1. What You Think You Know About Agriculture Is Wrong
I was surprised to see this item on Grist's list of environmental stories: Industrial Agriculture Is Booming. From Bloomberg News (emphasis mine):
Corn will lead the planting surge because it is the most profitable row crop. U.S. mandates for alternative fuels have led to an increased use of the grain to make ethanol, and rising worldwide incomes are boosting meat consumption, increasing requirements for livestock feed. Global production of beef, veal, pork, chicken and turkey will reach almost a quarter of a billion metric tons this year, 62 percent more than two decades ago, the USDA estimates.Indeed, industrial agriculture is booming, and profits are high six years after the declaration of Peak Oil by the IEA and with dramatically rising oil prices around the world. This seems to contradict the conventional wisdom of many Peak Oil writers that the high cost of oil will cause industrial agriculture to become unprofitable, with unemployed city workers streaming out of the cities into the fallow fields and abandoned farms ringing urban areas to become yeoman farmers, living off the land and selling their surplus to city dwellers who can no longer afford supermarket food trucked and flown in from California and South America. This is considered something of an article of faith by the Peak Oil community. Peak Oil blogs such as Energy Bulletin are full of stories of horse-drawn plows, farmer's markets and urban gardens providing food for city-dwellers.
An acre of corn will earn as much $150 more than soybeans at current prices and normal weather, said Mike Wagler, 30, who farms about 7,000 acres with his father in Montgomery, Indiana.
“Farmers have the capital to plant a big corn crop this year,” said Wagler, who plans to sow 85 percent of his family’s land with the grain compared with 70 percent last year. “We can make more money raising corn than soybeans.”
In North Dakota, the largest producer of spring wheat, farmers probably will plant record corn and soybean acres this year as they use most of the 5.6 million acres that couldn’t be planted in 2011, said Frayne Olson, an agriculture economist at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Spring-wheat acreage will remain steady, he said.
David Kopseng, a fourth-generation grower on 4,700 acres in Harvey, North Dakota, said he will boost corn planting by 17 percent to 1,400 acres from a year earlier. in 2006, he didn’t sow any of the grain. Improved seeds have boosted yield by about 40 percent in the past decade, making corn at least $50 more profitable than wheat or soybeans, he said.
“We’re going to plant the most corn acres ever,” said the 47-year-old Kopseng. “I’ve been buying some more land and renting more because of corn’s profitability. It’s a great time to be a farmer in North Dakota.”
It's easy to see the logic of why this thinking is so common among the Peak Oil community. Industrial agriculture was made possible by extreme mechanization which was in turn made possible by plentiful cheap oil. Such mechanization drove farmers off the land and into the cities to seek work. The oft-quoted statistic is that only about two percent of the nation is currently engaged in food production, from over thirty percent at the dawn of the twentieth century. Also, the fertilizers and pesticides that allow industrial agriculture to take place are also produced almost exclusively via fossil fuels, especially natural gas which is used as a feedstock. Thus, as fossil fuels become more expensive, this model of farming will become increasingly economically untenable in the face of low-tech, labor-intensive methods on smaller farms. Here's one of the most enthusiastic proponents of this view, James Howard Kunstler in 2009:
2009 may be the point where we begin to understand what kinds of places will be more hospitable to human society further ahead. I maintain that our giant urban metroplexes have way overshot their sustainable scale and will contract severely. With all the economic hardship, we ought to expect a lot of demographic churning, people leaving hopeless places and moving on to something more promising. I believe we will see them move to smaller towns and smaller cities. The reorganization of the rural landscape into smaller-scaled farms has not begun to occur -- though 2009 might be very hard on agribusiness, given the shortage of capital and if oil begins to march up in price by late winter. Eventually, the rural landscape will require the labor of many more people than is currently the case.http://kunstler.com/blog/2008/12/forcast-for-2009.html
But is this really the case? In a long, controversial post on The Oil Drum from 2008, Stuart Staniford took a contrarian position from the majority of the Peak Oil commentariat, arguing that rather than pointing to a return to small-scale local agriculture, high oil prices would actually help industrial agriculture. Staniford's argument can be summarized as follows: if the high costs of fuel were to lead to more labor-intensive, smaller-scale agriculture, we would expect to see this trend as oil prices rise. Instead, we're seeing exactly the opposite effect. The profitability of large-scale mechanized agriculture is increasing, while small-scale family farmers continue to struggle, often falling victim to foreclosures. He looks at the trends and comes to the conclusion that there really is no evidence that rising energy prices will cause a flight back to small-scale local farming the way it was practiced at the dawn of the twentieth century, or lead to a vast increase in the number of farmers and laborers. From his post (all emphasis mine):
If it's the case that agriculture is going to revert to a manual low-energy process in the face of peak oil, then that should show up in the profitability data. Here are some natural predictions we might make:Now that it seems increasingly likely that Peak Oil occurred in 2005-2006 and oil prices are permanently over 100 dollars a barrel, what are we seeing? Large industrial farms going broke, and small-scale local farmers filling the void? No, quite the opposite. Just as Staniford predicted in 2008, currently industrial farming is booming thanks to high fuel and food prices:
As we shall see, the evidence doesn't provide any support for any of these propositions, and in fact it tends to provide at least some evidence for the opposite view: the industrial agricultural system appears to be strengthened by peak oil, and is likely to get stronger still in the near future. Rather than industrial farms losing money, land prices dropping, and desperate farmers loooking to throw in the towel and sell out to the hordes of neo-peasant reversalists, we find farm incomes rising, average farm sizes increasing, and no sign of greater use of labor in the production of the core arable crops in the US.
