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Peak Oil and Food Debate

March 5, 2022

Resurrecting an epic debate that friend Manny and I battled for months, all over Facebook, some 12 years ago. Feels terribly timely today, though, with the world’s war rising, suspiciously synced to post-peak supply constraints, already affecting food production. Manny first published this blog article, kindly compiling highlights of our debate, although it was published without my permission – then deliberately deleted – but resurrected recently, thanks to archive.org. I now have permission to republish, and can finally include photos that accompanied it. Hope you enjoy it!

Tagging Manny as an ass carrying rice up a mountain resulted in Manny’s declaration of war…and the debate was on! (Photo by Jason Meggs, February 2010, visiting a subsistence homestead in Central America searching for hope and safe haven)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Peak Oil and Food Production – A Debate

The following is a combination of Facebook dialogues between my friend Jason and myself, with a few other people inputting also.

Emanuel Sferios – More interesting food facts: 1. All farm machinery combined uses less than 1% of US fuel consumption. To replace tractors with horses would require us to build up the horse stock to 250 million animals, or ten times their record number ever, which occurred in the 1920s. To feed this many horses would require 750 million acres of land, or twice the amount of total arable land in the US! So the next time you talk about horses being more “sustainable” than tractors for agriculture, acknowledge that such is only the case if you condemn 2-3 billion people to starvation.

Jason Meggs – i’m gonna tag you in a donkey picture mr. smartypants. not that i am doubting you, but, what’s the source? i sense considerable opportunity to debate…in either case we illustrate the precarious nature of a fossil fuel-based society.

Emanuel Sferios – Source = Vaclav Smil, ecologist and professor at the University of Manitoba. But there’s nothing controversial about the claim. I’ve read stats like this lots of places. The number of acres per horse one needs varies greatly depending on where the land is located. Anywhere between 1 and 7 acres per horse as far as I can tell doing a quick google search. So Smil’s estimate here of 3 acres per horse or therabouts seems conservative.

James Cohea – Fuel: we are not fucked on farms. It is very feasible to grow enough high sugar crops (not corn) to make alcohol fuel to supply the farms needs. Coops can be formed with other farms and enough fuel can be produced to provide alcohol fuel to at least a portion of the non-farming residents of immediate areas. See the book “Alcohol Can Be A Gas” by David Blume for more. He also teaches classes on this all over the nation and is expanding.

Gas consumption of farms: I don’t actually know, one way or another about the 1% figure, but I take Emanuel’s word for it. The larger issue is the amount of fuel used to manufacture and distribute the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbacides to practice what I term “chemiculture”. Additionally, fossil fuels are often contained within these fertilizers and problem controls.

Horses: Yes one horse per three acres. I have seen people put 4 horse on one acre and I think those people should be taken out and shot. (not really, but you get me). I’m not down with horses overused for labor, but they have been used in the past. One thing about horses and farms – in times past, farms were located within 7 miles of the city it was producing for. Why? Because 7 miles was the distance that you could afford to feed the horse to travel to and fro and remain economical solvent on the products of the farm…. See More

When I worked at an organic farm for 2 years, we did not use horses, but rather human labor. We had three acres, used permaculture and sustainable practices, tons and tons of horse manure we got for free, provided produce for up to 150 families with little more than half the land in production at any given time. (The rest was in process or resting fallow). We only rented a tractor for use when we were 1,000 man hours (person hours, whatever) behind – basically, 5 full time crew, one month behind in work.

It is not necessary to replace machinery with horse, but it is also not necessary to use machinery as much as it it used by the current agricultural model.

Lastly, referring to fuel use, the 1% figure does not account for transport of crops and animal goods from farm to store to plate on the table.

(other people’s comments deleted)

Emanuel Sferios – I’ve always wanted to understand energy. Nobody has it down as well as Vaclav Smil. Nickle you would love this guy. As for farm equipment like tractors, they are on par with back hoes and other heavy machinery in being efficient users of fuel. They do not have to go very fast, for example, like cars do. If we are going to be forced to limit our … See Morefuel use due to declining supplies, tractors are the last thing we should be replacing. It’s the trucking industry and personal transportation that wastes the vast majority of oil. As a farmer, I LOVE tractors. I tilled a half an acre once in a few hours with only two gallons of diesel using a small tractor. Try doing that by hand with ten friends and see how far you get in a month! If we have to use oil, using the small amount of it we do to easily produce food is a good use. (Incidentally, this was raw, un-tilled ground. One of the best ways to farm is to till once, and then never till again. No-till farming conserves nutrients and increases crop yields.)

Jason Meggs – Emanuel, thanks for the lively and informative discussion. When I suggested debating the figure it wasn’t whether that many animals would consume that much arable land (I’m familiar), it was whether that many animals would be necessary. James Cohea’s response hits it for the most part. And, I wanna know how they did the conversion. Energy/life-cycle assessment is a wiggly world.

At the same time it *is* counter-intuitive that tractors consume so little of the energy. Reading Keith Stewart et al’s “It’s a Long Road to a Tomato,” I was amazed to learn that he puts only 60 gallons of (presumably, subsidized red-dyed ag diesel) into his old tractor a year to run a highly productive 100-acre farm. That doesn’t mean the decline of petroleum won’t kill the billions you’ve mentioned: it very well could. (Not to mention climate change, stemming from the expenditure of all that tasty oil & gas.) There’s a lot more energy that goes into the current mechanized, long-distance food system than the tractors.

Speaking of which…… The biggest job in the world is weeding. By hand. When you don’t use (petroleum) pesticides, the job is much more intense. I don’t think tractors can help much with this, except in careful cases a chicken tractor. Different.

People get really quick with a hoe, but some of it, and harvesting, has to be done more carefully with fingers, stooping in the hot sun. I’ve fantasized about creating a bicycle-technology solution to reduce strain from stooping. It would be a little like a hang glider on wheels: ergonomic bike-hammock harvester/weeder machines (in this vision you roll along the rows by hand, not having to stoop all the time, lying over the plants in a sling). You’d creep along the rows, perhaps tossing the harvest overhead into a collection system. It could even have a shade structure. Again, not for mechanized big ag, but for improving the daily lives of our more sustainable farmers who struggle against…the grain…

Innovations like this, pairing low-carbon modern technology with small-scale farming techniques, are where I’d put the attention right now, not in reinventing the tractor; that and increasing the number of local farms within short reach of markets.

Emanuel Sferios – Hey Jason, yeah it’s crazy how much work can get done using heavy equipment and diesel fuel. Hydrolics are very efficient, and tractors never go very fast. Given that so little fuel is necessary, this is the one place where relatively minor government subsidies could keep the industry in place. Food costs would not have to rise very much with the rising cost of oil, at least as far as production. Transportation is a different story entirely. But even then, subsidizing *food transportation* will certainly happen before non-essential commodoties from walmart. People riot when they don’t have food. Rarely for other things (though if the iPods stop rolling we might be in trouble).

As for weeding taking the most labor hours, that’s certainly true, but be careful extrapolating from vegetable farms to the majority of farms, which are grain. Grains are not nearly as susceptible to pests as are vegetables, and grains are BY FAR the most important food crop. The three biggies (rice, wheat and corn) supply a whopping TWO-THIRDS of all food energy consumed in the world. Even in wealthy segments of the US, where we eat more vegetables than anywhere else (this includes me), vegetables comprise no more than 10% of our energy intake. Perhaps we notice when we eat vegetables more (because they are colorful and we also grow them in our gardens, etc.) but that rice we eat, or pasta, etc., is by far where we get our energy.

Point being here that grains are mass-produced using heavy machinery with just a tiny drop of diesel fuel (and they don’t need that much weeding or pesticides even, unless they are in tropical climates). But try planting and harvesting acres of grains without a tractor. It could with lots and lots of hard human labor, but only extremely ideological fanatics would advocate such a thing, when there’s no terrible problem with way we are doing it today. In other words, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s plenty of problems with modern agriculture, but labor-saving tractors are not it. (Soil compaction is NOT that big of a problem when tractors are used correctly, and the advantages are enormous… and again, VERY LOW ENERGY INPUT.)

