Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Next Agriculture

Archdruids take breaks from time to time, but the peak oil debate does not, and during my recent vacation a lively discussion sprang up on The Oil Drum about the future of agriculture in a postpetroleum world. The point at issue was whether today’s mechanized agriculture will remain in place, or be replaced by a new rural economy of small farms using human and animal labor, as the world skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.

Summarizing a vigorous discussion of a complex topic in a few paragraphs is a risky proposition, so I’ll focus here on the two essays that defined the debate, Stuart Staniford’s The Fallacy of Reversibility and Sharon Astyk’s Is Localization Doomed? Staniford argued that those who expected a nonmechanized, small-farm economy in the wake of peak oil were claiming that the history of agriculture over the last century would simply run in reverse, tracking the decline in fossil fuel availability in the same way it tracked the growth in fossil fuel production.

If this view was correct, he claimed, rising fuel prices would have already begun to push American agriculture in the direction of smaller, less energy-intensive farms, and this would show in currently available statistics about profitability, labor costs, farm size and the like. He then demonstrated that no such changes could be found in the statistics, and on this basis claimed that what he called the “reversalist” position had no merit.

Astyk, responding to Staniford, made two major points. First, she noted that nobody claimed that the transition from today’s agribusiness to tomorrow’s rural landscape of small farms would simply run history in reverse, and Staniford was therefore kicking a straw man. Second, she suggested that the emergence of a nonmechanized, small-farm economy in the postpetroleum future was not an inevitability, but a policy choice that Staniford’s so-called “reversalists” considered the best option in the face of peak oil.

Like many readers of the debate, I found neither of these positions really satisfactory. By the time I finished reading the comments, though, it was getting late, and I decided to round out the evening by pouring myself a glass of scotch and reading a few pages of a Gary Larson Far Side anthology. Somewhere toward the bottom of the glass I dozed off; I must have been reading one of Larson’s dinosaur cartoons in my last waking moments, because I slipped into a dream in which a conference of dinosaurs pondered the approaching end of the Mesozoic era.

Quite a few dinosaurs had already given speeches about the threat of global cooling. Several of them had mentioned that mammals, with their warm blood and furry coats, might be better off in a post-Mesozoic world. At this point in the debate, however, another dinosaur lumbered up to the podium to speak.

“This talk of mammals taking over the world is nonsense,” it said. “It’s true, of course, that the ancestors of mammals – the therapsids – ruled the earth back before dinosaurs came along, in the Permian period, before the earth’s climate shifted to its long Mesozoic warm spell.” This sparked a good deal of discussion among the audience, and the Tyrannosaurus rex who presided over the meeting had to display its foot-long teeth and growl to quiet things down.

“Nonetheless,” the speaker went on, “this claim that evolution will run in reverse can readily be refuted. If that were true, the global cooling we’ve seen already would have made dinosaurs become smaller and furrier, and that hasn’t happened. In fact” – at this point it nodded toward the Tyrannosaurus rex – “it’s clear that we’re getting larger and scalier all the time. There’s every reason to think that as the climate cools, and selection pressures become more extreme, big scaly dinosaurs will have even greater competitive advantages than they do now.”

At this point the buzz of conversation in the audience could not be restrained, even when the Tyrannosaurus rex killed and ate one of the loudest talkers. A few moments later, though, a bright light flashed through the sky. “Did you see that?” said the Triceratops sitting next to me, pointing toward the sky with the horn on his nose. “I’ve never seen a shooting star that big.” A moment later I was jolted awake by what felt like the shockwave from an asteroid impact, but was actually the Gary Larson anthology sliding from my lap and hitting the floor.

The parallels between Staniford’s argument and that of his saurian equivalent, as it happens, go well beyond the obvious. Both, strictly speaking, are quite correct in their core assertions. As the Mesozoic era drew toward its close, dinosaurs did not retrace the process that led up to the monster reptiles of the Cretaceous. In fact, important branches of the dinosaur clan – the carnosaurs that led to Tyrannosaurus rex, the ceratopsians that ended with Triceratops, and others – got progressively larger as the Cretaceous drew on.

These successful evolutionary lineages continued to follow their established trajectory as long as it remained viable. When it stopped being viable, they didn’t shift into reverse and shrink back down to the size of their Permian ancestors; they died out, and other organisms better suited to the new conditions took over. In the same way, Staniford’s assertion that today’s industrial agriculture will not throw the gearshifts of its combines into reverse, and gradually retrace its tracks into the 19th century, is almost certainly correct.

Staniford is also correct to point out that in a world intent on pouring its food supply into its fuel tanks, rising energy prices mean that industrial farming is becoming more profitable, not less. As a member of the Grange, I’ve had the chance to watch this from an angle that may be rare in the peak oil scene. Where the rest of the media bemoans rising grain prices, the Grange News is full of satisfied comments by family farmers who can finally make ends meet, now that their grain sells for more than it cost to grow.

Yet Staniford’s overall argument fails, for the same reason that his imaginary Mesozoic equivalent missed seeing the future in plain sight -- both rely on linear models to predict a nonlinear situation. In his essay, Staniford used the distinction between reversible and irreversible processes as a model for historical change in agriculture. The difference between linear and nonlinear change, however, is at least as relevant.

Watch a frozen lake melt and you have a seasonally timely example of nonlinear change. The transition from ice to liquid water doesn’t happen gradually as temperature rises; it happens at a specific point in the temperature spectrum, 32°F, and only then once the ice has absorbed enough energy to overcome its thermal inertia and provide the heat of fusion. A five-degree warming can be irrelevant to the process, if it’s from 15°F to 20°F, or for that matter from 40°F to 45°F. The same rise between 30°F and 35°F, on the other hand, can cause drastic change.

Nonlinear change happens most often in systems that have negative feedback loops which balance out pressures for change. In the case of the frozen lake, the main sources of negative feedback are the stability of water’s solid state and its capacity as a heat sink. Only when enough heat has entered the situation to overcome these factors does change happen, and when it does, the lake shifts from one relatively stable state to another.

The modern agricultural economy is a classic candidate for nonlinear change. The feedback loops resisting agricultural change in the modern world are at least as potent as the ones that keep a lake from melting at 20°F. The food production and distribution system is oriented toward business as usual, and the psychology of previous investment and the very real costs of retooling to fit a different model both raise obstacles to change. Monopolistic practices and the government subsidies and price supports that make most of today’s “capitalist” agriculture a case study in corporate socialism also give the status quo impressive inertia.

At the same time, if something is unsustainable, it’s a given that sooner or later it won’t be sustained. Today’s industrial agriculture, with its far-flung supply and distribution chains, its dependence on huge inputs of nonrenewable resources, and its severe impact on topsoil, water quality, and environmental health, is a case in point. As transport costs rise, fossil fuel and mineral reserves deplete, and the burden of coping with ecological damage climbs, industrial agriculture will sooner or later reach the point of negative returns – and as Joseph Tainter pointed out in a different context, that’s the point at which collapse becomes the most likely outcome.

Staniford has argued elsewhere that the energy crisis caused by the end of cheap oil will be temporary. He proposes that nuclear power and other technologies will sooner or later make energy cheap and abundant again. If he’s right, it’s possible that new energy sources will come on line soon enough to keep industrial agriculture from hitting the wall. None of the theorists he critiques in his essay agree that the approaching crisis will be temporary, though, and this latter assessment gives their argument compelling force: as energy supplies dwindle and a social fabric predicated on cheap energy comes apart, the pressures on the agricultural status quo will eventually reach a level high enough to force nonlinear change.

This is where the second half of Sharon Astyk’s argument comes in. She points out that many of the writers critiqued in Staniford’s essay see a nonmechanized small-farm agricultural economy not as the inevitable result of economic forces, but as a deliberate policy choice. If our existing agriculture could fold out from under us, they suggest, getting plan B in place is a good idea.

Now this may well be true, but history teaches that when ideology collides with economics, it’s inevitably ideology that comes off worst. The same trap that has blocked most proposals for lifeboat communities so far – how do you make them economically viable in the world we inhabit today? – lies in wait for schemes to relocalize agriculture that don’t take the actual economics of farming in today’s world into account.

Fortunately, there’s reason to think that economic factors will favor the rise of a nonmechanized small-farm economy in the industrial world in the decades to come. The best evidence for this suggestion comes, ironically enough, from Stuart Staniford. In posts about the agricultural side of peak oil – notably Fermenting the Food Supply – Staniford pointed out that the use of grain as a feedstock for ethanol is likely to drive up the price of basic foodstuffs so far that many people will no longer be able to afford to eat.