- Industrial farming is less profitable at high oil prices than at low oil prices.
- Now that we are at, or close to, peak oil, industrial agriculture is beginning to show signs of strain, indicating it may break down in the future, allowing alternative approaches to take over.
- Industrial farmers use more labor in the face of high oil prices.
- Farms are starting to get smaller now that peak oil is nigh.
- In developing countries, where the farmers never unlocalized in the first place, the dynamics are changing to favor small subsistence farmers over larger mechanized operations.
Farms in the US have been getting steadily bigger for a long time. The reasons are very simple: there are substantial economies of scale in industrial farming - it's desirable to keep the expensive machinery and administrative labor working at maximum capacity, which means spreading it out over as much land as possible.Small farms lose money at a great rate, and only large operations make a profit. This is a recipe for larger farms as the small ones sell out to their wealthier neighbors. As the share of energy in the cost structure grows, this graph may moderate a little (since fertilizer and fuel usage are likely directly proportional to acreage). However, there is nothing in high energy costs that will make it reverse - it will still be beneficial to spread the non-energy costs over more acreage. Thus although the trend of increasing farm size may slow, there is nothing to put it into reverse.Staniford concludes:
And in the developing world, another important factor comes into play. As we discussed last week, over half of all households in rural areas in developing countries are net food importers, even though the vast majority are involved in agriculture somehow. Thus, rising food prices will place tremendous stress on very poor households that grow some food, but not enough to live on. They may be forced to sell their land to larger landholders that produce a surplus. Thus, we may see the exact opposite of what the relocalization movement might predict - farm sizes in developing countries may increase in the face of peak oil.
I've argued in this piece that industrial agriculture is likely to be stronger and more profitable when oil prices are high, not weaker. So the reversalist future of local food production on smaller farms with higher labor input will not come to pass as a result of peak oil. The industrial agricultural sector owns most of the land, and will be in an excellent position to increase their land holdings as remaining subsistence farmers fail or consolidate in the face of high food prices. Industrial farmers will have no reason to sell out to improverished urban dwellers. Thus the industrialization of the land is not a reversible process any time soon - it is a fallacy to think so. The reversalists are expressing wishful thinking and nostalgia for the past, not a reasoned analysis of how the future is likely to play out. And urbanites worried about their future should not be looking to buy or rent a smallholding as a solution to their problems - industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and there is no way to compete with them except by becoming one.If you think about it, Staniford's argument makes sense. Small-scale and organic farmers and ranchers may produce better food, but any trip to the supermarket will reveal that it is more expensive. It would be better if healthy food were cheaper than processed junk, but it's hard to imagine how this will be possible given the workings of the money economy. If energy prices rise, costs for small producers will rise as well as those for big producers, with smaller producers less able to absorb the shock without going under. As people get poorer, they will want to buy cheaper food, which industrial farming can provide but small scale farmers have more difficulty doing. And in the "developing" world, farmers are still being driven to bankruptcy by imported grain and continuing to head to quickly expanding "arrival cities." The world is continuing to become more urban, not less. High oil prices have not reversed this trend; they have just made food more expensive, causing instability but hardly leading to more local or labor-intensive food production. Peak Oil is certainly causing food prices to rise (as is speculation, to which degrees is a matter of debate). But the fundamental economic realities are not making small-scale labor-intensive agriculture competitive again.
