asset bubbles have imploded and the pump is running on vapors. China has little interest in funding us if we no longer purchase goods with it. China extends credit to whoever will buy its output.

Processes tend to overreach - hence the concept of catastrophe. We shall soon enough see if China can adjust to diminished US demand for her goods. My guess is that she can't. Yes or no, the consequence to the US will be similar. China will no longer act as the company store and extend us a line of credit. That pump is broken.

In any case the US will remain one of the world's largest agricultural producers. Even with rising energy prices, the US can remain competitive in this area. Foodstuff will remain one of our primary exports. This has implications. The dollar will continue to fall and more expensive currencies will bid up the dollar price of food. We should plan for local food prices to rise for the foreseeable future. China has enough reserves to buy our agricultural output for a long time to come. Given her perilous ecological state, she will be importing lots of food.

One of the self-correcting feedback loops is that meat consumption will fall dramatically because of the price leverage of rising grain costs. When it takes ten calories of corn to make one calorie of beef it's easy to predict that meat prices will go up faster than grain prices.

Corn production for ethanol appears to be a boondoggle. When that becomes clear to the investors, much of the corn acreage will be returned to wheat and soy.

As a result, I believe we will see grain prices decline in the near future. This is temporary but the decline could be significant.

In a word, we can expect turbulence. When natural systems break down the result is, by definition, disorderly.

Back to composting and growing food locally. Whatever one does, it should be done with an eye to making it a self-rewarding activity and preferably one that builds community and local commerce.

dragonfly said...

People don't even realize how much they are wasting day after day. TVs in every room turned on 24/7. Plus computers, over head lights on in rooms no one uses.
My personal solution to cutting back on power usage concerns large supermarkets. All of these chains have refrigerator and freezer cases wide open sometimes 24 hours per day. I mentioned this at one of my peak oil, sustainability rap groups and was actually told by someone who should know better, that studies were done and people wouldn't buy as much milk if the cases had doors. People will buy what they need whether there's a door keeping the cold in or not. It's crazy to make these kinds of decisions based on what some spoiled baby American "needs" for their shopping pleasure. Agnes Higgenbotham does not need to prod every rump roast on display.

Also, they could reduce the lighting by half and contribute to a mellower time in the store. The problem of course with this brilliant solution to an obvious and profligate waste of power is that corporatations won't like it.

And could we stop caring what the corporations want? They've done enough damage.

Joel said...

This is not very sustainable, but you might mention to your readers that non-recyclable paper products are often compostable. My pile seems to find pizza boxes, paper towels, kleenex, and waxed paper very tasty. These things all get eaten up before the pile has hardly tasted some of the tougher varieties of leaf.

Panidaho said...

Perhaps you might devote a post to exploring what kinds of local crops can be profitably raised and where they can be sold. I realize this is regional and hard to generalize.

Yes, it is, but I agree with you for the most part and have been thinking along that direction already.

One of the skills I've been honing here up in the mountains of Idaho is learning how to grow more fresh vegetables in the dead of winter. Some day fuel prices will be so costly that we may not be able to get fresh greens and such in the winter from South America, as most grocery stores do at present. When that time comes, I expect fresh, organically grown local greens and herbs will become a very hot commodity.

Danby said...

Contrary to your analysis, there are quite a few people, in this country, right now, making a living using animal powered farming. Some of them raise grains and other field crops. In fact, the largest US grain harvest ever, the crop of 1918, was raised without significant petroleum use.

Check out the small farmer's journal.

It doesn't take a week to harvest an acre of wheat, unless you're talking sickles and shocks. With decent horse/mule/oxen powered equipment, many midwestern farms in the early 20th century harvested 640 acres in a week or two. Granted it took a lot of manpower as well, which the giant tractors drove out of the countryside as they devastated the rural towns.

Think about your own figures for a moment. As the price of fuel goes up, & that $10 cost for fuel goes to $40 or $60 or $100, at what point will the price obtained be insufficient to pay the cost of harvest? At what point do other methods become more economical and drive the giant combines out of the fields? The argument itself is predicated on cheap fuel, and cheap fuel is exactly what is going away.

Alex said...

