Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pieces of the Puzzle

One of the more interesting things highlighted by recent debates about the future of agriculture after peak oil is the pervasive modern tendency to seek single solutions for complex problems. We had an example here on The Archdruid Report a few weeks back, when a reader responded to a discussion of composting by putting up a comment saying, in effect, that composting was a waste of time and we ought to be talking about sheet mulching instead.

For those who don’t keep up with the state of the art in organic growing, sheet mulching means spreading a thin layer of uncomposted organic material – leaves, straw, or what have you – over the top of the soil. This keeps moisture in the soil, keeps weeds down, and cycles organic matter back into humus to improve soil tilth and fertility. In dryland bioregions, in particular, it’s a key technique for intensive organic food production.

On the other hand, it’s not a panacea, and there are other bioregions where it doesn’t work anything like so well. In the part of the Pacific Northwest where I live, for example, slugs are serious garden pests, and sheet mulch is a slug magnet; if you use mulch early in the growing season, in particular, you can expect to lose much of your crop to slugs. Like many local organic growers, therefore, I use sheet mulching to overwinter the garden, from harvest’s end to planting time, and then dig the mulch under when it’s time to prepare the beds for the new crops.

Like many local organic growers, too, I also compost, and so organic material enters the soil by both routes. Different materials follow their own trajectories: kitchen scraps go into the compost bin, for example, while autumn leaves get raked up into heaps for use as sheet mulching, then finish rotting into humus once they’re turned under in spring. The two methods don’t conflict with one another at all, and the same springtime digging that turns the mulch under also works in the year’s dose of compost from the bin.

Nor are these the only options for closing the loop and cycling organic matter back into the soil. You can use green manure – this, for the organically uneducated, means planting a cover crop of clover or some other nitrogen-fixing plant in the fall, letting it grow all winter, and then turning it under in the spring. You can feed your kitchen scraps to chickens, rabbits, or some other livestock and turn their manure into plant food. You can use a worm bin instead of the usual composting methods, using redworms to break down the organic matter in place of bacteria. You can even borrow a lick from the appropriate technology movement of the Seventies, set up an aquaculture system, feed some of your spare organic matter to tilapia or some other tasty fish, and use the waste water, with its load of fish feces, to irrigate your crops.

Which of these is the answer to the challenge of post-peak food production? Put that way, the answer is obvious: none of them is the answer. All of them, and all their various combinations, can be workable responses to some of the needs people will have as they try to keep themselves and their families fed as our society skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak. Put another way, they are pieces of a puzzle; each has its place, but no one piece completes the puzzle by itself.

This same logic can be applied more generally. One of the continuing disputes on the end of the peak oil community concerned with agriculture is whether farming will continue to use tractors and the like, or whether draft horses will prove to be more viable. Both sides have good arguments. On the one hand, a large farm running tractors on homegrown biodiesel can keep them fueled by devoting 10% or so of its acreage to oilseed crops, while it takes around 30% of acreage to produce fodder for draft horses to provide the same amount of power. On the other, you don’t need a factory or its substantial inputs of energy and resources to manufacture horses – they do it themselves, with noticeable enthusiasm and no tools other than the ones nature gave them – and a properly fed horse also produces large amounts of excellent organic fertilizer, a significant value that tractors don’t provide.

Which is the best option? That depends on a galaxy of factors, few of which can be predicted on the basis of abstract arguments. If enough of today’s industrial economy survives long enough into the post-peak era that factories are still around to produce tractors and transport networks can still get them to farmers, that makes tractors more viable; if the industrial economy goes to pieces, chalk one up for draft horses. Issues of scale, crop, and climate are also crucial; the option that would work best for a 16,000-acre wheat farm on the Great Plains might prove disastrous for a 25-acre truck farm growing vegetables on the outskirts of a West Coast city.

For that matter, neither horses nor tractors have any place in the sort of backyard mixed gardens that had so crucial a role in helping people in the old Soviet Union survive its collapse, and may well play the same role in getting Americans through a similar experience in the not too distant future. The form of intensive organic gardening that, as David Duhon documented some years back in One Circle (Ecology Action, 1985), can produce a spare but adequate diet for one person on 1000 square feet of soil, requires only hand tools and human labor. Intensive gardening and extensive field agriculture are not the same thing, but both will likely have important roles to play in feeding people in the post-peak era.

I suggest that this same logic can be extended much further. Consider the ongoing debates about potential replacements for petroleum and other fossil fuels. To some extent, of course, this sort of talk is whistling past the graveyard. None of the proposed alternatives seem at all likely to provide the same combination of vast abundance, low extraction and processing cost, and protean flexibility as fossil fuels – nor is there any good reason to think they could.

The earth’s supply of fossil fuels, after all, represent hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy. Only sheer human egotism justifies the presumption that, after burning through that huge and thermodynamically improbable stockpile in a few extravagant centuries, we can expect the universe to hand us an equivalent in some other form. Much more likely, as I have argued here and elsewhere, is a centuries-long period of contraction and decline, in which we as a species must struggle to get by on much less energy than recent history has taught us to expect.