As the economy contracts and people become poorer, they have not been eating healthier by-and-large, nor have they eschewed big-box stores even as gas becomes more expensive; McDonalds and Wal-Mart have, perhaps tragically, done quite well in the contracting economy. With agriculture thoroughly mechanized, it will not de-mechanize, food will just get more expensive. As gas becomes more expensive, it will also drive the use of biofuels, which will further increase the profitability of large-scale industrial agriculture, despite the illogical energy calculus. Factor in the subsidies put in place by a political culture in thrall to deep-pocketed special interests, and this distorts the picture even further in favor of industrial agriculture. As once commenter to Staniford's article put it:
Stuart is probably correct about the continuing growth of industrial agriculture. The merging of the energy markets with the food markets means that the price of both shall move upwards in lockstep. Both our engines and our bellies will face progressive starvation. This is even now being played out in the third world. Their farms are industrializing and growing food, fiber and energy for export, leaving the billions living on less than $5 a day to be priced out, with little chance of gaining access to cultivable land. There are several questions: will those hundreds of millions quietly starve? At what point will there be revolution? What form will that revolution take; nihilism and suicide vests? retro Maoism? I suspect that, at least in the first world, massive bankruptcy, combined with massive foreclosures and rising food and energy prices, will force democracies to turn to increased redistributionist policies, protectionism, and possibly fascism. So you and me and 100 million others can afford food on the table. The other 6.4 billion (plus interest) can all go to hell.2. The Reversalist Fallacy.
I wonder if those "others" will let me enjoy my meals in peace....
The quote from James Howard Kunstler above is typical of much of the commentary about a local farming-based coming out of the Peak Oil community. In his fiction novels he depicts a twenty-second century America remarkably similar to the 1880's America of Mark Twain, with small rural towns, cottage industries, physical labor, religious tent-show revivals, railroads, canals, animal transport, herbal medicine etc., with nary an electronic device or television screen to be found. Even the names and mannerisms of the characters seem to portray the future as some sort of reversion to the nineteenth century (especially odd considering white Americans will be a minority by 2050).
And those are the more optimistic commentators. Some of the more extreme commentators have predicted a massive dieoff and a total collapse of industrial civilization resembling an apocalyptic scenario more like Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, advising their followers to move to remote areas, stock up on food, hunker down with a shotgun, and buy gold. Such fantasies appeal to the anti-social nature of a country where the idea of the totaly self-sufficient frontiersman is part of the founding myth of the nation. Others have predicted a reversion to earlier social forms, like slavery and feudalism. One commentator pithily described a possible future as "Amish with Internet." Some have even predicted that humans will abandon agriculture altogether, and return to a hunting and gathering mode of life devoid of any technology whatsoever.
Staniford christens such people reversalists, which he considers to be a fallacy. He believes it is more based on a nostalgia for the past, rather than realistic predictions of how the future will actually unfold in an era of increasing costs for fossil fuels. He believes that some processes are irreversible and the future will not simply be like a videotape run in reverse. His criticism is worth quoting at length, as it applies to more than just agriculture (emphasis mine):
Here are some examples of irreversible processes. If you let grape juice ferment into wine, there's no way to get grape juice back. If you bake a cake in the oven, there's no way to turn it back into cake dough. If you ice and decorate the cake, but then accidentally drop it on the floor, there's no way to pick it up and have anything approaching the same cake as if you hadn't dropped it.This mode of thinking is rife within the Peak Oil community. Author and blogger John Michael Greer, one of the most intelligent, erudite and thoughtful commentators of the Peak Oil community, has advised his readers to take up trades such as farming, blacksmithing and leather working to prepare for the coming age of oil scarcity. He has argued that radio will provide a backup to an Internet sure to fail in the coming years, with vacuum tubes as a substitute for silicon chips. More oddly, he has argued that as fossil fuels become more expensive, the trend over the entire age of industrialism to replace human labor with machines will reverse, and that human labor will become more cost-effective compared to machines:
So when you industrialize a society, is that a reversible process? Can you take it on a backward path to a deindustrialized society that looks in the important ways like the society you had before the industrialization? As far as I can see, the "second wave" peak oil writers treat it as fairly obvious that this is both possible and desirable. It appears to me that it is neither possible or desirable, but at a minimum, someone arguing for it should seriously address the question. And it is this failure that I am calling the Fallacy of Reversibility. It is most pronounced in Kunstler, who in addition to believing we need a much higher level of involvement in agriculture also wants railways, canals, and sailing ships back, and is a strong proponent of nineteenth century urban forms.
I am going to christen this general faction of the peak oil community reversalists. This encompasses people advocating a return to earlier food growing or distribution practices (the local food movement), folks wanting to bring back the railways and tramcars, people believing that large scale corporations will all collapse, that the Internet will fail and we need to "make our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers."
