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.
Permaculture, although it encompasses many disciplines, orbits most fundamentally around food. Anthropologists, too, agree that food defines culture more than our two other physical needs of shelter and reproduction. A single home-building stint provides a place to live for decades. A brief sexual encounter can result in children. But food must be gotten every day, usually several times a day. Until very recently, all human beings spent much of their time obtaining food, and the different ways of doing that drove cultures down very divergent paths.
Anthropologist Yehudi Cohen (3) and many subsequent scholars break human cultures into five categories based on how they get food. These five are foragers (or hunter-gatherers), horticulturists, agriculturists, pastoralists, and industrial cultures. Knowing which category a people falls into allows you to predict many attributes of that group. For example, foragers tend to be animist/pantheist, living in a world rich with spirit and in which all beings and many objects are ascribed a status equal to their own in value and meaning. Foragers live in small bands and tribes. Some foragers may be better than others at certain skills, like tool making or medicine, but almost none have exclusive specialties and everyone helps gather food. Though there may be chiefs and shamans, hierarchies are nearly flat and all members have access to the leaders. A skirmish causing two or three deaths is a major war. Most of a forager’s calories come from meat or fish, supplemented with fruit, nuts, and some wild grain and tubers.(4) It’s rare that a forager will overexploit his environment, as the linkage is so tight that destruction of a resource one season means starvation the next. Populations tend to peak at low numbers and stabilize.
The First Growth Economy
Agriculturists, in contrast, worship gods whose message usually is that humans are chosen beings holding dominion, or at least stewardship, over creation. This human/nature divide makes ecological degradation not only inevitable but a sign of progress.
While the forager mainstays of meat and wild food rot quickly, domesticated grain, a hallmark innovation of agriculture, allows storage, hoarding, and surplus. Food growing also evens out the seasonal shortages that keep forager populations low.
Having fields to tend and surpluses to store encouraged early farming peoples to stay in one place. Grain also needs processing, and as equipment for threshing and winnowing grew complex and large, the trend toward sedentism accelerated.(5)
Grains provide more calories, or energy, per weight than lean meat. Meat protein is easily transformed into body structure—one reason why foragers tend to be taller than farmers—but turning protein into energy exacts a high metabolic cost and is inefficient.(6) Starches and sugars, the main components of plants, are much more easily converted into calories than protein, and calories are the main limiting factor in reproduction. A shift from meat-based to carbohydrate-based calories means that given equal amounts of protein, a group getting its calories mostly from plants will reproduce much faster than one getting its calories from meat. It’s one reason farming cultures have higher birth rates than foragers.
Also, farming loosens the linkage between ecological damage and food supply. If foragers decimate the local antelope herd, it means starvation and a low birth rate for the hunters. If the hunters move or die off, the antelope herd will rebound quickly. But when a forest is cleared for crops, the loss of biodiversity translates into more food for people. Soil begins to deplete immediately but that won’t be noticed for many years. When the soil is finally ruined, which is the fate of nearly all agricultural soils, it will stunt ecological recovery for decades. But while the soil is steadily eroding, crops will support a growing village.
All these factors—storable food, surplus, calories from carbohydrates, and slow feedback from degrading ecosystems—lead inevitably to rising populations in farming cultures. It’s no coincidence, then, that farmers are also conquerors. A growing population needs more land. Depleted farmland forces a population to take over virgin soil. In comparison, forager cultures are usually very site specific: they know the habits of particular species and have a culture built around a certain place. They rarely conquer new lands, as new terrain and its different species would alter the culture’s knowledge, stories, and traditions. But expansion is built into agricultural societies. Wheat and other grains can grow almost anywhere, so farming, compared to foraging, requires less of a sense of place.
Even if we note these structural problems with agriculture, the shift from foraging at first glance seems worth it because—so we are taught—agriculture allows us the leisure to develop art, scholarship, and all the other luxuries of a sophisticated culture. This myth still persists even though for 40 years anthropologists have compiled clear evidence to the contrary. A skilled gatherer can amass enough wild maize in three and a half hours to feed herself for ten days. One hour of labor can yield a kilogram of wild einkorn wheat.(7) Foragers have plenty of leisure for non-survival pleasures. The art in the caves at Altamira and Lascaux, and other early examples are proof that agriculture is not necessary for a complex culture to develop. In fact, forager cultures are far more diverse in their arts, religions, and technologies than agrarian cultures, which tend to be fairly similar.(3) And as we know, industrial society allows the least diversity of all, not tolerating any but a single global culture.
A Life of Leisure
We’re also taught that foragers’ lives are “nasty, brutish, and short,” in Hobbes’s famous characterization. But burial sites at Dickson Mounds, an archaeological site in Illinois that spans a shift from foraging to maize farming, show that farmers there had 50% more tooth problems typical of malnutrition, four times the anemia, and an increase in spine degeneration indicative of a life of hard labor, compared to their forager forebears at the site.(8) Lifespan decreased from an average of 26 years at birth for foragers to 19 for farmers. In prehistoric Turkey and Greece, heights of foragers averaged 5′-9″ in men and 5′-5″ in women, and plummeted five inches after the shift to agriculture (1). The Turkish foragers’ stature is not yet equaled by their descendants. In virtually all known examples, foragers had better teeth and less disease than subsequent farming cultures at the same site. Thus the easy calories of agriculture were gained at the cost of good nutrition and health.
We think of hunter-gatherers as grimly weathering frequent famine, but agriculturists fare worse there, too. Foragers, with lower population densities, a much more diverse food supply, and greater mobility, can find some food in nearly any conditions. But even affluent farmers regularly experience famine. The great historian Fernand Braudel (9) shows that even comparatively wealthy and cultured France suffered country-wide famines 10 times in the tenth century, 26 in the eleventh, 2 in the twelfth, 4 in the fourteenth, 7 in the fifteenth, 13 in the sixteenth, 11 in the seventeenth, and 16 in the eighteenth century. This does not include the countless local famines that occurred in addition to the widespread ones. Agriculture did not become a reliable source of food until fossil fuels gave us the massive energy subsidies needed to avoid shortfalls. When farming can no longer be subsidized by petrochemicals, famine will once again be a regular visitor.
Agriculture needs more and more fuel to supply the population growth it causes. Foragers can reap as many as 40 calories of food energy for every calorie they expend in gathering. They don’t need to collect and spread fertilizer, irrigate, terrace, or drain fields, all of which count against the energy gotten from food. But ever since crops were domesticated, the amount of energy needed to grow food has steadily increased. A simple iron plow requires that millions of calories be burned for digging, moving, and smelting ore. Before oil, one plow’s forging meant that a dozen trees or more were cut, hauled, and converted to charcoal for the smithy. Though the leverage that a plow yields over its life may earn back those calories as human food, all that energy is robbed from the ecosystem and spent by humans.
Farming before oil also depended on animal labor, demanding additional acreage for feed and pasture and compounding the conversion of ecosystem into people. Agriculture’s caloric yield dipped into the negative centuries ago, and the return on energy has continued to degrade until we now use an average of 4 to 10 calories for each calorie of food energy.
So agriculture doesn’t just require cropland. It needs inputs from vast additional acreages for fertilizer, animal feed, fuel and ore for smelting tools, and so on. Farming must always drain energy and diversity from the land surrounding cultivation, degrading more and more wilderness.
Wilderness is a nuisance for agriculturists, a source of pest animals and insects, as well as land that’s just “going to waste.” It will constantly be destroyed. Combine this with farming’s surplus of calories and its need for large families for labor, and the birth rate will rise geometrically. Under this brutal calculus of population growth and land hunger, Earth’s ecosystems will increasingly and inexorably be converted into human food and food-producing tools.
Forager cultures have a built-in check on population, since the plants and animals they depend on cannot be over-harvested without immediate harm. But agriculture has no similar structural constraint on over-exploitation of resources. Quite the opposite is true. If one farmer leaves land fallow, the first neighbor to farm it gains an advantage. Agriculture leads to both a food race and population explosion. (I cannot help but wonder if eating high on the food chain via meat, since it will reduce population, is ultimately a more responsible act than eating low on the food chain with grains, which will promote larger populations. At some point humans need to get the message to slow their breeding.)
We can pass laws to stop some of the harm agriculture does, but these rules will reduce harvests. As soon as food gets tight, the laws will be repealed. There are no structural constraints on agriculture’s ecologically damaging tendencies.
All this means that agriculture is fundamentally unsustainable.
The damage done by agriculture is social and political as well. A surplus, rare and ephemeral for foragers, is a principal goal of agriculture. A surplus must be stored, which requires technology and materials to build storage, people to guard it, and a hierarchical organization to centralize the storage and decide how it will be distributed. It also offers a target for local power struggles and theft by neighboring groups, increasing the scale of wars. With agriculture, power thus begins its concentration into fewer and fewer hands. He who controls the surplus controls the group. Personal freedom erodes naturally under agriculture.
The endpoint of Cohen’s cultural continuum is industrial society. Industrialism is really a gloss on agriculture, since industry is dependent on farming to provide low-cost raw materials that can be “value-added,” a place to externalize pollution and other costs, and a source of cheap labor. Industrial cultures have enormous ecological footprints, low birth rates, and high labor costs, the result of lavishing huge quantities of resources—education, complex infrastructure, layers of government and legal structures, and so on—upon each person. This level of complexity cannot be maintained from within itself. The energy and resources for it must be siphoned from outlying agricultural regions. Out there lie the simpler cultures, high birth rates, and resulting low labor costs that must subsidize the complexity of industry.
An industrial culture must also externalize costs upon rural places via pollution and export of wastes. Cities ship their waste to rural areas. Industrial cultures subsidize and back tyrannical regimes to keep resource prices and labor costs low. These tendencies explain why, now that the US has shifted from an agrarian base to an industrial one, Americans can no longer afford to consume products made at home and must turn to agrarian countries, such as China and Mexico, or despotic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia’s, for low-cost inputs. The Third World is where the First World externalizes the overwhelming burden of maintaining the complexity of industrialism. But at some point there will be no place left to externalize to.
Horticulture to the Rescue
As I mentioned, Cohen locates another form of culture between foraging and agriculture. These are the horticulturists, who use simple methods to raise useful plants and animals. Horticulture in this sense is difficult to define precisely, because most foragers tend plants to some degree, most horticulturists gather wild food, and at some point between digging stick and plow a people must be called agriculturists. Many anthropologists agree that horticulture usually involves a fallow period, while agriculture overcomes this need through crop rotation, external fertilizers, or other techniques. Agriculture is also on a larger scale. Simply put, horticulturists are gardeners rather than farmers.
Horticulturists rarely organize above the tribe or small village level. Although they are sometimes influenced by the monotheism, sky gods, and messianic messages of their agricultural neighbors, horticulturists usually retain a belief in earth spirits and regard the Earth as a living being. Most horticultural societies are far more egalitarian than agriculturists, lacking despots, armies, and centralized control hierarchies.
Horticulture is the most efficient method known for obtaining food, measured by return on energy invested. Agriculture can be thought of as an intensification of horticulture, using more labor, land, capital, and technology. This means that agriculture, as noted, usually consumes more calories of work and resources than can be produced in food, and so is on the wrong side of the point of diminishing returns. That’s a good definition of unsustainability, while horticulture is probably on the positive side of the curve. Godesky (10) believes this is how horticulture can be distinguished from agriculture. It may take several millennia, as we are learning, but agriculture will eventually deplete planetary ecosystems, and horticulture might not.
Horticulturists use polycultures, tree crops, perennials, and limited tillage, and have an intimate relationship with diverse species of plants and animals. This sounds like permaculture, doesn’t it? Permaculture, in its promotion of horticultural ideals over those of agriculture, may offer a road back to sustainability. Horticulture has structural constraints against large population, hoarding of surplus, and centralized command and control structures. Agriculture inevitably leads to all of those.
A Steep Price
We gave up inherently good health as well as immense personal freedoms when we embraced agriculture. I once thought of achievements such as the Hammurabic Code, Magna Carta, and Bill of Rights as mileposts on humanity’s road to a just and free society. But I’m beginning to view them as ever larger and more desperate dams to hold back the swelling flood of abuses of human rights and the centralization of power that are inherent in agricultural and industrial societies. Agriculture results, always, in concentration of power by the elite. That is the inevitable result of the large storable surplus that is at the heart of agriculture.
It is no accident that permaculture’s third ethic wrestles with the problem of surplus. Many permaculturists have come to understand that Mollison’s simple injunction to share the surplus barely scratches the surface of the difficulty. This is why his early formulation has often been modified into a slightly less problematic “return the surplus” or “reinvest the surplus,” but the fact that these versions have not yet stabilized into a commonly held phrasing as have the other two ethics, “Care for the Earth” and “Care for People,” tells me that permaculturists have not truly come to grips with the problem of surplus.
The issue may not be to figure out how to deal with surplus. We may need to create a culture in which surplus, and the fear and greed that make it desirable, are no longer the structural results of our cultural practices. Jared Diamond may be right, and agriculture and the abuses it fosters may turn out to be a ten-millennium-long misstep on the path to a mature humanity. Permaculture may be more than just a tool for sustainability. The horticultural way of life that it embraces may offer the road to human freedom, health, and a just society.
I am deeply indebted to Jason Godesky and the Anthropik Tribe for first making me aware of the connection between permaculture and horticultural societies, and for formulating several of the other ideas expressed in this article.
- Diamond, Jared. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discover, May 1987.
- Mollison, Bill. (1988). Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. Tagari.
- Cohen, Yehudi. (1971). Man in Adaptation: The Institutional Framework. De Gruyter.
- Lee, R. and I. Devore (eds.) 1968. Man the Hunter. Aldine.
- Harris, David R. An Evolutionary Continuum of People-Plant Interactions. In Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation. Harris, D. R. and G.C. Hillman (eds.) 1989.
- Milton, K. 1984. Protein and Carbohydrate Resources of the Maku Indians of Northwestern Amazonia. American Anthropologist86, 7-27.