As for small farms, everybody loves them (including myself) but realistically they could never supplant large-scale farms for feeding the population of the world today (and I am unwilling to advocate changes that would require massive depopulation… that is draconian and unrealistic.) Here’s how to think about it. Go to some of your Bay Are farmer’s market and count how many of the small farmers there are growing wheat. Probably not many. They are selling vegetables, for the most part. Add up all the calories consumed from all the Bay Area farmer’s markets and it isn’t even a drop in the bucket compared to the calories consumed from large-scale farms growing staple grains. Even the people who eat regularly from a CSA or from the farmer’s market only get perhaps 20% of their calories there (I know there are hard core folks who may eat only vegetables, but this is extremely rare). And small farms simply cannot compete with large farms in feeding us. It is pie-in-the-sky to advocate that people only eat local food. This is possible for a few of us only because so few people even try it. If lots of people started trying it it would quickly present itself as utterly impossible. Local supplies of carbohydrate and protein would disappear overnight, and we would once again have to rely on our midwest mega farms.

This is not to say there’s no room for improvement. The biggest area for improvement by far is how much grain we grow to feed cows so that people can eat meat they don’t need to eat. Then don’t get me started on how the Willamette Valley in Oregon grows so much grass seed. Certainly we could localize our food supply to a much greater extent than we have today, but I am no longer a believer in total re-localization as a practical solution. This change has come from my study of energy and food, when I learned just how much I and other “sustainability activists” ignored facts that did not fit into our idealistic solutions.

One of these was ignoring where our calories actually came from. How many proud permaculturists do you know who make claims that they grow X-percentage of their own food? 99% of the time these are gross exxagerations. Even if you grow ALL your own vegetables during the summer, you are growing only perhaps 20% of your calories. I’ve belabored this fact enough, so here’s another one to chew on (pun intended)…

Historically it takes 2.5 acres to keep five people alive all year round in tropical climates with year-round growing seasons using traditional, small-scale farming techniques. 2.5 acres is just shy of a football field. I did a blog post on this a while back. Here’s the [broken] link: http://sferios.blogspot.com/2008/12/what-permaculture-doesnt-talk-about.html [that link is gone but archive.org has it as well HERE: https://web.archive.org/web/20101019192354/sferios.blogspot.com/2008/12/what-permaculture-doesnt-talk-about.html and the PDF it references is here: http://www.sferios.com/docs/n2cycle.pdf ].. The point here is that it takes A LOT MORE LAND than people think to grow enough calories to support themselves. And don’t get me started on John Jeavons nonsense. Did you know he doesn’t even eat the food he grows from his plots, but rather composts EVERYTHING back into the soil in order to generate statistics that show how efficient he is in getting large harvests year after year? LOL

Ok I’ll stop here this could go on and on… Emanuel

James Cohea – Where did you find that info on Jeavons? I have my doubts about some of his methods and I would like to read about your statements on him. 16 times the yield – yeah right.

Emanuel Sferios – Jeavons is selling phony idealism to idealists. That’s all he’s doing as far as I am concerned. (I’m idealistic, but I don’t sell it nor buy it.) Same thing as those books that say, “Make $500,000 a year on one acre!” or “Grow all you can eat in your backyard!” I worked for a year on a CSA farm outside Portland, Oregon, and the owner of the farm … See Morewent to one of Jeavons’ week-long workshops. She was highly critical. “If you want to experiment with how much food you can grow in a small space,” she said, “that’s fine,” but that has nothing to do with actually growing a lot of food.”

James Cohea – Yeah, his claims have always been, oh how do I say this nicely, overly optimistic. A more realistic figure would be 30K per year off of 5 acres. Jeavons has also achieved 8 times the yield, at the maximum height of his experiment. That’s no where near the claim that he thinks 16 times the yield is achievable. I have double dug beds before but I … See Morehonestly don’t see the need to do it more than once, and only in certain circumstances. That’s not feasible on a larger scale. I do, however, find some education in what he does as I try to take the best ideas from all systems, and Jeavons provides a few.

My question, though, was not specific enough. What I was asking is how did you learn about him putting all of his crop back into compost? Is that what the Oregon farmer learned at the workshop or is there a source on that somewhere that I can read for myself?

Emanuel Sferios – Yes, that’s what she told me. And he does not advertise that. In other words, he’s being intentionally deceptive. I don’t trust what he says anymore about anything after she told me that. As for double digging (tilling deeply). Doing it once is important in clay soils, but after that it’s not necessary. You will only increase leaching. And leaching of organic nitrogen (from manures, fish emulsion, etc) is just as much a problem as leaching of artificial forms of nitrogen.

James Cohea – Ok, thanks for clearing that up for me.

I read something online yesterday that someone said you can’t double dig in clay soils and I was like “what?” that is exactly when you should do it. People have crazy ideas and that’s why I like to track down sources of info. I hope you don’t think I was doubting you, I just like to see for myself when possible since so much conflicting and just plain wrong info is out in the world.

Emanuel Sferios – How DARE you doubt ME! LOL. Seriously, doubt everything and everyone, especially me. I’m wrong at least half the time. I’ve found experience to be the best teacher. Mostly, doubt anyone trying to sell you something, including books, teacher-certification, etc.

Jason Meggs – Emanuel, I have returned to doubt you again, my good friend. Dig it. Double diggit. Dude. Ette. Cet. Rah.

So this weekend I visited some friends’ farm out side Davis. They grow grain, vegetables, raise chickens. I’ve helped many times there including grain harvest, driving concubine, setting up improve irrigation, etc.Smart kids, so I asked them about these issues.

A few replies from their views…… See More

1) Yes you can make biofuels to run farm equipment using 5-10% of your land. That’s less land than it takes to raise draft animals but then the animals make their own replacements. Draft animals have additional benefits/drawbacks that need to be accounted for. (If necessar/wise you can eat them, unlike the exhaust out of the tailpipe, for one. You can’t backhoe with them, however. But they are better long-term for the soil than tractor farming if done right, particularly in a closed system (self-sufficient).)

2) The calculations to determine billions would starve were questioned again (I’d still like to see these). Not apples and oranges; to go to a draft animal system would mean quite a reworking of many things, building capacity for handlers again, etc. (in this country). However, evidence was found to very much doubt the claim, simply by assessing existing “pet” horses:

“A note about the topic we were discussing.

According to this, there are about 9.5 million horses in the United States
http://www.horsecouncil.org/pressreleases/2007_AHCGlobalPopresources.php

There are about 300 million acres of cropland in the US.
(http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/EIB14/eib14d.pdf)

It is sometimes said that a single draft horse can be used to work 25 acres. (http://www.greenlivingjournal.com/page.php?p=9108)

So perhaps one could say that if the existing horse populations was worked somewhat hard, it could be adequate to cover the existing cropland being farmed.

Of course these horses aren’t all draft horses, so additional acreage would have to be set aside to cover the draft horse’s greater food requirements, and various other critical details need to be considered before this becomes a meaningful analysis, but still, I think this basic information casts doubt upon the assertion that using draft animals instead of tractors would necessarily require setting aside so much cropland that billions would starve.”

Emanuel Sferios – Good stuff Jason! I have no doubt about your biodiesel stats above. I am no proponent of using biofuels to run cars (simply too many of them), but given that tractors use so little energy to begin with, growing biodiesel to run them seems feasible. I don’t believe it will solve any problems (global warming or otherwise), but if some farmer wants to do it, why not? Seems like a lot of extra time for no benefit. (It will certainly cost more in both money and time to grow your own biodiesel, and you won’t be lessening global warming one bit.)

As for the other issue about how many horses it would take to work 300 million acres of cropland, and how much extra cropland it would take to maintain these horses… well this seems like a good research project indeed. I don’t know the answers. I was quoting from Vaclav Smil, one of my favorite ecologists. Does he have a bias? Maybe. But I’ve read many of his books and he hasn’t shown one. On the other hand, a website like the one you pointed out here has bias written all over it:

http://www.greenlivingjournal.com/page.php?p=9108… See More

I have learned to be very suspicious of Green claims. (I think the predicament the earth is in is much worse than can be solved by changing light bulbs, using canvass shopping bags, growing a backyard garden, or any other lifestyle changes an individual can make.) I have never owned or worked draft horses, so I don’t know the answers. At this point I am still inclined to believe Smil’s stats concerning number of horses and land area.