This is potentially a serious crisis, but it also represents an opportunity. Sharp increases in the price of food mean that food production methods that may not be economical under current conditions could well pass the breakeven point and begin turning a profit. To thrive in the economic climate of the near future, of course, such methods would have to meet certain requirements, but most of these can be anticipated easily enough.

These alternative farming projects would have to use minimal fossil fuel inputs, since fuel costs will likely be very high by past standards for much of the foreseeable future. They would need to focus on local distribution, since those same fuel costs will put long-distance transport out of reach. They would have to focus on intensive production from very small plots, since acreage large enough for industrial farming will likely increase in price. They would also benefit greatly by relying on human labor with hand tools, since the economic consequences of peak oil will likely send unemployment rates soaring while making capital hard to come by.

All of these criteria are met, as it happens, by the small organic farms and truck gardens that many relocalization theorists hold up as models for future agriculture. Already an economic success, especially around West Coast cities, these agricultural alternatives have evolved their own distribution system, relying on farmers markets, co-op groceries, local restauranteurs and community-supported agriculture schemes to carry out an end run around food distribution systems geared toward corporate monopolies.

As more grains and other fermentable bulk commodities get turned into ethanol, and food prices rise in response, such arrangements may well become a significant source of food for a sizeable fraction of Americans – and in the process, of course, the economics of small-scale alternative farms are likely to improve a great deal. The result may well resemble nothing so much as the agricultural system of the former Soviet Union in its last years, featuring vast farms that had become almost irrelevant to the national food supply, while little market gardens in backyards produced most of the food people actually ate.

If Staniford is correct and the postpeak energy crisis turns out to be a passing phase, that bimodal system might endure for quite some time, as it did in the Soviet Union. If more pessimistic assessments of our energy future are closer to the mark, as I suspect they are, the industrial half of the system can be counted on to collapse at some point down the road once energy and resource availability drop to levels insufficient to sustain a continental economy. If this turns out to be the case, the small intensive farms around the urban fringes – mammals amid agribusiness dinosaurs – may well become the nucleus of the next agriculture.


Bill Pulliam said...

My, you do have interesting dreams! I'm reminded of a sketch from "Mr. Show" featuring an educational film from 1000 years ago on where facts come from. "Facts begin when a Wizard has a dream."

I can speak from first hand experience that here in the less affluent (okay, downright impoverished) parts of the U.S. local agriculture is not reliably viable from an economic perspective. No matter how much the working class (and SSI class) might like the idea of real farm fresh local goods, when it comes down to the nut cuttin' they buy what is cheapest. Local produce is a small "niche" market, and that niche is presently itself highly localized. This may begin to shift with higher food prices, but as this seems coupled to higher fuel prices and in general deepening poverty, it seems more likely that in poor rural regions the change will be towards subsistence gardening and barter, not the idyllic pastoral landscape of happy profitable small family farms that many people envision.

Disappointed at not seeing your name on the list for our little shindig out in these parts this year, by the way...

D. Lee Christopher said...

What are your thoughts concerning hydrogen fuel cell adoption in the agricultural community? With the adoption of this and similar technologies, couldn't we avoid these arguments altogether?

Antoinetta III said...

Due to the laws of thermodymacs, Hydrogen will always be a net energy loser. Even if this could be overcome, Hydrogen is one of these technologies that has never made it out of the lab or demo stage. It will never scale up in any meaningful time-frame.

Hydrogen, life fusion, is the energy of the future....and it always will be.

Antoinetta III

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi Bill,
In Australia, back in the 50s when food and fuel was dearer relative to wages (unlike the USA, many people did not have cars) backyard food gardens and a kind of informal barter was the rule. It wasn’t direct barter, more just that you gave your surplus away to your friends and they gave theirs to you.

I see a tiny shadow of that starting to reemerge, along with its commercial cousins such as the SPIN-Farming movement ( ).

So yes, I agree with you that this is a likely outcome.

Oh! And John Greer is wrong (sort of) in his argument that evolution does not reverse. It might not exactly reverse, but animals will quickly change size (in either direction) and behaviour patterns under evolutionary pressure. Sometimes, this sort of, from a distance, looks like retracing previous evolutionary steps.

If you really want to see this in action read up on animals isolated on islands. A good example is rats and elephants on Flores.

Of course, they had time: Whatever happened, and it seems more complex than a simple asteroid strike, the dinosaurs did not.

Lucky for us of course as beautiful Chinese fossils are showing us that the raptors were active, feathered, warm blooded, probably fairly bright and at least one, Bambiraptor, had functional thumbs. Given 65 million years head start on the primates in the race for tool using intelligence I suspect the primates would have been in trouble.

Panidaho said...

Thank you, JMG, for a very cogent "trinary" viewpoint!

Like Staniford, I also hope that we can quickly find some sort of high return alternative energy source. But even if we do and the entire world goes nuclear or uses hydrogen power (or whatever energy source is found) for running farm equipment, we will still have the issue of what to use to make the huge quantities of fertilizers and pesticides factory farming requires. So although having cheap electricity or hydrogen power would definitely be an improvement over not having it, it isn't the entire solution. The bottom line is, hydrocarbons are unique and extraordinarily versatile and they are going to be extraordinarily hard to replace. Any way you look at it, I think we're eventually gonna have to make some serious changes in the way we do things in order to keep growing food.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, subsistence gardening and barter is also very much part of the next agriculture. It's around the big west coast cities that small organic farms are really prospering; elsewhere, things will take different forms appropriate to local ecologies.

Lee, where is the energy to produce the hydrogen going to come from? It takes more energy to split hydrogen out of seawater than you get back by feeding the hydrogen into a fuel cell, remember.

Antoinetta, my thoughts exactly.

Stephen, convergent evolution is not the same thing as evolution in reverse. The pygmy elephants of Flores aren't much like the small critters from whom elephants evolved, either.

Teresa, you get tonight's gold star for catching the ternary logic underlying the post. Yes, a lot of the way we farm today will have to change; fortunately, the changes are already under way.

John Michael Greer said...

Stuart Staniford was gracious enough to send a comment on this post; with his permission, I'm posting it here.

He comments;

"I found it very stimulating. As always, you write superbly, and frequently have worthwhile insights - always worth reading even when I don't agree.

"Much of this essay I did agree with. I tend to the view that we are irrevocably committed to global civilization at this point, and we either find a way to make it kinda-sorta sustainable, or it's going to collapse. If it collapses, it will be in a wave of trade wars, actual wars, revolutions, etc, that will be extremely ugly, and no choices about how to cope will have better than low odds (the survivors being selected with a fair amount of random happenstance). A "predicament not a problem" in your terminology of some months back.

"However, I don't see that it's collapse is inevitable, any more than it's survival is inevitable. I don't assert that the post-peak energy crisis necessarily will be a passing phase, just that it could be if we act wisely. Fundamentally, it depends on whether we continue to make really dumb choices (like food-based biofuels), or puzzle our way through to better choices. Your petri-dish analogy was flawed because we really do have access to fairly high EROI energy sources that scale pretty big (solar being my favorite, but wind and nuclear having at least colorable arguments in their favor also). The question is do we deploy them fast enough (we already waited a long time, enough to have it hurt more than it needed to, but not past the point where conservation has no hope of getting us there if we get on the stick quickly now).

"But I don't see relocalization as having a tremendous amount to offer here (though gardening as a survival strategy for those on the margin - sure). To me the Middle East piece that Yair Wallach put out (and I guest posted on Monday) is a very nice illustration of the general dynamics that I think are at work. Faced with being reliant on an unstable Middle East for expensive oil, the first instinct of the US polity was to push for energy independence via biofuels. The effect of this is to put up the price of food, which risks further destabilizing the Middle East. Exactly what Ricardo would suggest would happen when two entities with differing comparative advantages withdraw from trade with one another - overall economic output is reduced - is in fact happening. And when output drops very much at all, people get pissed. If it drops a bit in a democracy, they start loudly demanding change, and electing politicians who promise it. If it drops more, and/or if there's no democratic outlet, they riot.

"Now, the relocalist impulse is the extreme case of the same impulse that is calling for the US to be energy independent. We want to not only be nationally independent, but independent down to the locality (however big that turns out to be - smaller than a nation state at any rate). And of course the effect of that would be to further reduce output, which in turn would destabilize more of society.

"So the protectionist/nationalist/relocalist impulse has considerable potential as a self-fulfilling prophecy I think. But I don't think it's likely to be the best possible outcome at all."

janne said...

Brilliant! I think everybody should read more Gary Larson. And more Greer :)

Laurent Brondel said...