- Harlan, Jack R. Wild-Grass Seed Harvesting in the Sahara and Sub-Sahara of Africa. In Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation. Harris, D. R. and G.C. Hillman (eds.) 1989.
- Goodman, Alan H., John Lallo, George J. Armelagos and Jerome C. Rose. (1984) Health Changes at Dickson Mounds (A.D. 950–1300). In Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture, M. Cohen and G. Armelagos, eds. Academic.
- Braudel, Fernand (1979). Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century: The Structures of Everyday Life. Harper and Row.
- Godesky, Jason (2005). Human Societies are Defined by Their Food. http://rewild.info/anthropik/2005/10/thesis-8-human-societies-are-defined-by-their-food/index.html
Copyright 2006 by Toby Hemenway.
(Published in Permaculture Activist #60, May, 2006)
After it being asserted that the rising incidence of thyroid cancer was attributable to nuclear testing in the 50s and 60’s I thought I would do the research
This data shows no peaks whatsoever as a result of that: Indeed it is not even considered worth more than a passing mention.
The finger seems to point (if anywhere) at the introduction of fire retardant chemicals to foam upholstery, rather, and better detection and reclassification of tumours.
Once again confirmation bias is in the eyes of those who seek to blame ionising radiation of a man made origin for everything…
Leo, confirmation bias is everywhere and is something we all have to guard against.
I have more than a passing interest in radiation damage living as I do in part of the UK where there are high background levels of radon. I have a copy of the UK’s Health Protection Agency report into Radon and Public Health.
To sum it up, there is a risk of lung cancer from radon in the home and no threshold below which the risk is zero. However, the report only recommends new builds to have anti-radon measures incorporated at the build stage. The estimated number of deaths does not warrant the expense of retrofit to existing properties.
This illustrates to me the real point to be made in this discussion.
If you ask the question: Is nuclear energy safe? Then the answer is no.
This misses the point because no form of energy production is safe. Indeed, we cannot live without oxygen (because oxygen burns food for our cells energy), but oxygen will kill us all in the end, unless something else gets there before.
Damage from oxygen metabolism and damage from radiation is very similar and we have mechanisms to counteract that damage, but those mechanisms are not perfect.
We should be asking whether a particular type of energy production is safe enough and whether it is safer than alternatives over the short, medium and long term. A deaths benefits analysis is required but I doubt that we will get that.
Absolutely, although I am not quite so sure that there is ‘no safe level for radon’, because in some parts of the world – e.g. Ramsar – its massively high and there appear to be no especial risks associated with it. It remains a puzzle that needs untangling a lot more. If any money were available to investigate it.
But your final comments are spot on. At some point the balance of risks and cost associated with any given technology need to be balanced with its life saving benefit. Radiology departments exist in every hospital and departments of nuclear medicine. I’ve been infused with ‘low level nuclear waste’ as part of a treatment. Many people are. That’s rational. The benefits far outweigh the risks.
But the debate around power technology is supremely irrational. The real pollution and the real danger is in the completely false information, wild and dramatic spin and scare stories surrounding everything BUT ‘renewables’ and the utter disregard for the facts but spun totally positively, of ‘renewable energy’.
Any rational analysis would conclude that large sums of money are being spent to establish the case for something that is relatively inept, and to destroy the case for other things that actually have proven track records of working.
It seems that a state of fear and confusion is to someone’s benefit: someone with a lot of (someone else’s) money to burn.
In short a climate (sic!) of fear suits commercial interest and political interests.
I sometimes think university researchers are part of the problem. The ‘status quo” gives them nothing to do research on. Looking at “new” technology generates grant money. New clearly must be better.
Also, politicians want to sound like they are doing something. So they get to be part of the problem as well. Corn ethanol was a way of getting rid of surplus corn and raising farmers’ income. Someone came up with the idea of calling it “renewable” to help sell the idea.
Gail, my comment on radiation and Leo’s response do not appear. Possibly because of the nesting of the thread.
With respect to research on radiation effects in Ramsar, a search on the web shows that there has been quite a lot of research on the subject. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramsar,_Mazandaran
Due to the small number of inhabitants in Ramsar (about 2000), it is probably going to be difficult to demonstrate any significant effects from naturally occurring radiation unless the risk is dramatically increased, which does not appear to be the case.
Gail, my apologies. I’ve now found the thread (under Newer Comments).
A continuing theme is the way the world will look on the way down the Net Energy curve. I have just read an interesting fictional story by Wendell Berry that you might like to check out. The book is A Place In Time, a collection of stories set at different times and with different characters in the fictional town of Port William, KY.
The first story takes place in late summer of 1864. Far away from Kentucky, the Civil War is raging. In Kentucky, the countryside is not really controlled by anyone. Small groups of marauders travel the roads looking for something worth stealing. There is a lot of random violence. (When I lived in Missouri, I learned that 90 percent of the residents of the Ozarks went to Oregon to escape the violence.) The country people (many of them solitary women, by this time) have learned some things about coping. For example, they have turned their chickens loose in the fields where the birds nest in the trees at night. Hogs run feral in the woods and can only be caught and slaughtered with the help of several neighbors. If the animals were easy to catch, the marauders would have taken them already.
Unfortunately, we smart modern people have bred chickens too dumb to move and too ungainly to stand, much less nest in a tree and forage for food. So don’t think that Don Tyson is going to help you out with this problem. A friend of mine tried raising Bourbon turkeys, a heritage breed, but gave up this year ‘because they are just too mean’. So…with tongue in cheek, I suggest you get some really mean Bourbon turkeys as your insurance against starvation.
Seriously, I think reading this brief chapter will give you some insights into what might be necessary if the dollar loses its reserve currency status and the US is forced to live within its means and debts are not paid and etc., etc.
As an antidote to despair, nothing beats getting your muscles working and your brain in gear and your senses alert in a group of similarly engaged people. Here is the agenda for the Organic Growers annual conference in Asheville, North Carolina. Note first the general lack of ‘world travelers’ in the list of speakers–mostly local people ‘showing and telling’ along with experts from area agricultural colleges.
You will see presentations on many subjects which have been discussed here recently, including:
community gardens and suburban yard gardens and apartment complex gardens and small farms
food preparation from hunting mushrooms to growing mushrooms to butchering and using all of the pig except the squeal
rotational grazing of large herbivores
skills necessary for survival such as seed saving, medical diagnostics, medicinal plants, making knives from flint, powering your truck with wood
food forests and permaculture design and saving the world and bio-char (no desert lore here in the Eastern Mountains)
the nuts and bolts of horticulture with crop rotations and disease prevention and cover crops
pumping water from streams without fuel and building high elevation dams and distributing the water with gravity
Yet another heavyweight weighs in on the Food Forest concept:
Sharon Astyk reviews the River Cottage cookbook for using the products of a food forest. I think I mentioned that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote a few words endorsing Martin Crawford’s most recent book. Hugh is the proprietor of River Cottage in Dorset, England. The thesis of the book is that home gardeners should not waste their energy growing cheap and readily available crops, but should concentrate on the unusual and the high value. I don’t exactly agree with that, but it isn’t a bad idea either. What is important, I think, is that the notion of growing a significant portion of one’s own food is the beginning of a change in the way one looks at life and food and that knowing how to prepare food so that it gives pleasure is very basic to that whole undertaking.
I have to agree on unusual and high value for home gardening.
Vegetable gardening is generally the least bang for the buck. They supply vitamins and water, but very little carbohydrate, fat, or protein.
If your intention is to feed yourself, I would focus first on quality protein and fat, which generally means animals. Vegans don’t like this, but milk and eggs work for vegetarians. The animals are little composting machines, churning out the most needed amendments for your soil.
I don’t want to get into an endless debate about diet and lifestyle and how all that affects health. Let’s just assume that there are some smart people who think that physical flourishing requires a diet and lifestyle which prompts cellular signaling which generates the absence of chronic inflammation, low IGF1 ( insulin like growth factor one), and low insulin in the blood. See, for example, at the 23 minute point and for a few minutes following:
The major factor in cellular signaling is fruits and vegetables. They have few calories but a whole lot of effect on cellular signaling and therefore on the health of the organism. It is also true that once vegetable is harvested, it begins to die and those healthy benefits begin to wane rapidly. It is also true that the fertility of the soil and the environment the vegetable or fruit grew in affects the nutrient density of the vegetable including the presence of some but not overwhelming stressors (nutrient density being largely about their ability to favorably impact cellular signaling). Steve Solomon, the well known gardener, thinks that the only way to get really high nutrient vegetables is to grow them yourselves because farmers cannot command enough money in a commodity market to justify increasing soil nutrients to make available to the vegetables.
Now let’s consider my particular circumstances. I have a tenth of an acre at my house which is planted in a combination of food forest and containers with vegetables. The containers are set next to the south wall of my house on very poor soil which doesn’t get significant rainfall (due to the roof overhang). The containers are quite efficient in their use of water–but do require commercial fertilizers. Before each meal, I typically go out and harvest leafy green vegetables and bring them in and use them immediately. In addition, I have a plot in a community garden 3 miles from my house. I am converting that plot to perennial vegetables. The perennials do not require the daily attention that the containers require, but will yield me a significant harvest which I can gather easily with a bicycle. I also work at a farm, and am paid in food, which is 8 miles from my house. The farm is an excellent source of a wide variety of foods and gives me all the tubers and peanuts I want. This makes sense for me. It would not make sense for someone who thinks that eating a lot of beef and also taking pills with growth hormones is the way to thrive. If I had an acre or two of land, I would do things differently. If commercial fertilizer becomes unavailable, then I will have to change things. My point is that everyone has different ideas about what they want and their physical circumstances are all different. So one size does not fit all.
My reservations about the River Cottage approach is that I don’t get the impression that they really grasp the whole cellular signaling and nutrient density and kitchen garden connection.
My impression of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is not reproducible here.
It’s popular TV for an urban audience that romanticises matters green and understands nothing beyond that.
Adopting Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s criteria of Skin In The Game.
Sharon Astyk, who has so much skin in the game we should be able to see her bare bones, Sharon says: We know that perennial landscapes can produce a LOT of food, that diversified plantings are more productive per acre than grain monocultures – but we have to find viable markets for the kinds of foods they produce – that means training and teaching eaters on the value of those foods.
Simon Fairlie put a lot of his skin in the game and concluded, after a thorough analysis, that Britain can indeed feed itself but that it will require moving people from city to country and modifying diets.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (to my limited knowledge) takes people from London who know nothing about preparing food or what real food looks like, shows them real food at his farm, and teaches them how to prepare it. That is skin in the game. I have tried to do the same thing, so I have some skin in that game also. It isn’t easy.
Geoff Lawton has skin in the game in over 35 countries (with skinned knuckles to prove it). Geoff walks his talk at home in Australia, too. Geoff thinks gardens from the patio scale to the small farm scale can solve an awful lot of humanity’s problems. He has a lot of personal experience behind that statement.
Toby Hemenway has skin in the game–including his new home in Sonoma County.
Do you have any skin in the game in terms of teaching people to recognize real food and understanding what to do with it? If you do, I will listen to your opinion with more respect. If not, I will tend to put more weight on Sharon’s opinion–with the reservation I mentioned to Jan.
I didn’t mean to imply that fruits and vegetables are worthless, just that if feeding yourself is the goal, they may not be the best place to start.
Absolutely. humans are adapted to mainly meat plus a bit of nuts and fruit. They can digest starch and carbohydrates, but its not especially good for them. Especially when its not balanced by the huge energy outputs they need to make to grow the cereals.
It is however the only way to feed very large populations on a limited land area.
Without rice, china wouldn’t exist in its current form.. What happened to Ireland when the potato crop failed is a matter of history.
WE have had a universally bad year for cereals with the jet stream stuck so that the USA was in drought and N Europe was wet cold and had no sun at all. without fossil fuels we would have seen large population dies offs in both places.
As it is grain prices are very very high. And cattle eat grain too. So meat is also dear. If the weather does the unexpected, food production suffers all round. If it was like that all the time, of course, we would shift to different crops and different growing areas.
That’s the sort of random factor that can turn marginal survival into continent wide population losses – as we have seen in Africa, China, Russia, Ireland, S America…many times in the past.
7 fat years and 7 lean years is mentioned in the Bible, but there is no mention of SUVs or coal burning as being responsible 🙂
Depends on whether your priority is calories or health (at least as some of us perceive health).
Also depends on the physical circumstances. As I said, with an acre or two, small animals such as rabbits and chickens and ducks make a lot more sense.
If you think that civilization is suddenly going to implode, roads become impassable, transport impossible, general chaos…then having calorie crops close to hand is important.
What I think right now is that truly health promoting fruits and vegetables are the scarcest products and are best produced very close to home in a garden.
Life is not without risk…Don Stewart
My approach for supplying more calories is to add nut trees and sweet potatoes. If I were doing more gardening, I might add other root vegetables. I’m not in a location where animals would work well.
In terms of carbohydrates and proteins, in temperate climes the best yield from small plots are potatoes and beans – beans have high protein content and can be dried also. But soil quality drops if the land is used a lot, even when cycling.
For fruit apple trees are good. Many species store well and provide high yields. Bottling soft fruits – especially in spice & alcohol (:-)) works well. My wife bottles the nasty woody bitter quinces with cinnamon cloves and wine, and the result is delicious.
It has to be admitted that the wine sugar bottles and spices would be unlikely to exist in a post industrial world, however.
A mixed pottage of lentils or other beans, potatoes, some boiled grains, and a bit of green leaf and various roots is actually almost a balanced diet, especially with fresh fruit. We cook that into curries with the addition of whatever meat is currently available.
I did attempt to grow beans, but not with very good success. I will need to try new approaches next year.
🙂 we had vile crops last year. No summer sun at all. It was the reverse in the US – the jetstream stuck, you got drought, we got floods…
for small plots get a good climber – more leaf area:ground area ratio ! Best cropper here is the scarlet emperor runner bean. But ask your local green fingered community – its very soil/weather/climate specific.