One of the major mental challenges of the near future, in turn, will consist of letting go of this image of the future and retooling our expectations to fit a very different reality. Behind the clever robots who populated the collective imagination, and the less clever but more tangible bits of household automation marketed so obsessively to the middle classes in recent decades, lies the replacement of human energy by mechanical energy derived mostly from fossil fuels. During the age of cheap abundant energy, this made economic sense, because the energy – and the machines needed to use it – were so much cheaper than the skilled labor they replaced. In the decades to come, as energy stops being cheap and abundant, that rule will no longer hold. What looked like the wave of the future, here as elsewhere, might well turn out to be a temporary adjustment to a short-term phenomenon.http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2008/07/trailing-edge-technologies.html
As with agriculture, the evidence points in an entirely different direction. The trend since Peak Oil in 2006 has been increasing automation, not increasing labor, and the current recession has accelerated the replacement of labor with machines in a bid to shore up declining profits. In the United States, more and more supermarkets are moving to automated checkout lines, sidelining service workers who are already among the lowest-paid workers in the economy. If these workers are not competitive on salary, how far can we expect salaries to fall to make it more competitive to use labor instead? Online sales, a neglected feature of automation, are increasing, not decreasing, leading to less brick-and-mortar stores, and less need for workers to operate them. And it's not just low-wage workers who are being sidelined, according to The New York Times:
...Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.Armies of expensive lawyers, replaced by cheaper software (New York Times)
Some programs go beyond just finding documents with relevant terms at computer speeds. They can extract relevant concepts — like documents relevant to social protest in the Middle East — even in the absence of specific terms, and deduce patterns of behavior that would have eluded lawyers examining millions of documents.
“From a legal staffing viewpoint, it means that a lot of people who used to be allocated to conduct document review are no longer able to be billed out,” said Bill Herr, who as a lawyer at a major chemical company used to muster auditoriums of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”
Computers are getting better at mimicking human reasoning — as viewers of “Jeopardy!” found out when they saw Watson beat its human opponents — and they are claiming work once done by people in high-paying professions. The number of computer chip designers, for example, has largely stagnated because powerful software programs replace the work once done by legions of logic designers and draftsmen.
Software is also making its way into tasks that were the exclusive province of human decision makers, like loan and mortgage officers and tax accountants.
Are lawyers ever going to be cheap enough to be competitive with this software after all the education and training they must acquire? What about chip designers? Software is also being used to scan x-rays, replacing medical technicians. If even low-wage service workers are being replaced, what chance do these professions have?
Even if manufacturers move production back onshore, they will be employing a far smaller fraction of the workforce than before. There is no sign that factories are returning to more labor-intensive modes of production; it makes no economic sense to do so. Falling wages may make America more attractive for manufacturing again, but factories continue to be more efficient and automated. Many even use less energy, thanks to efficiency savings. In the past decade, the flow of goods emerging from U.S. factories has risen by about a third, while factory employment has fallen by roughly the same fraction. Even in China, wages are rising, not falling, leading to more automation. Here's a story in Britain's The Guardian from last August about Foxconn, the now-infamous maker of Apple computer products in Asia:
The electronics manufacturer Foxconn has been accused of treating its workers like machines as they toil on assembly lines, particularly after a spate of suicides among its Chinese employees in recent years. Now the company, best known for producing iPhones and other hi-tech gadgets, has found a solution: use robots instead.Taiwan iPhone manufacturer replaces Chinese workers with robots (The Guardian)
The Taiwanese company has vowed to expand automation in its plants, with Chinese state media reporting plans to use a million robots in the next three years.
"I don't think this is a one-off. Foxconn is often seen as a bellwether of global manufacturing in China," said Alistair Thornton of IHS Global Insight, suggesting other companies would follow suit. "Workers can command higher wages and are less willing to settle for lower ones. You can no longer just double your workforce to double your output."
Wages in the region have risen by around a third over the past year, experts estimate, as the proportion of young workers shrinks and their expectations rise.