Whether or not this turns out to be the case, though, the mismatch between a civilization built on abundant, concentrated fossil fuels and the relatively sparse and diffuse energy sources available to replace them makes today’s bickering about which energy source is “the answer” an exercise in futility. Even today, coal, oil, natural gas, and other energy sources fill different roles in the overall energy economy; the future promises much more diversity of the same kind. Far more likely than not, the future of energy lies in a crazy-quilt patchwork in which each of the available energy sources is matched with its most appropriate uses by a process of trial and error.

The point that has to be recognized, it seems to me, is that nobody alive today has the least idea how an ecotechnic civilization – a society that can maintain relatively advanced technology on the basis of sustainable resources – might best be constructed. All the experience of the last three centuries has focused on the opposite end of the possible spectrum of technic societies, where you’ll find the civilizations that burn through nonrenewable resources at the fastest pace they can manage. We’ve followed that road just about as far as it can go, far enough that the dead end at its terminus should be visible to anyone who is willing to notice it.

Nor can we turn to the past for conclusive answers. The societies that existed before the industrial revolution offer hints about how sustainability can be woven into the fabric of human life, and warnings about the results when this fails to happen, but it’s only the most simpleminded or polemical analyses that define the task of our future as a return to the past. The resources available to us and the limits imposed on us by history and environment are different enough from those of past cultures that we don’t have that option. Rather, the challenge imposed on us by the predicament of our time is that of moving into uncharted territory.

In energy, just as in agriculture and in many other fields, all we have are pieces of the puzzle. It will likely take ruthless sorting and a great deal of trial and error to make those pieces fit together in any sort of meaningful way. This makes the habit of fixating on a single response more than usually useless just now, and makes it imperative that any option in harmony with the wider project of building a sustainable civilization in harmony with the biosphere needs to be taken into account.


Dan Bartlett said...

I'm glad someone has taken the time to emphasise this point of exploring all possible options instead looking for one fix-all answer.

Far more likely than not, the future of energy lies in a crazy-quilt patchwork in which each of the available energy sources is matched with its most appropriate uses by a process of trial and error.

Awesome. This made me realise that far from one large revolution in the next few decades, each and every community will be undergoing its own personalised revolution, resulting in millions of diverse, and hopefully peaceful, communities. Now, just to chose where to be at that time...

Joel said...

>protean flexibility

That's the one area where I think petroleum can be matched, and quite easily.

The tricks of advanced organic chemistry are applicable to bio-molecules, but in most cases it's easier to change the organism than try to process the molecules it makes.

The fact that crude oil is a mishmash of most every variety of organic chemical when we find it makes it seem versatile once we've gone to the effort of sorting it out somewhat, but a few different types of organisms (say, oil palm, flax, pigeon peas with lac insects, Clostridium acetobutylicum, and yeast) will yield a decent variety of different chemicals in easily-isolated forms. Most of the rest can be done from the byproducts of charcoal production.

Bytesmiths said...

I'm glad you don't exactly pit the horse against the diesel.

It is not necessary for diesel engines to be manufactured, it is only necessary that they be maintained.

You won't be able to order a part for a Kubota tractor from Japan, but a skilled local machinist will be able to make you one, for as long as 120 volt, 60 hertz power is available, via grid or microhydro or inverter.

Re-localization does not only mean local food production, it means local artifact production and maintenance. I expect older items to be more in demand -- I can fix a pre-integrated circuit, variable-capacitor-tuned radio from stuff in my junk box, but a modern, digitally-controlled radio may be trash when it has a problem. And a community radio transmitter is even easier to create and maintain from scrap.

Last week, you discussed the "regression trap," the notion -- and the fallacy -- that time and technology is going to revert, and start running backwards. I think there's a lot of truth to it, but we agree that it won't run backward exactly.

FARfetched said...

Of course I agree with the "pieces of the puzzle" argument — it's the same one I've been making all along. Except I used a basket (as in, a basket of solutions) rather than a quilt. ;-)

I've long thought that mulching and composting together are more effective than either one alone — mulch eventually rots as well, but its primary function is moisture retention (insulation is a secondary advantage, especially in early spring). Compost is more about building up the soil, or at least closing the circle… although one could use compost as a mulch, too.

As for diesel… Bytesmiths is entirely correct that diesel engines can be maintained for a long time. Unfortunately, much of the complexity of today's IC engines have to do with pollution controls and higher efficiency — make them easier to maintain, and they run dirtier and use more fuel. Steam engines may be a better way to go in the long run — they are simple to maintain (given a sturdy boiler) and can burn scrap wood that would cause creosote buildup.

Whatever comes our way though, any technology we want to keep will have to once again be designed to be user-serviceable.

Steve said...

Re: sheet mulching...

I garden in central NH, using my own crazy no-till "system" that I've developed over the past 15 years.

I learned the hard way that sheet mulching is definitely a slug-magnet here as well. What I do is simply pull the mulch off the beds at planting time, leaving it to the side. When things get warmer and drier as the growing season rolls along, I can just put it back on as needed for weed control and moisture retention.

I've had very minimal slug problems since I figured this out.

It's not as fussy as it sounds - as an admirer of M. Fukuoka, I don't "do" fussy. :-)

Bill Pulliam said...