"The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb addresses the issue of imponderables.
While not directly related to the issue of agriculture, he makes a point in the book that an increasing population triggers more and more Black Swans.
So there may be surprises, paradigm shifts, nobody can see with linear thinking. Like a sudden supply problem with oil and/or natural gas. Due to war, catastrophes or politics or…
Personally I think in the near future local agriculture may develop in marginal areas (I live in rural Maine) by necessity, or in posh exurban areas (if people keep their jobs in the "virtual" economy) because they can afford the organic/shmorganic paradigm.

AlaBill said...

I think there are two questions to be answered here...

1). Does the present system allow food production to become relocalized regardless of the price of industrialized food production?

2). If so, do we have or can we quickly acquire the skill set to produce food locally?

In the state of Alabama I cannot legally purchase raw milk from a farm for example. I cannot sell food labeled "organic" from a farm without complying with the vast amounts of USDA regulations in this area.

I see the governmental, bureaucratic establishment as a real impediment to the relocalizaton of the food supply.

I am personally trying to find a semi-rural farm for my family for the express purpose of providing a more secure food supply pending the peak oil crisis that is either here now or will be coming in the near future. To be totally frank, I am overwhelmed at what I need to know and what skills I need to develop in order to provide even most of my own food.

I grew up in a rural environment. My parents and grandparents gardened to provide much of our food. I said then that I couldn't wait to get out of there and not have to pick bean, corn, okra during the day and then help prepare them during the evenings. Now I wish I had paid more attention.

In the past few weeks I have aggressively looked for suitable rural land to move my family. Not one has had a present, working garden. Most have no water source other than the local water authority.

I currently live in a subdivision with rules and regulations that prevent me putting in a garden as that would be "unsightly" to the neighborhood. Many of the new neighborhood communities are now almost zero lot lines with no room to grow a garden. In short, I see the environment, especially the governmental regulations, as almost prohibitive of large scale relocalization of our food supply.

I'm not sure we are capable of weaning our society from the industrialized agriculture we now have. Maybe at most we can supplement it with personal and/or community food gardening.

D. Lee Christopher said...

What of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles already available on the markets in California? These don't seem to be futuristic visions, but are available for sale now to the public. And, I've seen some interesting plans for building home units for hydrogen extraction from tap water that are small enough to live in my garage. Is this just a pipe dream technology that many people are wasting precious time and energy on, or do you think this is a viable option coming into its own right now? Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to be the hydrogen bandleader here. I'm rather new to alternative energy technologies and merely trying to educate myself.

Bill Pulliam said...

The "hydrogen economy" seems to be a good example of the general lack of understanding of economic and ecological thermodynamics even among otherwise well-educated people. Hydrogen is a "fuel" only in the narrowest sense, in the way that a rechargeable battery can be considered a "fuel." There are no hydrogen mines, no hydrogen wells, no plants or animals that grow big hydrogen-filled bladders on their extremities. Hydrogen is just like electricity in that it is a means to transport and store energy, but is not fundamentally an energy source itself. It has to be manufactured from some other energy source. And, as with all energetic transformations, some of the original source energy is inevitably lost to entropy in the process. Hence, just like electricity, it does not have any affect on the big questions about where and how we will get our energy. This is true whether you are creating it by hydrolysis, chemically from methane or methanol, or somehow engineering a cyanobacterium that bubbles it out when exposed to sunlight.

FARfetched said...

I'm also pretty close to farming as it is today, so I can throw in a few cents and perhaps sound like I know what I'm talking about.

IMO, factory poultry farming is doomed. It takes an incredible amount of energy, including natural gas for heating (especially in winter) and plenty of reliable electricity year around. The recent grow-out ate about $10,000 worth of natural gas (for four houses, averaging 350' x 30'), pretty much eating the profit. I don't work for free (unless it's something I want to do, and chicken houses don't qualify), and neither should my in-laws, so I expect that they'll just shut the houses down next January and at least part of February, re-opening when things start to warm up again. You can imagine what this is going to do to supplies of fresh chicken if everyone gets smart and starts doing that. You can imagine that the winter shut-down will lengthen if natgas continues to get more expensive (and does anyone expect it won't?).

Local gardens are a different story. Sure, it's still hot & dirty work, but there's a satisfaction to seeing things grow, to seeing waste turn into compost, to being able to stir-fry a handful of green beans you picked five minutes ago… to tossing a handful of dried tomatoes last summer into your soup during the winter.

Stephen mentioned "informal barter" making a comeback in his part of Australia. In a lot of rural parts of America, that never really went away. A long-standing joke about rural life is that you only lock your car doors in August, and that's so a neighbor can't put two bushels of zucchini in it when you're not looking. There's a farmer just up the road from me who sells corn and melons in season; I'll have to see if he'd like to trade for some peppers this year. (Speaking of peppers, I discovered a volunteer in the pepper bed yesterday. Spring is coming.)

John Michael Greer said...

Janne, thanks for the vote of confidence.

Laurent, Taleb's book seems well worth reading -- it's on my list.

Alabill, the extent to which local and state bureaucracy interferes with gardening and the like varies drastically from place to place. Here in southern Oregon, backyard vegetable gardens are very common, and so are small farms supplying the farmers market trade. Those places with more restrictive regulations may not be good places to be as things tighten up.

Lee, you seem to have missed the point of my earlier comment, so I'll repeat it. Where is the energy to produce the hydrogen going to come from? All the fuel cell cars in the world won't do a bit of good unless you've got a cheap, abundant source of energy to manufacture the hydrogen.

Bill, my thoughts exactly.

Farfetched, a great many forms of factory farming are already on the edge of financial meltdown; it's primarily grain farming that's become very profitable of late. Might be high time to look into backyard chicken coops. Rabbits are easy to raise, too, and tasty.

Bill Pulliam said...

AlaBill --

It is true that you cannot legally by or sell raw milk or any dairy products (even cheese) from any producer who does not meet arbitrary (borderline oppressive) certification requirements. But, of course, if you live in the country, especially if there are Amish and Mennonites around, you can probably find a place to buy or trade for raw milk with little difficulty, at prices better than what you'd pay at the Mall*Wart for "certified, homogenized, pasturized" stuff of untraceable origin. Of course you then take 100% responsibility for your own health standards and have no legal recourse if it makes you ill; such is life on the frontier. At least you can see the cows, the milking shed, the storage fridge, and get it from the farmer's own mouth exactly what he feeds and medicates his animals with. Likewise, you can buy and sell all the fresh produce you need, but without government certifications. Same rules apply.

My point is that the present government run and supported system is an impediment to the establishment of "mesoscale" local farms, that produce larger quantities of goods for sale in commercial markets. But it is almost irrelevant to "microscale" agriculture, which is what you will find most prominent when you find your rural homestead in Alabama (I'm in southern Tennessee 40 miles from the AL line, by the way). And I expect it will become even more irrelevant if macroeconomic trends do head towards increasing regional poverty and unreliability of fuel and food supplies.

As an aside here, it amazes me that I cannot sell homemade cheese from homegrown milk, but I CAN sell homegrown and hand processed raw poultry with no inspections or certifications at all. The current licensing, inspection, and certification system is arbitrary and driven more by producer lobbies than by actual common sense and safety issues.

Farfetched and JMG -- the thing to remember about poultry production is that even most backyard chickens primarily eat petroleum, even ones that are thought of (and labeled as) "free-range" or "pastured." An enormous task facing small-scale agriculture is to find ways to feed our animals from cradle to grave (or brooder to fridge) AND keep them productive without relying on feed made from petroleum-fed crops at skyrocketing prices. Unfortunately few small-scale meat and poultry producers are even starting to think in these terms, and many trends in "sustainability" are really just hiding the fossil fuel basis of production rather than actually reducing it significantly.

Food animals should eat things that people won't or can't, not the grains and beans they mostly get now.

D. Lee Christopher said...

What about powering a small hydrogen generation system using solar and wind arrays? And if not hydrogen, where's the alternative? Electric cars still require electricity produced from coal, among other things, and they would still be responsible for dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Of course, you could generate power for those with your own solar/wind array, and that might work. I'm not finding a great deal of information concerning replacing the petro automobile/farm machine with anything that seems viable. I must be missing something out there. What is it?

Joel said...

" a cyanobacterium..."

Or a photocatalyst...the ones I've read about need some electrical input, but much less than for outright electrolysis.

Electricity has changed the way we get our energy, because big hydroelectric and nuclear plants would not be practical without some sort of distribution system.

Similarly, much of the need for energy is transport fuel, and if better storage technologies can be made to work, the energy for transportation can come from other sources. It also allows a source like solar to be used even if it comes at a time when it is not needed much.