Human labor is not going to be 'price competitive' with automation anytime soon. It's easy to see why this is a fallacy: As energy prices rise, the costs of all of the things a worker must pay for - food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and medical care, rise as well. No matter how far wages fall, employers still need to pay workers a bare minimum to keep them alive and reasonably effective. Since even the most threadbare wages must rise in tandem with energy prices, it's doubtful that energy will be so dear in the near future that a machine, which needs no food, shelter, transportation, pension, recreation, medical care, or sleep will be more costly to employ than a human worker. The cost of automation comes down as more of it is implemented, and it is becoming more powerful and sophisticated every day as the science advances. Also, wages are what economists call "sticky" that is, resistant to change. Workers do not easily accept lower wages and standards of living, even under declining economic conditions. It's doubtful that a dozen laborers with shovels will ever be cheaper than one man with a backhoe, even at third-world wage levels. Our problem is going to be too much surplus labor, not a lack of it.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the trends are clear. With energy prices increasing due to increased demand around the world and elasticity disappearing from the market in line with the predictions of Peak Oil, we're seeing big agriculture become more dominant, along with outsourcing automation accelerating. In addition, in contrast to conventional wisdom about local economies, there is no sign of globalism reversing or big box stores folding in place of smaller, local merchants. Again the trend is reversing, with stores like Target and Wal-Mart now commanding an ever-larger share of the grocery business. The reasons are exactly the same - these stores are able to command vast economies of scale that smaller producers cannot. As people get poorer, people will be looking for cheaper goods that such stores provide. For example, Dollar Stores which rely on ultra-cheap goods from China are not shutting down, they are expanding:
Family Dollar Stores announced Wednesday that it plans to open 450 to 500 new stores in fiscal 2012, a 50% jump compared with the number of openings in fiscal 2011, and will renovate, relocate or expand over 1,000 locations. The discounter also reported that its fiscal fourth-quarter net income rose 8%.http://www.retailingtoday.com/article/family-dollar-q4-profit-boosts-store-expansion-plans
Indeed, many organic and alternative products are controlled and distributed by big food producers. Look at soy milk, almond butter, yogurt and coconut oil and you'll see the names of ConAgra, General Mils, and other corporate conglomerates. Small farmers have to deal with such businesses; there is no way most small farmers can earn enough money by selling exclusively to customers directly. Similarly, around the world, Internet access continues to expand, not contact, even with high energy prices:
LONDON, 18 October 2010: The results of the third annual study of the quality of broadband connections around the globe reveals continued improvements worldwide, with more countries already prepared for the applications of tomorrow than in previous years and two thirds of the countries analyzed meeting or surpassing today's needs. Overall, thanks to a range of investments in infrastructure, global broadband quality has improved by 50% in just three years and penetration of broadband continues to improve, with about half of the households (49%) of the countries investigated now having access to broadband (up from 40% in 2008)http://newsroom.cisco.com/dlls/2010/prod_101710.html
It's not due to oil, it's due to economies of scale. The reasons have to do with the structure of the economy itself - in capitalist economies, those who can produce the most output with the least amount of labor can always undersell those who need more labor, due to the salaries and benefits they must pay. This trend has driven commercial consolidation and expansion since ancient times. Although the elimination of farm labor in America was due largely to fossil-fuel based mechanization, the trend of smaller farmers being kicked off the land and selling out to larger landholders predates the use of fossil fuels. It was endemic in the Roman Empire, where vast latifundia plantations produced export crops using slaves in place of machines. During the British Agricultural Revolution, farming became much more efficient, causing land consolidation and driving small farmers and laborers into the cities to seek wage labor in factories, which were just beginning to use coal. In fact, small cottage producers had already been supplanted by factories long before this: the first factories in England, Arkwright's cotton mills, were powered by water wheels, not coal. The advantages produced by economies of scale predate the use of fossil fuels - fossil fuels simply allowed these trends to occur on a scale never before seen. It is unlikely that rising price of oil will reverse this trend.
3. Is The Peak Oil Movement Really About Peak Oil?
So why is the view so widespread among Peak Oil writers that a reversion to nineteenth-century modes of living are in the offer, contrary to the evidence? Well, one one hand, it makes sense that the way of life before the onset of cheap oil provides a model of how to live without it. But I think the real reasons have to do with something else entirely. To see why, let's take a closer look at the renewed interest in agriculture.
Despite the continued dominance of large-scale industrial monoculture, it is undeniable that there is a surging interest in farming among young people not seen since the 1970s. More people than ever are trying to buy farmland in an attempt to go back-to-the land. Interest in food production is at an all-time high, with artisan food production making a comeback. Alternative agriculture methods like Permaculture, and movements like Slow Food are gaining in popularity. City-dwellers are converting their lawns to gardens and raising backyard chickens. Urban lots are being converted into community vegetable gardens, and sales of organic produce are growing. If Peak Oil isn't causing this, then what is? Here are some non-Peak Oil related reasons I can think of:
1.) Health: People are justifiably alarmed at the consequences of an American diet produced by a combination of big agriculture along with processed food companies and fast-food outlets. These are ubiquitous - fast food joints are everywhere, and processed junk food lines the shelves of supermarkets, with both heavily flogged by advertising. The realization that diets based on these foods are behind the explosion of chronic illnesses is causing people to seek out healthier alternatives, especially more vegetables produced in healthy soil. People don't trust the chemicals used by the big producers, who are not above suppressing research that is at odds with their profit model, so they turn to organic, pesticide-free foods instead. Every year produces more health scares about food from big producers contaminated by harmful, even deadly, bacteria.