We are in our 70s and are growing a lot of our own food, We compost everything we can including newspaper and unprinted cardboard, we heat with a wood burner and have a few acres of wood to cut, the wood ash goes to feed the soil.
We live in the rural UK and we buy varieties from which we can save seed for the following year
We have a stream for water, there is a local pig club where anyone can have a share of a pig in exchange for a few pounds and some of the care of the animal. there is going to be a staple vegetable club to do stuff we all use such as potatoes and the specialist stuff will be grown individually and bartered,
Its not ideal. there are no ways of getting/ making flour or a hundred and one things, but its a start

Bill Pulliam said...

One of the underlying ecosystem things that is happening with composting is the concentration of nutrients that are gathered from a larger area and transported to the garden bed by... something. And the something always requires some form of work, which equals energy. Most of us nowadays are still using fossil fuels indirectly even in our compost because of this. Kitchen waste, manure, sewage sludge solids, these all are concentrated by the fossil fuel economy. Nutrients in manure, for example, are heavly enriched in most cases by the feed the animals have eaten. That is the situation now...

This linkage is not inevitable, but is is pervasive (like all other fossil fuel tie-ins) in the present day economy. In a world without fossil fuel energy, the nutrients will be gathered almost exclusively by one of two processes. First is the physical movement of animals. Animals fed on forage and range will bring nutrients home with them, but only in so much as they actually have a stable/barn/house they return to and leave significant amounts of droppings in. These droppings will be less voluminous and less nutrient enriched than what we get now from animals that eat supplemental, trucked-in, high protein feed. Purely range-fed animals do nothing to increase the fertility of the land they graze on; they in fact represent a slow drain on the nutrient stores of the land. Humans will also gather nutrients physically, by gathering leaves for example. You have to remember that in a purely local agroecology, kitchen waste does not add any new nutrients to your garden, it just returns a portion of those that were removed by your harvest. So raking up massive amounts of leaves or hay (by hand or animal power, probably) is a key part of increasing the fertility of cropland by concentrating nutrients from a larger area.

The second way that nutrients are concentrated, of course, is by nitrogen fixing plants. This happens both by symbiotically nitrogen-fixing vascular plants (like clovers) and by pervasive non-symbiotic nitrogen fixation by free-living microbes. This is what is ultimately replenishing the nutrients that are being taken out from the sources (forests, rangelands) by the human and livestock. It can only happen so fast, and ultimately it too can be limited by the inorganic mineralization of other nutrients, like Phosphorus, from the mineral sources in the soil (especially if you no longer have massive industrial activities filling the air with trace elements to be washed in with the rain).

The point is not that the compost cycle won't work without fossil fuel subsidies, it is that the phenomenally rapid responses we see now are due largely to this subsidy and in a post-petroleum world it will take much longer to build up organic soil fertility. But we'll be looking at just about everything in the economy taking longer and moving more slowly then, won't we?

vegan_satori said...

To more fully close the human nutrient cycle there is a step beyond simple composting of garden and food waste, the composting of human manure itself -humanure- which is used to grow food again. While this is a completely radical notion to most people, it is actually the natural path. Simply mixing in the right carbon sources and then dry composting produces a safe, odor free fertilizer. Spending billions of dollars on infrastructure, burning millions of tons of coal which spews millions of tons of climate altering carbon dioxide to power pumps... turning human manure into toxic waste by putting it into anaerobic (oxygen depleted) sewer systems... and then permanently disposing of those erstwhile nutrients down rivers and oceans, where it creates dead zones, SO WE CAN HAVE FLUSH TOILETS, is, on examination, quite bizarre and irrational.

Rainman said...

I'm into composting!
I have five piles going now with one capped, curing until next year. I'm expanding my garden areas and will need all the compost I can get.
I also have nearly 2400 gallons of rain water stored to use on these gardens, all by hand.
Friends and neighbors are receiving worms from me to help start their compost/worm bins.
Looking forward to more on composting John.

eboy said...

Excellent post and conversation.

Will we heed the warning, that the current course re: ethanol and allowing this corporate beast to gain full control of the food supply is to volunteer to let the noose slip around our collective necks and starve millions or 10's of millions?

This is a historic call to action. A call to vote with each bite for sustainable and healthy food. Corporate greed, as evidenced by the psychopathic tendencies (see the movie "The Corporation") is leading to serious consequences in the short to medium term (5-10 years). Peak oil will only aggravate this.

