Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

This is a guest post by Toby Hemenway, author of  Gaia’s Garden, a Guide to Home Scale Permaculture. It is being republished with the author’s permission. It was previously published on his blog, Pattern Literacy

Jared Diamond calls it “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”(1) Bill Mollison says that it can “destroy whole landscapes.”(2) Are they describing nuclear energy? Suburbia? Coal mining? No. They are talking about agriculture. The problem is not simply that farming in its current industrial manifestation is destroying topsoil and biodiversity. Agriculture in any form is inherently unsustainable. At its doorstep can also be laid the basis of our culture’s split between humans and nature, much disease and poor health, and the origins of dominator hierarchies and the police state. Those are big claims, so let’s explore them. Continue reading

Why World Coal Consumption Keeps Rising; What Economists Missed

A primary reason why coal consumption is rising is because of increased international trade, starting when the World Trade Organization was formed in 1995, and greatly ramping up when China was added in December 2001. Figure 1 shows world fossil fuel extraction for the three fossil fuels. A person can see a sharp “bend” in the coal line, immediately after China was added to the World Trade Organization. China’s data also shows a sharp increase in coal use at that time.

Figure 1. World fossil fuel supply based on world production data from BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. World fossil fuel supply based on world production data from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

China and many other Asian countries had not previously industrialized. The advent of international trade gave them opportunities to make and sell goods below the cost of other countries. In order to do this, they needed fuel, however. The fuel the West had used when it industrialized was coal. Coal had many advantages for a newly industrialized countries: it often can be extracted without advanced technology; it is relatively cheap to extract; and it is often available locally. It can be used to make many of the basic items used by industrialized countries, including steel, concrete, and electricity.

The industrialization of Asian countries was pushed along by many forces. Companies in the West were eager to have a way to make goods cheaper. Buyers were happy with lower prices. Even the Kyoto Protocol tended to push international trade along. This document made it clear that countries signing the document wouldn’t be in the market for coal. From the point of the developing countries, this would help hold coal prices down (at least in the export market). It also likely meant a better long-term supply of coal for developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol offered no penalties for exporting products made with coal, so it put countries that used coal to make products for export in a better competitive position. This was especially the case if Kyoto Protocol countries used carbon taxes to make their own products higher priced.

Apart from the international trade /industrialization issue, there is another issue that is helping to keep coal consumption rising. It is the fact that oil supply is in short supply and high priced, and this means that economies of countries that disproportionately use a lot of oil in their economies are at a competitive disadvantage. Countries coming “late to the party” are in a good position to develop their economies using little oil and much coal, and thus keep overall energy costs down. This approach gives the developing countries a competitive advantage over the developed countries.

Let’s look at a few graphs. In terms of  oil leverage (total energy consumed /oil energy consumed), China and India come out way ahead of several other selected country groups.  They do this with their heavy use of coal.

Figure 2. Ratio of total energy consumed to oil (including biofuels) consumed, based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 2. Ratio of total energy consumed to oil (including biofuels) consumed, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

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Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong

Most of us have heard that Thomas Malthus made a forecast in 1798 that the world would run short of food. He expected that this would happen because in a world with limited agricultural land, food supply would fail to rise as rapidly as population. In fact, at the time of his writing, he believed that population was already in danger of outstripping food supply. As a result, he expected that a great famine would ensue.

Most of us don’t understand why he was wrong. A common misbelief is that the reason he was wrong is that he failed to anticipate improved technology. My analysis suggests that there were really two underlying factors which enabled the development and widespread use of technology. These were (1) the beginning of fossil fuel use, which ramped up immediately after his writing, and (2) a ramp up in non-governmental debt after World War II, which enabled the rapid uptake of new technology such as the sale of cars and trucks. Without fossil fuels, availability of  materials such as metal and glass (needed for most types of technology) would have been severely restricted. Without increased debt, common people would not have been able to afford the new types of high-tech products that businesses were able to produce.

This issue of why Malthus’s forecast was wrong is relevant today, as we grapple with the issues of world hunger and of oil consumption that is not growing as rapidly as consumers would like–certainly it is not keeping oil prices down at historic levels.

What Malthus Didn’t Anticipate

Malthus was writing immediately before fossil fuel use started to ramp up.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

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Energy Leveraging: An Explanation for China’s Success and the World’s Unemployment

If an employer wants to maximize profits, it will want to leverage its use of high-priced energy sources.  From an employer’s point of view, there are basically three kinds of energy, from most to least expensive:

  1. Human energy
  2. Petroleum energy
  3. Everything else

If an employer wants to keep its costs low, it needs to minimize its use of expensive energy sources. The primary way it does this is by leveraging expensive energy sources with cheaper energy sources that help keep overall energy costs in line with what competitors (including overseas competitors) are paying. Thus, employers will want to use as little human and petroleum energy as possible, instead using cheap energy to substitute.

Human Energy

Human energy is the most expensive form of energy. It is very expensive because an employer needs to pay the employee enough to live on. This amount includes the cost of energy to fulfill the human’s needs, plus enough extra to cover taxes to cover the cost of energy for those who for some reason cannot work, plus taxes for maintenance of public infrastructure. An employer can keep his cost of human energy low by

  1. Substituting mechanical or electrical energy, which is usually cheaper.
  2. Hiring humans whose wage costs are low. Usually this means is humans who use little energy in their personal lives, and what energy is used, is cheap energy.
  3. Hiring in areas where taxes are low, usually reflecting a lack of benefits to employees. Continue reading