"You won't be able to order a part for a Kubota tractor from Japan, but a skilled local machinist will be able to make you one, for as long as 120 volt, 60 hertz power is available, via grid or microhydro or inverter."

And, of course, METAL. Everything you list requires metals, of a range of kinds, to repair and maintain. Last I heard, copper, semiconducters (for the inverter), and hardened steel still don't just grow out of the ground...

Most people, when envisioning the future, seem to forget that the present was not exactly planned out in advance either. The world of today is a hodgepodge of trial and error, successes and disasters, arbitrary decisions, good guesses and horrible ideas. History only seems to have the arc of inevitability and the grand scheme about it because we look at it that way, through the filter of the myth of progress. History is in fact just billions of people muddling through one day, season, year, lifespan at a time, figuring it out as they go. I think it is a very safe bet that this is one way in which the future will be exactly the same as the past!

Christine Lydon said...

One piece of the puzzle, which seems to be an extra piece that doesn't fit the picture, is the large numbers of extra people, all needing food and work, as the economy contracts. I think There is a place for them - I noticed in last week's comments the fact that the large pre-industrial or ancient farms all relied on masses of slaves. We won't return to slavery-as-we-know-it, but we probably will have some new kind of work-for-your-food welfare system (perhaps until the population reduces or government collapses). If government disappears first, the people will still end up working the fields, but not on a centrally administered programme. I don't think everyone will want or be able to manage their own little separate plots, and some crops may still be best grown in fields, not garden-sized beds.
From Christine

Shrimppop said...

Stupid blogger comments! I tried posting a comment earlier but I guess it didn't take.

This is a great and thorough post. Glad to see you read and consider the comments.

As I mentioned, I'm in process of getting Permaculture certification. The multi-faceted approach you are promoting is very much in line with Permaculture principles of design: that every element should fulfill more than one function and every function should be fulfilled by more than one element. This leads to diverse, efficient and stable systems.

I didn't mean to suggest a single, panacea approach. I've been composting for years and I can never be bothered to turn the piles or spread the compost. Then too I've dug up parts of my lawn to turn into herb, flower and veggie beds and that is even harder work. Then I tried sheet mulching and it was quick and easy. I did this last August so hopefully the soil will be well-worked by the creepy crawlies this spring.

Sorry to hear about your slug invasions. I used to get them on my basil when I lived in No. California. I tried the copper strip thing, but who can afford that? The Permaculture books suggest a flock of ducks or geese to turn slugs into fertilizer. I haven't tried that, just read it.

Shrimppop at

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, the best place to be at that time is probably where you are right now; if not, it's wherever you have the friends, the connections, and the local knowledge to help move the transition along.

Joel, I wasn't talking about petroleum's complexity as a chemical feedstock, but its fungibility as an energy source -- that you can use it equally well for almost anything, from transportation fuel to electrical generation to what have you. Of course you can get complex organic molecules from biological sources...but try getting them in volumes equivalent to the amount of oil we're using these days.

Bytesmiths, you're thinking about the short term. Of course you can keep a tractor running for a while, possibly a long while, with modest inputs of material and the necessary skills. Over the longer term, though, if the economic basis for tractor manufacture doesn't exist, then horses become more viable, and technology becomes a craft product. Your analog radio circuits are a good example; any competent metalsmith could build a variable capacitor by hand, for example. (I'll be discussing this a great deal more when it's time to talk about ecotechnic communications.)

Farfetched, I'm also thinking a lot about the long-term possibilities of steam engines. As for user maintenance, the honorable old profession of "repairman" is, I think, due for a renaissance.

Steve, thanks for the tip! I'll try that next spring; this winter's sheet mulch is already underground, feeding a couple of regiments of happy earthworms.

Bill, exactly. History is born, not made, and it's just as inexact and unpredictable as any other natural process.

Christine, if you reread my post, you'll find that my model of the future makes room for large fields as well as small garden plots. As for the current population bubble, that's exactly as unsustainable as the financial bubbles it resembles so closely. Just as Russia, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, is on track to halve its population by 2100 via ordinary demographic processes, I think you'll find that as the global economy comes apart and hunger and disease become more common, today's population boom turns into a bust.

Shrimp, I'm planning a post on permaculture shortly, so stay tuned. The slugs are not much of a problem these days -- habitat reduction does wonders.

yooper said...

Hello John, you bet, building a sustainable society that is in harmony with the biosphere will have to be taken into account. Especially, if we're going to be here 100's of years into the future. It's hard for water to run up hill without energy, kind of like going against the grain, eh?

However, we've been doing just that for near 100 years. May I suggest that reliable, viable electrical power to be one of your, "pieces to the puzzel"? This vehicle that delievers the power needed to sustain this society, a society in which it(electricity) created, needs to be also taken into account. Ok, I'll sign on to your thought about this civilization declining for 300 years struggling with a lot less energy, with a lot less people. Without continous, reliable power, there will be a lot less, sooner than later, regardless of how much fossil fuel there is.