The great thing about photocatalysts is that they are likely to be less expensive and energy-intensive to manufacture.

Still and all, I don't expect hydrogen to be a major help in this predicament.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, in my experience chickens will thrive on a very varied diet, and people kept them happy and laying for a very long time before commercial laying mash was available in stores. Of course this has to be taken into account when planning the backyard homestead.

Lee, no, you won't find much information about replacing the current energy regime with anything that seems viable. That's because there is nothing viable -- not that will enable us to keep using energy as extravagantly as we've been doing over the last half century or so. That's exactly the problem peak oil poses.

Using sun and wind to generate hydrogen is a case in point. Can you do it? Of course, on a small scale -- and you'd be better off using the sun for passive space heating and hot water, and the wind to drive a 12v system so you can run a couple of lights and a computer. Try to do it on a scale that will allow you to keep a daily hour-long commute in a hydrogen car, and you run into crippling problems of scale -- and equally crippling costs.

What very few people have grasped is that for three hundred years we've basically had a free ride, courtesy of millions of years of stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels. We won the biggest jackpot of all time...but now we've spent it all, and there ain't no more. That means reining back our expectations and lifestyles to the levels that can be supported on the very modest amounts of energy the universe gives us day by day.

Joel, photocatalysts are promising -- a nice way to multiply the effect of electrolysis by borrowing energy from the sun. Combine that with solar-generated electricity and you potentially have a workable way of storing solar energy, which would be a major plus. I don't expect such technofixes to bail us out, but any source of energy helps.

AlaBill said...


As I have been driving around looking for suitable survival property I have been amazed at just how few rural houses even have gardens for their own use much less for "microscale" community agriculture.

Why is this? Are we just too lazy to plant, maintain, and harvest a garden?

I myself wonder about the skills needed, the time required, and the timing of any disruption.

On another note, I have looked at land just north of the Alabama land myself. Some of it is really nice. It's good to know someone within "shoutin" distance.

RJ said...

People on the edge, that is, societies presently impoverished, will lose. Within the US, there is a great deal of wasted energy hardwired into our lifestyles. That wasted energy should be the first to go. The agricultural system may be given priority by our rulers, in order to prevent mayhem. In other words, gasoline rationing for most people to keep the food production/distribution network running.

The problem I have with some of the thinking around the energy debacle is just as Mr. Greer says, non-linearity. In other words, falling off a cliff. The secrecy surrounding energy depletion only exacerbates this effect to the extent that gradual conservation efforts aren't even considered. That's criminal. Our alternative energy policy is war.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG, about chickens --

Oh, absolutely, all our domesticated animal species were developed and lived just fine for millenia without the help of fossil fuels. It's just that now (as with everything else) we've all but forgotten any other way to do things. The breeds that are used and the way they are raised are all based on this. Once upon a time, not long ago, chickens were fed nothing but scraps, and mostly fended for themselves with free range of the farm to eat spilled horse feed, "baby flies" in manure pats, and a wealth of other weeds, bugs, seeds, etc. that abounded on an old-fashioned messy farm. But they only produced a few eggs a week for only half the year, and didn't have big fat white-meat breasts. Again as with everything else, present day boutique agriculture has not yet really addressed the whole sustainability of feed issue, still dependent on energy-intensive feed delivered to modern, hugely hungry high-calorie demanding modern chicken breeds living in alternative housing arrangements. This will change if it has to, of course. I can guarantee you that once Ms. and Mr. Homsteader are faced with having to hand-till an acre of corn (no rototiller, no ox, no fertilizer but hand-spread manure) just to feed their dozen backyard chickens, they will darn sure come up with an alternative way of chicken keeping REAL fast!

Bill Pulliam said...

Between Google and YouTube, I tracked down the Mr Show sketch about dreaming wizards:

Dunno if you want to actually post this as a comment since it is (a) kind of a digression and (b) probably a copyright violation, but I was amused by it!

Interesting on these comment threads how so many people seem to have their favorite technology or energy source that will "Save Us From All That." Maybe we should nickname them "SUFAT technologies." Anything to avoid figuring out how to live without millions of joules at our fingertips...

Bytesmiths said...

alabill wrote... "I am personally trying to find a semi-rural farm for my family for the express purpose of providing a more secure food supply pending the peak oil crisis that is either here now or will be coming in the near future. To be totally frank, I am overwhelmed at what I need to know and what skills I need to develop in order to provide even most of my own food."

Don't do it on your own!

The future lies in community.

Although I agree largely with JMG's rebuttal of Saniford's reversal theory, I think in many ways the future will be more like the past, and one of those is the basic unit of autonomy.

Pre-industrial, the unit of autonomy was the tribe, or community. People in a small group worked together for common purpose, often using consensus. People who wronged others repeatedly were "shunned," and it could be a death sentence to be beyond community, unless you could convince another tribe to take you in.

Upon the arrival of fossil fuel, the unit of autonomy devolved to the family. Tribes broke down, communities became simply places for families to live.

At the peak of energy use, we find the unit of autonomy has once again devolved to the individual. Individuals are supposed to be able to live on their own, sometimes with a spouse and family, but often with limited interaction, especially of the man, although two-job families and child care by strangers have made the woman a unit of autonomy as well.

We go through life as individuals, seated one to a car in traffic jams, building our career, having serial relationships with other self-actualized individuals, and finally paying strangers to wipe our butts when we end up warehoused in senior care centres.

I believe this must reverse, and that it should evolve back to the tribe, or community, as quickly as possible. I believe this enough to put all my life savings and investments into making it happen.

So Alabill, rather than be dismayed at all the skills to be learned in order to pursue a simpler, rural life, find others of like mind, pool your resources, and get a property that is big enough to make a difference. Study Permaculture, and/or hire Permaculture expertise to develop your site. Follow Alexandrian architecture ("A Pattern Language") to build in a way that enhances community, rather than exalts the individual.

Don't do this blind, though. Subscribe to "Communities Magazine," and study the works of Diana Leafe Christian ("Creating a Life Together" for those starting intentional community, and "Finding Community" for those seeking to join an existing intentional community.)

I believe it was Winston Churchill who said, "If we don't hang together, we will surely hang separately." I've seen the future, and it's in small, inter-dependent groups of like-minded people.

Panidaho said...

Interesting on these comment threads how so many people seem to have their favorite technology or energy source that will "Save Us From All That." Maybe we should nickname them "SUFAT technologies." Anything to avoid figuring out how to live without millions of joules at our fingertips...

While I "hope" alternative energy sources can be found, I'm certainly not counting on it. I'm spending a significant amount of my "spare time" learning how to do without those millions of joules. But if hoping makes me a SUFAT-er, well, so be it. I am just not looking forward to seeing full-scale economic collapse and world-wide famine. I'll happily take even a little bit softer landing if we can get it.

Robin said...

Maybe I missed the point, but Charlie Hall's balloon graph

seemed to suggest that there are no viable energy alternatives on the horizon.

Ecotechnic solutions such as engineered cyanobacteria and / or photocatalysis hopefully will provide solutions but they are nowhere close to general availability yet.

While the adjustments will involve "reining back our expectations and lifestyles", it may also involve reining back the population to a level supported by the technology.

Bill Pulliam said...

AlaBill --

Indeed, the rural South has been thoroughly suburbanized. The houses are suburban, the lawns are mowed and manicured and enormous, the prime outdoor activity is riding around your 5 acre lawn all weekend on your riding mower. At all economic levels, from the trailer to the McMansion, life consists of long drives in your SUV to far away jobs, watching satellite TV, and driving to Mall*Wart. This is indeed the way the majority of people in the rural and small-town South live, especially within 60-80 miles of the major metro centers. A friend of ours who chose to move from Colorado to Arkansas for similar reasons to ours (affordable land, climate more conducive to growing things, water that just bubbles out of the ground free for you to use, etc.) complained that she asked realtors to show her country houses and all they showed her was city houses that happened to be out in the country. I too was amazed on moving here how few people even maintained gardens.

But that is not the whole story. There is a significant minority who do actually live out in the country, rather than just pretending they do while listening to that suburbanized pop-crap that is passed off as country music now. Our neighbors to the south used to be a social-climbing real estate dealing couple, whose "rural" living consisted of sitting on the deck of their brand new ranch house shooting at the harmless water snakes in their pond. But they moved, and the new neighbors there quit shooting the snakes, planted a huge garden, converted 3/4 of their lawn to a hayfield, manage the land for game and wildlife, and got a couple of hogs. The neighbor the other way is an old-school hillbilly with mules, goats, chickens, coonhounds, gardens, and some other activities I don't ask too many questions about. Scattered amongst the hollers are in fact many people, old-timers and newcomers, who are immersed in just about every form of oldstyle and newstyle rural living you can imagine. We even have an annual alternative energy / bluegrass festival every June, which includes a tour of alternative homes. A new farmer's market facility is opening this spring.