By the way Jason, you say: “It is sometimes said that a single draft horse can be used to work 25 acres.” These are the kind of statements that raise eyebrows for me. Just who exactly says theis? Again, I have never used draft horses, but I do know how large 25 acres is.

Jason Meggs – I’m not familiar with the Green Living Journal but the article seems knowledgable and sincere, and discusses enough pitfalls that it doesn’t seem to be a panacea/fantasy tract. It’s “Reprinted with the permission of Rural Heritage, a bimonthly journal focused on the ecologically and economically friendly use of draft animal technology, 281 Dean … See MoreRidge Lane, Gainesboro, TN 38562, 931-268-0655, http://www.ruralheritage.com.” There are a lot of ads on the site, true. The author doesn’t say where the knowledge comes from. Again I am quoting my friend, who is farming grain near a town…with a tractor. Speaking of references: You still don’t say where the author’s claim is (book? website? page number?). That doesn’t make it easy to find if I wanted to read for myself.

Emanuel Sferios – Here’s the book: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid;=8546

The claim is on page 51.


Jason Meggs – Back to the original issue: the obvious. The appreciation of Smil’s more nuanced analyses falls short here. Things have changed since animal traction was universal. Smil’s power-to-land conversion (mechanized power, translated directly to an estimate of feed-land needs to produce that much animal power in absolute terms) was based solely on the power of tractors compared to the power of horses (an apples and oranges comparison), including an arbitrary choice of animal and usage characteristics. Thus it was not a complete analysis of a change in paradigm, far from it, although he has sent me a document with a good bit of information that could be used for such an analysis.

So: it would be wrong to make major claims based on that wave of the hand. Things are more nuanced and require deeper analysis.

I have emailed the document and letter he sent in response; the range of land/feed allocated throughout history and across the globe described therein is quite large (e.g., “an American horse thus needed at least 1.2 ha while a Chinese draft animal claimed only 0.13 ha, nearly an OM difference resulting from a combination of smaller sizes, less work, and poorer feeding in China”)…. See More

Smil does appear to assume that petrochemical inputs, including fertilizer and pesticides, which amplify traction dependency (more processing/passes over the same land) are a requirement at this time and I haven’t seen (but may not have arrived at) his arguments about that.

No question to me that without the motorized/chemical practices there’d be more human labor. Whole different approaches. Demands deeper analysis.

Even with such an analysis, the fundamental issue originally raised in the thread, as to whether animal traction is sustainable, is not necessarily answered by this inquiry. Even if people would starve due to an instantaneous (theoretical) phase shift (and people are already starving, and there have always been people starving), it does not by default mean the process is unsustainable. There are those who argue that agriculture is fundamentally unsustainable. That is a large question in and of itself. To answer that is to answer the draft animal question as well. This should be communicated to the original thread.

Looking forward to continued resolution.

Emanuel Sferios – How are you defining “sustainable” Jason? Sustainable for 800 million people? Or sustainable for 8 billion people? I don’t think you realize the impact chemicals have had on yields. And not just chemicals but cultivars that were bred specifically to respond to these chemicals. The Green Revolution (as it was so called back then) was funded by the wealthy capitalist foundations (Ford, Rockefeller) specifically to pacify poor countries who were leaning towards communism. Preventing starvation and keeping people well fed tamed the protests and brought these countries into the US sphere of influence. Ford and Rockefeller didn’t have humanitarian intentions in mind when they dramatically increased crop yields by funding research and implementation of chemically driven agriculture. They were fighting the cold war. But they *did* succeed. Nobody can deny this. Without chemical fertilizers and pesticides we would not be able to support 6-8 billion people. Not even close. It’s pie in the sky fantasy to think organic agriculture can “sustain” this many people. There simply isn’t enough organic nitrogen on the planet.

Here’s an excellent book you will love about the history of artificial fertilizer. http://www.amazon.com/Alchemy-Air-Jewish-Scientific-Discovery/dp/0307351793/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s;=books&qid;=1269746314&sr;=1-1

I used think, “ok, so we need artificial fertilizers, but we don’t need pesticides.” Then I challenged my own assumptions on this issue too, and learned (the hard way… ask me about my time farming in Nicaragua) that without pesticides, lots of people would starve to death too…. See More

You are resisting Jason. I can see that. But you are willing to probe further. That is a good sign. Most pie-in-the-sky permaculturists won’t even look at evidence that contradicts their belief system. Keep going. Remember, all you have to lose is your illusions. It may be a lonely place at first (your former allies will scoff at you) but like me, you will come to terms with it.

Thanks for sending Smil’s response and his horse document. It was all confirmation to me. Either we condemn billions to starvation or we retain the use of fossil fuels in agriculture.

And for those who just absolutely need a positive note to end on, here are what Smil advocates:

1. Conservation tilling to prevent nitrogen run-off.
2. Elimination of the unneccesary over-use of fertilizer and pesticides by applying them in appropriate amounts at the crucial times in a crop’s life cycle.
3. Improvement of irrigation techniques like using underground drip systems, etc.

And a lot more *practical* suggestions for improving agriculture that actually recognizes and *respects* the lives of those people currently living on the planet.

Jason Meggs – Thanks Manny. My broad definition of sustainability for this purpose, where humans are concerned, is roughly, the common metric of whether current practices impinge on future generations. Which impacts also are defined broadly.

This demands further analysis. I do not assume that current generations have to die to preserve future generations. Indeed I hope there will not be massive suffering and a die-off but that too is “resisting” given projections.

Yes it’s controversial to discuss worst case scenarios. I recently witnessed an author pied at the Anarchist Book Fair while describing how unsustainable human agricultural practices are, fundamentally, with or without petroleum inputs. The pie appeared to have pepper sauce in it. … See More

If I too write a book (surely with your help already!) and speak I will be sure to set up a pie booth to pre-empt divisiveness. The pies will all be hand crafted from home grown bananas and home grown cayenne pepper sauce, mixed in home sun-distilled vinegar. I will have a pie-proof microphone or a loud voice. The pies will consist of a coconut-oil and grain base for a crust (also all home grown and hand harvested and home hand processed). They will use pie tins forged of re-used hubcaps and bicycle wheels. Or, maybe people will just throw rotten fruit and epithets, saving me the trouble. And I will collect this precious discarded food and hoard it, preserve it for later, then possibly trade some for a few drops of petrol to race around in an abandoned Ferrari or Ducati for kicks.

Funny anecdote, as long as I’m jesting: once upon a time in grad school, during a course named “Sustainable Communities,” the issue of peak oil was raised and the professor decried those peak oilers as nuts who think all the oil will run out at once. (This was 2005.) I asked for class time to describe peak oil. Brought a stack of books and a detailed poster next class. Spoke for 10+ minutes about it. Showed the population line that tracks exponentially with fossil fuel use and suggested that we may be in serious trouble as a world if food supplies and other critical services flag during contraction, let alone break out into rioting and war.

For this I was the recipient of racist and sexist remarks supported by the professor (evidently misunderstanding my concern for the human race; I was not communicating that any particular group was overpopulating the planet, just that fossil fuels correlated with growth of population). There were other divisive challenges thrown, such as the idea that only the US would be in trouble as other countries gang up on it — as if I only care about one country’s people, ecosystem, etc. — for I don’t believe it will be so simple.

In another class with a world famous energy researcher, the idea of peak oil was also misdescribed and I corrected him in front of hundreds of students. At least he was civil and accepted the correction in stride.

Attempts to organize around these topics in coursework and with fellow students met with little to no positive interest, and certainly some negative responses and ramifications. Don’t get me started about “sustainability,” although efforts have moved forward in recent years.