Back on the farm, there is a John Deere diesel powered pump. If that pup swallows a piston ring, can the machinist down the road reproduce this part? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Furthermore, I cannot wait for him to make it(even if he could. I'll loose my entire crop, waiting! This is ridiculous! That piston ring was manufactured within tolerances that cannot be dupicated by hand but only with machines running on hundreds (if not thousands) of volts. Once, electrification has been decouple from machines that mass produce uniform parts, the industrial farm is destinded to the proverbial "dust bin" of history. It's just not the farm either. At that point it's 24 degrees, the water is frozen. Believe me John, when I tell you, this process is not reversible. You might as well throw the pie on the ground and eat it. You cannot put it back together. Nor can you longer feed 6.5 million people either.

bill pulliam, is right when he suggested,"Most people, when envisioning the future, seem to forget that the present was not exactly planned out in advance either." Natural? Chaotic? I too, think that "it's a safe bet that this is one way in which the future
will be exactly the same as the past!" It'll unwind much the same way it was created....

Thanks, yooper

Thanks, yooper

marielar said...

I hope that the farm of the future will encompass the social progress of the last 150 years brought by the civil rights and labor movement. I, for one, dont want to see the return of slave labor and the wealthy large landowners (read parasits). The life of the peasants has pretty much been really cheap in the eyes of the ruling classes. The past was not this idyllic pastoral vision some entertain.

The thought of hords of landless people working as modern equivalent of indentured workers is nightmarish. This is where the issue of scale is so important.
I am quoting from the last Small Farmer's Journal (the absolute best ressource) editorial:
"We must do our farming small as the size of a man, as the size of his family. In this way it will belong to each and every one and it will be healty and strong."
Tedeo Ichiraku

There is a great need to make land affordable to small farmers and push for policies which make possible for them to make a living, and for land redistribution of the hands of large and absentee owners.

For most small farm (about less than 100 acres), the horses are by far the better choice. Its a question of return on the capital investment. A decent, versatile tractor is about 60hp and cost, second hand, at least 10k$ (the basic new one without bell and whistle is 30K$). A good draft horse is about 600 to 2000$. The implements are simpler, smaller, cheaper to make and easier to fix.

I am quite sorry to have digress into politics. But I tend to believe when discussing the future of agriculture, this is unavoidable.

albert said...

Growing your own diesel fuel is fine, but you will have to put in some Castoroil plants for lubrication.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, electricity is an important piece of the puzzle, yes -- and as the ability to keep the grids fully maintained and supplied with power starts to slip, I suspect a lot of rural areas will have to do without, or return to generating their own, as they did before the 1930s. As for your pump, spare parts now might be a good investment...

Marielar, the political shape of the future isn't defined in advance. I hope you're right, and people make the effort to rebuild a democratic society -- we don't have one now; we have a plutocracy that uses the castoff machinery of democracy -- but it's anybody's guess at this point.

Albert, a good point. Castor oil was much used as a lubricant for airplane engines in the First World War, so might be well worth further investigation as a cash crop for the deindustrial future -- if it'll keep a Sopwith Camel in the air, it might well be useful for other technologies.

yooper said...

bfqmiihhHello John and Marielar! Marielar, you brought up an important piece of the puzzel, property ownership. Sharon and I discussed this at some lenght over at BNB, last year. This is a touchy subject and as a "land owner", it would be extremely hard for me to hand over what I've worked so hard on. Like I said over at BNB, I'll be damned if I'll have people come over long enough to take a leak on it, then leave because the bugs are too bad. However, I've the mind, that nobody really owns land, the land owns you..

My great grandfather kept an excelllent library at the old house. In it was a copy of Henry George's, 1879, "Progress and Poverty". At the time (35 years ago), I hardy could see where this would be relevant in todays plutocratic society. However now, (and after Sharon's urging), perhaps it's time for a second look. I do like the idea that natural resource should be publicly owned as well as some other concepts, that sound good...

The arrangement on the farm was far from perfect, and I suspose the Henry George book was testament of that. This is a brutal land and rather brutal conditions come with it. Just like New York city! ha!

I can assure you this, no one was ever held there against their will. I believe for the most part, the families that moved there were looking for a better world than the one they came from. Then left, when they thought the world looked better somewhere else. As for the native Americans that labored there, they returned year after year to help build, maintain and harvest the crop. I don't think they were any different than I, who must labor to maintain my lifestyle........Of course, attitudes were different back then, just like people have different values of property or land, today.

John, you bet, we've extra parts but what about the next guy down the road? and the next? and the next? The farm will be viable in the future as water will be graviety feed, going with the grain, so to speak. Can't say that for my pals, they'll be out of luck as well as out of water.

One hundred acre farms? Why sure, that's really all we'll need because we won't have the population to feed as we wane into the future, as we do now. It'll be more localized, more horsepower, I suspect. This process or transition hopefully will be slow enough(in time) and is reversible, I believe.

John, you're probably right about the rural areas loosing power first, while areas that are closest to where the power is being generated, the last to loose it. However, this is assuming that this process is reversible. Well, it'll just have to be......

Thanks, yooper

J Rob said...

I think the hardest thing (and I know the numeric values from The Oil Drum) to wrap my mind around is the magnitude of: 1) our current fossil fuel usage; and 2) suggested alternatives such as biodiesel. It will be totally incomprehensible to the deniers and other ignorati / innumerati.