A brief historical look at agricultural policy in North America leads to the conclusion that profits always trump health and life. The gauling thing about this is that these small farmer and consumer unfriendly practices are always delivered under the rubric of increasing health and safety. Two of these 'health' and 'safety' policies that are designed to be a death blow to the small producer and consumer health are the codex alimentaris.
And the n.a.i.s:

Not to mention upcoming crisis water policy and the lies intended to take out small chicken producers.
P.R. plans are already in place to smear the small outdoor chicken producer with the lie that avian flu is spread via the wild bird population. Versus the truth which is connected to the industrial food model and birds with compromised immune function. They will automatically wipe out flocks in large radii again offering the rubrik that these small producers are endangering the food supply and the health of people everywhere. The national media will deliver in their ability to tar and feather (:-)) with lies and inuendo all the while missing 'unintentionally' the truth of the story. Never mentioning the fact that industrial chicken factories are antibiotic resistant super bug factories that abuse chickens and produce meat that has to be dowsed with chlorine to kill the fecal matter that the meat is exposed to in order to save a minute of processing time.

Similarily 'they' are very effective in creating a scare and skewing the presentation (representativeness heuristic) in order to advance private interests. For example when they suggested that Canada was/is a beehive of mad cow when in fact at the time far more cases existed in the U.S. that weren't being reported (shoot shovel and shut up) See

The externalities or 'bads' conferred by corporate agri-business are legion. Whether it's gmo's or cell
phones that have proven to be detrimental to the bee's is almost immaterial when we know that their
immune systems have been compromised by g.m.o. or roundup ready soyabeans. Monsanto tried to
hide this but it was inadvertently leaked when the starlink corn story broke. Monsanto among others
has plans in place to help Americans with their health plan by having r.b.s.t. their bovine growth
hormone mandated under the lie of health considerations.

Actions and steps to take to prepare for upcoming grief are to secure open pollinated seeds, address mineralization problems now, while trucking is relatively cheap, so as to stave off or minimize disease in animals. Building organic matter levels by composting will confer more tolerance to weather stress
be it drought or excess moisture which is predicted with global warming.

Composting in a horse powered model I will argue is less work. If you have a ground driven manure
spreader ( a good investment if t.s.h.t.f. :-)) the number of trips to the field will be a fraction if spreading finished compost. And the pile under roof cover will secure nutrients from leaching. Consider where to secure carbon sources as pointed out 30:1 is the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio. Sawdust is some 250:1 therefore a smaller amount goes a lot further than hay which is 12:1.
Since many of the agricultural soils are being used with organic matter levels well below 3% then addressing this path to disease and poor health will be paramount.

The compost pile can also serve as a way to address mineral deficiencies and then having those minerals be bound in the resulting humus. W/r/t to the heat of the pile excess heat (>140*)not only is a fire hazard but causes the sodium to leach out of the pile and the sulfur compounds essential for proper amino acid function in the creation of quality proteins fail (why garlic is so essential) So the
balance is between killing off weed seeds and producing a quality compost. See Elaine ingham (Soil
food Web) and 'The Ecofarm' and Acresusa.

Marielar said:
"The decoupling of animals and plants has been a very wasteful and destructive practice of modern
agriculture. Without animals, its very difficult to close the loop of nutrients cycling. Seeing animals as strictly a source of protein is also one of the blindspot of industrial agriculture and a fair chunck of the organic movement."

Excellent point. Monoculture is favored in our economic system -less to know, less equipment
required and more product and producer leverage when going to market. Whereas the small mixed
farmer who can produce more foods of a greater variety / acre is abused by the market for this. He/she has less market leverage, has to know a lot more, have a greater variety of equipment and infrastructure like buildings for livestock and more for machinery. And yet does better by the land but this is never reflected in the price. Another thought is that farms are asked to export all their organic matter to cities that send this through the sewer systems to the lakes and oceans. As composting is concerned with the law of return. Understanding that the model of continually taking is flawed and needs redress. (Oh to have Wendel Berry's input on this)

A return to horses if not done with great care could return to much abuse.