Potatoes can be grown in piled up auto tyres – fill with compost and tubers, water and leave.
If the summer sun is good and you have the water squashes, Zucchini, peppers and chiles and tomatoes do well in small spaces.
Further north, brassicas are suitable and with lighter soil, root vegetables.
The top 0.1% have no allegiance to nation-states, political parties, religions, firms, or political ideology. Their enduring objective is absolute power, which in today’s world means ownership and unchallenged control of the means of creation of debt-money and the institutions, including gov’ts, that protect and enforce the system of upward flows from resources and labor product to the top of the hierarchical system of power relations, i.e., from the bottom 99-99.9% to the top 0.1%.
With absolute power comes the latitude to select, fund, co-opt, and manipulate one’s “enemies”. The US, British, German, and Israeli intelligence services have been creating, infiltrating, co-opting, and recruiting “terrorist” organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Mujahideen/Al Qaeda, and others for decades. Our “enemies” are the Power Elite’s “assets” in the “War of Terror” against the bottom 99-99.% as a means of mass-social control and discouraging and discrediting dissent.
The Anglo-American imperial military has recently announced the “Pivot to Asia”, which is the precursor shift in strategy in preparation for regional war with China. The State Dept. and Pentagon planners know that China is about to implode as did Germany and Japan in the debt-deflationary 1930s, creating regional instability and the impulse by the threatened domestic elites to project violence outward. Anglo-American empire’s “allies” and “assets” in the Pacific region will be threatened by instability in China, and thus China must once again be forced to submit to the imperial boot upon her neck and turn inward.
The top 0.1% want it all; for all practical purposes, they have it.
Jan, think quantum leaps in techno-scientific capabilities and efficiencies per capita with about 10-20% (fewer?) of the human ape population we have today; that’s what the Power Elite have planned for the human ape species on Spaceship Earth. They win, adapt, and evolve. We lose and go extinct. Evolution. End of story.
We delude ourselves into thinking that we, the bottom 90-99%, matter to the rentier Power Elite top 0.1%; we don’t. Long before intelligent-systems capabilities render most paid human labor redundant, the top 0.1% and their surrogates in the next 0.9% and a few more will have foreclosed on everything of economic value required for subsistence, seized it with force, reneged on gov’t promises, and coerced or terrified us into behaving like trapped, starving rats in a lab cage, compelled to revert to cannibalistic zombies.
The Fossil Fuel Age since the mid-19th century was a one-off event in history and the evolution of the human ape species on the planet. None of us is naturally endowed with the capacity to “produce” or secure the equivalent output of 100-150 fossil fuel “energy slaves” to capture an equivalent of $425,000/year to match the revenue/employee of the Fortune 25-300 firms, i.e., “the US economy”. These firms will have no choice but to further consolidate ownership of the means of production and gov’t authority to use coercion and violence against the bottom 99-99%. We have no economic, social, or political recourse for redress against the untouchable owners of the corporate-state intent upon ridding themselves of unproductive personnel, i.e., useless bread gobblers, and foreclosing on the claims they legally own on 100% of labor, profits, and gov’t receipts.
But this is not a new phenomenon. The Power Elite began implementing many of the provisions of “The Plan” and “The Great Leveling” as long ago as before WW I and increasingly since the OPEC oil embargo, Middle East wars, fall of the Soviet Union, and 9/11, which ultimately will include war with China, global pandemics, widespread famine, genocide, and mass die-off. But given the nature of the constraints faced by the 7 billion and counting, would we behave any differently were we in a similar privileged position? I suspect not.
We only “believe” we have “freedom”, choice, political representation, and constitutional rights and privileges; it’s all an illusion. When the illusion no longer serves “The Plan” of the Power Elite, the delusion will become obvious and disillusion will manifest in the mass consciousness, providing the justification for the Power Elite to act to implement the “final solution”.
But the Power Elite are prepared for all of it, but we are not, which is how it must be for the Power Elite to achieve their long-term goals of establishing the metanarrative to create a techno-utopian “New Jerusalem” to be inhabited by “New Man” in the “after life” following the impending bottleneck.
BC raises 9/11. There has been much talk about that incident, a lot of it nonsense. One thing it did result in was the enactment of legislation that has resulted in a considerable loss of freedom and given governments the tools they will need to constrain public unrest. If it could be shown that 9/11 was an inside job, then that the provision of those tools would be a powerful motivation for those on the ‘inside’ to plan such an act. It would also lend support to BCs argument. So the question of whether 9/11 was in fact an inside job has relevance to this discussion. For me, the facts speak for themselves. Several eyewitnesses, including two Pentagon police sergeants and a Pentagon air traffic controller responsible for the Pentagon helipad state that American 77 flew to the north of the Navy Annex (some of these witnesses, including one of the police sergeants, could not have seen the aircraft had it flown to the south of the Navy Annex). This northerly flight path is confirmed by the flight data recorder, which, as analysed by the National Transportation Safety Board, shows it flying to the north of the Navy Annex. Even further support comes from the animation of the FDR data provided by the NTSB. This shows the Navy Annex on the starboard side, i.e. to the south of the aircraft. DME equipment referencing an antenna at Reagan National also places the aircraft on a northerly fight path. In the vertical plane, the flight data recorder shows the aircraft to be descending at 4620 feet per minute (a steep descent). However, the video taken by a Pentagon camera shows it flying level (essential for it to have knocked over the lampposts on the highway and still be airborne when it hit the Pentagon).
Any aircraft, including American 77, flying to the north of the Navy Annex could not have knocked over the lampposts that the 9/11 Commission conclude were knocked over by whatever flew into the Pentagon. That is also confirmed by NTSB’s animation, which shows the lampposts way over to the starboard side. And even if American 77 did knock one of them over, descending at 4620 fpm it would hit the ground long before reaching the Pentagon.
The logic is simple and unavoidable. If Flight 77 could not have knocked over the lampposts, some other aircraft (i.e. anything that flies in the air, including cruise missiles or drones) must have been responsible for doing so. Seeing as all other private and commercial aircraft were accounted for following enforcement of the stop order issued by the FAA, that aircraft must have been a military one. It follows, therefore, that 9/11 was an inside job. And if it was an inside job, then we should take it as the opening round of a move by some towards ends yet to be declared, but perhaps not too far away from those outlined by BC. We can let them get away with it, or we can do what previous generations did in the face of tyranny, fight back! (Anyone still in doubt should go to Pilots for 911 Truth (on Youtube.)
There is a twist to the story of decline that BC outlines. It is not axiomatic that America would automatically win any war it gets involved in. America has an Achilles’ heel in the form of its porous borders. It would not be too difficult for a nuclear armed nation to get a number of atom bombs (no need for thermo-nuclear devices) into mainland U.S.A. If it set them off at random intervals in large centres of population, it would not take long for most of the population (nearly all of whom would be armed) to be fighting for food and shelter in the hills and fields, while those left in the cities could only watch as their society collapsed around them as essential supplies dried up. I doubt that the mighty military would still obey orders at an individual level when their kith and kin are in danger, so that would put an end to its military might and also put an end to the mighty dollar. How that situation would develop is anyone’s guess. About the only certainty is that it would not be how the 0.1% are likely to have it planned, if such a plan exists, that is.
It is a sobering thought that with modern electronics and the number of nations that are nuclear capable (some even believed to be terrorist supporting), those bombs could already be in place and counting away the seconds left until their pre-determined detonation time. I doubt that that is the case, but no one reading this can guarantee otherwise. Nor can they guarantee that such weapons would not be targeted on America’s closest allies, either. Indeed, one can imagine a scenario where the U.K., say, would be a primary target in order to serve as a warning to America that it needs to behave itself. (That would make it a really ‘special relationship’.)
Leo, I share that general expectation, grim as it is or otherwise, depending upon one’s temperament. The Zeitgeist Movement and its advocacy of the Venus Project, for example, is as viable and realistic as any prospective techno-utopian vision for the future of the human ape species, but only for a vanishingly small population living in a high-tech, highly resource efficient, ecological symbiotic exergetic equilibrium per capita with the planet’s ecosystem. By definition, this means the overwhelming majority of our progeny or their offspring will not survive the pending bottleneck to enjoy any such techno-utopian prospects.
What would an enlightened, self-aware individual and/or family or community do in response to this probable outcome? Are not the “doomers”, “preppers”, “gun nuts”, and other “survivalists” predictably responding to the numerous indications of economic, financial, social, political, and ecological stresses and incipient breakdowns occurring increasingly around the world?
Daniel Quinn (“Ishmael”) advocates leaving behind the destructive nature of western (increasingly “Jewish”) civilization and forming new “tribes”. But where to go, figuratively and literally?
Guy McPherson’s act of “walking away from empire” has left him seemingly despairing, not unpredictably or unjustifiably so.
The nature of the growth of the “global brain” or the emerging “planetary networked consciousness” encouraged by increasing connectivity and instantaneous communication via the Internet is commoditizing and homogenizing culture, self-identities, tastes and preferences, language/definitions/rules of communications, and norms on an unprecedented scale, creating the conditions for the evolution of a kind of global unicultural non-verbal intelligent-systems super-organism that could eventually develop sufficiently supra-human intelligence and capabilities as to have no use for most of us.
“Walking away” from this kind of intelligent-systems society would require (result in) “walking away” from the planet.
Walking away is incredibly difficult. It is isolating and can be depressing. “Where to go,” indeed.
I thought I had it all figured out. But the zeitgeist is still not there; people are not yet desperate enough to try alternatives. And I tried to do it faster than was possible, using leverage — big mistake!
But I don’t share your optimism about technology. Haven’t you read HT Odum? Technology is a function of energy! You cannot replace declining energy with technology, because as energy begins to decline, so will technology. I know it seems unreasonable at the moment with some new i-thingy being announced every week, but technology has overshot energy, which has overshot carrying capacity.
I can’t understand how the people advocating fracking, horizontal drilling, extreme environment drilling, etc. cannot see them for the acts of desperation they are. Instead, that blowhard EIA is telling people the US will soon be self-sufficient in fossil fuel, ignoring the non-substitutability of natgas and petroleum.
I used to think that way until I ran the numbers. Then I realised that nuclear power had many centuries of possibility at almost sane costs.
Then I looked at politics, and realised that one explanation for the great renewables push was that in fact the powers that be don’t want to maintain the populations they have. They want to eliminate populations that are no longer needed to produce anything.
But without being seen to actually do it. Let nature take the blame.
Out of this has come the profound conviction that politics is not about solving problems for the benefit of populations at all. Its all marketing, the manipulation of perception to gain power, and hog the resources that are left for the few.
It may be that the masses are too stupid to be allowed to live. I am just not quite ready to give up on it yet.
“I used to think that way until I ran the numbers. Then I realised that nuclear power had many centuries of possibility at almost sane costs.”
That’s pretty easy to justify if you ignore (or cynically downplay) the externalities.
There still is no long-term storage for the waste. And please don’t get started about breeders burning the waste — they don’t exist on a commercial scale yet, and I (along with everyone I ever knew) almost died when a breeder melted down.
When the consequences are huge, you can’t “run the numbers.” Chernobyl here, Fukushima there, pretty soon the real safety costs add up.
Well actually no.
The numbers say that less than 100 people died at chernobyl . No one has or will die at Fukushima. No one died at 3 mile island.
Radiation is simply about 1000 times less dangerous than you suppose. That is the numbers.
The political reality is people are more scared of dying from it than of any other cause like fuel poverty, cold, starvation or disease or even road accidents. That’s pictures in the head territory,.
Leo, it would have been nice if you had at least acknowledged that your stance is controversial, and that peer-reviewed papers exist that indicate upwards of a million eventual deaths from either event.
I’m not saying the other end of the spectrum is absolute truth. I’m just pointing out that your stance is on one extreme end of a broad spectrum of scientific research.
Yes, very few people die from the immediate effects of a nuclear accident. But most health experts in the field agree that there is a “long tail” of illness and death that is difficult to directly attach to nuclear contamination, except through statistics.
It’s easy to write “the numbers say,” when what you really mean is “the only numbers I am willing to look at say.”
NO joe. That is what the numbers SAY.
You can peer review estimates based on a broken model all you like. The fact remains that 20 plus years post Chernobyl there are no rises in cancer deaths beyond random noise. Except in the few people who were exposed to extremely high doses right by the plant.
The models are simply wrong. That’s what the facts tell us. And then you look at the models its easy to see why: They are not based on data, they are based on an extrapolation from high level radiation where data and deaths do exist to very low values of radiation where no data exists at all. They are simply drawing a straight line between ‘zero radiation = zero deaths’ to ‘this level produces 100% deaths’.
There is no experimental justification to make that line straight. Or any other shape.,. And that’s why nuclear regulation is framed the way it is, because in the absence of FACTS it was the safest thing to do.
If it had been correct there would indeed have been millions of deaths from Chernobyl ALREADY. they simply haven’t happened. Claiming that they have been covered up is just too tinfoil hat for me.
You should look also at the extensive atmospheric tests carried out in the 50s and 60s. By today’s standards these should also have resulted in massive cancer spikes in the following years,. They did not. Neither are there subsequent high death rates associated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki- both of which were rebuilt with no concern to minimise residual radiation.
My oncologist, offering radiation or chemotherapy advised against radiation ‘ there is a significant increase in unrelated cancers 25 years down the line’. But radiation therapy consists of extremely HIGH short duration doses. Not a slight rise in background.
Cell experiments at low radiation levels show no sign of increased mutation.
You are more likley to die from radiation induced skin cancer from the sun than from any other form of radiation induced cancer, unless you happen to live in a high natural radiation and area and smoke. The ONLY clear signal of radiation deaths from LOW level radiation is natural radon. At the intermediate levels there is a demonstrable link between radioactive iodine at high concentrations and thyroid cancer, which is not fatal these days.