It seems these discussions always bring out an array of technofixes, including a boutique of biofuels which will never amount to more than maybe 1% of our current consumption rate. We are not going to keep patching potholes in the interstate, let alone keep 50 million gas guzzlers on the road. There will be a few electric vehicles, for a while, but that's merely another in the long list of too-little-too-late solutions. And it's so hard to even motivate myself to do anything ... and depressing to just watch the burbs collapse. Hasn't gotten to my neighborhood yet but I expect it later this year.

My yard is a riot of these little spring weeds with the round leaves and tiny purple flowers. Can't remember their name right now but it pisses off the neighbors. I'm starting a compost heap too, BTW. Mentioned composting to the neighbor a while back and he quoted a story about someone whose compost caught fire (they must have been putting grease in it, since biological activity slows down once the material dries out [Central Texas])... I'll see if I can get the kind of thermophilic activity going that makes the pile emit steam, at any rate. That'll impress the neighbors too :)

awlknottedup said...

Where does the figure of 10% of the land being sufficient to supply Diesel for a tractor come from? Are these figures based on just the oil production from a crop or do they include the amount of oil required to grow and process the crop? It is a complex issue that quickly gets muddied when trying to support an agenda.

Back where companies such as International Harvester were trying to sell farmers on what was called “Power Farming” they published figures that showed about half the land farmed had to be set aside for providence for the horses. Here you also have to include the horse energy required to grow and process the crops and several are required for proper horse care. Horses require many hours of care and the care must year round.
And most important of all proper horse care and operator training are very important and are in some ways skills we are losing. My father farmed with horses in the 30s and he told many stories about how much he hated it. When he took over the farm in 1950 the first thing he did was buy a tractor.

Tractors present other problems. You need a significant industrial base to mine and extract the metals, build and transport the tractor, and more important, supply spare parts for years after. I recently replaced the tie rod ends on a late 50s Oliver and the parts were available at the local NAPA dealer. There is a late 80s Belrus on the farm that is parked in the weeds because parts are no longer available

The balance between animal and mechanical farming is a difficult one to find. Even the Amish use engine powered implements behind horses and Diesel powered air compressors on the farm. For small home garden plots, produce fueled human power is more than sufficient. As the plots get larger more energy is required and unless we want to see the return of slavery or serfdom we need to find that balance.

awlknottedup said...

Building piston rings is not the hard part. A section of good cast iron pipe can be turned int rings. Oil control rings on the other hand would be more difficult. Many old engines have been restored with cast iron pipe rings.

Modern Diesel engines would be difficult to repair locally. Look at a modern injection pump to see many close tolerance parts made from high grade steel.

One item that is often forgotten is institutional knowledge. We will not forget how to make steel but may lose the ability to make some alloys. A blowing engine for a steel plant can be powered by steam.

Steam engines on the other hand are less complex and require fewer special alloys. Parts are easily made in a local machine shop. But steam engines though they may be able to use lower quality fuel are like any external combustion engine are inefficient.

Stephen Heyer said...

You know, sitting out here at the edge of the world (Australia) with an acutely remembered life stretching back to just after WWII, remembering detailed and vibrant accounts by parents and grandparents stretching back to pioneering days, I am struck by how much the thinking of many people on this blog seems to be shaped by their USA centric view of the world.

I suppose that is natural enough, most of the folk contributing do come from the USA and “living” memory does for most only stretch back to WWII when the USA was already THE industrial superpower that had perfected mass production on a vast scale. I suppose coming from that background it is hard to imagine other ways of achieving modern, wealthy, technological societies.

Australia went into and fought WWII with much of its manufacturing done by batch processing in machine shops attached to cities with populations in some cases as low as tens of thousands, rather than millions.

These cities and their machine shops were able to generate their own power, organize their telecommunications, manufacture diesel and steam engines and still make a sizable manufacturing contribution to the war effort. Being aware of this gives one a very different idea of what is possible “post collapse”.


It isn’t a matter of we could do it again, rather, we could do it a lot better and at very modest scales of social organization.

To begin with, batch processing has been developed to the point where it is sometimes competitive with mass production: I remember reading some years ago about Volvo using it some car assembly plants because the workers preferred it.

Likewise, modern casting techniques now allow the direct casting of complex parts so precisely that they need little final engineering and their metallurgical properties are vastly superior to old style castings. By eliminating most forging and machining and reducing the number of parts needed these and other advances allow small manufacturing plants to produce complex machines cheaply and with much less wastage of materials and a lower expenditure of energy.

Oh! And numerically controlled lathes and milling machines, another boon for small production runs, require only very simple computers of the sort we are always likely to be able to manufacture.

Note that the only metals needed are iron and if we want to be flash aluminum, abundant constituents of the earth’s crust we are never going to run out of. They are also, both, completely recyclable.

And then there is the whole sci-fi like technology of 3D Printing ( Enthusiasts of that technology claim their machines will be capable of self-reproduction. The process also seems inherently fairly energy efficient, though at the moment the most useful version seems to require fairly exotic metals and alloys.