I could go on. If they can’t get it at Berkeley, where do they get it? Granted, years have passed and peak oil is widely known now, but I don’t see any crash course in preparing for best case equitable humane and environmentally sound outcomes (indeed, none of the above). Falloff of max petroleum output could well be 8%/anum. Half as much in less than half a generation. How will the world deal with that political-logistical crisis? Particularly with complications to crop yields such as climate change? Particularly with the opposite of prudent and timely preparation taking place? We are living in a wait-until-it-breaks system. When it breaks, will basic human needs and human rights be respected? Will environmental protections be observed? One can hope. How do we best prepare?

So: I think we’re getting at the same problem…yet we can theorize best case outcomes and not have prepared for the reality that would need to be addressed to implement a best case.

(Footnote: Also in 2005 I proposed a Plan B Project to prepare for crisis opportunities: essentially an action plan on all levels including legislative/regulatory changes. Nobody went for it enough to grow it, and I dropped the idea. At least it may have encouraged the Plan B group to switch from water to oil as a primary topic and some still commend the idea. You can bet planning for crisis opportunity is something big industries are doing and the likely outcomes are not pretty. Billions for biofuels was one minor example of a boondoggle in exactly the wrong direction.)
As the experts say: “Blah blah blah.”


Emanuel Sferios – Peak oil is here now. I strongly recommend http://www.theoildrum.com for some of the best articles and comment threads, although I disagree with many of the predictions expressed by people there (and also some of the predictions by Heinberg, Ruppert, Kunstler, etc.) For example, I don’t think peak oil is going to affect agriculture very much… so long as biofuel production is kept in check (and 2008 saw lots of legislation banning biofuels, which is a very good sign.) Biofuel production removes cropland that would otherwise be used to grow food crops (it also promotes deforestation), hence raising food prices. Rising oil prices in 2008 made biofuel production competitive, and food prices started going up. But then something very telling happened: the recession hit, oil demand and prices dropped, biofuel production stopped and food prices fell and stabalized again. (I’m not talking about US ethanol production, btw, which continues).

What this shows is that when oil prices rise, less-essential industries collapse first. People are not going to stop buying food, but they will stop flying needlessly (hence the airlines go under), and they will stop buying new cars. And they will stop making payments on their loans. And banks will stop giving easy credit. Etc.

Agriculture thus has some insulation. Peak oil is NOT going to result in run-away agricultural prices. The mistake Heinberg et al make is twofold. First, they assume that oil prices are going to simply rise and rise without stopping. 2008 has shown this is not the case. When prices get too high, industries collapse and recessions result, bringing the price back down. Second, they assume that rising oil prices are going to effect all oil-dependent industries equally. Again, 2008 has shown this is not true. People continued to buy food. We did not see farms or grocery stores go bankrupt as a result of the recession (even the number of small farms continues to increase)…. See More

While diesel costs for farm machinery are marginal, transportation costs for delivering the food are more significant, and this has often been used by peak oil catastrophists to support their claim that peak oil will result in a collapse of the global food system. But again, this assumes that oil prices will rise and rise with no end. But that’s not what happens. Recessions result when oil prices get too high, and the price comes back down, and the industries affected by these recessions are the less-essential ones. Essential industries (like food production) can weather the storm of rising food prices, and simply wait for the recession to hit and for prices to fall back down (this will be a pattern on the peak oil down-slope… we will slowly come out of this recession. Oil prices will rise again, and another recession will hit. Etc. my personal prediction is that the GDP will never be as high as it was in 2008, so the recoveries will only ever be partial recoveries).

So now let’s look at fertilizer costs, another reason peak oil catastrophists give that food production will collapse. Nitrigen fertilizer is made primarily from natural gas. This is true in two different ways. First, it is the “feedstock” for the fertilizer, meaning it provides the necessary ammonia. Second, it provides the “process energy” for extracting the ammonia much of the time (though coal or hydroelectric or other forms of energy is sometimes used). Sonatural gas provides all the feedstock for creating nitrogen fertilizer and a good share of the process energy. We are thus completely dependent on natural gas for creating nitrogen fertilizer. But here is the important info…

Even if we also used natural gas for ALL of the process energy in creating artificial fertilizers (not just the feedstock) the resulting consumption of natural gas needed to do this would be 150 billion cubic tons a year. This would still be less than 7% of the world’s natural gas consumption. As Smil writes, “While our dependence on the synthesis of nitrogen fertilizers is now truly irreplaceable, it is not constrained by the availability of natural gas.”

As long as we don’t use up all the world’s natural gas reserves for non-essential uses (like generating electricity for widget factories, say), we are ok.

So what does all this mean? Jason, you are going to hate the conclusion here. The conclusion here is that peak oil is NOT going to collapse the food system, and there is no imperative whatsoever to localize food production. Localizing food production, on the contrary, would condemn billions to starvation, because there is no way to produce the amount of food the world currently consumes on small farms using organic, non-fossil fuel methods.

If I wanted to be provocative (rather than just honest) I could say something like, “The permaculture fanatics have hijacked the peak oil movement.” But some of my best friends are permaculturists, so I don’t want to say that. I will say, however, that the Intentional Community (IC) fanatics have hijacked it to a large degree. Total collapse predictions provide them with perfect rationalizations for “going back to the land.”

The problem is that the marriage between the peak oil awareness movement and the permaculture/organic/IC people is ill-founded, as peak oil is not going to jeopardize agricultural systems.

I could write more about how the permaculture/organic people are coming from a positive place, that industrial ag certainly has it’s problems, etc. Those who know me know I am not giving a knee-jerk defense of industrial ag. I am an organic gardener, and a vegetarian (once again-whew), and I lived for two years on intentional communities. I have just divested myself from believing that these are solutions to current world problems. They aren’t. In fact, if governments tried to implement total localization of food production, we would have the worst mass genocide in all of history.

Buying from local farms is a privilege. Living on a commune is a privilege. Growing organic is a privilege.

Fiesty Emanuel signing out.


Jason Meggs – Emanuel my fiesty friend, Briefly now as I’m fatigued from a long day trouncing about farming.

You make very good points, gratefully received. Qualifying if I may: I don’t think all peak oil theorists are ignorant of the cycle of demand destruction. Personally I’ve been describing the process as ramping up, hitting the ceiling, falling down and starting ramping up again — a bit like bumper cars getting into a tighter and tighter traffic jam — for years now. Jan Lundberg of Culture Change certainly discusses demand destruction. I’d be surprised if Heinberg ignores this, he’s of a really sharp mind. Not going to search for counter-examples right now, though. But that’s a side issue to the core survival questions.

So again we agree. However, there are at least several issues of import that need further elucidation and debate.

1) Priority for food is not assured. The food riots which resulted from biofuel the gold rush did not end world starvation. Inequities are also exacerbated by crisis, even as humanitarian aid or market corrections of all kinds may increase.

2) Natural gas supplies, like oil supplies, are finite. In North America NG has already peaked. The issue I raised last message, and in earlier exchanges, remains open: how do we navigate long-term as carrying capacity quite predictably retracts (and for more reasons than peak petroleum)?

3) Peak oil is more than bounded, downard-trending volatility and just shluffing off non-essentials, although that’s a fairly utopian/cornucopian view in itself. Peak oil is the first time modern society has had to make do with less, RATHER THAN MORE (on balance), year after year. Think about it.

Emanuel Sferios – Qualifying the qualificaions:

First, Heinberg… It’s not that Hienberg at al have ignored the process of demand destruction in general, it’s precisely that they have applied it **only** in general, not taking into account the specifics of how it will play out on a practical level. I’ve read everything Heinberg has published, and he has jumped fully onto the “peak oil = food crisis” bandwagon using only the **general** argument that because we use fossil fuels to produce food, we aren’t going to be able to produce it as cheaply or easily on the down slope. Again, I think this is incorrect, because 1) Farm machinery uses such a small amount of oil 2) Fertilizer production uses such a small amount of natural gas, and 3) essential industries like food production have great resiliency. (Food demand does not get destroyed unless people get destroyed.)