2.) Environmentalism: Industrial agriculture is an environmental disaster. Massive amounts of topsoil are lost every year due to erosion around the world. Mechanized agriculture has all but eliminated good stewardship of the land. Pesticide runoff has caused massive algae blooms in the gulf of Mexico, resulting in "dead zones". Underground aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate. Industrial monocultures are vulnerable to pests and eliminate biodiversity. Smaller-scale sustainable agriculture methods like Permacuture can produce food sustainably without the environmental destruction produced by industrial agriculture, and even renew the landscape.
3. ) Compassion: the "factory farming" methods of meat production are almost unimaginably cruel. Many become vegans or vegetarians in response to this. Others turn to earlier methods of ranching, which combine natural "free-range" behavior of animals with diets more in line with animals' needs, instead of artificially cheap corn. Meat produced in this way is more nutritious and flavorful than that produced in factory farms. Factory farmed animals are also given high doses of antibiotics as a matter of routine due to overcrowding, not only causing health concerns for consumers of the products, but concerns about the rise of antibiotic resistant "superbugs" that may eventually become transmissible to humans.
4.) Taste: Many products produced by small-scale methods have superior flavor. Tomatoes produced out of season via chemicals and shipped across the country are notoriously bland. Heirloom varieties of vegetables grown in healthy soil can provide a variety of produce not seen on supermarket shelves, and are highly sought after by gourmets and restaurants. Naturally raised meats are also considered more flavorful.
5.) Control: People are uncomfortable that a small group of producers control nearly the entire food production system. When they buy food from the supermarket, they know that money is flowing to these big corporations to pay dividends to wealthy absentee owners who then rig the system to their advantage. They also know that such big corporations like to cut corners and mistreat labor. People feel better when they know where their food comes from and they have a relationship with a farmer. They want their money to go to people they know and trust who are engaged in sound, honest environmental and business practices, rather than furthering corporate greed and rapacity.
6.) Satisfaction: People feel alienated from their labor, unable to see any kind of end result or benefit from what they do all day. Such people feel that a day engaged in good, honest, physical work in fresh air and sunshine is better than sitting in a cubicle all day under fluorescent lights staring at a screen to make profits for tyrannical bosses, despite the often meager financial rewards.
7.) Jobs: With so many gainful employment opportunities closed by lack of access to education, automation, downsizing and outsourcing, farming as seen as one of the few lines of work where you can work for yourself without your job being eliminated by some distant manager. For inner-city areas that have been hollowed out by deindustrialization, community gardens provide opportunities to work, community cohesion, and self esteem.
At base, I think a lot of the attention towards locally produced foods and farming careers has more to do with with the cratering of the economy than the economics of farming. People are rejecting the dependance on Wall Street corporations for everything, along with the hollowing-out one-by-one of communities across America in the name of "globalism". Food is seen as the fundamental necessity that we cannot live without, and taking control over it as the first step to independence from a global system run amok. Detroit's car companies have moved the factories, and hence the jobs, to Mexico and China, but they can't move the ground beneath people's feet. Land is the only means of production that can't be outsourced. With the commanding heights of the economy almost exclusively in the hands of a small wealthy investor class, people feel powerless over the overall economy. But empty land is something they can control. People want to create their own jobs and value rather than be dependent on corporate "job creators" who demand ever more tax cuts and subsidies, while moving jobs abroad and outsourcing them to third-world countries.
Similar reasons can also be seen behind concepts like Transition Towns and economic movements such as Occupy Wall Street. These are all as valid reasons as Peak Oil in my book. Self-reliance, job creation, and taking back economic control from corporate behemoths are valid reasons for all of these things. But if we keep pretending that it's only about protecting against empty supermarket shelves or lights going out, the Peak Oil movement runs the risk of looking like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Similarly, if we imagine the farms and factories once again filling up with people because combines and robots are too expensive to power, I think we're in for a disappointment. We need to be realistic about the future prospects for these things.