So look past the suburban fa├žade, ask questions, do research, and you will find a whole stratum of people all pursuing the new rural life and new rural economy... whatever those might actually prove to be! It's a work in progress.

FARfetched said...

Bill: like RJ said, there's plenty of slop in our system right now, and we could eliminate it without much pain at all. Personally, I think that we'd all be better off by cutting 20% or so of energy usage out of our lives. There might be an initial pinch, but after adjusting we'd wonder why we didn't do it sooner.

There's a lot of little things people could do right now: grow a little food in containers or small beds (easier to manage w/o power tools), walk or bicycle to nearby destinations, turn out lights behind them… all stuff that doesn't make a huge difference individually (except perhaps on the power/fuel bill), but scales very well. Once people see the benefits, they'll be willing to take the next step.

yooper said...

John, you keep surprizing me, I think this article is just brillant! Sometimes, a little "dream state" can put thought together, as you have clearly demostrated here.

I'd like to add, I completely agree with you're assessment here. I'm going to reread this article a couple more times and comtemplate a thoughtful response.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...

BTW, there's a lively debate on this post underway over at The Oil Drum just now. Some very good comments (critical as well as supportive), and at least one very funny response, asking if I can cast a "control wind" spell for wind farms, and so on -- oh, and could I please resurrect M. King Hubbert while I'm at it? A nice tribute to the late Gary Gygax, in a way, to have the D&D stereotypes come out...

Bill Pulliam said...

Farfetched --

20% reduction? How about 50% in this generation, and another 50% in the next generation. Doable and probably obligatory.

bytesmiths --

I don't mean to sound as harsh as I probably will in some of the things I am about to say, so my apologies in advance...

The notion of finding a group of "like-minded" people to get together, go off into the country, and establish a community the same way you would plant a grove of pine trees in a vacant lot is an elitist urban fantasy. It seems to presuppose that there is nothing already out there but a vast wasteland, devoid of knowledge or community. This is, to put it bluntly, codswallop. Rural lands are already FILLED with people and communities with deep roots, intricate interconnections, and enormously varied mindsets even within one individual small town. Rural communities do not need tribes of suburban refugees armed with permaculture books and magazine subscriptions to helicopter in and tell them how the world really works; or, perhaps more often, helicoptering in, walling themselves off, and interacting with the lowly uneducated natives as little as possible.

What many rural communities DO welcome, is newcomers arriving with their permaculture books and magazine subscriptions who are eager to participate in the community that is already there, talk with and listen to people of widely varied backgrounds and diverse points of view, and become an addition to the community. Most of the time you'll find them more than happy to have you if you respect them rather than look down on them.

Urban refugees don't need to run out and build de novo community in the rural world. It's already there, old, established, rooted, and trying to figure out how to muddle ahead into the third millenium just like the rest of us.

marielar said...

Each time I read about small scale farming, I am thinking about my great aunt. Very early, as her husband became handicapped, she became the main support of the family. She had odd jobs here and there. But the one thing she had always going was her small garden. Every year, with minimal costs for seeds and a few handtools, she was able to add 2K$ to 3K$ to her income. She did not die wealthy, but she did ok. Then, there is my grand-parents. They had a general store coupled to a small restaurant. My grand-daddy had a huge vegetable garden and a small orchard and my granny was cooking all kind of goodies out of them. Her soup was famous and many passerbies made a point stopping just for it when they were in town. My granny taught maths when she was a maiden, and she had a gift with money. She would turn 1$ into 5$. Now, they worked hard and it took them quite a while to become financially comfortable. I believe her secret was to start small, with very low capital investment, be patient and re-invest a large fraction of the profit in her business. With farming, you have to realize that you are working with natural cycles and it takes time for the fertility to build up, for the plants and animals to multiply and grow. Basically, you live poor for quite a while, but you are building capital. Real capital, not just an electronic entry in some bank.

Here is a very simplified scenario of how natural capital builds itself. Lets take sheep. With two acres, in my region, you can support about 7-8 year round.
You start with one ram and two ewes. And you keep the breeders 4 years at 1.5 lamb per ewe per year.
year one: 2 ewe + 3 lambs (1 female + 2 for market)
year 2: 3 ewe + 4 lambs (2f + 4 m)
year 3: 5 ewe + 7 lambs (3f + 4 m)
year 4: 8 ewe + 12 lambs (2 females for replacement and 10 for market).
Assuming the initial breeders cost is 600$ and you get 75$ net for the market lambs, so 1500$ over four years. In four years, you made 900$, you reached your land capacity and except for the ram, dont need to buy stock anymore. It took 3 years to break even. From then on, each year you get roughly 750$ net. In the mean time, you had a fairly cheap hobby, fertilizer, free lawnmowing, fun and quite a few heartaches.

One of the thing which killed so many family farms is the over-capitalization in equipments which depreciate with time, such as tractors. People stopped relying on biological processes to built capital. They used technology to mine the natural capital. That, and consummers too willingly ignorant to figure that not all vegetables and meat are equal. You buy crap, you eat crap.

For those who mentioned how much skills, and how long it takes to learn, I am posting a link on Wwoofing, which is, IMO, one of the best way to start learning:

Since we are on the topic of skills, one of the most valuable thing is actually supporting the old timers with the knowledge. Those folks are getting fewer and far in between. If we could at least stop their number from dropping, it would be a step in the right direction. Theoretical knowledge is not useless, but its the tricks of the trade which makes possible to grow plants and raise animals. Those people are usually of a canonical age or too busy trying to make a living, their skills is undervalued by the system and they dont have time to spare because they work very hard for long hours. Thinking one can just pick their brain for free when the need arises is unfair. Most of the farmers (still worthy of that title) that I know are struggling just to keep afloat. More then often, the choices they made was simply a matter of economic survival. Most everybody took advantage of the ridiculously low cost of food but the farmers, who had to live according to the beat of the economy of scale or perish.

Frankly, I dont see relocation as a workable solution for most people because very few have tradable skills, unless they are willing to work very hard at tough manual labor, and this assumes that they are physically fit. What they do really well though, is driving the real estate prices to the roof and shortly after, property taxes, which makes farm survival that much more difficult. Two of the places I lived are now outpriced for farming because of real estate craze.

The bottom line is that urban people should, for the most part, stay were they live and fight to improve things in their own backyard, through community gardens, housing cooperatives, CSAs, political activism etc...From my experience, if country living is not a choice you picked up very early in life, you will make a nuisance of yourself more than anything else. Farming is not about one skill or even a few skills, its a combo of knowledge, experience, skills and physical stamina that you pick over a long period, usually starting as a kid. People underestimate what living of the land demands. For one, I do think its more than about your own survival, its about a love of the land which goes beyond than yourself and gets you through the hardships. Many farmers work outside the farm in order to keep the farm. Most of the pretty, well maintained working farms one sees from the road are either in the family for at least two hardworking generations, or bought of the shelf by wealthy people who can afford the initial capital investment and hired help.
If you are farmer material, you are already and have been for a while in the 4-H, participate in a community garden, have a woodshop, spend your week-end outdoors, train your dog for herding or other activity linked to gardening, raising or training animals or homesteading. If those things are not already a very important part of your life, entertaining the notion of returning to the land is unrealistic.

sv koho said...

What a pleasure JMG's blog is.A nice side benefit are the intelligent and some (verging on brilliant) contributors drawn to the site like moths to the flame which makes reading the comments almost as good as the original post.Why cannot these conversations be happening as a greater national Chautauqua of intelligent questions and comments within the media instead of being hidden like a pearl within an oyster in the briny depths of the internet? Oh how I will miss the internet in the futureif this national delamination continues!

yooper said...

Hello John! The "old school house", was secular and humanistic.
If those instructors unzipped out of their earthy bodies to reveal some kind of reptile inside, it wouldn't have shocked me in the least. So when they passed out dozens of photographs dipicting newborns with "gill flaps", hand and feet that were webbed, of course one would wonder would this nightmare would end. Little did I know at the time, this would be just the beginning.

I fully agree with you're thought, "These successful evolutionary linages conitinued to follow their established trajectory as long as it remained viable." When it stops being viable, they die-out. Could it be this way for "Modern Man"?

Furthermore, I have come to believe (through you're help), the crisis we're facing is not a linear situation. Therefore, any attempt using a linear model of solution, would be useless. Nonlinear change would not only be relevant, but required.