In short, local production of simple diesel, steam and electrical engines, simple tractors, trucks, locomotive engines and rolling stock, small, coastal cargo ships and about everything else necessary for “modern” life, even simple telecommunications, is eminently doable, easy even, on the scale of individual cities and regions. Of course, no one region would try to manufacture everything, that’s what trade is for.

So yes, where appropriate brand new bio-diesel and steam tractors, solar thermal generators and parts for such will be available in just about any imaginable future, as will batteries. Further, being designed for long life and easy repair such tractors will probably “live” as long as a person.

With that kind of service life the energy used in manufacture becomes inconsequential.

Incidentally, I have personal experience of 30 – 40 year old farm machinery that works just fine. Once the current use-it-once-and-throw-it-away consumer society goes the way of Roman slave based industry I can easily imagine designs not changing for centuries (the “perfect” steam locomotive design is going on for a century) and individual pieces of equipment being immensely long lived.

Ditto for advances in efficiency and pollution control: Some will be transferable to “simpler” designs so the new design will be a “return to the future”, not “return to the past”.

To sum it all up, I expect that if there is a collapse the societies that emerge from it will be a strange (to us) mix of old and current, as well as technologies we haven’t even thought of yet. Somewhere, there might even be the satellite guided ox plow doing an excellent and necessary job in some rice paddy on the side of a mountain somewhere in South East Asia .


John Greer: “On the other, you don’t need a factory or its substantial inputs of energy and resources to manufacture horses – they do it themselves, with noticeable enthusiasm and no tools other than the ones nature gave them”.

Except, except, that judging from my lady’s efforts to maintain a stable line of heritage breed chickens it isn’t quite that easy.

First, your breeding stock require being supported with considerable resources while they are “doing it themselves”.

Second, and this is where she has the most problems, if you are to avoid crippling inbreeding, let alone select to maintain and improve breed characteristics, you need a fairly large population to select from (I remember reading somewhere that for mammals 400 is absolute minimum). Worse, you really have to rear them to adulthood and let them reproduce before you select.

We are finding that long term this is beyond the resources of a single, or even a small group of breeders for chickens, let alone horses.

If, in the future, most reasonably sized farms finish up owning and breeding horses this will not be a problem, except of course for the considerable amount of land and resources horses require, even when not working. If not, then I suspect anyone wishing to use draft horses will be dependent on medium to long distance trade to bring in fresh breeding stock.

All doable, all done before, but not a no-brainer, no-effort option.


Before anyone thinks I’m down on horses and pushing tractors, I will relate a surprising thing I recently learned from a middle aged coal miner.

I’m told that as late as the 1980’s pit ponies were still being used in an Australian coal mine. Further, they were not some kind of heritage thing: According to my informant, who was a young man at the time, the horses were highly valued as being much better than machines for some tasks.

To begin with, they were semi-autonomous, self piloting objects (something half a century of heroic effort has only recently, expensively and poorly achieved with machines). They were capable of carrying out tasks with only general instructions and functioned better than men in poor light conditions.

Maybe, in the future, horses will prosper not in direct competition with machines, but rather doing things in many areas the perhaps simple machines of the future do poorly.

These horses were valued so highly that they were full members of the union, this of course being before unions in Australia were largely destroyed and the great transfer of wealth away from workers began. Except, that in Australia, unlike the USA, the transfer was more to the urban professional middle class rather than the wealthiest one tenth of one percent I read has got most of the goodies in the USA.

Even more interestingly, due to the peculiarities of the Australian “China resource boom” economy the advantage seems to have shifted back to skilled blue and grey collar workers. In other words, the big money is going to people who can actually do real, hard, physical stuff.

An empowered working class used to doing real things in the real world may just be an advantage if things become as “interesting” as John Greer thinks.

Danby said...

Stephen Heyer,
good to see a different perspective. As I see it, the issue with engines is not whether they can be maintained, or even produced. I've known enough machinists to know what they can do. It's the energy cost associated with building and using them. If diesel is $50/litre, does it make sense any longer to use the damnable thing? If it costs $20 to smelt a pound of aluminum, can anyone afford to buy the engine you build?

It's true that horse breeding is a bit of a black art. The good part is that purebred horses are not required for farm work. Here in the Pacific Northwest, farmers would turn European draft stallions out with the feral horse herds in eastern Washington and Oregon, and round up the resultant crossbreds 1-2 years later. They were referred to as "Northwest Chunk horses", and brought a fair price on the California horse market. They were known for easy keeping. Even in the highly developed horse breeding programs of the American Plantation economy, purebred horses were not used by most farmers for actual draft work. Mules were preferred for their greater heat tolerance and lighter feed bills.

great to see another SFJ reader in the lists.
Regarding the gains of social progress made in the last 150 years, I think what we will see is a great and burgeoning variety of social and economic arrangements. Some will be for the better, most will be for the worse. Eventually it will get sorted out by the pure mechanism of cultural darwinism. The patterns that work well will tend to spread and the ones that don't will tend to shrink. Over a couple of hundred years you achieve some kind of stability.
I do the think the whole New World Order paradigm of greater and greater societal centralization is over and will not return for a long time. One thing I am sure we will see in the short term is the division of the population into self-selecting ethnic enclaves. That's something societies usually do when under great pressure. You are right about the need to divest the land from the huge landowners, especially farm land in the Midwest. That, I think will happen naturally, when the industrial farms start going broke. ADM Monsanto and Conagra can only manipulate the system so long as they are making money. When people are going hungry so that American grain can be fed to the automobile engines of China, changes will happen, one way or the other.