What is worse, Heinberg has jumped onto the “re-localize food production” bandwagon without looking deeply enough into the realities of food production. Here’s a perfect example. This is a Heinberg Quote from: http://www.globalpublicmedia.com/transcripts/456… See More

-Begin Heinberg quote-
[Vaclav Smil says] “If crops are rotated and the soil is fertilized with compost and sewage, thereby returning as much fixed nitrogen as possible to the soil it is just possible for a hectare of land to feed ten people provided they accept a mainly vegetarian diet. Although such farming is almost sustainable it falls short of the productivity of land that is fertilized with artificial nitrogen. This can easily support forty people and on a varied diet.” Okay. But given the fact that fossil fuels are non-renewable, limited in extent, it will be increasingly difficult to continue supplying chemical fertilizers in present quantities.
-End Heinberg quote-

Heinberg believes it will become “increasingly difficult” to create artificial fertilizer after fossil fuels peak. However, fossil fuels *have* peaked, and this has not happened. It hasn’t happened for clear reasons, reasons he ignores. As I’ve said, he believes depletion is going to produce a crisis for all industries equally, but this is not true. He does not look deeply enough into the situation. He does not know, for example, that artificial fertilizer (which more than quadruples the productivity of land) consumes less than 5% of natural gas. He does not know that the vast majority of **organic** fertilizer (cow manure) is made from artificial fertilizer (fertilized corn grown to feed the cows). Sure, he has a sharp mind, but he’s now very emotionally invested in his thesis. He’s promoted in in four books and numerous articles. His identity is fully wrapped around his food crisis claims, and I highly doubt he will have the courage to change his mind, or even to look seriously at the counter-arguments. I used to promote his work constantly, and I still do. But I promote it with caveats now.

Next, as for your comment above about food availability being exacerbated by crisis, I full agree. I also agree that peak oil is going to produce a crisis (it already has). I just think the crisis it produces is going to be a political and economic one primarily. No growth means the current debt-based banking system can’t continue. Unemployment rises. People do not have money. The problem, in other words, is not an inability to produce or transport food. It’s a lack of people’s ability to pay for food. But this crisis can be solved with political-economic changes.

As for your #2 question above, I would like to learn more about just what natural gas supplies are used for. If producing fertilizer is only 5%, how is the other 95% used? It explains nothing simply to say, “natural gas is a finite resource.” All that means is that business as usual cannot continue forever. We cannot continue to grow our economy and population forever. We both agree on that. But like oil, natural gas depletion is not going to affect all industries that depend on it equally.

We know that natural gas is used for home heating, and also for electricity generation. The most important question, I think, is how much of it is used for non-essential industry, meaning the proverbial widget factories? These will be the first to go as the recession deepens, lowering natural gas demand and prices. All the same phenomenon will be … See Morein play for NG as it is for oil. So once again, I do not think the **general** truth that these are finite resources is the operating principle for a discussion of agriculture. The operating principle is the percentage of these fossil fuels needed for agriculture, and because it is so little, the buffer is large enough that it could *sustain* the world’s current population for a very very very long time, so long as we don’t use it all up on other things. And it is highly unlikely we will use it all up on other things. Why? Because as depletion sets in, the price will rise and people will stop consuming these other things! This is exactly what happened in 2008 with oil.

The economic crisis produced by peak oil is going to be the one thing that prevents us from consuming all the oil in the ground. Hence there will *always* be enough oil in the ground for farm machinery, since farm machinery uses so little. I believe the same is true fro natural gas and fertilizers.

As for your #3, here is where we agree fully. The crisis of peak oil is that the world now has ever-depleting energy at it’s disposal, and this is causing an economic crisis because capitalism is predicated on growth. Banks need growth to get their loans paid back. This cannot happen if there isn’t ever-increasing amounts of energy. I think the crisis is going to be primarily an economic and political one, and have very little effect on agriculture and food production. Hence my entire point of all these posts… the peak oil community has spend way too much time talking about food. Survivalist types and organic gardeners have become strange bedfellows as a result. “Buy land!” “Learn to grow your own food!” Good luck, I say! Where are you going to get your fertilizer?

Jason Meggs – An update is warranted as this thread shifted to other venues (most recently, a photo of me with my housemate’s baby, sentient and solemn in reflection; until la mama protested that you and i shut up).

Manny v. Nanny: Professor Commander Búbú, Minister of Baby Affairs, and Gr’up Field Sergeant for Counterfoil Research, Nanny Meggs, take a break from researching the controversial claim by Manny Sferios (re: Smil 1994b in Smil 2000, p. 51) that 300 Mha (twice the arable land in the USA) would be required to feed draft animals were we to substitute them for the “existing power of American tractors.” Results in process. But, from a research standpoint, it’s great to get to live with a baby! Spanish subtitle: mano-a-mano o mano-a-motor?


So: I went and got the book, but it only referenced another of his books, “Energy in World History,” from 1994. So I went and got that book (being fortunate enough to have some time, and proximity to UC Berkeley).

Although the earlier book had much more information about farm animals, it also did not describe the calculations for the claim about horses needing more land than we have (and no references). So having no other options, I wrote the professor, and he promptly replied. … See More

Professor Smil confirmed that the stat Manny cites is based on the raw power of tractors to animals, as I suspected, not based on comparing two paradigms, thus it can’t be used to accurately compare agricultural systems. He also sent me a document with even more information regarding animal power through history.

So in short, the thing I was objecting to was the idea that the stat describes what would happen if we were to “replace tractors with horses.” That is still the case, it doesn’t, and I haven’t attempted that analysis; nor did anyone else provide one. However, Smil did say it was laughable to think that idle horses could be used effectively, and to think we could produce today’s food using horses given the chemical inputs and type of mechanization currently used.

That I do not contest; as Manny has appreciated about Smil, to me the ideal is to find the rational informed middle ground of truly understanding what’s going on. Because even if tractors use a small percentage of petroleum, food production is part of an incredibly petroleum (oil and gas) intensive and dependent system. As those inputs decline (the definition of peaking), the whole system will be in perpetual challenge. So it’s not enough to understand today and tomorrow, we must understand the transition times (of which there may be many quite different possible scenarios).

Manny has put forth in another thread that he’s not worried because food will take precedence over other things, and requires little petroleum, so there’s no imminent therat of starvation; he’s even called noteworthy folk like Richard Heinberg wrong for advocating permaculture/organic farming, because it cannot feed the world’s current population.

Yes, food might take precedence in this country, and many efficiencies (including dietary changes) can occur to ensure that, but a humanitarian would worry that equity may not come first. Wealth inequality in a long-term decline may mean some or even many starve. Then there’s the world at large (Smil’s example was U.S.-specific).

Even if feeding the whole is protected public policy #1, and even if we have enough petroleum to do so, and even if there isn’t systemic collapse and chaos during contraction (with tractor parts being as impossible to obtain as Rolls Royce parts, or worse), over time there will be less and less petroleum for food (even if it takes generations). So to criticize advocates of sustainable agriculture seems irresponsible; long-term, based on all this, we do need a new food paradigm, and to reduce world population somehow; I prefer an ethical approach. When is the right time to begin that transition? More importantly, is there ever a wrong time? I say no; now is the best time to begin, for the good of the whole and to protect one’s own survival.

Likewise in the Gore debate; to criticize renewable energy advocates (and conservation advocates) is to give in not only to coal/nuclear/natural gas hegemony, and protecting those resources for essentials like food, but to fail to begin the process of replacing those sources when they are simply not available. (Yes, even food, because each iota of stored energy spent on powering a gameboy is stored resource that is gone forever.)

Ultimately this thread raises the question of whether agriculture is at all sustainable; the Gore thread, whether energy use is at all sustainable; and above all, the viability of the human species.

And… Just to help with understanding why horses and tractors are different. A modern tractor is often in the 100-500 HP range. A single workhorse is around 1.5. (I don’t know what number Smil used.) So gee, yes, you suddenly need hundreds of horses for one tractor, if all you care about is equal power. But guess what? I bet you could do the same work … See Moreof that tractor with fewer horses (know so). Moreover, the horses are used differently (and animals can be used quite differently compared to one another; iIndeed, the variation in animal traction energy efficiency through history was roughly an order of magnitude, according to Smil). Many things need to be converted, reconsidered. Doesn’t mean we’re safe, doesn’t mean we’ll starve. Needs more analysis.