Re: composting heat. Chicken manure is often left in the coops in the fall so that the heat produced
will aid the chickens over the winter. Providing wooden perches -poles large enough in diameter that the birds when roosting their feathers will cover their feet to protect them from freezing and falling off. (this happens if the perchs are small in diameter and made of metal)

ljr said: "Perhaps the best immediate strategy is to grow high value organic crops that can be sold at a premium to those produced on industrial farms. This produces some income and encourages the
growth of farmers markets. Perhaps you might devote a post to exploring what kinds of local crops
can be profitably raised and where they can be sold. I realize this is regional and hard to generalize."

There are two high value crops for small producers marijuana and beef. Beef at present is still legal
but perhaps not for long. (See the above n.a.i.s article reference) Grass fed beef produced for healthy
c.l.a. (conjugated linoleic acid) and superior omega 3's in the proper ratio (See Jo Robinson) may be considered a health food and be seen as a drug by big pharma.

Grass farming, sequesters carbon and builds top soil! Breeds that do well on grass versus breeds that
fit the industrial model are considerations. Current Economics doesn't favor this versus keeping
stockers for short term to send to the feed lots. Agriculture cannot work for the producer in the
manipulated commodity market model. Farmers cannot respond to pineapples this week and ostrich
meat next week. Furthermore governments have been intentionally misrepresenting where profits may
lay in order to serve other agenda's for example manipulating the corn futures to entice farmers to plant corn and then announcing once the seed has been bought and planted that the future wasn't so
bright after all.

ljr Brings up some great points that define a very real problem with the model of return.
"I suspect the most important of these is that local food self-sufficiency will remain out of reach even in many rural communities. The cost to plant and harvest a bushel of wheat will remain many times higher than industrial production costs even as hydrocarbon energy becomes more dear. Like it or
not, grains remain the primary source of food carbohydrates. Man does not live by lettuce and
carrots alone."

The steps that we need to take, I will argue run counter to economic interests. Who gets paid for
remineralizing versus raping the soil? Who gets paid to not abuse animals versus incentives to abuse
animals which corporate agri-business does? Farmers markets generally provide too small a window of opportunity for the farmer to earn a keep. Consider the number of customers that they can service and the amount of produce that they need to sell in that time frame. To gain a real perspective on why you don't want to be trying to eek out a living from farming. This is a collective problem and why the cheap food policies are working to drive out the competition. At the end of the drive comes very expensive poison marketed as food.

ljr said:
"As a result, I believe we will see grain prices decline in the near future. This is temporary but the decline could be significant."

This will remain to be seen but I suspect that you are mistaken about this. The last time that wheat
exceeded $4. a bushel was in 72 and Dec 17 future trading had wheat break the $10. a bushel level.
Ethanol production is being ramped up and is profitable with corn at something like $6 a bushel if oil
remains above $90. a barrel.

If China, or India for that matter, faces droughts it will take some of its new found hard currency and come to the market for grain. If this happens I suspect north americans would be in shock what this would do to the price of bread. I agree with you (ljr) that consumers fail to recognize that agricultural revenue is so abismal that most won't understand that high prices won't address supply problems. But probably for the first time in 50 years bring about the realization that we are biological beings and that we are not in some Star trek post agricultural world where the machines will respond to commands like: "Earl grey, tea, hot"

C.S.A.s and food co/ops appear to be two models that can work. Though after crop failure most c.s.a.
consumers decide that they want the farmer to bear that risk. Which leaves co/ops and home delivery
models as the only model that from my perspective appears profitable.

People want quality, but don't want to pay for it (who doesn't want quality for free?). Trying to educate the masses that the north american cheap food policy was really designed to wield control away from small farmers and direct it to a small group of winners has failed.

The problem with farming is that you don't sell the sizzle you sell the steak.

JMG said:" These and others partake of the basic logic of bargaining: we promise to mend our ways in some sufficiently large, loud, and colorful fashion that the wolf at the door will be satisfied with the puppy biscuit we throw its way, and let us go on with our lives."

The wolf is never satisfied so let the negotiations begin.

Danby said...

If you're going to denigrate the Catholic Church, or any other Faith, please take the trouble to understand the point you're criticizing.

marielar said...

I am backtracking to an earlier post at the end of 2007 because of its strong, albeight not glaringly obvious, with the present topic.

"There are still crucial issues to consider and work to be done, but the raw resilience of a billion-year-old biosphere that has shrugged off ice ages and asteroid impacts is a powerful ally."