More later, yooper

Panidaho said...

Marielar said:
What they do really well though, is driving the real estate prices to the roof and shortly after, property taxes, which makes farm survival that much more difficult. Two of the places I lived are now outpriced for farming because of real estate craze.

That's something I've seen here, too. There was an article I read not too long ago about a man whose family had owned a farm here in Idaho for over 100 years. His grandmother was getting on, and the family wanted very much to keep the land in the family when she passed. But when the family ran the numbers, they discovered that because of the aforementioned real estate craze, the value of the land had super-inflated to the point that the taxes of various kinds that would have to be paid to keep what was already theirs and had been for a century would amount to more than the entire incomes of the entire family for their entire lives. Needless to say, the family has no choice and will have to sell most of the land when that time comes, even though they say they really want to keep it. To me, if this scenario was accurately reported, that amounts to extortion by taxes and it's just plain wrong. In addition, it takes a family who has lived on the land for generations, steals their land away from them and throws all that accumulated experience and hard work in the trash heap. Which brings me to my next comment...

Farming is not about one skill or even a few skills, its a combo of knowledge, experience, skills and physical stamina that you pick over a long period, usually starting as a kid.

And the people you pick those skills up from also started learning as kids, standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. We have lost an awful lot of practical knowledge capital in this country. Books help a lot, but not everyone can learn how to do things from books and you can't generally put everything you need to know about complicated subjects with lots of variables in a book.

Panidaho said...

Marielar said:
What they do really well though, is driving the real estate prices to the roof and shortly after, property taxes

A point I forgot to make in my earlier post: this is what is scary about "owning" land in this country. The value of that land is set by government entities, and taxes are extracted from the owner yearly for the privilege of "owning" it. If you are "lucky" enough to buy property that later acquires some insane hallucinated value in the lunatic real estate market, then you will have to pay taxes on that hallucinated value whether you ever see a penny of it in your pocket or not. And if you really think you "own" your land because you've paid for it with your hard earned money, try not paying your property taxes for a while and you will very quickly find out just who really does own it.

Doesn't bode well for those who just want a little bit of land and some peace to live on it. Unless you can manage to somehow scratch out a living on land so ill-favored that no one else would ever want to buy it. As bad as the real estate bubble popping is going to be for the economy in general, at least it may eventually bring property tax values back down to reasonable levels for those who manage to keep their homes.

D. Lee Christopher said...

marielar - "The bottom line is that urban people should, for the most part, stay were they live and fight..."

Bill Pulliam - "Urban refugees don't need to run out and build de novo community in the rural world. It's already there..."

I, for one, have seen both sides of this. I was raised in Mississippi corn and cotton country in a post-whistlestop community where every family knows every family, and it's been that way as long as the land has been farmed. And now, I live in uber-urbanite suburbia that seems to grow faster than crops themselves.

And they're absolutely right. I chose not to live that lifestyle and move into the city. However, I'm here to tell you urbanites that WE CAN make a difference right here and right now. As far as I know, I'm the only house on my street with a real working garden, and I've helped to form a co-op at my office (yes,office!) with other gardeners where we swap goods each year. They grow things that I don't grow, and I grow things that they don't grow. I count on them, and they on me. Ask your local restaurants for food grade barrels and create yourself a rain collection system using your downspouts. They're just going to trash them anyway, and if you have any questions, I can tell you how to set it up. You'll save a little money on your water bill, and more importantly you'll do your small part to save us all. I've found local stables just outside the city where I can trade goods and services for manure and compost, and most of the guys don't mind hauling it into town for me. They're more than happy to be rid of it, and I think they're actually glad to see some "city boy" wander in and be the one to take it.

Talk to your neighbors, your office workers, and your cubicle-mates. In reality, creating a community garden isn't that much work. God forbid you might actually learn your neighbors' names and faces.

Get your kids involved! I've never known a child that needed an excuse to get dirty.

Each and every little bit counts!

Bytesmiths said...

Hi Bill. Whew. If that's you trying not to "sound harsh," remind me not to run across you on a bad day! :-)

I would like to disagree quite strongly with your major premise that community is "already there, old, established, rooted, and trying to figure out how to muddle ahead into the third millenium just like the rest of us."

Perhaps there are pockets in the Ozarks on Appalachians where this is true, but most of rural North America has been decimated by flight to the cities, lack of jobs, and the industrialization of agriculture.

This is a huge topic, worthy of several books (which is why I cited a couple of the best), and I apologize if my necessarily limited treatment of the topic here ruffled some feathers.

I hope that I did not imply that you get a bunch of rich yuppy boomers together, pay an over-inflated price for some rural land, and go in and start giving orders to your new neighbours! Because it seems you read some invisible ink between the lines that I do not recall writing.

The point that I struggled unsuccessfully to illustrate is that, as JMG argued with Staniford, things are not going to go back the way they were exactly. I happen to think there's going to be a power vacuum when governments start to break down, a vacuum in which local, functional anarchy can thrive.

And I think that rural folks are clueless about this. Sure, they'll be of great help telling you what to plant where, or helping you learn to mend fences or build a barn, but I'm talking about Dmitry Orlov's third level of collapse here!

In the case of governmental or societal breakdown, the rural locals you so nostalgically wax about are going to be down at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy, scrabbling for their next meal.

So when you criticize that, "finding... 'like-minded' people to... establish a community" assumes that there is a vacuum for them to move into, that's exactly what I'm saying. There is a social vacuum in rural North America today that is growing larger by the day. They don't know yet, but they need outsiders!

Of course, the best way to get run out of town on a rail is to go in and start giving orders. That's why I mentioned Permaculture. Observe and interact! You should spend a year in your new location, networking, forging alliances, learning the ebb and flow of your new greater community even as you grow the ties that bind your intentional community. To do otherwise is to risk the label of "cult" or worse -- witness the recent documentary, "The Real Dirt On Farmer John."

You write that "Rural communities do not need tribes of suburban refugees armed with permaculture books and magazine subscriptions to helicopter in and tell them how the world really works." Again, I disagree strongly, and I'm sad that you choose such dramatic assumptions, which implies you were "already listening" to your argument before you digested what I wrote.

New ideas from outside is exactly what rural communities need. Of course, they do not need it shoved down their throats by superior beings, but they do need it, and in my experience, will welcome it, if properly presented.

It's a real diplomatic skill to make someone else think an idea is their idea, but if it's a good idea, it isn't really that hard, especially if you detach it from your own ego.

So I think we are in heated agreement when you write that "... many rural communities DO welcome... newcomers arriving with their permaculture books and magazine subscriptions who are eager to participate in the community that is already there... if you respect them rather than look down on them."

I'm sorry you chose to read something I didn't write, and thus got yourself "all het up" over nothing. Go and read Diana's books, and you'll better understand what I did write.

Bill Pulliam said...


I wrote from experience of what I have witnessed. I'm glad you clarified and expanded your first comment, because on rereading what you originally wrote I still see no suggestion of working with any larger community, just starting from scratch and building your own.

I would have to disagree that it's only pockets of land here and there where rural communities still exist. I live in one of Tennessee's poorest counties with very close to the state's highest unemployment rate. About 90% of the manufacturing businesses in town have closed in just the last 10 years. The age structure is heavily top-loaded; we feel like youngsters because we are under 60! This area has most definitely experienced the ravages of rural impoverishment from the forces you list. As for industrial agriculture, this area is not suitable for large-scale row crops, so almost nothing is grown here anymore. Once upon a time small farms profitably grew tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, mules, and many other crops for export. That all is in the past, and it became pretty much marijuana or nothing. So if this is not a typical sample of depressed rural America, I'm not sure what is. And yet the community here is actually expanding, strengthening, and diversifying, with both oldtimers whose last names match those of the local cemeteries and geographical features, and newcomers from quite literally all over the world. I agree there is a vast social and community vacuum in America, but it is deepest in the middle class suburbs, not in the small towns. If the mess really does come down hard, I think you will find it is the suburbanites scrabbling for their next meal and shooting each other for a can of soup, not the hillbillies.

Rural folks are hardly clueless about the fact that nothing that used to work still does; by this I mean such things as family farms and small-scale manufacturing. They are intensely aware of it. And they have the same access to TV and the internet as everyone else. They are fully aware of fads, trends, ideas, and real innovations. And they are making the same mistakes as everyone else: attempts at returning to the past ("We need the 4-lane completed so we can attract industry back to the county!") and quick fixes (e.g. tourism, gambling). Country folk are doing neither better nor worse than anyone else in that regard. The fact that you seem to think they somehow are less capable of figuring out what is wrong and what might be done about it than you are is what still sets off my "urban elitist" alarms.