No other links have been clearly established. Not even with a wide open reactor spewing its guts into the sky. All that exists are dire predictions based on a model that has no data to support it, and a lot of data that refutes it.
Take the beam from thine own eye.
Leo, like I said, it’s easy to think like you do with the right filters on your numbers. You appear to have a very narrow filter.
I can quite easily poke holes in all your arguments, but will refrain from a point-by-point. As Mark Twain wrote, “Never argue with an idiot — a bystander can’t tell the difference.” So this will be my final posting on the topic.
I do have one sound rebuttal at hand. I have no illusions of changing your mind, but I do want others to see the fallacy in your arguments.
You write: “You should look also at the extensive atmospheric tests carried out in the 50s and 60s. By today’s standards these should also have resulted in massive cancer spikes in the following years,. They did not.”
And yet, no less than the US National Cancer Institute will tell you how much more your lifetime risk of thyroid cancer has increased due to atmospheric weapons testing. They have an on-line calculator that takes where you lived and what sort of milk you drank. It will then tell you how much more likely you are to get thyroid cancer.
Using their on-line calculator, I find my lifetime risk of thyroid cancer has nearly doubled, due to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. And I lived about as far from the test sites as the North American West Coast is from Fukushima.
Please note that this is not a bunch of wild-eyed hair-shirts making this claim! This part of the US National Institutes of Health, which could be expected to be stodgy and conservative, with a budget much lower than the US Energy Department, which funds nuclear energy research.
Again, it isn’t your choice to believe certain numbers that I argue with — it’s your irrational and facile denial that other reputable numbers even exist.
Once again, their calculator is based on an assumption that has been showed to be flawed.
Show me the figures that show radical increases of 100% in thyroid cancer.
I posted my link to the National Cancer Institute landing page on the health impacts of fallout at 12:05. Leo posted “Show me the figures that show radical increases of 100% in thyroid cancer.” at 12:10.
Leo, I am so impressed that in five short minutes, you could read and digest hundreds of US Government web pages on this topic linked to the NCI landing page, and conceivably take the survey for your own location and milk source during the testing (if you are of a certain age), and then come to the conclusion that no one was able to “show you the figures.”
Like I said, you have a powerful data filter in place, Leo.
I invite everyone born in 1971 or earlier to do the US NCI survey to assess their own elevated cancer risk, and then post the results here.
For what it is worth, this is the New York Times take on the rise in thyroid cancer. http://www.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-thyroid-cancer-ess.html The number is up, but they don’t have any good explanation–better detection or more actual cases. It is a very treatable disease, and still relatively uncommon.
I am not sure the elite is as smart as you give them credit. I think they just listen to the best “marketing people.” Backers of “Renewables” have picked a nice-sounding (but misleading) name that has greatly helped their cause.
Any energy solution has to be part of a system with many other things, including transmission lines, and roads to maintain the transmission lines, and devices to use the electricity that is created. Providing enough electricity to keep up the whole system would seem to be difficult, for any type of power, including nuclear.
Difficult? yes. Impossible? no.
Prior to road transport the world was littered with – and still is in some places – narrow gauge light railways that could handle the equivalent of a small truck in weight dispersed over several wagons.
Its a lot easier to provide access for a compact grid featuring 30-50 power stations all by definition connected by electricity than for 30-50,000 wind turbines scattered all over the landscape. ALL of which won’t supply anything except on windy days.
And provided you are somewhere within 10 miles of a working grid, battery vehicles are feasible. Less than ideal, but feasible.
Likewise nuclear SHIPS can access coastal regions and some river based ones.
The really inaccessible places are windy hilltops miles from anywhere…
None of this solves the problem of really cheap energy, but it does enable some reasonably functional grid to be maintained in the total absence of fossil fuel.
In the end the criteria for assessment of viability are the overall inputs of energy versus the overall outputs: that divided by the population under consideration gives the best energy per capita available to the population. At the moment a European Lifestyle overall its about 5KW per head, USA approximately double that. (Davd Mackay: Without the hot air) of which perhaps 10% could realistically be generated by renewables (UK figures). These are total figures – not merely electricity by the way.
Below about 2Kw per head life expectancy and lifestyle becomes distinctly ‘third world’
Whereas 30% nuclear (France) has been achieved and has not turned France into an impoverished radioactive desert.
Yes, it currently still depends on fossil fuel to construct and maintain, but that’s not an absolute requirement.
Light railways and overhead twin wire electric buses and trams actually exist: They were overtaken by internal combustion largely on economic grounds, but if the economics reverse, its not such a big deal to reinstate them – in Europe at least.
Yes, the end of cheap fossil fuel, lacking energy storage of some as yet undreamed of type, means the end of private transport on a mass scale, but the challenge is to find the least worst alternative.
I saw quite a few buses with overhead electric wires when I visited China in 2011. They are using coal to run their mass transport.
My understanding of what Guy McPherson is doing is accumulating enough stuff (shoes, pants, tools, etc.) to live a long time in a remote area, with a few other like-minded individuals. It is a difficult model to follow. I believe that his wife is working, and living in an urban area, which would seem to help fund what he is doing. He may also be making money from his writing and speaking engagements.
I think the way collapse goes is this:
1/. everybody except a very few slowly get poorer.
2/. the masses revolt. The very few rich find defensive positions and defend.
3/. the masses die in battle disease or starvation
4/. the very few rich who have preserved some form of civilisation, learning and technology, come out and commit genocide on the remainder.
and then once populations are back down, the cycle starts again.
Toby Hemenway has just posted:
As I read about the horrendous deal humanity has struck, I also think about the relative freedom that a forest garden gives us. Geoff Lawton and Martin Crawford are pointing at something different than farming. If we stop worrying abouit whether we can feed 9 billion, and assume that the various plagues are going to kill most of the people on the planet, the question of what we would like to see on the other side becomes quite relevant. Toby is writing about grasslands. Geoff Lawton has worked in all sorts of environments, and Martin Crawford has a very concrete garden on just a couple of well-watered acres. Perhaps in here lie some answers to what we might like to become….Don Stewart
PS I think that the plains people gathered to fight Custer would be dumbstruck by the posturing around the ‘fiscal cliff’. Yet it has seemed to occupy our ‘best and brightest’. Maybe farming and its extensions that we call Industrialism and Financialization have rotted our brains?
Here is a new video featuring Geoff Lawton, a Permaculturist from Australia.
Geoff covers many of the doomerish topics which have been discussed in this venue–and comes up smiling. He even covers how to survive the clueless zombies who may be rampaging around stealing food. This video is an introduction to a series which will be released early in 2013. If you think everything is hopeless, you should take a look.
Please observe carefully for the role that fossil fuels are playing in establishing the systems Geoff demonstrates. For example, the water management systems and the manufacture and distribution of solar panels and probably the saw mill (although saw mills can certainly be operated without fossil fuels). And if you want to fly to Australia to see first hand the magical farm that Geoff shows you, you have to fly and drive. Geoff is making every effort to localize the teaching of these methods–including things like the DVD’s which will be forthcoming.
Notice his distinction between a perennial based food forest and an annual based agriculture. He points out that an annual based system requires much more knowledge and requires finer tolerances and more work. So, while we have to deal with annual agriculture (albeit more intelligently) while we are establishing food forests, the ultimate goal is a largely self-managing food forest where humans can revert to many of their low-stress hunter and gatherer methods.
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Some commenters seem to await eagerly something spectacular, such as the total collapse of everything. But as John Michael Greer, among others, never tires to emphasize, there will not be such a sudden apocalypse. His view of “The Long Descent” is supported by Jørgen Randers in his book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years.
This society has a lot of resilience built in, which will only become apparent when hard times set in. We can still learn something from Charles E. Lindblom: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_E._Lindblom . For a summary of his views: http://tinyurl.com/253wxx8
Thanks wtvnl for the links – I’d forgotten about that whole Lindblom type of debate 50 years ago.
It made me think of a parallel debate in the world of computer software development and project management. The “Waterfall” method which emphasized heavy up-front design was dominant for years in the trade. Much that same work today is governed by the “Agile” methodology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agile_software_development which is a much more iterative approach to producing effective software in a reasonable timeframe. However, like most things, these competing methods are still debated by some.
My guess is that the political world could learn something from the Agile approach to problem solving. The current approach seems to be mostly driven by rigid ideologies which dictate both the ends and means with little flexibility.
Thanks. There all kinds of degrees of collapse. We have seen some pretty bad ones that took place pretty quickly–the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, for one. I haven’t kept up with everything John Michael Greer has written, but my impression is that he is saying the early stages of US collapse took place many years ago. The later stages may not be as drawn out as some expect. The required network of connections are quite different now than in the collapses of the last 2,000 years.
Absolutely Gail. Chaos mathematics can show you everything from slow change to catastrophic change. And the difference between the bullet that causes you to move a bit more into cover and the one that turns your head into a pulp can be a matter of millimetres.
I wrote something up on this point but its too poor quality to share. The main point is that faced with decision making in a non linear chaotic situation, there is very little point in planning ahead more than you can clearly see. Indeed strict adherence to a battle-plan that turns out to be based in false premises is one of the great military errors.
Deep in the bumf of military training this principle is taught and taught well. How to increase knowledge of a situation, how to make a plan in the full knowledge that no plan survives first contact with the enemy..its a shame there are few military commanders in politics these days. The essence is maintain clear sight of simple goals, and bearing in mind the implications of what you do. IN a chaotic foggy situation.
Most political and academic thought shies away from this in horror. You have to pretend that the future is clear, you know all there is to know, and that your decisions are totally correct, and have infinite time-spans of validity.
And that, I am afraid, is how politicians and academics in ‘soft’ sciences respond. My physics friend calls it ‘physics envy’ They long for a simple clear world of Newtonian physics governed by simple linear equations where a little input has a little result. What my ex military friend calls ‘simplistic one dimensional linear thinking’. They haven’t even got as far as understanding the fact that even simple two dimensional linear equations can create a chaotic result…the three body problem of Newtons gravity gives an infinite solution set depending in minute differences in the inputs.
Whether society collapses overnight or declines over many years may be down to a single butterfly flapping its wings. Or not.
All we can really say is ‘we cant go on like this much longer’. That is of little help in deciding on what way, if any, we can go on.
I have been accused of being overly negative and in concentrating on what wont work and why: That’s not from some emotional commitment to gloominess. Its simply to remove false options from the equation. Whatever is left is at least worth a try.
BC makes some interesting points but also misses some important ones as well. Also his vision of a techno dystopia and a “back to the land” movement to sidestep it is unconvincing.
We have burned through all of the cheaply available fuel. There is little left from now on. It was never the goal of our financial overlords to become feudal overlords on the other end…it was to make as much money in as short an amount of time as possible. The “I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead” mentality.
The debt and the associated money are abstractions which might very well prove to be worthless. They will disappear along with the fuel, as will the worth of most assets including physical, fetishistic ones like fine art and antiques.
There is no such thing as a “perpetual claim.” If that were the case, we would all live under Egyptian or Roman emperors or British kings. The claims die with the societies themselves, or when armed revolution extinguishes them.
Now I’m not saying collapse isn’t going to happen. It’s just not going to look like anything. It’s probably going to be prosiac and drawn out. The long descent. And it will probably take everybody down with it.
Oh, and the 0.1% are all old fogies who will quickly find out that their needed “healthcare” isn’t available at any price and that no amount of technology will keep them above ground forever.
“If you want real examples of what will happen, based upon the real actions of real people, not speculation, look at the fall of the Roman Republic. Cheap and plentiful slaves owned by wealthy landowners displaced citizen-farmers who flooded cities seeking welfare and staffed private armies seeking salaries. The result: the fall first of the Republic and then of the Empire, replaced by a manor system of feudal lords owning everything and everyone else having nothing. Replace the concept of slaves with robots and you can see clearly what is going to happen.”
The latter reference is the kind of scenario that is most likely, which could fit the long descent; that is, decades of continuing decline in employment and real incomes and gov’t spending per capita with wealth, income, political, and military/police-state power continuing to concentrate to the top 0.1% even has more imperial treasure is squandered at the imperial frontiers to prevent the “barbarians” from the oil supplies and shipping lanes.
The “cost of living” per household per capita for the bottom 80% of US households (receive ~40% of US income and have just 7% of financial wealth) is $18,500/year. Approximately $5,000/year equivalent per capita is total public and private debt service, i.e., 26-27% of US household income per capita goes to the “rentier tax”.
Another $1,200/year equivalent per capita comes from the cost of imported crude oil.
Total combined debt service and imported crude oil costs are an equivalent of ~33% of income per household per capita.
Then add the $9,000/year per capita cost of public and private “health care”, and debt service, crude imports, and “health care” are cumulatively an equivalent (emphasis on equivalency) to 81% of household income per capita.
The point is that the US economy is not producing sufficient domestic capital investment, capital deepening of domestic labor, and returns to labor for the vast majority of the population to receive anywhere close to what they require to subsist; therefore, gov’t must run perpetual deficits and tax labor and production to make up for the ongoing shortfall resulting from inferior labor returns, runaway “health care” costs, and imported oil (precluding a growing labor-based industrial economy).
IOW, the bottom 80%+ cannot produce their equivalent consumption even if they desperately want to and are willing to work ever harder to achieve it. The energy regime, debt-money inflation and associated debt service, and system of hierarchical flows from the bottom 90% to the top 0.1-1% to 10% precludes the masses from growing their real after-tax incomes and financial wealth.
Now add accelerating automation and loss of employment and purchasing power of a growing majority share of paid employment in the top 10%, e.g., accountants, financial analysts, attorneys, gov’t, doctors, nurses, teachers, professors, programmers, engineers, etc., and the loss of gov’t receipts and gov’t spending per capita.
What would be the “cost of living” in such a scenario? Demand per capita for credit, energy, durable goods, and services would likely decline significantly whereas demand for income from an alternative sources for subsistence at a lower level per capita would soar.