While it is true that the biosphere survived, many, many species did not. There were some fair chunks of time when the composition of gases in the atmosphere was, to put it mildly, not very congenial to organisms which rely on the combo photosynthesis and Krebbs cycle.
One of the premises on which the descent scenario outlined on this blog is that the mix of gases the more evolved lifeforms depend on wont be affected too drastically. That is far from obvious. Many plausible outcomes (anoxic ocean)of recent climatic models point toward massive releases in the atmosphere of hydrogen sulfide and methane. Its good news if you are an archaea, not so if you belong to the eucaryots. In not so many words, the on-going spewing of greenhouse gases may well give a whole new meaning to the latin expression "Tabula rasa". It may be construed as some new take on the Armagedon story. Yet, when looking at the geological history of Earth in the light of recent data, its is a possibility which cant be dismissed that easily.

Now, what does it have to do with composting? Well, composting offers a methaphor for the possible switch from an atmosphere designed for lifeforms thriving in the present chemosphere, to one suited for others working along very different metabolic pathways. One of those days, its most probable that while engrossed in the task of composting, the reader will stumble upon an innocent pile which turned all anaerobic on its caretaker. To put it mildly, its a messy, stinky, slimy affair. Many beginners are so disgusted they turn their back on composting and find a past-time more begnin like origami. In any case, an anaerobic pile is among the best meditation subject to come to grasp what Earth would look like if the balance of gases was to shift in favor of Archeae. Just mentally scale the pile to the size of the planet...

Now, somebody mentioned sheet mulching. Sheet mulching can also involved some kind of transportation. The difference being that composting reduce the volume of material to be transported by 80%. My take is that it is not better or worst than composting. Its a tool, and it depends on what you want to do, what material you got, what space you have. Sheet mulching does not give the heat aerobic composting does. So, for a gardener who looks to extend its growing season, using that heat to warn coldframe may be a better use. As well, if some feedstocks are animal or fish wastes, you dont want them scatter all around attracting scavengers and rodents.

Last, I would like to answer some points on grain production made by ljr. For one, I do beleive the decentralization of grain production is not just an economic affair, its as well a matter of food safety and a step toward reducing our energy consumption. One thing not mentioned is that the price of a modern combine is way above 100K$, it is massive capital investment. As well, it relies on a distribution system which gobbles fuel in gargantuesque quantity. As it stands, it is economical FOR THE CONSUMMER because it is highly subsidized and farmers are paid way below parity. Industrialization has destroyed the local infrastructure for grain production, transformation and transportation. That infrastructure wont get rebuild in the blink of an eyes because it happens when need it. Already it is difficult to get one hands on varieties which are adapted for local conditions. Those varieties took hundred of years of selection by skilled breeders. To believe that on the spot, when resources are lacking, it will be possible to get toguether skilled teamsters, farmers, mill workers, to build water or wind mills, to breed and train enough draft horses is preposterous. Growing asparagus which fetch a premium is not a bad idea per se. But to neglect staples because they are cheap is not a good idea. If one cant grow cereal or pulse, the least is to buy local as much as possible to get the ball rolling.

It is the weak link in most modern animal productions. Monogastric animals and working animals need grain. As we speak, many pig, cattle and poultry farmers are loosing their shirt because feed price are climbing steep. Its not that bad when it is factory farms which go out of business, but it is dramatic when it is familly farms because its is a whole group of people with the skills and the knowledge who become destitute.

In any case, I think when it comes to cereal and food safety, the Great Potato Famine is a a cautionary tale about what happens to people who do not control the grain production in a capitalist economy:
" issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries (England and Ireland) as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation"
Austin Bourke

In short, most of the grain should be produced locally, and most of the grain should be for people first, with some fraction set aside to produce high quality protein as eggs and meat and, workforce in the form of draft animals.

dZed said...

Great post, as usual, JMG. While trying to sleep last night, I tried to quantify the ills of society -- it's sort of like counting sheep, you know -- and the first one I came up with is our tendency to poison our waste streams, whether it's never-decomposing plastics, or the drugs and industrial by products that end up in our biological waste, and hence in our streams. In previous posts you've mentioned the older civilization's use of "night soil" and other things. A fantastic subject, I've think.