What "reversalist" authors like Kunstler and Greer and others represent is a long-standing criticism of industrial culture as progress at all. These authors believe that the way things were done in the past, before the widespread use of fossil fuels were more humane, rewarding, and appropriately scaled to fundamental human needs for community, trust, and sociability. They see the vast complexity, fragility, and alienation produced by technology as a step backward, not forward. Many people share these feelings and resonate with them. They know things aren't right, and that we aren't moving in the right direction, even if they cannot exactly articulate why.
But here's the thing: their criticisms would be just as valid even if the most optimistic fantasies of the cornucopians were correct. In my opinion, their criticisms are dead on. Discontents of modern society tend to gravitate towards these authors because of their disgust with the world technological "progress" has made: dead-end jobs, ugly and alienating suburbs, dumbed-down entertainment, long commutes, sedentary lifestyles, wall-to-wall advertising,"consumer" culture, fast food, medicated children, overflowing jails, lack of empathy, the commercialization of life, car dependency, militarized police, costly education, exploding debt levels, rampant overwork, throwaway products, environmental destruction, the list is almost endless. If this is progress, you can keep it, they say. Many of these criticisms long predate even the notion of Peak Oil . The tendency is to view Peak Oil as a panacea, the harbinger of a collapse where all of this will go away and we'll return to the halcyon days of yore (but only the best parts). Hence the appeal of the reversalist narrative. Peak Oil has become a magnet for criticisms of the more-is-better, bigger-is-better, productivist, technophilic, greed-driven, consumer economy and lifestyle. The widespread use of fossil fuels is seen as a root cause of many of the ills of industrial society, and to a larger extent, civilization itself, and thus the Peak Oil community is a magnet for many of its discontents. But unfortunately this discontent often causes people to engage in wishful thinking about the future. They naturally tend to assume that Peak Oil will allow the world of their fantasies to once again come into being.
And can you blame them? Who wouldn't prefer an economy of small-scale yeoman farmers respecting the land, industrious small businessmen putting in a day of honest labor, self-sufficient communities with webs of interdependence, vibrant small towns and bustling main streets, live entertainment, Sundays off, one-room schoolhouses, unsupervised children fishing in the nearest river, and being able to walk to the corner store to get your groceries? Where money is circulated in the local community rather than being sucked out by Wall Street for the already obscenely wealthy to invest in the latest bubble? Where people interact with their neighbors face-to-face instead of passively staring at a television screens watching advertisements, shows filled with smut and violence, and corporate controlled "news" all night long? Who wouldn't want an economy where everyone weren't working longer and longer hours, and yet falling further and further into debt? Where ordinary people could create value rather than being in competition with every other worker on the planet? Who cares whether America can become "energy independent," do we really want a country full of nothing but drooling, drugged-up, barely literate "consumers" with nothing else to look forward to but a lifetime of drudgery and debt repayments to buy the latest electronic gadget? Looking at the ugliness, dysfunction and alienation modern society has caused, it's easy to give in to the hope that we're going back to an earlier, simpler time as the oil runs out. But we have to ask ourselves, just because we want this, is it really likely to be so? I think many people unthinkingly embrace reveralism as the antidote to an increasingly depressing future.
My central point is simply this: counting on Peak Oil alone to bring that world back is a fallacy. The evidence just isn't there. People have every reason to hate large-scale factory farming. Similarly, you do not need Peak Oil to criticize the wastefulness, ugliness, and soullessness of suburban sprawl. But let's fall into the reversalist folly that the future is going to be chock full of opportunities for blacksmiths, cobblers, thatchers, chandlers, coopers, tanners and bakers. That we can disengage from the political process and be left alone to build a nineteenth century society to replace the twenty-first. That globalized corporations and big-box stores are just going to whither away without any sort of regulation or tariffs. That farming will once again employ thirty percent of us. That empty strip malls will automatically be replaced by local shops. That our empty factories will be reactivated. Unless you tackle certain underlying facets of the economy, including the advantages of scale and the workings of money, it is unlikely for any of this to come about.
In the near future, gas will still be flowing and from pumps, water from the tap and electricity from the sockets. It's just that less and less people will be able to afford them. Our economy will break down long before we face empty shelves and brownouts. Peak Oil activists need to pay more attention to economic disintegration, rather than trying to become self-sufficient, which is a fallacy anyway. Indeed, raising vegetables is not a path to self sufficiency for an individual or community. No matter what, you need meat, carbohydrates, durable goods, manufactured products, and the like that only a modern interdependent economy can provide. Coming up with alternative economic structures is a good idea, but it should not be assumed that Peak Oil will make such alternatives the only way. In many ways, Peak Oil is actually makes the future we want harder to bring about, not easier. As people become poorer, they can't afford to buy organic food, solar panels or home insulation. Walkable neighborhoods become gentrified and prohibitively expensive for the poor. Loans to start green businesses will be harder to come by. When money and profits are tight, the tendency is for ever-larger firms to survive and consolidation to occur as smaller firms go under, and there's no reason to believe that this won't hold for agriculture as well. Politics will become increasingly extreme, with people flocking to politicians making futile promises to bring back the "good times" - indeed we're seeing this already. Dealing with this reality will present challenges for the Peak Oil community. Engagement, not a wishful return to the past, is the only way to bring about the kind of future society we want. As the economy breaks down, there will be a hunger for change. This provides enormous opportunities as well as challenges. But the future will not be a tape run in reverse.