On the point of gangs of "like-minded people" collectively forming a designed, intentional community, this is what I have observed on that front: A few of these succeed in the long term, but the form they take 10 or 20 years after founding is often quite different from the initial vision. But most of them fall apart pretty quickly. The fact seems to be that when the only bonds holding a group of people together are intellectual constructs, that is not usually enough to overcome the massive strains of hardship, personal conflict, and selfishness. It is just too easy to walk away when the going gets tough, and more often than not enough people do walk away that those left can't hold the operation together on their own. The members of true tribes are joined by blood, marriage, and a lifetime of shared experience, not only ideas.

And here we are, having gone off again into another of those great big universal digression traps -- community and tribalism...

marielar said...

hello all,

Lee Christopher,

I am sorry if I was not clear about urbanites and sub-urbanites not being able to make a difference. On the contrary, they can do a lot. One of the most efficient way to produce vegetables, the French intensive system (Marais) was developped in the outskirt of Paris.
Can total food self-sufficiency be reached in an urban area? I have doubts. Especially in places that do not enjoy a tropical climate with year round warmth and rain. You will still need high energy staples which stores well, like grain and pulse. Those require more landbase and farming, rather than gardening.

Even switching to an all vegeterian diet is not going to solve urban food self-sufficiency.
I'll put some numbers here as food for thought. I take rural China as an example because they have a mostly vegetarian diet. They consumme 250 kg per capita per year. Now back to North America. Conservatively, it takes about 1 hectare (2 acres) to produce 2 tons of grain. So, a whole acre to feed one family of four. But you need about 4 times that landbase because if you cultivate grain year after year on the same spot, you run into major disease problem (like rust) and your yield drops dramatically. So you gotta go with a 3 to 4 years rotation (same with potatoes, BTW) unless you are willing to drown your field with pesticides. Assuming you leave 3 acres in fallow, you still need some kind of cover crop or you will have erosion. Even one acre to plough (you need to break the sod after years in fallow), seed, cut, harvest and tresh by hand is just a very, very big job. You need animal or machine power.

There seems to be an all or nothing mentality rather than finding a middle road. I dont say it is easy to change municipal by-laws and turn those manicured lawn in vegetables plots and allows for some chickens and maybe a weaner pig. But it is no less difficult than farming if you have never done it. And it is definitely less capital intensive. The land is just one thing. Passed a certain number of acres, you will need equipment of some sort, that you rely on machine or animal power.

yooper said...

Hello John, I very much like you're example of the frozen lake scenario. Putting this into context with your thought of industrial farming, is very interesting. I'll attempt, to put this concept into context by describing conditions the family farm has endured the past 150 years. Perhaps, providing a vision of what the farm may endure in the near future. Has this farm cycled? You bet. Are we in that 30 to 35 degree range, now?

I fear, some have not gotten your excellent message here. I hope, this concept is not lost in explaining what may happen to industrial farming. This is the very best response I've read to date on this topic.

Back at the old school house, it was understood to not express an opinion, unless you could do so by using your own experience. Until then, it was best to keep your mouth shut and your mind open.

Thanks, yooper

Betsy aka 'the goat yoda' said...

Bill Pulliam-

It is legal to sell 'pet food' milk in TN, but it is 'NOT' legal to sell home processed poulty. You can sell the live bird and show the people how to process it, but to process it, put it in a freezer and then sell it later is verboten. Such is the gubmint's law.

As a TN resident and raw dairy producer, I've been watching the debate in Nashville about raw dairy in TN very closely.

Moving on-

As someone who lives close to the earth, much of what I see discussed here seems to me to be some speculation, with the exceptions of those who seem to be out there already 'doing it'.

Chiefly what I know is this- the sky is above me, the earth is below me and everything in between is a grand illusion. It does not matter one wit what man says or does since in the end the Earth will always prevail. I got my 'MBWA' (Managed By Walking Around) from Hard Knocks U.

All the 'other-power' stuff is great, the barter/trade economy talk is wonderful, but what I am interested in hearing about here is what folks are actually 'doing' about it agriculture-wise. The Cherokee have a saying- 'Where is your cornfield?'.

So, where's y'all's cornfield?

Danby said...

Well, I can't believe I've missed this discussion so far. Just my meat, so to speak. Still, I've got to earn a living.

Of course evolution doesn't run in reverse. The thing is, we're not talking about evolution here, except in the sense of an ecosystem evolving. If you think of agriculture, not as an organism, but as an ecosystem, the various forms of agriculture can (to some extent) be treated as species, and farms (or homesteads) as organisms.

The industrial farm species has dominated the ecosystem for the last 90 years. By dominate, I mean that it was able to out-compete other agricultural forms in pursuit of markets, productive land, and reforming the agricultural ecosystem to meet it's own needs.

The large-scale industrial farm has been around since at least the Sumerian kingdoms of the ancient mid-east. Although it is fair to point out that prior to 1800, it was largely dependent on slave labor, since the 1920's that dominance has been due to a temporary superabundance of; cheap and easy credit, government subsidy, and cheap fossil fuels. Without those resources, the industrial agriculture model can still be made to work, but is nowhere near as profitable, and would leave room for smart operators of other types of farms.

The important thing to remember about the collapse of the industrial farming model is that the loss of an individual farm does not imply the loss of the resources that it consumes.

I orginally had a long analogy here involving oxen and meadows. Rather than that, I'll just say that the collapse of farming that is coming (despite a masking of symptoms) will leave the land (although depleted) and the water and the sun. Hungry people will make a market. With those, crops can and will be grown. If one species,say a 2000 acre mega farm, cannot utilize the niche, another, say a village of Amish farmers, or cattle-worshipping Animists, will.

A few weeks back, our gentle host discussed seres. The post-industrial agricutltural sere will NOT look like the 1880's pre-industrial agricultural sere. It's circumstances and history will be quite different. But it WILL be built from the surviving species of that sere, as well as a few new species, and colonists from other niches.

Will horse powered farming be in the mix? Certainly. Will permaculture be part of the mix? definitely. But the mix will vary from place to place, based on the hard decisions people have to make to survive on their farms. Some will succeed and some will fail, but it won't be a monoculture again for a long time.

When will the collapse start? It's already started. The collapse of the housing market and the rising price of basic foodstuffs are both leading indicators and triggers. It will take a long time to transition out of the current system, and a lot of damage will be done along the way. Still, as John says above, the unsustainable will eventually stop being sustained.

Anthony said...


And now a moment of silence for the passing of Gary Gygax the creator if D&D. Which by the way is a great collapse pass time. It requires a social circle and very few resources except for imagination.

Anthony (former D&D business manager) Valterra

yooper said...

Ok John, here we go. When I first came to this site as you know I was a stauch "linear" thinker. This was the way I was educated. A linear model of thought. Pouring over graphs and basically seeing the world in black and white. However, I was finding myself alone in a crowd of nonlinear or "cyclic" thinkers, who I have the deepest respect for,(yourself included). Nonlinear or cyclic models of thought have been around for thousands of years, however was recently popularized by Albert Einstein. Even before I came to this site, I was questioning, am I missing something here?

Speaking of cycles, perhaps when you were using the frozen lake as an example, you were thinking more of terms of this present civilization which has lasted thousands of years, coming to a close? As our energy resources deplete and the consenquences of it, perhaps, we're nearing that 30 to 35 degree range when change occurs.

John, you have often described descent as being a downward slope, followed by periods of "recovery" to eventually lead to even further descent. Of course, you're suggesting smaller cycles within larger ones.

Ok, back to the farm. As you know this farm has been in existence for almost 150 years. It was started before the "modern industrial era", more like the "agricultural era" or economy.
Proff of this fact can be viewed over at my site in the January archieves under, "Has Progress Peaked?" The picture on top of this very short concept is a "pre-industrial" earth mover. This hand build, weak machine was driven by oxen and men.

During this era (1850's to early 1900's), the farm susported several "full time" families and 100's of part-time laborers. This grand operation brought the "produce"(I'm using that term very loosely), to markets in Detroit and Chicago by schooner ship (a ship with sails). The farm was much larger (in acres) back then, and only produced a fraction of the yield per acre than what is realized today, using industrialized methods. However, it supported more people, back then..... I'd like to make a connection of this era of the farm to liken to your open, liquid lake.

During the 1920's the farm began to see decline, as the "modern industrail" movement began in earnest. Men were leaving the farm to work at higher paying jobs in the cities. Just exactly, what I'm refering to here can be found in the archieves, "The Industrail Environment". It was during this time, the vastness of the farm was allowed to go back to it's natural state. It was no longer economically feasible to continue on in such a matter. I'd likened this era to the frozen state of the lake, and the point of change (30 to 35 degree range) was when electricity was coupled to machines producing mass quanity of uniform parts.