I recently read an article on "The King of Compost," Tim Dundon, who speaks more in rhyme than you, JMG, but you share an affinity for beards. The same article mentioned Ruth Stout's no-work mulching system, which I believe is a variant on the sheet composting method mentioned by another commenter. It's the future as much as it's the past, there's no doubt about that.

As someone currently majoring in Appropriate Technology, I feel I should at least comment on your assertion that composting heat has been ignored as an appropriate technology. I disagree that it's been ignored -- it's just very difficult. Attempting to harness a natural process that is definitely understood but is still extremely complex is quite the challenge. Heat inside a compost file, for instance, tends to roll around like a ball, where there can be fantastic temp differences between where the "ball" is and where it is not. And, obviously, knowing for certain where your heat is is key to making use of it. There have been some fantastic studies done on the matter, including several master's thesis I've seen, but the conclusion always seems to be: It can be done, but boy is it hard.

Frankly, if you're attempting to maximize all inputs and outputs for something like that, I think it's more sensible to move from an aerobic to an anaerobic process, and use methane digesters to create fertilizer and a useful natural gas that can be used to heat, cook, or light with. The end product is a slurry that has it's own complications -- keeping it where you want it and not where you don't, like in streams in rivers -- but the trade-off for two usable products instead of one seems like a valid one. This is a topic that's had a lot of ink spread in various appropriate tech works, and one I'm sure you're familiar with. They're easy to build -- I did it with a 55 gallon barrel, a trip to Lowe's Hardware, and a trip to pick up some pig manure -- and there are plenty of plans available online.

As usual, keep up the work. I've been recommending the blog to anyone who will listen. "Ecotechnic" is my favorite new word/concept in the past couple years.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

ljr, good comment. You are certainly correct that agriculture is not monolithic, though it is more so now than it was before the industrial revolution. I also agree that industrial grain production could conceivably absorb large increases in fuel prices and remain affordable, barring the loss of government subsidies. There are a variety of reasons that cereal grains are not among the more popular garden plants.

There are, however, alternatives to grains that are more suitable for small-scale cultivation. The most obvious is the potato. Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire offers a very interesting chapter on its history, and in particular how it supplanted grain crops in Ireland. One of the more interesting points he makes is that grains shipped well and were treated as commodities; potatoes did not ship well and were the staple for the locals. My feeling is grains will always be a commodity and that a genetically diverse group of potato plants could go a long way toward making many communities more self-sufficient than you contend.

Also, while I agree that corn production for ethanol is a boondoggle, there are many people, beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies in particular, who do not. One can only wonder at this point how much of our fossil fuel endowment that might otherwise be used to grow food will go to zero-gain production of biofuels instead. Those Big Machines are very thirsty.

Peter said...

We're just beginning to scratch the surface, or, turn the dung....excellent intro John to this vital homeostatic mechanism in Gaia's health...ljr-really appreciated your thoughtful and nuanced comments-they ring true. Not sure if it is still in print,
David, but an excellent book that puts compost into its' proper perspective as vital to health is Sir Albert Howard's "On Soil and Health". He was a British soil scientist who had much direct experience with composting on a large scale in India, among other places. I read it in '72, and it's message is still with me today-healthy soil is one of the keys to healthy animals and humans.
John, I trust you will soon talk about seeds-I hear different things about availability of viable strains, etc.

Mackrels said...

ljr said:

"A modern combine can cut, thresh and make ready for sale one acre of wheat (30 bushels) in ten minutes for $30 including depreciation and fuel at today's prices. Of that, the fuel portion is approximately $10. This highly labor intense step is performed for $1 a bushel. A reasonable estimate is that one person can scythe, rake and thresh an acre of wheat in a week of hard labor."

First of all you need to consider the whole process. Using modern methods, from sowing, to ready for sale takes about 1 hour human labor per acre.

Using only hand tools and human power, from sowing, to ready for sale would take 50-60 hours of labor per acre of wheat.

The question is why would anyone go back 250 years when they only need to go back 80-100 years.

Using horse drawn equipment, from sowing to ready for sale takes 8-10 hours of human labor per acre of wheat.

Even if we overlook the strong probability that buying power of an hour American labor is going to take a sharp dive, we still only need to raise the real cost of fuel by ten times it's current cost before animal power becomes competitive.

dZed said...