Emanuel Sferios – Glad to have you back Jason. I thought I had scared you off. Continuing on:

You say: “Professor Smil confirmed that the stat Manny cites is based on the raw power of tractors to animals, as I suspected, not based on comparing two paradigms, thus it can’t be used to accurately compare agricultural systems.”

My response: I believe energy conversions are actually the best type of comparison to make. If horse farming is (or can be) more efficient than tractor farming, it will come out in the numbers. Go ahead and take into account all the differences in the two systems. The proof will still be in the numbers. How much food energy can be produced with how much input energy? And how many people can be sustained by these competing systems (because sustainability can never be separated from population)? I agree with Smil that it is laughable to think that an animal-powered agricultural system could sustain today’s population. If that were the case, the world’s population would have grown prior to the advent of fossil fuel technology (tractors, fertilizer, etc), but it didn’t. Human population was kept in check by food limitations, which no longer exist (for better or worse). The burden of proof lies heavily on the side that challenges these obvious (at least to Smil and myself) facts. What would be different in your horse paradigm that would require less energy to produce the same amount of food? Or if you are willing to accept less food, are you willing to accept a reduced population? And how will that happen?… See More

You say: “Because even if tractors use a small percentage of petroleum, food production is part of an incredibly petroleum (oil and gas) intensive and dependent system. As those inputs decline (the definition of peaking), the whole system will be in perpetual challenge.”

My response: This is precisely what I am contesting. I do not believe every aspect of “the system” will be challenged equally. Food production will be safe because demand for oil will be reduced by collapsing non-essential industries. Hence the cost of agricultural diesel (in terms of the price) will *never* become too high. It was only an early assumption by Heinberg and others that peak oil would mean steadily rising oil prices and the collapse of all oil-based industries equally. Now we have seen (and Heinberg has revised his position) that this isn’t he case, that we will have a bumpy down slope as recessions come, ease up, and come again, until demand has pretty much permanently ceased because there is no more industrial growth. At this time oil prices will be low, and agriculture will continue as usual. I think Heinberg and others now have to revise their position again with regards to agriculture. The problem, though, is that the permaculturists and the localize foo-ists have latched on to the peak oil awareness movement, believing that peak oil will force relocalization. But this belief was based on the original assumptions of peak oil perpetually driving up oil prices, which have now been shown to be incorrect.

You say: “he’s even called noteworthy folk like Richard Heinberg wrong for advocating permaculture/organic farming, because it cannot feed the world’s current population.”

My response: And I’ll do it again too. Heinberg’s position has been that peak oil is going to perpetually drive up oil prices and that all industries, including agriculture, that use oil will face equal collapse pressures. But we now know that is not going to happen. $147 oil in 2008 may in fact be the historical peak of oil prices. Prices may never get that high again. Why? Because peak oil has reduced growth potential and we may never get out of this recession/depression. Even if we do, it won’t be long until another one kicks in and oil prices drop again. Hence where is the pressure on agriculture to stop using diesel? It’s simple really. But if you believed–like Heinberg–that oil prices would just go up and up forever (and I used to believe this) than sure, it makes sense that we would be forced, eventually, to localize food production and try our best to grow without fossil fuels. This is the “lifeboat” thesis that Heinberg and others talk about. They say we will need to build lifeboats (small enclaves where all commerce is local) to try to save our communities on an individual basis, because there simply won’t be food being produced on a global level. Some of them come right out and say (like Ruppert) that the world’s population will be massively reduced by the resulting starvation. Most don’t have the conceit to make such claims (Heinberg I do not believe has said it outright.) But the problem with the lifeboat theory here is simply that it is wrong. Agriculture will not collapse. Many other industries will, and we are all in for times of austerity. But austerity and starvation are quite different. Zero-growth does not have to mean mass death, because there will always be plenty of natural gas to produce fertilizer, and plenty of oil to run tractors (and even transportation), because demand for oil and natural gas to drive industry will no longer be high.

Another way to think about this is to understand the banking system and how capitalism requires growth in order for the banking system to work. It’s the debt-based banking system that drives capitalism today. This system is by far the most vulnerable to peak oil. It has already begun to collapse, and when the banking system collapses, there’s no longer any capital to drive industry. Most industries require bank loans to get started as well as to continue. When these loans aren’t there, they don’t function. Hence recession and/or depression. Hence no more demand for oil. Hence oil prices remain low. Hence agriculture remains stable. Again, it’s simple.

To clarify some more… I am in no way dismissing peak oil and the major changes it is going to bring. I am only challenging the notion that it is going to affect agriculture. I think this notion was based on an early misunderstand of how peak oil was going to play itself out. It’s unfortunate for ideological peraculturists that this is not going to happen. I have seen and known many of these folks who were almost giddy waiting for peak oil to collapse the current ag system so they could say “I told you so.” They are going to be disappointed. As for me, I am relieved. I love gardening and even would love to have a small farm one day, but I don’t believe anymore that this is any kind of model for local food security or sustainability or life boats or anything like that. I am relieved to know that GLOBAL food security is assured despite peak oil.

The problems with industrial ag that need to be fixed, in my opinion, are not it’s dependency on fossil fuels (there will always be enough available, thanks to peak oil), but rather the environmental impacts. This is why Smil spends so much time in his book discussing fixes to these problems. Conservation tilling or no-till farming is a big one. Reducing cow populations and beef-eating is another. Scientific and rational application of the least amount of fertilizer and pesticides necessary for each particular crop are another. Improving efficiencies in food distribution, post harvest losses, etc.

Jason Meggs – Dearest Maniferousness, I hope you are feeling well on this fine day.

No, thank you, Manny-induced fear did not keep me away, although the angry mother did interrupt the dialogue. However, the cycle of reiteration of key points coupled with aversion to key questions does obscure efficient use of the debate, speaking of energy efficiency. How many tractors does it take to sew an ongoing debate compared to horses? … See More

We agree on many things.

We appear to disagree on:

1) That the means of mechanized food production will not be challenged by collapse. Why I’m not convinced: Widgets for tractors are not guaranteed, for example. Just one VERY small example. Present day infrastructure is designed to operate at certain levels. Lots of just-in-time. Lots of chemical and material chains. Refineries are geographically based and don’t necessarily fine tune up or down easily to big changes in demand. Distribution networks rely on many, many things being in place which are supported by other “non-essential” pieces of the economy.

2) That there will “always be plenty of natural gas to produce fertilizer, and plenty of oil to run tractors” — as if the world’s supplies of stored fossil energy are not finite;

3) That *everyone* will face “austerity,” but have guaranteed access to food — as if the wealthy/powerful will not exploit the poor/powerless, nor leave them to ruin, nor take those resources for something else like building yachts or armies and prisons; as if there is no chance of a breakdown in availability of food; as if there won’t be war for resources as food and water and other modern “essentials” dwindle, even as resource wars (e.g., Darfur) are a persistent theme throughout world history. I keep saying: people are starving today. Why would this happen less in a time of crisis? Not that it has to, but who has the magic wand? The UN? Will everyone just be more enlightened when making due with less? There’s a big continuum of poverty out there. Is there a point where everyone is peaceful and nice and slowly reduces population voluntarily? Do they naturally do that when pushed DOWN the energy ladder? Is there hope for global equity to fulfill your belief that “GLOBAL food security is assured despite peak oil”?

4) That DIY sustainable agriculture, homesteading, small scale organic farming, etc — preparing for self-sufficiency and insulation against possible breakdown in availability of food and other essentials — is unnecessary, and moreover, to advocate transitioning to permaculture/organic food production is to advocate killing billions, because were we do to it en masse, at this time, billions would starve. Why I’m not convinced: modern agriculture is not sustainable. Petroleum is going away. The open cycle means every year we’re losing more top soil, more organic matter, more essential minerals. Population is growing. The wild is shrinking. The more we use petroleum, the more climate is expected to change, which is strongly expected to disrupt food production. Etc. Even with Smil’s directives in place, the system is NOT a steady state.