Henry George was the first popular economic writer, and in the 19th century was the most widely read economic writer in the world. A succinct summary of his work can be found here and here. Both are admittedly from an Distributist perspective.

Ten hundred-acre farms will raise as much food as a one-thousand acre farm, if not more. The thousand-acre farm is not more fertile, not inherently more productive. In fact, the thousand-acre farm is only possible due to cheap fossil fuels. So, yes, there will be a lot more hundred-acre farms in the future than there are now.

The reason that some Amish, and most non-Amish horse farmers use engine-powered forecarts is simple. The only implements available to do the job that they need to do are powered by a 3-point PTO. Without a tractor, for instance, it's the only way to make hay into bales. Or use a 4' rotovator, or operate most mowers, or brush hogs. Some jobs are only or best done with the power available from an engine. Others, like manure spreading, can be done with ground-driven equipment, but the equipment is just not made any more.

Megan said...

I remember reading somewhere that for mammals 400 is absolute minimum

I'd look into this a bit more, as I think it varies by species. I've had a biology student tell me that for squirrels it's 12.

marielar said...

hello Yopper,

Indeed, land is a thorny issue. We are landowners as well, though we see ourselves more as land stewards. As such, I feel my responsability is more toward the animals, the plants (domesticated and wild) than to far away people who live in big city. The land could support more people living of it but I am very reluctant of sharing with or selling it to folks than do not have the same values than us. We made the choice of not pushing beyond our land carrying capacity and that it should support not only Homo sapiens, but a mix of wild and domesticated species, so this brings in itself a set of constraints a bunch of folks would not want to live with. For example, I would not want to have "community" members who are not convinced that there are too many humans and dont want to hear about population control and limit themselves to one or two children. Another thing that matters a lot to us is setting part of the land for the wildlife, which means that less of it is devoted to fullfill human needs. One of the reading that shaped my views is Harding "Tragedy of the commons". I tend to believe that private property in the hands of responsible stewards is a lesser evil than public ownership, until at least there is mutually agreed coercion on the freedom to breed and the freedom to consumme. Most liberals cringe when they hear about coercien and reproduction in the same sentence, but most have no understanding of ecology either. An ethic centered on human beings does not work in the long term.

Stephen wrote about heritage breeds. Breeding and maintaining a pool of breeders is not that difficult. We raise heritage cows, horses, chicken, sheep and rabbits. The most important is to work in coordination with other breeders, especially with animals which are big and reproduce slowly, such as horses or cows. IMO, it is also better to focus on the breeds which were, at a time, regionally important and/or locally developped. The modern technics of reproduction are also a great help as it makes the transport of semen and even embryos over great distances much easier. Its true that under 400 breeders, things are a bit on the hairy side, but it is still possible to rebuild an healty gene pool. It takes more time, and heavy culling is essential. Sometimes, you may need to crossbreed with another breed which is phenotypically very similar.

One thing which is true is that it takes quite a bit of skills and knowledge to breed. But when you get into it, you can usually hook up with old timers who mentor you. Heritage breeds present some difficulty because their numbers have been reduce drastically. But once you have the stock, they are otherwise easier to manage because most still breed naturally. So the thougher part is the matchmaking, finding good subjects and avoiding inbreeding. It is easier to find semen and breeders for industrial breeds, but they are typically harder to breed, some, like turkeys, require AI. For many reasons (low fecundity, long gestation...), the horse is the hardest one to work with. But when its a labor of love, it does seems so daunting.

auntiegrav said...

Just a couple of points on technology: There seems to be a lot of technofix discussion, but the bottom line is the usefulness and sustainability of each particular technology. Also, applying modern knowledge to ancient ways can have a tremendous impact. Imagine how much better the Egyptians would have been if they knew about fertilizers, compost, brix testing, plant breeding, etc., not to mention the winch and steel or kevlar cables.
We shouldn't dismiss modern high technology just because it requires a high energy input, either. Energy is available in centralized locations all over the world, but we use it for the wrong things. Instead of making aluminum for airplanes and food wraps, hydroelectric dams could be used for making silicon chips and steel.
Most of the energy crisis is really one of stupidity applied to wasteful living, not actual supply and necessary demand. (check out )some 90% of the resources we exploit are in landfills or in the air or water within 6 months. Not to mention the amount wasted in wars to get more than we actually need.