How would society function that did not have to devote 81% of household income per capita equivalent of the bottom 80% to imported oil, debt service, and “health care”? What would the “cost of living” be for the bottom 80-90%? Eliminate debt service, imported oil, and no longer permit the financialization of “health care” via insurance, and the “cost of living” for the vast majority could hypothetically plunge (along with incomes).
Thus, rather than oppose the intelligent-systems economy/society, there is a strong case to be made to encourage accelerating automation of labor, dramatic increase in efficiency of production, services, and lifestyles, and ELIMINATION of as many jobs as possible, as well as “unemployment”, labor taxes, commuting, waste, shopping as recreation, fractional reserve debt-money, neo-feudal rentier manorialism, and so on.
There should be no such thing as involuntary “unemployment” or “poverty”.
Most of our so-called technological solutions that result in industrial and post-industrial jobs are owe to problems resulting from earlier “solutions”. The system creates problems that require more costly problems sold as “solutions” that are self-perpetuating at increasing complexity and cost.
The larger point is that the mass-consumer, debt-based economy requiring perpetual growth of population, employment, wages, resource extraction and consumption, debt-money, and gov’t costs too much per capita and is wholly incompatible with both the ecological system of the planet and the ability of the system itself to create sufficient employment, income, and purchasing power for subsistence for a growing majority of the population. A radical reorganization and redistribution of resource, investment, labor, production, energy, and income flows is required to avoid collapse or increasingly volatile descent.
Virtually none of us has the ability to secure personally fossil fuel equivalent net energy per capita of 100-150 “energy slaves” in perpetuity, whereas those in the top 0.1-1% who receive equivalent energy of many multiples of that are beneficiaries of a system hierarchy permitting disproportionate upward flows, not because they are superior “producers”.
A progressive energy use tax in BTUs (or some other easily measurable unit of consumption per capita per unit per time) is required to encourage conservation and efficiencies, eliminate taxes on labor and production, and create an digital, energy-based medium of exchange to replace debt-money.
The world now seems to have an almost unlimited number of problems, increased automation being one of them.
Good point. Roman civilisation didn’t collapse overnight. It simply waned over hundreds of years until only its religion was left.
It deglobalised. Only the things that were economically portable – ideas essentially – could maintain a wide influence.
It takes a lot less energy to power the Internet than to put food in the freezer…
It has been my cynical observation over many years that human beings in a society, rarely respond to the facts that exist: largely they respond to the pictures in their heads.
And there are those who dimply grasp this, and manipulate society by creating those pictures. What they seem to forget, is that they too, are only responding to pictures in THEIR heads.
Look at us here: we all have pictures. WE post our own pictures, all claiming to have the one true picture.
At some point perhaps we should concede we really don’t know, and just get on with today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
Pictures that are efficacious will promote policies that promote survival. Pictures that are simply fantasy will vanish along with the dreamers.
Politicians grasp only half of this – they understand that the battle for power in the sphere of human influence, is a battle for hearts and minds. But therein lies a problem. They win the battles, but they lose the war, because in the end, winning the hearts and minds of people who you cannot sustain is a Pyrrhic victory. The Dream of socialism founders on the rock of the cost of providing it.
At some point the issue becomes one of whether or not the people will realise that – to bang the same drum again – cheap slightly dirty and slightly unsafe nuclear power is going to keep more people alive than are going to die from lack of any viable energy at all.
Those that believe in perfection will be Enraptured and pass from our ken… 🙂
(well its is Sunday, after all. A time to let the mind wander over its picture store and play with them).
However, some of at least have got top first base, and recognise that very little of what we know is capable of sustaining us very much longer.
Which is why the marketeers now sell you anything with ‘sustainable’ written on it. Its not of course sustainable at all. BUT its a handy way to bend your spending habits.
Gail and other Finite Worlders may be interested in our latest Energy: Part II post on the Diner by Monsta666 focusing on the thermodynamic arguments leading to the end of the Industrial Age and Happy Motoring. I added a little math to the article for the technically inclined, but it is mostly Monsta’s.
I read the article – seems well reasoned and informative. Looking at the Hubbert Curve chart it brings to mind that I’ve not yet found a concise, simplified explanation of the facts that would support the prediction that’s explicit in this chart (that significant scarcity is not that far off). I’ve read enough books, articles and blogs to be personally convinced but I always seem to fail to make my point when discussing the energy topic with people who aren’t persuaded they should even devote any time to this doomer topic.
My vision for this explanation would have 4 parts – oil, NG, Nuclear, and all other. I find it’s pretty useless to discuss just oil as the conversation then quickly turns to the other sources and all the predictions for the 100 to 1,000 year energy supplies we have. In each case I’d like to see a global breakdown (just big chunks) showing the classic depletion rates, reserves, discoveries, etc. Of course with the overlay of EROI and Net Energy factors. And, a nice list of highly credible references. However it is presented, the goal being to give the average person enough to chew on to perhaps make them question the MSM assertions about our happy energy future.
Obviously, there are all kinds of other factors and subtleties like GW, efficiency/conservation, other resource issues like water usage, habitat destruction, etc. But, I’d just like to stick with a simple argument that demonstrates why energy scarcity is a highly likely probability that should be taken seriously. Every day we see countless predictions about how our lives will be affected by this or that political or economic factor. Although GW and other environmental concerns are often mentioned (usually only lip service), I almost never hear a discussion in the MSM about a serious possibility of significant energy scarcity.
Suggestions where I might find such a document welcomed!
This article is part of a Series Monsta is doing BD. I will pass on your suggestions to him for some things to include in the succeeding installments. Or you could pass on the suggestions yourself inside the Diner.
Thank you for reading the article. I will try finding some graphs that show projections for peak coal, peak gas and peak nuclear although I cannot guarantee I can find such graphs. If we totalled all these energy sources maybe it would be possible to devise the time when we peak in total gross terms for all energy sources.
What needs to be brought in mind when making such analysis is gross energy will be quite different to net energy and there is an enormous question mark on whether we can afford the expensive stuff so there is a good chance of a major financial crisis before we hit peak coal for example.
We also need to be aware that not all uses of energy are easily substitutable for example some of the uses of oil can be replaced as we cannot run planes or heavy equipment on coal. So those limitations need to be considered. But yes it would be interesting to find information on some of those facts you mentioned so I will try and do a bit of digging.
Some fun facts that I mentioned in the first part of the series:
– 1 barrel of oil = 6.1 gigajoules of energy which equals 1.5 million kilocalories or 3.5-7 years of human labour.
– 30 billion barrels of oil consumed in 1 year so from this we have 30 billion energy slaves through oil alone.
– 1 short ton of coal = 19.7 gigajoules of energy or 4.94 million kilocarlories 11.5-23 years of human labour .
These are conservative estimates (for the years of work). I have seen estimates where you need more years of labour to match the fossil fuel burned but these should still be good ball park figures to dish out to people who are new to this topic. If you can say a ton of coal in the US costs $70 tops and provides over 10 years worth of labour in energy terms then people can grasp why capital has been so cheap.
BTW, interesting Gravatar – is there a story behind this?
Thanks for your thoughts (and fun facts). I do appreciate the “Cost -> Financial Collapse” implications – Gail makes this point often. I guess I could explain that part fairly well if we can solidly establish the scarcity premise first.
If you do manage to put together something along the lines I mentioned, I’d be very happy to provide feedback. I think you have the analysis and writing skills to do something like this. Even if there are some gaps due to lack of underlying research, I still think it would be great to have a start on this. Maybe others here would contribute also.
My avatar comes because I used to run an anime website and webzine (online magazine) where I was the chief editor. The site is no more as it became too time consuming and stressful while I was studying but I still watch a bit of anime these days hence the ava, I did think about changing it but decided against it.
Thanks for the offer of help, when I get the piece completed I can send you a sneak peek before I publish it so you have an opportunity to offer feedback.
@ Bicycle Dave: I have completed my draft for my coal article and plan to have it published on the Diner (the http://www.doomsteaddiner.org) in the coming days. If you are still interested in providing feedback you can contact me on monsta666 at hotmail.com and I send an attachment of the draft via email.
I think the problem is that people don’t understand what energy scarcity looks like. It looks like high-priced energy, which leads to lay-offs of workers. It looks like a very bad recession, that gets worse and worse, with more and more people unemployed relative to the jobs they have today. The problem does not look like an energy scarcity at all, any more than the 2008-2009 recession did. The government has been able to cover up its problems for a while, but they haven’t gone away, they are just hiding behind the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling. I expect the problems are right around the corner, starting again in 2013.
We have a lot of people looking for the wrong problem.
You make a good point. But, I’m not sure what you mean by
I assume we agree that the most basic problem is the fact that we live in a “Finite World” that can’t support the current human population – and the problem is exacerbated by the resource consumption levels of some segments. GW, species extinction, debt, poverty, etc, are all just symptoms of this underlying cause. So, conservatives who are focused on austerity to reduce debt, or liberals who are focused on equity to reduce poverty – are both just trying to treat symptoms. Neither group has an agenda for either mitigating or avoiding the erosion of the planetary resource base that supports humans and many other life forms that currently inhabit Earth. Although groups like 350.org tend to be on the liberal side and deserve some credit for as far as they go.
To actually address the cause would require actions aimed at reducing both population and consumption – hopefully by humane and equitable means. This means policies that set future population goals and support these goals with meaningful measures related to reproduction (birth control, sex ed, tax policy, etc). This means policies that set immediate goals for consumption and meaningfully related measures such as prohibiting advertising to encourage consumption, banning private vehicles beyond NEV and HPVs, greatly limiting FF for heating and cooling of buildings, tax policies based upon consumption of vital resources, etc, etc. And, the USA should enact these types of policies before it preaches to anyone else in the world.
If this is what you mean by “wrong” vs “right” problem, then I agree. And, perhaps we can put aside the immediate negative effect these measures would have on economies such as we have in the USA – this concern has to be weighed against the longer term economic impact of not starting a new paradigm now. Of course, I don’t really expect any meaningful action in a useful timeframe. I suspect most of us commenting on your blog are just trying to better understand the dynamics of the world we live in.
My understanding of what Gail has been saying over the years is that the ultimate and fundamental problem we face is growth–growth in population and growth in affluence–in a finite world. However, what she sees as the immediate trigger for economic/social/political collapse is the probability of an abrupt financial collapse–one much worse than 2008 and also worse than 1929-33.
In my strong and well-informed opinion, financial collapses cannot be predicted, because they are essentially sociological in nature and based on panic, rumor, and similar elements of collective behavior. The numbers one reads in “The Wall Street Journal” or “The Economic Report of the President” are all well and good, and they are worth paying attention to, but by themselves, facts are meaningless. What will determine whether we have a crash (and how bad it will be) in 2013 is volatile expectations. For example, a few weeks ago, there was a lot of worry about the fiscal cliff. Now the conventional wisdom is that it does not matter much if we do or do not go over the cliff, because, as usual, in January the President and the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives will find yet another way to kick the can down the road and find some way to write up some kludge of a budget and agreement to raise the debt ceiling.
Note that we can have a complete financial collapse with a much lesser impact on the “real” economy. For example, during the period 1929-33 the stock market collapsed to roughly 10% of what it had been before and all major banks were technically insolvent. The real (inflation adjusted) GDP went down by about 25% and the rate of unemployment peaked at 25%–a Great Depression, but not by any means a total economic collapse.
What I meant is that people keep looking for some sort of fix to the financial system to fix the problem. Certainly growth would return if we would just . . .
I am not sure how much fixing we can really do of the type you suggest. In a world with international trade, reducing consumption in one part of the world will simply allow consumption to be higher elsewhere. If it is rich countries allowing more resources to go to the poor countries, that is perhaps better from an equitability point of view, but it may cause world population to rise higher than it otherwise would, because more resources will mean that more children in very poor countries will live to maturity. That is good in some ways, but not so good in others.
The only resource extraction we have control over is our own resource extraction. We could forbid companies to extract oil, gas, and coal. Of course, that would not end well at all, because we likely can’t feed people in such a scenario. We could also put high taxes on imported goods and services (but these would simply end up elsewhere).
Steve on Economic Undertow’s latest set of graphs from BP and the IEA with the “Blue Triangle of Death” sure looks like Energy Scarcity to me.
Thanks! I also thought that John Hussman’s article (that Steve links to) we interesting.
Don, secular financial crises can be anticipated, notably by the Jubliee point of debt growth. When growth of debt to wages/production/GDP reaches a cumulative differential order of exponential magnitude, debt must thereafter grow at a faster-than-exponential (“super-exponential”) rate to service the existing debt and permit additional growth to keep the system expanding. Historically, Jubilees result in debt/assets being written down 40-50%, and highly leveraged debt/assets more than that.
In ’08 the US reached the Jubilee point for private debt to wages and GDP from the early ’80s, whereas total corporate and combined local, state, and federal gov’t debt to GDP only just recently reached the Jubilee threshold.
Growth of private and public debt can no longer occur hereafter against wages, production, profits, and gov’t receipts. Without growth of debt-money in a debt-based economy, there is no growth of real GDP per capita. Debt/assets must decline hereafter 40-50% either by write-downs, pay down, restructuring, or some combination. The stock market is currently overvalued by 80-150% historically and in the context of the growing risk of debt deflation and global mass consolidation of capacity and resulting job losses.
The same for China, as M2 velocity has been in collapse since ’08. China must increase bank lending at a doubling time of 4-5 years just to prevent investment, production, and employment from collapsing. China’s lending was 15-16% of GDP for ’12, which would be equivalent to US banks increasing lending by 34-35%. Were China’s bank lending to slow to the reported rate of GDP, China’s GDP would fall from 7% to 3% in no time, whereas the effects of decline in production and exports would reduce employment and GDP further. But China’s FDI is now undergoing a sustained contraction, including capital flight. China’s credit-induced fixed investment bubble is the largest in world history as a share of GDP, exceeding that of the US in the 1920s and ’90s-’00s, and that of Japan in the ’80s. China is perhaps as few as months away from imploding.