The English author L.P. Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Who hasn't looked at the architecture of the City Beautiful movement, listened to old big-band or traditional folk music, watched movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, or looked at the elegant and dignified dress of people in old photos and felt a sense of all we we've lost in the name of "progress?" Similarly who hasn't wanted to "get away from it all" by going back to the land? After all, it's nicknamed "the rat race" for a reason.
It is certain that someday the last well deep under the ocean floor will have run dry, the last tar sands scooped from the Alberta plains, the last methane-filled underground rock torn open by fracking, and the last low-grade coal burned in a Chinese power plant. In such a world, we may very well go back to hunting and gathering, or scratching a bare living from the soil. Who knows? But this is so far in the future that very little constructive can be derived from it for the coming few decades. So many "Black Swans" could occur between now and then that make such a future impossible to predict with any accuracy. It belongs to the realm of science fiction more than serious economic analysis.
The yeoman farmer ideal has a hold on the American imagination, and it's inherently more appealing vision that one where millions of acres of America's precious landscape are planted with corn sewn in denuded soils awash in fertilizers and pesticides, devoid of animals, and harvested by gigantic combines to be processed by distant factories into junk food. Peak Oil or not, there's a better way, and we have the power to choose it. Yet let's not let either nostalgia or wishful thinking cloud our judgements about what effects Peak Oil will have on the economy, or constrain us in coming up with ways to deal with it. Let's not let nostalgia or wishful thinking cloud our judgement. Let's keep a clear head with eyes wide open - we're going to need it even more desperately in the years ahead if we are mitigate the effects. Let's not ignore data or let our expectations of how the future should unfold cloud our analysis of ways to deal with the changing conditions. Yes, the past is a rich source of information; a store of knowledge to draw upon to help us navigate the troubling times ahead. It also provides inspiration to those of us who don't believe that society gets better just because technology gets more sophisticated, and that anything "old fashioned" is inferior.
Let's keep that criticism of society, and realize that oil scarcity is not necessary to point out concerns like corporate control over our politics, the unhealthy effects of industrialized agriculture on people and the planet, the rapacity of banking, the wastefulness of our living arrangements, the irreversible damage carbon is doing to the climate, and the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. Just because these are under the rubric of Peak Oil does not mean that these criticisms are about Peak Oil at all. Nor do they have to be.
We do not need peak oil to promote local economies, walkable communities, civic engagement, cooperative businesses, low-carbon energy, regenerative agriculture, or composting. These ideas are valid for their own sake. Just because I question whether Peak Oil will naturally force us to adopt such concepts does not mean I don't think they are a good idea. I emphatically do, and I would actively promote them as the best way forward even if we had a thousand years of oil left in the ground (which we certainly do not). I worry that engaging in reversalist fantasies causes more harm than good when trying to get people on board with these ideas. The future will not look like the past, and I don't think it will look like the future the status-quo elites and techno-triumphalists imagine, but it will be something both better and worse and completely different than we ever could imagine.
The bottom line is: If we want things to change, we cannot sit back and think that high energy prices will magically change the economy back into the one that we want. We need to actively make it happen by looking at the underlying structure of the economy itself. We cannot go home again. We need to make a new home that works for everyone.
2. See people like Wiliiam Morris, Lewis Mumford, E.F. Schumacher, John Zerzan, et al. Primitivists have pointed out that hunting and gathering communities with no technology at all, even writing or the wheel, work only twenty hours a week to fulfill their needs. They also point out that despite the fact that technology is invented to reduce human labor, we in fact work more and more in industrial societies. By most measures, medieval peasants worked fewer hours per year than a modern office drone armed with a computer and seventy energy slaves apiece. Similarly, when hunter-gatherer societies switched to agriculture they inevitably became smaller, weaker, and more disease-ridden.
3. Ironically, wishful thinking and viewing the future as a tape run in reverse have both been criticized by none other than Kunstler himself. None of us are free of cognitive blind spots when it comes to our opinions.