Back again: I re-found the website I referred to in my last comment which had the thesis I mentioned: Zak Adams's thesis, Biothermal Greenhouse Modeling. It's a lot of math, really, but there's a section on getting heat out of compost. It's part of this larger page, here:

Part of the University of Vermont with the (Dare I say) legendary John Todd as professor. I'm sure many of you are already familiar with his work with living machines, but he's done some very cool things just the same, and, apparently, so have his students. Scroll down to see a list of papers published under their umbrella. Some of it's relatively novel, too, instead of retreads of estimating solar or wind exposure.

Thought you'd be interested. Nothing better than trading resources, in my opinion.

Matt said...

Howdy John:

Here is something folks with little space can do with their compost and leaves: build a potato tower.

This guy uses hay and soil, but it works with just leaves and compost too. If you run a soaker hose up through the middle you can make an eight foot tower.

Dig your blog btw.

Matt (from the other Portland)

yooper said...

Ok John, I'll go with that. We're on the same page. I too see a sudden downward lurch and the population adjusting to that. Perhaps, we will plateau, maybe even see some recovery, before another step down, and then another, etc.. "Naturally", I'm still holding out that decline will be chaotic, you know this.

Danby, I really like your thoughts about people's generosity, however, if people just don't have anything to give, then what?

Perhaps, you're right about the crisis being largely economic..If we got where we are today, when it became ECONOMICALLY feasible to couple cheap energy to mass production of uniform parts, then you may have a point. Like John, I believe that the coming crisis will extent far beyond the economic sphere, as a consenquence of this decoupling.

Danby, when it doesn't become economically feasible to support the present population, the population must adjust. That is, when diesel is $40 a gallon, you cannot support a population of 300 million any longer. What you'll have is a population that can be supported by local delievery with a wagon and team. This is exactly an example of this decoupling. Now, I'm open to any ideas that you might have how we can support a larger population than what the horse and buggy era had, absolutely. I must say I really admire your lifestyle.

Towards that end, I feel grossly inadequate, never having a garden, compost pile, chickens, goats, etc., like so many on the post here. Perhaps, I'll learn something and actually give it a go, starting with the compost pile. Maybe, I can spend the money saved from having my garbage picked up, on heating fuel...

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...

Hello John, sure like you're idea, "the little steps that matter". There's simply no way I can become more self sufficient but by a step here and there, can't managed it in one leap, you know.

ljr, I really like you're line of thought here. I think you're right in thinking that foodstuffs will remain one of our primary exports. However, it's my understanding that the U.S., has become a net food importer. That is, at present, we cannot feed the exsisting population....

As industrail farming wanes, so will production on marginal land. That, is something to contemplate.

John Michael Greer said...

Good to see that things were lively in my absence! Just a few comments in response.

Shrimppop, who says sheet mulching and composting are mutually exclusive? I do both, and they work very well together.

Ljr, if you reread my post you'll notice that the distinction between different kinds of agriculture you insist on is already there. The big grain and legume operations will remain at least marginally viable for a long time yet; it's other parts of the food supply that will need to be produced locally in the next decade or so.

Bill, spot on -- for the time being, tapping the fossil fuel stream to build compost is probably a good strategy, but other ways to concentrate nutrients will need to be added to the mix as fossil fuels fade.

Vegan, you're using your crystal ball, I see. Humanure will be the theme of next week's post.

Dzed, so noted -- I simply haven't seen much on the subject of heat extraction from compost piles. Yes, methane digesters are another way to go, one that I'll be researching more in the months to come.

Mackrels, thank you for making the point I was going to make. Animal power is likely to make a huge comeback, for obvious reasons.

On to the next discussion!

marielar said...


First of all, I am grew up as a deeply religious person in the Roman Catholic Faith and was to become a nun. So, my view is not that of an outsider but of somebody quite versed in the theology and the history of the RC Church. Its no special knowledge that the clergy, for the most part, disconnected from the living roots of the Faith in their quest for temporal power. Recent history has been heartbreaking for the more progressive Catholics with Pope Jean Paul II trying to unroot most of the Liberation theology movement and many other developments coming out Vatican II. As a professional agronomist and as a farmers, I came to the realization that many of the metaphors in the Bible originated from deep connections with agriculture and pastoralism. Without a living context they do not carry the emotional and spiritual and moral content they should: the verb is not made flesh. This is where my comments come from.