Worse yet, Japan has reached the point at which net interest on public debt is now at ~20-25% of receipts, which historically has been the point at which default risks soar. The Japanese Yen could easily fall to 100-110 to the US$ and do next to nothing to inflate away Japan’s public debt given Japan’s reliance on energy imports and how much Japan exports to its subsidiaries in the US and China-Asia.
We will see. At some point in our future, financial collapse (global) will happen. I have no clue as to when.
The so-called Industrial Internet: http://files.gereports.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ge-industrial-internet-vision-paper.pdf
Labor and multi-factor productivity gains in the context of the emerging intelligent-systems economy/society will become an irrelevant metric when most jobs, income, and purchasing power are replaced by robotics, intelligent systems, biometrics, and nano-electronic sensors.
What has been described as labor productivity gains over the past 30-40 years have come from (1) offshoring of production labor and (2) growth of asset inflation from $42 trillion in debt-money growth and the self-reinforcing effects of IT in financial services and communications. Virtually all of the financial gains, however, have gone to the top 10% of households, and concentrated further to the top 0.1-1%.
The so-called “productivity gains” from the acceleration of the intelligent-systems economy anticipated by the likes of Fortune 25-100 firms such as GE will further concentrate to the top 0.1% owners in the years ahead, requiring even fewer workers and increasing capital deepening of existing workers at higher revenues/employee.
The phenomenon will be reported by economists as a surge in “labor productivity”, but few will admit that it is occurring at the expense of income and purchasing power of hundreds of millions of workers who have no way of competing with machine intelligence and the capital and market structure benefiting GE and the company’s Fortune 100 peers, and no replacement source of paid labor and purchasing power.
The rapidly accelerating innovations in quantum/molecular computing, biometrics and biological computation, and nano-electronic sensing and processing are now entering the takeoff phase of the emerging techno-economic S-curve; but these innovations are incremental at increasing scale following on the innovations in device physics and microelectronics, internetworking, accelerating computational speed of microprocessors, and increasingly sophisticated algorithms.
Displaced farmers went to the cities to find work in factories during the Industrial Revolution. Industrial workers who lost their jobs or their children after them went to university or trade skills to learn technical and analytical skills to become machinists, technicians, engineers, accountants, teachers, programmers, analysts, social workers, and managers in the public and private sectors.
However, the emerging intelligent-systems economy is evolving with half of households receiving gov’t transfer payments and no more than 30-35% of the US population employed full time in the private sector, with a disproportionate share of those jobs held by Boomers who will be leaving the labor force in the next 10-15 years and not replaced. In fact, some 20% of states in the US today have more people subsisting on gov’t transfers of one kind or another than there are full-time private sector employees in those states.
Thus, the acceleration of the implementation of the intelligent-systems economy implies that there will be no growth of full-time private and public sector employment at living wages hereafter; quite the opposite. Our corporate, political, educational, and social institutions are woefully unprepared for the consequences of the end of the mass-consumer economic model and loss of tens of millions of jobs, incomes, purchasing power, and tax receipts in the next 5-10+ years.
How it copes with the state of development that BC discusses here will be a measure of just how developed the human species realy is. We can create a situation where the whole of society reaps the rewards that these advances in technology will bring, or we can continue on the course we are already on where only the top 1%, or possibly only the top 0.1%, will reap those rewards. Put climate change into the mix and it is difficult to see anything other than an apocalyptic future for human kind.
Perhaps our future resides in how the technologists/scientists responsible for the developments BC discusses here use their power to influence the course of world events. While well paid, they are not in the top 0.1% and few are in the top 1.0%. I wonder if they realise the power they have at their disposal and if they are wise enough to wield it responsibly, or whether they will be too engrossed in their work, which, as a retired research engineer, I can understand (one has wealth beyond measure when one wakes up and cannot get to work soon enough).
Taking into consideration all the indicators of how things are developing, I am very glad to be in the autumn of my years. I fear for the future that my son faces.
Good points, but all of these things depend on our networked system hanging together, and this in turn depends on physical resources. At some point, probably not too far away, the system starts developing cracks. A major issue is that the government needs a huge amount of taxes to fund all of its promises. The many people who are not working cannot really pay them. Raising the retirement age doesn’t really fix the problem, because the problem is too few jobs for people. If more older people are still working, fewer young people will be working.
He took a long time to realise that what most people mean when they talk about ‘energy’ is ‘entropy’
Life feeds by interpreting flows from low entropy (like sunlight) to high entropy. (like waste).
In a sense the whole universe acquire the lowest entropy possible – the big bang – and is riding towards heat death.
Life exploits the interface between thermonuclear reactions (the sun) and chemical
I’ve one bone to pick with his data though. Nuclear EROI for the FUEL is massive. To get it as low as he does, he must be considering all the other factors that go into the construction of a nuclear power station.
For EDFS French nuclear fleet the total cost of the fuel including dealing with the waste is less than 15% of the cost of running the plant overall. Most of that is processing and disposal.. Very little is in the raw mining cost.And looking at reasonable assessments of costs between nations, one gets massive variation in final energy costs. To the point where its probably true to say that 60% or more of the cost of nuclear power is down to the local regulatory framework that surrounds the industry. That is, the costs are essentially political.
In a similar vein the high EROI of hydro is – like fossil – simply another low hanging fruit issue. All the good hydro sites are now taken..
As an engineer it occurs to me that political problems are more easily solved than physical ones.
But that is probably naive…
I would like to elaborate a little bit on Albert Bates’ comment that ‘organic agriculture can produce a small percentage increase in food production over current methods’ and his statement that sustainable food production may feed fewer than 3.5 billion people.
If we define sustainable food production as food production with a positive calorie balance and also as production which sustain the fertility of the soils and waters, then we are not talking about ‘organic agriculture’ as it is presently practiced. I don’t think food labeled ‘organic’ is particularly less fossil fuel dependent than food labeled ‘conventional’. And food labeled ‘organic’ can be grown very intensively with practices that deplete the soil just as food labeled ‘conventional’ can be so grown.
The small farmers in my area have a listserve on which people can post questions. Someone recently asked about the right time of the year to apply soil amendments. She got about 35 responses with most people giving her their ‘secret formula’ for buying and applying amendments. Soil amendments are usually mined somewhere (e.g., New Jersey Greensand), processed in a mill (e.g., ground into dust), and then packaged and shipped and distributed. Finally, the farmer drives their pickup to the feed and seed store, picks up the products, and takes it to the farm and distributes it over their fields, perhaps using farm machinery. I would not be at all surprised if the calories of energy used exceed the calories produced as food.
So when we begin to envision a truly sustainable food system, then a lot of things we currently take for granted have to change. For example, annual crops completely dominate our current food system. Annuals take a tremendous amount of fertility from the soil, to produce highly nutritient dense foods for humans and animals. Perennials produce less food nutrient density per square meter, because they take less from the soil. It is possible to grow perennials in polycultures which generate enough fertilizer for the food crops (e.g., a food forest), but the yields will not be as high as growing annuals. It is possible to buy seed for perennial rye and wheat–but few farmers will do so because the cost of farmland is very high and the farmer feels the need to produce as much of a cash crop as possible.
One could look at irrigation, terraforming to make better use of rainfall, the food distribution system, cooking methods, packaging, and a lot of other aspects of food trying to design a system which is sustainable. It can be done–our ancestors did it. But it will look significantly different than what we do today, and may well not support 7 billion people.
I would like to also comment on some of the barriers to change. We in the West throw away roughly half our food. And we eat a very small number of the plants and animals which are edible. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, opines that humans do best on a very diverse diet. Think of a hunting and gathering family–they never know at sunrise what they are going to be eating for lunch. There are several hundred options. Now contrast that with a recipe I received from a diet doctor recently. The ingredient list included about 25 items, and involved three major steps in preparation with significant kitchen equipment required and somebody to watch the pot for well over an hour. I would say that few people would have on hand all the ingredients (so a trip to the store is required, which also requires an industrial economy to manage the distribution). The ‘pattern language’ behind this particular recipe is ‘eating like the French Nobility’. The recipe begins with a ‘reduction’ and ends with baking everything in an oven for 45 minutes. Now let’s consider an alternative pattern language: soup. The recipe reads something like this: gather what you have, chop if needed, include plenty of veggies, some high protein food (squirrel, rabbit, bits of beef, beans, etc.) and some fat. Begin by browning what tastes good browned, then add liquid and simmer until it smells really good.
I submit that the ‘French Nobility’ pattern language generates wasted food and a lot of calories in the process. The ‘soup’ pattern language uses everything and requires far fewer calories in the process. Yet all the diet doctors I know, and most of the farmers selling directly to customers, think that it is absolutely essential to give people ‘recipes’–patterned after what the French Nobility had cooked for them at Versailles or in their chateau on the Loire. Whether these pattern languages can be changed easily, or will change as a result of catastrophe, remains to be seen. Donella Meadows identified these higher order thinking processes as those with the most leverage–but also resistant to change.
I would agree with you. My family eats lots of soup!
When it comes to food supply, I agree that to be sustainable it pretty much needs to use mostly perennials. The problem I see is that it is pretty obvious that at least for the short term, humans can get more food by using non-sustainable methods. If there are a lot of people who need to be fed (or even a farmer who would like as high income as possible) it is hard to get farmers to forgo short-term gain.
All resource extraction, goods production, distribution, and consumption is based on private debt-money with imputed compounding interest claims in perpetuity growing at a rate fast enough to provide (1) debt-money and price inflation sufficient to service the existing and future debt-money claims on labor, profits, and gov’t receipts and (2) subsistence per capita and an amount necessary to sustain gov’t spending to support an imperial military force to defend expansion of US Fortune 25-300 firms’ investment, production, and resource expropriation of external resources at the far-flung imperial frontiers.
We have now reached the Jubilee threshold at which the cumulative level of private and public debt to wages and GDP can no longer be serviced from wages, profits, and gov’t taxing, borrowing, and spending, let alone permit further growth of public debt to make up for lack of growth of private debt.
The top 0.1% by virtue of ownership of all private debt-money now have a virtual 100% claim on all labor, profits, and gov’t receipts forever. Growth of real GDP per capita, gov’t receipts per capita, and gov’t spending is no longer possible. Period. Private and public pensions and federal gov’t transfer payment obligations cannot be honored.
The Jubilee conditions imply that pension payouts, transfer payments, and gov’t spending per capita will be cut 50% per capita in the next 10-20 years, which implies that regressive payroll taxes are 100% higher than what 90% of workers will receive per capita.
Lesson: Do not count on current promises of public and private pensions (and medical benefits), Social Security, Medicare, and private annuities. The coming relative “austerity” need not be perceived in a negative context; that is, if one can avoid mass-media consumerist propaganda designed to make one feel bad about oneself so that one is incessantly compelled to buy some object or service that promises to make one feel better, i.e., young, thin, sexy, hip, rich, cool, techno-savvy, avant-garde, etc.
For Boomers and Jonsers, tell your kids, extended family, and social and professional support network that a 2- to 3-generation household and pooling of intellectual, financial, technical, psycho-emotional, and spiritual resources will be a valuable asset in terms of per-capita well-being and adaptability in the coming decades. Forget the hyper-individualist, hyper-competitive, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality. Communitarianism, cooperation, and symbiotic mutualism are the “best investments” for the future.
If one can subsist on $48,000 median household income with 2.59 persons per household and $18,500 per capita per household, then one can endeavor realistically to reduce that income per per capita by a significant amount while maintaining a desirable income per household without reducing well-being.
For Millennials, forget $100,000-$250,000 university credentials and learn permaculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, carpentry, welding, gardening, food preservation, sewing, electrical skills, patience, kindness, compassion, and to ignore the artificial, technology (“tools”), and socially constructed boundaries between Nature (symbiotic biological processes of mutualism) and basic human needs and experience. We are Nature, but we have been conditioned to think otherwise.
Yes, this is antithetical to the mass-consumer model, but it is perfectly compatible with Daniel Quinn’s (“Ishmael” series and “Beyond Civilization”) recommended “walking away” from “civilization”, i.e., mother culture that threatens our existence as a species, and creating new adaptive “tribes” based on self-sustaining mutualism.
I hadn’t run across “udderworld”. I agree though that the current system cannot continue long. Deficit spending has been covering up the problems since 2008, and cannot continue. Thus, you are right about the current system not continuing for very long. What alternatives really work has yet to be determined.
Another entry in the ‘how many people can sustainable food production feed’ contest:
Albert Bates thinks the answer is 3.5 billion or maybe less. So our choice is vasectomies or funerals….Don Stewart
PS I don’t know what Albert is assuming about the climate change issue. You will see his graph of the very stable climate of the last 10,000 years and then the 5 degree C warmer climate. I don’t know if Albert is assuming in his number some different ability of the Earth to produce food for humans, or if he is taking the current ability of the Earth to produce food for humans. Albert is aware of the issue. For example, at his home in Tennessee he has been thinking about how to transition plants and animals and insects during a period of rapid warming. We cannot count on the ability of tropical species to efficiently and effectively colonize temperate zones. And the sustainable food production scenarios are entirely dependent on the free services of a robust soil food web–which may not survive a 5 C change.
“We cannot count on the ability of tropical species to efficiently and effectively colonize temperate zones.”
Many — if not most — tropical species are limited more by light than temperature. They don’t have a period of dormancy to tide them through the winter. Things like cocoa might be able to follow higher temperatures north, but once they cross the Tropic of Capricorn, they start having trouble with the reduced daylight in the winter, which temperate species have evolved with.
The spirit of Craig Dilworth, “Too smart for our own good”, is very much present in this discussion. Many examples of how the Vicious Circle Principle might work out…
Indeed. Accelerating automation of labor and loss of income and purchasing power of the bottom 90-99% of the population precludes further growth of a mass-consumer economy, which is derivative of population growth, abundant cheap energy per capita, and the need for inflation of “money” and income to purchase the increasing supply of goods and services.