5) That relocalization is a misguided effort, like (4), even as you advocate “improving efficiencies in food distribution.” (I look forward to your view of efficiency that involves globalization as daily oil availability declines.) Relocalization is about much more than food production. It is about building healthy, resilient community, and making more of less. Will relocalization encourage a descent into tribalism and regional conflict? Probably, but it also provides a more clear and powerful means of negotiation and mutual aid. Will remaining disorganized be better? Probably not. Unless one trusts in our fearless leaders, the market economy, and one’s mysterious neighbors near and far, to do better as a collective whole. I won’t rule it out. The idea of a World-War II or New Deal style approach to remaking the economy is certainly one possibility. I would strongly agree that relocalization faces many additional and even critical challenges without long-distance trade. It’s again a question of degree.

IMPORTANT:

The issue that I most often wish you would discuss is:

How should population relate to food production over time? Given that I do not believe carrying capacity will keep increasing indefinitely, as you do, my preference is advance planning: ethically reducing population to “sustainable” levels while increasing equity and public health for all people, taking the opportunity of change to build/evolve a sustainable and perhaps even “steady state” economy along the way that is based on fulfilling real human values and respecting the natural world we depend on.

While you might agree with many of my goals, you disagree that population needs to be addressed, because you believe population can continue to grow with no worries. So we’re at a stalemate and can keep arguing about things that surround that core question.

Were we to agree on that, we might spend this time and energy collaboratively calculating things like how many people can a petroleum-free system support, and what are theoretical timelines, and the most ethical measures to get there. Instead we argue in the dark.

QUESTION: Which is better, (A) ignoring population because of a cornucopian, free market magic theory that there will “always be enough,” or (B) building capacity for agricultural self-sufficiency without fossil fuel inputs on the theory that one day it ill be necessary, even if that steadily reduces maximum short-term output of food supply?

FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS: Which has the capacity to “kill” more people via die-off? Which has the most beneficial effects in the short term? And is slowly reducing food supply, perhaps carefully managed so as to prevent starvation (for the first time) but discourage increase, a viable way to reduce population? And would it be ethical?

We can get fancier about the analysis, about the research, about the use of macro and micro economic terms and datapoints, graphs, etc. It would be good to do that and publish something. I don’t know anyone addressing these things adequately, although I stopped actively searching when it became clear that market forces are overwhelmingly ruling public policy, and that there was no cohesive place to address that; and, like you, I realized that there is a lot of cushion in the system and the sky may not fall, and enough people have been warned (and ignored it or worse) that it’s not incumbent on me to sound an alarm anymore. Although: collapse must not be underestimated. Too many wild cards.

Emanuel Sferios – Oh fun fun fun! Thanks Jason. This was a productive response. Brings up a lot more issues. Let’s continue. I will address each in order:

1) I don’t think collapse is going to be so sudden that spare parts (widgets) for tractors and trucking will disappear. This to me sounds like a very general (and overlay alarmist) notion without specific reasons or precedence to back it up. Did people starve in Russia after the collapse? No. Did they supplement their food with small gardens? Yes. Did these small gardens provide a significant amount of their calories? No. So also the “just in time” analysis of “present day infrastructure” is equally uncompelling to me as a reason to predict food shortages. I just don’t see the significance. Its too general of an argument (I’ve heard it before of course… the same places you have.) Refineries had a hard time keeping up with high demand. Sure. But collapse is going to produce LOW demand. Are you saying refineries won’t be able to adjust to low demand? That doesn’t make sense. “Chemical and material chains?” What are you talking about? Be more specific. Then I can respond directly. If you only speak generally here, I can only respond generally, which is that people will spend there last dollar on food before anything else (unless they are a drug addict), so food has the greatest cushion of all commodities, and will be the last commodity to disappear.

2) You seemed to miss my entire point here. My point is that DESPITE being finite resources, there will always (or at least for THOUSANDS of years) be enough fossil fuels for food production. This is because demand for natural gas and oil will collapse long before these resources are gone. But I’m repeating myself here. If you object to my use of the term “always,” your literal point is well taken. But I think it is moot, really, given that we are talking about thousands of years worth…. See More

3) You make good points here. I do believe there will be political pressures on all systems, including food systems, like there already are. These may increase. Of course political inequality has always been with us and hard times bring the worst out in people. But this really has nothing to do with what I am saying. What I am saying is that none of this is any reason to GET RID OF THE ONLY FOOD SYSTEM THAT COULD POSSIBLY FEED THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD and replace it with an ideological system of small-scale local farms that have NO CHANCE IN HELL of doing this. That’s a recipe for mass starvation if I have ever heard of one. So again, there is no logic in advocating small scale farming for the sake of “sustainability” or “equality” or “justice” etc. Yet these are the arguments that permaculturists (trademark R) always give. People *like* to garden organically and people *like* permaculture systems. I sure do! The problem is when people become ideological about it and try to make it into something that it is not. That said, there are those who simply believe that peak oil is automatically going to kill off billions of people, destroy all global systems, and that the only thing we are going to have left is local economies. If such was the case, than strengthening local agriculture for the sake of food security would be a necessity. These people may not be ideological (though some I know seem to *want* die-off to occur so they can tell others “I told you so.”), but rather are operating out of fear. They are survivalist types, even if they don’t see it. It’s interesting to me how the early survivalists were individualist-right wingers stockpiling canned goods in their basements. They are still around. But now we have progressives who have become survivalists too, though they have expanded their individualism to a tribal or community-based level. I.e., let’s come together in a commune and survive. Grow food and learn to shoot to defend what we accumulate against the neighboring masses (or other communities) who try to come and get it. This way out tribe can be “sustainable” (i.e. “survivable”). I believe these folks are simply mistaken. Again, the whole discussion here is whether peak oil is going to automatically destroy global agriculture systems to the point that there is no other choice but to hunker down and fight against neighboring communities for vastly limited food supplies. I think this is based on a misunderstanding of how zero-growth is going to play out. You are right. Global food security may never be assured, and that was a sloppy quote from me. What I meant to say is that global food security is not going to be threatened by a lack of fossil fuel resources needed to grow enough food to feed the world. But even if the political consequences of economic collapse make food distribution more difficult, I will be advocating for better food distribution, not hunkering down in my commune and learning to shoot… or even worse, telling other people that the world could be feed based on what my commune was doing.

4) Well I disagree with a lot of what you say here. These statements of yours come across as very general and alarmist. “Petroleum is going away.” Is it really? How much will be left 10, 50, 100 years from now? We can come up with good estimates here. “Modern Ag is not sustainable?” What does sustainable mean to you? Do you think permaculture is “sustainable?” Sustainability, if it is to have any meaning at all, has to include the number of people that can be sustained. If what you are saying is that permaculture gardening could sustain 200 million people on the planet forever, then ok. That’s pre-industrial levels. Almost pre-civilizational levels! (And it is doubtful that permaculture could sustain even this many people . . . perhaps organic agriculture, but definitely not permaculture). But what if an improved modern agricultural system could sustain 8 billion people for thousands of years without harming the environment. I would be advocating that. And I think that is possible. “Every year we are losing more topsoil.” Sure, but do you know how much? I do. I just read about it. And do you know how much could be saved with simple conservation-tillage? I do. The situation is not so dire that we have to throw the baby out with the bath water. “Population is growing. The wild is shrinking.” Well we certainly agree on this point, and that it needs to stop. “The more we use petroleum, the more climate is expected to change.” Yes, but agriculture’s use of petroleum is not the problem here. It’s the massive scale at which we are burning fossil fuels! There’s no reason to throw out the baby again, and go back to pre-industrial population levels in order to fix the climate. Only a purist would think this way. But purism is ideological. It’s like being “against agriculture” completely. I am sure you have read some of the same neo-primitivist authors as I have. Please tell me you’re not one of them! 🙂 “Climate change is strongly expected to disrupt food production.” In some areas, yes. But in other areas it is going to increase food production potential. It has yet to be determined the exact effect it will have. But even so, this is an argument to stop climate change, not to get rid of modern food production (which will kill off billions of people) nor even to start growing food locally and organically (organic food uses more fossil fuel than conventional food, given that organic fertilizer overwhelmingly comes from cows fed conventional corn).