We have also spent the last 100 years replacing the 'drudgery' of labor with oil while also creating 'exercise' programs in climate-controlled buildings and vacations to ski resorts or beaches. A lot could be accomplished through creative manual labors, minimized consumption (all taxes should be consumption taxes and regressive), and migration with the seasons. Most of the states above the Mason-Dixon line should be shut down as far as mfg or government activity for 3 months of winter, instead of heating school buildings and plowing roads and destroying the water quality with salt. Why do Yankees schools take vacations in summer? That's just dumb.
Yellow lights, people. Think about the yellow traffic lights. Why do we have them? Because nobody wants to stop doing something we 'always' have done, even though you only need to have a pause between the red and green lights to get the same effectiveness. Our culture is one of clutter and waste, and it needs a good smack upside the head called The SuperDepression.
P.S. As for horses: good luck with that getting kicked in the head thing. Been there, done that. Even a pedal-powered tractor is better than having a stupid horse. They are a pain in the butt, they eat ALL YEAR LONG, and they were just a solution to enable using the wrong technology (the plow) instead of effective mulch/no-till technology. Solar power is better spent on something you can eat or milk or charge up.

Danby said...

Schools in the North have vacation in the summer because that's when all hands are needed for farm work. Granted, these days, in most areas, that's not a major concern, but as we wind down our fossil fuel usage, it will become increasingly important several decades into the future.

I would never recommend that someone who doesn't like or is afraid of horses have one, but horses are not inherently dangerous. I've had horses for twenty years, and while I've been bitten, thrown off and bucked off, I've never been kicked. That's because I would never keep a horse that kicked. I would sell him off, give him away, even eat him, but not keep him.

An awful lot of the trouble people have with animals in farming comes from the same stupid impulse; prioritizing some quality (milk production, size, coloration, growth rate, twinning, show prospects, whatever) over temperament and manageability. I have a simple rule. Never, ever breed a management problem. You just get more management problems.

About 15 years ago I bought a ram for breeding our sheep flock. He came highly recommended. His wool was excellent, some of the finest I've seen in this part of the country (our damp climate tends to make for coarse wool). He had won best in breed in the regional fair in Puyallup. I paid $350 for him.

When we unloaded him from the truck, he went for my 6-year-old daughter. I butchered him out that night. Most expensive mutton I ever ate.

Horses are useful for a great deal more than plowing. In fact, many of the horse farmers I know don't even have a plow. They do all their tillage with a disk harrow.

One of the best benefits of having a horse is their notoriously inefficient digestive systems. Horse manure comes right after rabbit manure in my list of great garden additives. Think of a horse as a way to turn someone else's otherwise wasted grass and small quantities of grains into high-quality fertilizer.

yooper said...

Hello John, all of you. Danby, thanks for the refresher course. I've read the two articles and perhaps these are also pieces to the puzzel. However, what keep ringing through my mind, is this an example of a linear model of thought? That is actually riding a plateau once this ideal is achieved? I suspose, the future might bring revolutions of continous change and no utopia, will ever be settled on.

Marilar, I agree, any feasible land stewardship must keep in mind of the wildlife that might reside there. Diversity? Where can this be found aside from people in New York city? ha! This is why I live in the land I do. I'm enjoying all this land has to offer, it's values and on it's terms, now. Perhaps, this is where Henry George fails? The riches the land has to offer here are masked from most of those living in New York city. Perhaps living in harmony with the land, is the ideal, whatever that might be. That would be a cyclic process, as the land is constanting evolving.

Auntirgrav, waste not, want not, eh? Great idea, about the school system, here in the North, going in the warmer months.....I mean if the kids aren't going to do any farm work anyway in the future... They better be real good at those techno fixes, that all I can say.

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...

Hello John, just came by your comment on Sharon's site. I can't agree more, perhaps we've lost our chance back in the early 1980's. Another wrong direction was taken in the name of consumerism.

But what really got me was when you suggested,"the time and resourses that would have made it (constructive transition?) possible are long gone." You've related this many times and I whole heartly agree.

Taking this thought one step futher and applying it to the concept of isolation in regards to extinction, this can have some grave consenquences. Here's a thought.

If this society is unsustainable, how much resource and time would it take to get to one that is? Now either this society becomes adaptable to this new environment that's coming, or we will have to find another sustainable environment with the resource remaining, in time, or this society expires..... So simple...

I just hope that a sustainable society can make it to an environment that is in harmony with the biosphere, in time and resource. It'll just have to...

Thanks, yooper

bmuldoon23 said...

>ecotechnic civilization

Actually I have been fantasizing about that for my entire life. I know how some pieces of it would work. However the modes of thinking have to change. As you have so eloquently noted people keep searching for monolithic answers to uneven problems.

My cynicism often gets the best of me because I work in the IT industry and frequently find people are looking for problems not solutions. This is in my opinion a side effect of being raised in such a consumerist society, where your entire existence is geared toward consuming things and expecting to be pampered while doing so. However that being said it has been my experience that such simple things as common sense and reasoning skills don't exist in large quantities.

The first thing an ecotechnic civilization would have to learn is how to build sustainably and think in terms of decades and centuries instead of in efficiency and profitability. Although it can be argued that those two points are exactly the way we should be thinking and that our definitions of common words have become corrupted by our greed.

There are some interesting and very usable ideas I've seen where homes and buildings are being designed with growing living trees. It is an advanced form of bonsai and grafting basically. Also why did we stop building with stone? You cannot find a more available, beautiful, sturdy, energy efficient and altogether recyclable material for creating structures with.