Now we are faced with the end of growth of the mass-consumer society (and of debt, gov’t receipts, real GDP per capita, etc.) which technology permitted and most are convinced will create alternatives/substitutes for costlier energy and food, jobs, and lost tax receipts needed for private subsidies, transfer payments, etc.
But the top 0.1% disengaged from the productive economy decades ago and effectively own (have perpetual claims against) everything of economic value. When the global resource pie begins to contract in earnest per capita, the top 0.1-1% have no incentive to concede any of their wealth and power to anyone other than to accommodate those with the subordinated knowledge, skills, and power to assist the top 0.1% in retaining their share of the resources and the associated power.
One of the initial features of the emerging intelligent-systems economy/society is the corporate-state’s efforts since 9/11 (and arguably long before) to monitor all Internet activities and store, encrypt, compile, share, and analyze what will be an infinite amount of data providing the impetus for further R&D spending for massively parallel, quantum/molecular, photon computing, biometrics, nano-electronic sensors, etc.
The math, physics, and logical/computational methods are becoming so complex that only an infinitesimally small fraction of the human population will have any hope of understanding the emerging techno-scientific paradigm and its implications hereafter for the division of labor, socioeconomics, and political power relations.
Our so-called “education” system today is wholly insufficient to prepare the population for the transition from 19th- and 20th-century industrial model of economic, financial, social, and political organization and distribution, because those in positions of authority to adapt the system are utterly clueless about the evolving system, captured by narrow interests and rewarded, or restricted by institutional inertia.
And even the small fraction who do understand enough to further the evolution of the techno-scientific paradigm will become increasingly dependent upon the capabilities and self-awareness of intelligent systems (and the source of funding of further development) to do much of the work in a fraction of the time required today by dozens to hundreds of scientists, engineers, technicians, and managers.
In this context, the overwhelming majority of us will be incapable of competing with intelligent systems, or to “produce” an equivalent of marketable value add per capita of what we need to consume to subsist at a desirable standard of material consumption and well-being.
Without a radical reorganization of the system of ownership of the emerging intelligent-systems means of production of goods and services and income flows therefrom, the vast majority of us and our progeny face complete loss of purchasing power and the ability to subsist. The top 0.1% have no interest whatsoever in such a radical reorganization, needless to say.
Good point. I first talked about Craig Dilworth’s book “Too smart for our own good” in this post: Human Population Overshoot–What Went Wrong?
Mel, a Cold War-like situation between the US (West) and China could occur if the historical pattern repeats for China as in the 1780s-90s (White Lotus Rebellion), 1840s-50s (Opium Wars), 1890s-1900s (Boxer Rebellion), and the 1930s-40s (Mao’s revolution) when China turned inward against the world to deal with internal social, economic, and political instability after westerners flocked to the Middle Kingdom to become rich as has been the case since the ’80s-’90s.
Such a scenario might occur, for example, as a result of an economic and financial collapse in China, xenophobia arising, social unrest occurring, gov’t reaction, seizing of foreigners’ assets, deporting of foreigners, breakdown of trade and diplomatic relations between the US and China, and the new generation of PLA generals in Beijing taking control to restore order and the country’s leadership becoming more insular and suspicious of westerners’ motives and activities in the region.
In fact, this is a scenario I suspect is more likely than not in the years ahead, especially as Peak Oil and oil exports constrain growth of economic activity, debt service becomes more difficult or impossible, and real GDP per capita decelerates to 0% or contracts worldwide.
Historically, the elites have invariably chosen total war and reaction as the means to diffuse domestic dissent, create external enemies, and concentrate power and the means to use mass violence to the top 0.1% and their surrogates in the executive branch and military. Homeland Security, never-ending imperial war for oil supplies and shipping lanes, Patriot Act I and II, Total Information Awareness, and now the virtual total management (manipulation and propping and bailing) of the mortgage market, financial markets, economic data (propaganda), and “health care” are all examples of the owners of the militarist-imperialist corporate-state taking over and attempting to influence the outcome of virtually all aspects of private, political, and economic activities.
As a result, total debt of the US now has a compounding imputed cumulative interest to term equivalent to private US GDP, i.e., the top 0.1% owners of the debt now have 100% claim on all wages, profits, and gov’t receipts in perpetuity. The owners of the banks issue private debt-money that they own. The imputed interest at effectively infinite term is what gives the debt-money its value to the owners. “Our money” is their money. We actually own nothing, apart from personal possessions that do not have liens. We only borrow the debt-money to circulate it for subsistence. All our wages and future gov’t transfer payments are already claimed by the owners of the corporate-state’s private and public assets.
Eventually, the owners of the corporate-state will seize all private and public assets as recompense for non-payment resulting from local, state, federal gov’t and private defaults.
I think several of your comments, including this one, are a little over-the-top.
Somehow, the banks and the top 0.1% have an interest in keeping some kind of peace. Even if they could repossess the vast majority of homes, they wouldn’t, because of the problems with angry mobs. At some point, the problems of the masses become their problem as well. It becomes hard for a government to stay in power. They need to come up with some kind of plan (war??) to get more resources.
In the natural world, it is survival of the fittest, and the top 0.1% would probably be the fittest. But I don’t think it will be easy for them.
You have several times used the phrase “survival of the fittest”. Could you expand on what you mean by this phrase?
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survival_of_the_fittest for some background information.
I suppose I should say “natural selection” rather than “survival of the fittest”. To me, the critical parts of it are (1) Far more offspring than are needed to keep population steady and (2) The best adapted to survive.
All of our medical techniques are designed to change the situation so that nearly all offspring survive. (Fossil fuels help as well in this regard, so there is enough food, and so there is heat and air conditioning.) In addition, we have developed means of transportation, so that people who are genetically adapted to one climate can move to another climate. Birth control reduces the number who are born. All of these tend to defeat natural selection.
I think “natural selection” is a better term, if only because it avoids some less attractive connotations.
However, I think your point (2) is the critical factor and we have used that too effectively. Note that adaption is over a short or immediate timescale. Fossil fuels have not been used for sufficient time to have an evolutionary effect and I guess that they will not be available for long enough to have any significant evolutionary effect.
There is some evidence that we are still evolving to accommodate the move to foods from agriculture and animal husbandry (problems with gluten/lactose intolerance). Whereas, we may well have incorporated a number of evolutionary changes arising from cooking.
To me, what you describe most eloquently in your posts are examples of perturbation of homeostasis. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeostasis
Fossil fuels have been around long enough, though, to allow an extra 6 billion people to be born. Unfortunately, keeping all 7 billion people alive seems to require some fossil fuels, simply because of the quantity of food, cooking fuels, and other necessities (spears with tips that were hardened with heat, and later metals) that are needed.
We have indeed perturbed homeostasis. We have increased far beyond what our numbers would be if we had not discovered a way to control fire, and later discovered agriculture, and later fossil fuels. But I think that the earth moves from one state to another–it is never just a static system. We are doing what all species are designed to do–use any energy resources available to us, to increase our numbers and become well fed and cared for. The current balance cannot last long–we are already encountering high priced oil.
Gail, as for repossessing houses, the top 0.1% don’t want the structures, as the value of the “property” is not in the structure but the imputed compounding interest to infinite term from lending against the value of the land (site) scarcity value. Once the dead pledger (mortgagee) can no longer afford a perpetual land debt of 3-4 times his income in perpetuity, the value of the property will be of little interest to the top 0.1%. The land site value will be more valuable to the neo-feudal landlord (land tenure) system if the top 0.1% were to seize the land at pennies on the dollar, evict the “tenant” debtors by force, demolish the poorly constructed dwellings, and turn the land into a buffer borderland and secured agricultural and forest land to support a private, self-contained, secure, high-tech city-state.
The top 0.1% have no sense of loyalty and social, political, or moral obligation to the mass populations of a nation-state, majority ethnic/racial group, etc.; rather, their first impulse is will to power and to secure financial, economic, social, and political influence and power at whatever cost to the bottom 99-99.9%. The hierarchical command-and-control nature of western imperial power relations does not require growth of population, production, and consumption per capita but an adaptive system of low- to high-entropy flows of resources, materials, and goods and services at increasing complexity. The structure need not be as expansive, if you will, at this particular point, needing to accommodate 313 million people in the US and 7 billion worldwide. The hierarchical flows at the desired level of consumption per capita for the top 0.1% could just as easily be supported by 30 million people in the US as 300 million. In fact, at the log limit exergetic bound per capita at current overshoot conditions, the top 0.1% would be better served at the top of a hierarchical pyramid with 30 million people vs. 300 million.
Of course, 30 million people would not permit supporting a global imperial military to prevent the Asians from amassing a military to overtake the Anglo-American and European Power Elite top 0.1%, which is why the coming bottleneck must first result in economic decline and collapse, failed states, and mass die-off beginning in the densely populated Third World, Middle East, Central Asia, and China-Asia.
As to the “survival of the fittest”, the top 0.1% and many among the next 0.9% have demonstrated their successful adaptability, i.e., “fitness”, in reproducing, defending, and perpetuating the hierarchical system of flows from the labor of masses to the top of the income, wealth, and power structure; that is, this “reproductive success” trumps the biological kind of reproduction over the past 40-80 years or more.
However, ongoing advances in genetic engineering will permit the top 0.1-1% to eventually reproduce offspring with the most highly adaptable traits (including as much “diversity” as is demonstrated to be optimal) to ensure continuing reproduction of the hierarchical system of structural flows. The bottom 90-99% of us increasingly will be of little use than livestock or vermin whose cognitive capacity is so far eclipsed by techno-scientific advances and the evolution of the intelligent-systems super-organism as to render most of us an unnecessary cost to the further evolution of “the fittest” top 0.1-1%.
Let us hope that there arises a leader of the masses who can bring about a more equitable life for our species. Unless he or she comes forth, then I fear that your predictions may well come to pass. Perhaps, when bankers can construct completey useless financial instruments that bankrupt the rest of us while they earn themselves massive bonuses, we, the 99%, deserve what we get when we do little to protest the inequity of that sittuation. What about ‘Occupy’? Occupy’?, oh, yes, I remember.
There is an aspect of modern society that, it seems to me at any rate, is about to solve a lot of our current and future problems. Many think that nuclear weapons are consigned to the waste bin of history now that the Cold War is over. I rather fear that that is far from being the case. When I discovered the technical specification of Trident D5 as opposed to that of the C4 version and all its predecessors, I became a member of CND, Greenpeace and would even have joined Lesbians for a Nuclear Free World if they would have had me, but they never replied to my letters. (I am told that they don’t like male members.)
As the world slowly loses the peace that came with the fall of the Berlin wall, I am afraid though that a new Cold War is in the offing. Should one come about then it will last 5 minutes, 6 if we are lucky, such is the difference between today’s nuclear weapons systems and those of yesterday. There will be none of Herman Kahn’s ‘ladder of escalation.’ Modern nuclear weapons are designed to be fired all at once in a surprise attack so as to destroy the enemy’s launch infrastructure and even its missiles themselves. In short, we have moved from the era of the blunderbuss to that of the snipers’ rifle. He/she who shoots first wins, period. You don’t wait to see if the other side is going to fire first, but you do automate your launch procedures because there will be no time to discuss the issue if they do in fact fire before you. (We can only hope that Microsoft has absolutely nothing to do with the computing requirements of that automation!)
I sincerely hope that I am wrong, but I do not like the way international relations are developing. There would be a silver lining, I suppose. A nuclear winter would do wonders for combatting climate change.
From Wikipedia – “A minor nuclear war with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet. The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than previously thought. New climate model simulations, which are said to have the capability of including the entire atmosphere and oceans, show that the smoke would be lofted by solar heating to the upper stratosphere, where it would remain for years.”
I doubt that several years of no food would be good for the human race or any other species. When the nuclear winter subsided, global warming would resume for the next several centuries, augmented by the CO2 injected into the atmosphere by the same fires that provided the soot that caused the nuclear winter, but the CO2 would last far longer than the soot. There is no “silver lining” to a nuclear war.
Very few nuclear missiles carry atom bombs, and when they do, there will be only one carried as they are intended for dealing with the likes of Iran or North Korea. Most warheads will be directed at missile silos or command and control bunkers, most, but not all are located away from centres of population, so the C02 increase would not be too bad and there would be a dramatic reduction in the C02 emmissions that had existed hitherto.
As far as I am aware, the latest nuclear winter scenarios indicate that sub-zero temperatures will not be reached. This is obviously important, seeing as few food crops can survive sub-zero temperature.
The above is not intended to indicate that I am in favour of a nuclear winter as a cure-all for todays ills. I only raise it because we have such poor media that most (nearly all) people are unaware of just what modern nuclear weapons are designed to do. Generally, the public think we are still in the world of M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction). Of course, if we banned M.I.R.V. delivery systems, we would be.
Just for everyones future reference, I knew a (Lutheran) missionary to the headhunters of Borneo. He told me Borneoans really enjoyed a good rump roast dinner.. Maybe a good thing to keep in mind.
DaShui, it’s good to hear that the missionary who was invited to dinner by the Borneoans lived to tell about it. 🙂 Besides, it has been said by some cannibals that eating a missionary will make one sick, because one can’t “keep a good man down”.
What did the cannibal say to the missionary explorer? “It’s nice to meat you.”
Religious convert cannibals only eat Catholics on Fridays.
Would having rump roast for dinner in Borneo be considered a “sit-down” meal? Some might say that such practices are “behind” the times, “butt” I don’t consider myself well enough informed about Borneoan culture to get to the “bottom” of the matter and provide a “meaty” presentation one way or the other.
While it might give me something to “chew over”, I don’t want to appear to have a “bone to pick” with anyone about the topic. I don’t want to get myself into “hot water” or a “real stew” about it.
It’s better to give a starving cannibal a “helping hand”.
Most people can’t “keep their head” when around cannibals.
But cannibals don’t eat comedians, because they taste funny.
For most of us, eating people is an idea that is “hard to swallow”.
The great cannibal’s dilemma: If the Creator did not want us to eat people, why were we made of meat?