5) “I look forward to your view of efficiency that involves globalization as daily oil availability declines.” Daily oil is not going to decline! How many times do I have to SHOUT this? Peak oil is going to destroy demand. It has already started for CRYING OUT LOUD! From now on there will always be more oil than demand (with the … See Moreexception of *possible* short-term spikes on the down slope, but this is looking less likely. Remember when the banking system collapses, that’s it. Growth is over forever despite how much oil is left. And the banking system will be the first thing to collapse, but it regulates the entire growth economy!) “The idea of a World-War II or New Deal style approach to remaking the economy is certainly one possibility.” It’s the only possibility. It’s called a managed zero-growth economy. Some will call it socialism. It doesn’t matter. Capitalism cannot continue without growth, but managed national (and international) economies can. I have more expectations than you, I guess, that world leaders will do their best to prevent chaos and rioting (which won’t be good for the elites either). I think the world will be forced to live with less and manage a zero-growth economy. Do I think they will do it equitably and justly? No way. But I think we have to fight to try to get that to happen, rather than fall back into our communes believing that it is all going to hell anyway and so we might as well try to survive (“localize”) on our own.

“Given that I do not believe carrying capacity will keep increasing indefinitely, as you do, my preference is advance planning: ethically reducing population to “sustainable” levels while increasing equity and public health for all people, taking the opportunity of change to build/evolve a sustainable and perhaps even “steady state” economy along the way that is based on fulfilling real human values and respecting the natural world we depend on.” What?! I call STRAW MAN brother! I have never said carrying capacity can increase forever. You can’t pin that one on me. But the whole notion of “carrying capacity” is flawed. At least it’s not very helpful. Raw numbers of people are not the issue. It’s how quickly we humans are destroying the environment that matters. That can happen quickly even with fewer people than we have today, or slowly even with greater numbers of people. As for energy and farmland available to feed more people, I am pretty sure Smil calculated that with greater efficiency we could support 8 billion without having to increase the amount of cropland (in the US 25-30 perecent of food produced is wasted in various places along the post-harvest stream), and if we reduce meat consumption back to 1970 per capita levels, we could support an extra billion people on top of that. Of course, not in a growth economy with the kind of energy expenditures we have today, but peak oil is taking care of that. The end of growth is being forced upon us, thank goodness.

There is no reason why fossil fuel agricultural inputs cannot be a part of a sustainable, steady-state economy. (Sure perhaps not for millions of years, but who cares? Thousands of years more than encompasses the seven generations our indigenous brothers tell us we need to consider. And if we were burn fossil fuels at a rate, say, 20% of today’s (more than enough for agricultural needs) we would be well within an environmentally sustainable level. The only problem would be the results of all the fossil fuels we have already burned. (Me may be too late already, in other words.) To put this another way, it is a mistake to think in terms of zero-carbon emissions. It is not necessary, and where agriculture is concerned, it is very important for the life of billions of people that we keep burning that small amount of fossil fuel.

“How should population relate to food production over time?” Smil has a very interesting section in his newest book on global catastrophes and trends. He discusses a predicted decrease in the world’s population that will happen not as a result of mass die-off, but rather the stabilization of expansion. I need to go back and re-read it, but the interesting thing to me was his historical data comparing what makes certain populations increase and decrease. It’s not a steady rise up across all countries. It’s just been a cumulative rise. Japan’s population is decreasing, for example. And will harshly. India will be the main country accounting for world population increase over the next decades, overtaking China to become the world’s most populous nation. But again, the interesting thing was that he predicted that population would stabalize between 8 and 10 billion, and I want to re-read this section to find out why.

“Were we to agree on that, we might spend this time and energy collaboratively calculating things like how many people can a petroleum-free system support.” Well, we *do* agree on that, Jason. Again, I have never said population can keep growing forever. As for how many people could be supported using a fossil fuel-free agricultural system, what’s the point of discussing this except to understand that it would be close to the world’s population around 1880, before the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process of producing artificial nitrogen fertilizer. Perhaps technological innovation could increase this number. But we are talking billions of people LESS than are around today. And who cares? We are not doomed to implement a fossil-fuel-free system like this. There is no need for it. It is not even desirable except in some far off time when it might be necessary, like thousands of years from now. Probably by then we will have other problems to worry about. Or we will have discovered cold fusion. Or the aliens will have saved us. Perhaps even we will have evolved as a species since we would have thousands of years to get used to a steady state economy and we will have voluntarily reduced our population to 1880 levels anyway. The point is that it is purely intellectually to discuss how many people a fossil-fuel free ag system could support. The thought of trying to do that within the next few generations is terrifying. We’re talking holocaust beyond anything the world has seen. Count me out.

“And is slowly reducing food supply, perhaps carefully managed so as to prevent starvation (for the first time) but discourage increase, a viable way to reduce population? And would it be ethical?” Slowly reducing food supply would most certainly result in starvation. It would have no impact on reproduction rates, only on how many children survive beyond childhood. As far as I am concerned, there are only two ways to reduce population. China’s way (which is working), or education combined with the raising of the standard of living combined with the empowerment of women, access to birth control and the ending of mass poverty with a more equitable distribution of living standards. No other way is possible. People have kids in poor countries because they are insurance for getting old (the more you have the more they will be able to support you later in life), because they lack access to education and because of regressive cultural beliefs and practices. Empower women, give them education, access to birth control and old-age insurance through socialized safety nets, and they won’t have too many kids. That’s the case in the rich countries, and has been proven historically. The problem is that China and India have extremely uneven development, enriching small segments of the city populations while neglecting the rural poor.

Posted by Emanuel at 9:11 AM

Labels: peak oil, permaculture, richard heinberg, vaclav smil

2 comments:

Jason N. Meggs, MCP, MPH said…

Emanuel,

I’m glad to have had this discussion with you although I am surprised you didn’t realize it’s unethical to take a private discussion and post it publicly. Please don’t argue this with me.

Yes this is an important discussion. My first concern in making it public is that it is easily misinterpreted. The fact that we’re still missing one another shows that is likely. Population is one of those high controversy issues that brings up knee jerk reactions and assumptions, evidenced by the hostility in the class at Berkeley, or the recent villification of researchers for hypothetical statements made long ago. It brings up all kinds of pain and essential questions of the right to life and liberty, of fairness, of historic traumas, and more.

So I want to be clear: my questions about ethical ways of reducing population were hypothetical to compare failing to plan versus planning, in light of your resistance to the idea that there will be a major crisis whether or not there’s a lot of oil in the ground, at some point in the future, and WE DO NOT KNOW WHEN.

I was referring to the pinch, whether it happens soon, or in the far future/never as you seem to assert (and I still believe to be irresponsible wishful thinking; even with Smil’s measures population may hit a ceiling soon).

LET IT NEVER BE SUGGESTED THAT I WANT TO CAUSE DIE-OFF.

Yes as a feminist I’m quite aware that improving the lives of women is a first and foremost step to stabilizing population, and incredibly important for so many more reasons (men still take the lion’s share of food, by the way, at the expense of women and children, in many many places). Providing basic security for all the world’s people is an essential step.

Collapse is an opportunity and *hopefully* major progress can be made toward equity, health and empowerment world-wide. But it is NOT guaranteed that major equity shifts will happen during such a time of hardship; quite the contrary! I fear the opposite is terribly likely if world history is any indication.

In that case, terrible population reduction measures like war and famine will be the way population is reduced. Sometimes “Failure to plan is planning to fail.”

Thank you.

p.s. Despite its length, there are so many topics we didn’t get into in this many-threaded month or more of debate. There are still a LOT of fossil fuels available and their implications for world health and equity are very severe. There are also health issues regarding industrial food, pesticides, etc. There are other resource and environmental issues with this large a population. Etc. Note that this is a hand wave toward closure, not an invitation to more debate.

p.p.s. I’m well aware that daily use and max potential output are different things and did not mean to imply otherwise. Any way you slice it oil availability will be declining in peak oil, on balance, over time, by definition. Please let’s try not to do the broken record thing. 12:00 PM

Emanuel said…

Sorry Jason for posting this dialogue here without asking you first. I forget sometimes that Facebook is not public. Let me know if you want me to anonymize your name. 12:46 PM

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