Recently, the farm has underwent another great change, only realized by using what was left from the industrial era, modern heavy equipment and cheap fuel. This will further facilitate operation of the farm in the future, when this kind of energy is simply not available or economically feasible. I'd like to suggest, this era is like the sun pounding on the frozen lake, when once again it'll be open, and the farm will return to the days of glory, once again. Actually, going full circle, or something similar to it.

Now what I'm suggesting here, will be extremely hard for you're readership to invision. Unlike most industrial farming operations of today, this farm, is actually being geared from reverse to foward. I am strongly suggesting, that right now, we're experiencing "a pause" period and a new direction or change will be realized soon. This concept can also be found in the archieve under,"Pedaling Backward, Going Foward".

"Localization" will only be realized when globalization, is iced over............

Thanks, yooper

FARfetched said...

Bill, I chose a 20% as a starting point, a guess at the amount of energy we use that is actually detrimental to our quality of life. Sure, we could (and will eventually have to) cut 50%, but that's going to pinch.

Farther down, there's the whole "outsider" meme. Yeah, it's safe to say that people who haven't grown up on or around a farm have no clue what it takes to make a living at it — even *with* machinery. If I had to give a newcomer some advice, it would be: start small the first year, wear gloves, and expect to hurt a *lot* the first week. It takes about that long to start getting in shape. After a month or so, though, the effort will start to become normal. Then it's just a matter of skill (which can be acquired) and luck (which can't).

Oh, BTW, in my first comment on this post (3/6), I said it took $10K of gas for the last growout. I have to correct that: it was $18K.

Danby said...

Once upon a time, a successful working farm was, like the estates of mediaeval Europe, not a business but a community. The measure of it's success was not the profit of the land owner but the prosperity and security of it's members.

With the loss of the nobility, we've lost the idea of noblesse oblige. Not that it was always and everywhere practiced, but the idea that the ruling classes owed something to the lower classes that were the foundation of their wealth is a salutary one. Anyone who's worked in corporate america can tell you just how dead the idea is.

My corn field is about 50 yards due south of me. We didn't get much this last year, after the horses, the llama, the sheep and the goats got in while we were out of town for two days, (not to mention the wild rabbits) but there it is. Tomatoes, potatoes and squash we got plenty of, but the corn and the cabbage took it hard.

Panidaho said...

Betsy says:

"All the 'other-power' stuff is great, the barter/trade economy talk is wonderful, but what I am interested in hearing about here is what folks are actually 'doing' about it agriculture-wise. The Cherokee have a saying- 'Where is your cornfield?'"

That's a very good question, Betsy. There IS an awful lot of talk going on, and sometimes I also wonder how much action is going on behind all the talk. (Not necessarily here, but I certainly wonder when I go to the Oil Drum and read the 100+ comments per post picking apart all the issues, picking all the nits on all the picked apart issues and picking on some of the posters posting on the issues at times as well...all I can say is I hope some of those folks are 1/10th as good at weeding as they are at "picking.")

As for our efforts to date, as I sit here at my kitchen table on my laptop, I can see all of our tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and onion starts growing until they can be transplanted out in early May under covers. If all goes well, we should be totally self sufficient on all these items this year.

I can see from here some of our greenroom, which is used for overwintering lots of warm climate fruits and herbs that are not winter hardy here. Pots of shallots on the window sills are providing us with green onion clippings and some salad growing in containers is nearly ready to cut again.

This weekend I am clearing out our cloche on the side yard so we can transplant some broccoli transplants I started earlier that are ready to go out, as well as direct seed underneath them with spinach and assorted salad greens. With luck, we will be at least 80% self sufficient on herbs this year, including making a lot of home-made herbal teas using mints, lemon balm, rose hips, raspberry leaves, various dried fruits, galengal root, lime leaves, and lemongrass grown here at home or harvested up in the hills.

In two weeks, weather and soil moisture permitting, we will dig and amend the garden with last year's compost, and start marking and raking out the slightly raised beds we've found work best for our heavy clay soil. I am planning to help my folks, who just bought a place last year slightly out in the country, to put their garden in this year. They have extraordinarily rocky/gravelly soil (ancient river bottom) so we're going to truck in some good soil and organic amendments and help them create raised beds on top of it. They will also be getting some of our rambunctious raspberry cane starts that I'll be cutting out of the garden path this spring!

I am using up almost all of our leftover hybrid seeds this season, and thereafter to use nearly all open pollinated varieties and save as much seed from them as I can in the hopes of becoming more self sufficient there as well. (I'm already an experienced seed saver, so I'm confident of my ability to do this.)

I am researching the possibility of moving into urban agriculture at some point down the road using a sort of spinfarming approach. I'm considering the potential for selling open pollinated transplants and herb starts, as well as winter and early spring greens which are hard to come by here. We've had a lot of success keeping greens growing over the winter under cloche systems, and I figure fresh greens in the winter is something that could have real value to folks in this high mountain valley.

In addition to growing as much of our own stuff as we can, and researching and planning to enter the local economy as a small producer at some point in the future, we are buying much more locally produced food items than in the past. I estimate with all we're doing and taking the local approach to filling in the rest we'll be eating more than 50% local by the end of the year, probably closer to 75%. Whether localization will eventually be what feeds us all or not, I figure we'll never know if we keep letting the folks who are already trying to make it as local producers fail before we even get to crunch time.

As for power, I can't say we're doing much yet. We are working reducing our usage, however, and I am also replacing high energy tools with human powered ones as I get the funds. I am walking more and driving much less. When I land a full time job, I plan to outfit my mountain bike with some electrical assist (for the sake of my aging knees on the steep hills we have here) and some large capacity baskets so I can do more errands, further away, under my own steam. I am also attempting to find work that is close enough for me to commute by walking or taking the local bus.

This area mostly uses "clean green" energy sources to create electricity - not fossil fuels - so we may last a bit longer than some areas when it comes to having affordable electrical power. We have a wind turbine manufacturer, a solar panel manufacturer and now, apparently, a biogas plant moving into the area, so hopefully our power choices will broaden out somewhat in the next few years.

Sorry for the long rambling post, but I hope it answers your questions about what we're doing in our own little "cornfield."

yooper said...

Danby, my ancestors were of English noble descent. A Scotish sea captain also went on this, "endeavor of vision".

This grand vision, encompassed two communities, in fact, the land behind those buildings in the black and white photo, when going to my site, was part of the farm.

Back then, the family would "set aside" land for other families who managed acreage of the "crop". Share cropping was what it was called. After enough of the crop was shared, these families would own their property outright. However, values regarding property ownership were quite different from what they are today.

As "noble" as this grand vision was, the family never accumulated money. By the time my father came along, the family fortune was gone. However, we're still here and the sacrifices both my father and I have made will ensure this vision well into the future, even though it might not include us.

It's quite the story....

Thanks, yooper

Lance Michael Foster said...

Of course evolution doesn't run in reverse. The thing is, we're not talking about evolution here, except in the sense of an ecosystem evolving. If you think of agriculture, not as an organism, but as an ecosystem, the various forms of agriculture can (to some extent) be treated as species, and farms (or homesteads) as organisms.

And that is exactly right. The thing is to look at the situation as one of those events where there is a change in the ecosystem, and there is therefore a challenge to the organisms that are a part of it. The key is adaptability and diversification...yes. The other part of the reality is that there is a population bottleneck, and some of us (yes, even we, here in this forum) will not survive the bottleneck.

So, be adaptable...
Diversify your knowledge base...
Invest in one scenario to your peril...
But in any case, enjoy life

Yes, who knows how it all is going to work out, we will do the best we can.

Some will be farmers
Some will raid farmers
Some will roam as entertainers
Some will be whores and whoremongers
Some will be hired killers
Some will tell stories
Some will be Sons of Trickster
Some will be woodsman
Some will be scavengers
Some will be...

But whatever happens, remember Ecclesiastes 2:24 "There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God."

Because in all the doomsday end-of-the-world scenarios, the reality is that one's world also ends when you step off the curb at the wrong moment, not seeing the bus...

Robert Vadnais said...

> ideology that comes off worst

Err, this read be "comes off worse"

Robert said...

" Already an economic success, especially around West Coast cities"

It is happening around many cities here in Illinois. We don't get the press that the West Coast does so it impact peoples impressions of what is going on and where. But there is much going on. The West Coast, to me, always seems like the capitol of the factory farm and it is certainly the most plastic and big-boxed place in the United States.