Remember, Soylent Green is the perfect food for people who love people.
Soylent Green is the most democratic and “green” of diets: food by, for, and of the people! The perfect mass-consumer food. You’re invited for dinner at your nearest Soylent Green facility today. Food for thought and for the sustenance of your fellow humans. Give someone a hand and a piece of your mind and heart today, won’t you? Every day is Soylent Green day. Everybody is served by your effort.
Today we take for granted that overpopulation and increase in population are persistent problems. They are not. Both ancient Athens and ancient Rome fell from power primarily due to population declines. Both Plato and Aristotle worried about falling birth rates and increasing infanticide. In “The Laws” Plato outlawed homosexuality–because homosexual practices tended to reduce the birth rate. Athens put a tax on bachelors to try to increase the birth rate, and it helped, at least in the case of Socrates, who had three young sons living when he was seventy years old. Living in cities without modern public health practices produces death rates in excess of birth rates.
The Trobriand Islanders perfected the ultimate form of birth control–constant sex by teenagers to the point where male sperm count never got high enough to impregnate a young woman. See “The Sexual Life of Savages” by Bronislaw Malinowski–a most entertaining and informative volume. Especially amusing are the imitations of sex by missionaries that the Trobrianders engaged in; they ridiculed “the missionary position” for the good reason that their sexual practices were far more satisfying (to both male and female) than the Christian ones. The Trobriand Islanders were lovers, they were not fighters.
Hi Sailor Don,
Given the situation has changed a tad bit since the time of Plato, I’d suggest some new laws. For a modest example: married homosexuals who pledge not to engage in any reproductive activity would be exempt from all taxes. Of course this would produce a dilemma for religious fundamentalist conservatives as they would be torn between the appeal of zero taxes and the horror of godless homosexuals being recognized in law.
Stop! You’re killing me!
Do you remember the Twilight Zone episode where aliens came down to earth and gave us all sorts of technology and gifts and such, and they were constantly referring to a book they had, titled, “To Serve Man?”
Turns out, it was a cookbook.
Jan, yes, I recall that TZ episode, including the main character smoking and being served white-bread sandwiches to fatten him on his journey to the alien planet where he is to be served.
Of course, rather than eat each other, we could develop a taste for mealworms, i.e., eat them before they eat us. 🙂
Don, the species has never before faced planetary overshoot and falling net available/affordable energy per capita we face today. Blinding acceleration of automation of labor via robotics, smart systems, biometrics, and nano-electronic sensors will render irrelevant labor productivity as a metric, resulting in the elimination of most paid employment, incomes, and purchasing power we receive today.
Millions of robots are being produced to replace tens of millions of Asian wage slaves in the next 2-5+ years. Robots, smart systems, and biometric devices work 24/7/365 in the dark and at the speed of light, and they do not require wages, sick time, vacations, medical insurance, maternity leave, or pensions.
Robots don’t pay income and payroll taxes, nor do they need housing, clothing, furnishings, autos and parts, meals out, baby strollers, Xboxes, iThingies, and college educations.
Robots and smart systems don’t need political representation and patronage, but their owners do, which they have already bought and paid for.
One’s labor is about to become practically worthless/valueless in purchasing power terms in an increasing number of sectors, resulting in a collapse in the mass-consumer economic model, as well as a decline in gov’t receipts in the years ahead just as Boomers will be needing jobs to supplement their income in late life as they draw down on gov’t transfer programs en masse.
Mechanized and industrialized agriculture replaced 98-99% of jobs in food production, and robotics, smart systems, nano-electronics, and biometrics will replace a similar scale of mfg., distribution, and services jobs over the course of the next generation.
It will not matter how educated, intelligent, skilled, experienced, and ambitious one is, one cannot compete with an increasingly automated intelligent-systems labor division and further concentration of distribution of income and wealth to the top 0.1% owners of the means of goods and services production.
When even the purchasing power of the next 2-9% below the top 0.1-1% is lost to the intelligent-systems economy/society, so will be the discretionary incomes and purchasing power the top 10% have for personal services so many Americans increasingly must provide at low wages to survive.
Bearing children in such an environment is a virtual guarantee of unemployment, underemployment, lack of purchasing power, increasing competition for scarce resources and paid employment for them and their peers and a significant disincentive to couple and bear children.
One increasingly hears that young women in their 20s-30s complain about the dearth of young males their age who are self-supporting with promising career/occupational trajectories such that they make for desirable coupling partners. No kidding. When men have to compete for jobs, income, purchasing power, and status with not only other males, including male relatives, but other females of all ages in an economy that has not created a net new full-time private sector jobs since the late ’70s to early ’80s, it is very likely that the vast majority of males will find their coupling prospects diminished greatly hereafter. Automation of labor across sectors and loss of income and purchasing power will only exacerbate these conditions for young males, and for all of us of any age.
Is it any wonder so many young males are postponing adulthood and instead playing video games, watching SpongeBob and 70s Show, skating, consuming pornography and substances, and forgoing sex and commitment to females? Most young men can barely provide for themselves given emerging labor market conditions; forget the delusion of being able to support a female and children, or partner in supporting same.
It should be no surprise, then, why one sees so many films in recent years with vampire, zombie, disaster, and kick-ass girl themes. The mass-social psyche or unconsciousness is already in touch with what overshoot, Peak Oil, debt deflation, fiscal “austerity”, climate change, and imperial decline have in store for us.
The zombie apocalypse is more likely than we imagine.
Human rump roast . . . tastes like chicken . . ., but you don’t have to pluck it.
BC, I’m confused. What are all these robots producing? And where is it going? And who is maintaining the robots?
It seem that if purchasing power crashes, than the robots will be idled, just as human labourers would be. It’s easy to say that robots cost nothing when they are idle, but they will be costing someone their expected return on investment. So won’t the fat cats feel the pain like everyone else?
I understand your point about automation, and I think it has merit. But, I have considerable uncertainty about how this will play out. I’ve been retired for almost a decade now, so perhaps my perception of this issue is out of date – but, I don’t think so. I worked for about eleven years in the field of logistics automation (primarily transportation and warehousing). There are lots of issues in the development of this type of technology – but this is not the right forum for drilling down on them. My feeling, however, is that this type of technology always takes a lot longer than anyone estimates before it is really useful and reliable.
I suspect one dynamic in our predicament will be the race between automation and collapse. My guess is that we won’t actually get to the level of automation you’re suggesting because all kinds of other supporting systems will degrade before that time. If BAU does miraculously continue for a few decades, then we may successfully develop the technology – but, as Jan mentions, how does this actually work with penniless consumers? I guess one could envision everyone enjoying a 10 hr work week to supervise the robots and getting a handsome paycheck in return – however, I never used those funny cigarettes to help me with this vision.
And then, there is the vision of the Technological singularity http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity wherein humans would need to be exterminated as harmful pests for the planet.
robots need energy input, they will function for a while then grind to a halt
Jan wrote: “BC, I’m confused. What are all these robots producing? And where is it going? And who is maintaining the robots?
It seem that if purchasing power crashes, than the robots will be idled, just as human labourers would be. It’s easy to say that robots cost nothing when they are idle, but they will be costing someone their expected return on investment. So won’t the fat cats feel the pain like everyone else?”
Jan, et al., I would encourage you to expand the perception from “robots” to include “smart systems, biometrics, and ubiquitous nano-electronic sensors”, which in turn will be integrated components of an evolving “intelligent-systems economy/society” in which the ownership of the means of production of goods and services is concentrated still further from the top 1-10% today to the 0.1-1%. A cashless medium of exchange would likely be an aspect of this scenario.
Consider today in the US that the Fortune 25-100 to 300 firms have revenues equivalent to 40-75% to 100% of US private GDP, meaning that effectively the largest 100-300 firms are “the US economy”, and within that the market capitalization and profits are concentrated to the Fortune 25-50.
Moreover, these firms’ revenues since the ’80s have increasingly come from sales to one another and to gov’ts, including their foreign subsidiaries, whereas the Fortune 300 firms employ fewer than 13% of the US workforce at $425,000/employee. For 30 years “the US economy” has required progressively fewer workers to the point that only 6-7% of the US population are employed to produce revenues equivalent to 100% of US private GDP.
As US and global growth of uneconomic activity further slows and contracts per capita, in order to reduce costs and maintain profit margins and increase revenues/employee, the Fortune 25-300 firms will be compelled to reduce further the number of workers they employ and increase investment in automation and smart systems (see what Google, IBM, Oracle, and VMware are doing), resulting in millions of jobs being cut in the US and worldwide, mergers, jettisoning lines of business, idling or writing off facilities, and spinning off assets when possible.
IOW, expect an acceleration of the process that has been underway for 20-30 years, meaning that increasingly the Fortune 25-300 will merge with one another and gov’t, with a growing large majority share of business sales occurring in a kind of closed-system economy, if you will, within which the vast majority of us will not be beneficiaries.
Then, imagine a collapse of the fiat digital debt-money system, including wage labor, gov’t transfers, and pensions, and the top 0.1% (who own controlling interest in the Fortune 25-300 firms and the gov’t) seizing all public and private assets, e.g., land, water, ports, utilities, etc., as recompense for systemic defaults on the claims owned by the top 0.1%. If the top 0.1% cannot receive compounding interest claims from labor, production, and gov’t receipts, the system has little value for the top 0.1% to lend against labor, production, and gov’t receipts and to own the claims therefrom; therefore, growth of the system and profit seeking will no longer be an incentive, whereas complete ownership of a kind of private corporate-state run primarily for the benefit of the top 0.1-1% will become much more likely.
With the ownership of most land, water, ports, and financial and physical capital concentrated to the top 0.1-1%, growth no longer possible or necessary, and automation increasingly eliminating paid employment for all but the techno-scientific elite and corporate-state surrogate political and military castes, the vast majority of the rest of us will become irrelevant, if not useless bread gobblers, to the intelligent-systems private corporate-state economy/society.
Dave, as for humans becoming “harmful pests”, one can envision the ultimate evolutionary course for an intelligent-systems economy/society would be towards the system becoming biologically symbiotic with the ecosystem, i.e., “Spaceship Earth”; that is, a kind of planetary super-organism that is fully integrated in terms of renewable energy transfer/exchange, water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles, waste disposal and recycling, etc. Thus, human population, resource consumption, waste, etc., would be required by definition to be in a kind of adaptive/dynamic equilibrium with the planetary super-organism’s optimal conditions for sustaining itself.
In this context, the human species desperately requires a “new religion” or “zeitgeist” or universalist metanarrative about who and what we are that transcends fear of angry, jealous, genocidal tribal desert sky gods and redefines humans in terms of what is required of us as individuals and a species to create such a planetary equilibrium.
Of course, the top 0.1% like things just as they are, with the mass of human apes competing for limited resources, fearing, hating, and killing one another, reproducing like vermin, and exacerbating overshoot conditions that keep us all too occupied with survival to challenge the hierarchical system of resource flows and power relations.
Moreover, the top 0.1-1% can envision such a techno-scientific utopian system . . . for themselves, excluding the rest of us.
Yes, it’s a great thing to “serve mankind!”
We have created an ‘economy’ that essentially converts land into money.
This gives rise to the illusion that land itself, and everything above it and under it can also be owned in perpetuity, and that it will go on delivering ‘wealth’ into perpetuity. But of course it wont. We have been engaged in 10,000 years of soil mining, stripping out the nutrition of the earth and converting it to saleable assets. Food, Metal goods, oil products, everything is drawn from the earth as if it is a cornucopia. Unfortunately our earth-system is intended to function on closed loop recycling of everything, and is about to start recycling us.
How could so many people miss anything so obvious for so long? Alternatively, how could Economists be so creative in their thinking?
I’m not an economist, but I get paid for creative thinking
The more I create, the more I earn. It’s as simple as that
To quote Krugman (Nobel prize for economics) “My spending pays my neighbours wages, his spending pays my wages” With creative thinking like that, one must despair of economics
If agriculture produces an excess that is converted into excess human biomass that in turn demands even more production to convert into even more biomass, then ipso facto it will be non-sustainable. Likewise, if there are any open loops or linear flows (instead of closed loops) in the system, depletion will be an inevitable consequence.
I am afraid you are right.
Among the most abundant resources on the planet are human beings, i.e., human energy for free labor, human flesh for animal protein, and the rest of the remnants as fertilizer to reproduce a large enough human population as livestock for a remnant elite who employ military power, advanced technology, and hierarchical command and control to farm human livestock for free labor, consumption, and compost. This is the ultimate ecological and exergetic solution to population overshoot, resource constraints, Peak Oil, and economic, social, and political instability.
A logical, humane, highly efficient intelligent-systems planetary super-organism charged with optimizing the planetary system for the successful evolution of the human ape species would not discard this option, and it might be forced to conclude that the solution is optimal, all else being equal.
Thus, given the other “solutions” the Power Elite top 0.1% have from which to choose for the species in the decades hence, this zombie apocalypse turned sustainable human livestock permacultural system is no less likely than the alternative “solutions”.
The industrial agriculture system could be adapted for highly efficient human livestock production serving the top 0.1% elite in their high-tech, self-contained, self-sustaining, private city-state enclaves/fortresses complete with food, water, transport, communications, security, entertainment, and private ownership of everything of economic value, including the genomes of all living organisms, water, air, soil, and ideas. Human livestock for free labor and food would require little or no education, minimal medical care, no political representation, and only enough shelter, energy, water, and food to sustain to the age at which point they would become food and/or compost.
Now that net fossil fuel energy and debt can no longer grow to sustain a debt-based, mass-consumer economy and a representative political system based on gov’t patronizing a majority of the citizenry, only a tiny fraction of the planet’s 7 billion population can be sustained hereafter at a western standard of material consumption or higher; but that means perhaps as few as 1 billion human apes or fewer, of which maybe only 1 million will be required to sustain the species evolving at the rate of techno-scientific advancement and scale of net energy density and concentration per capita of the past 150-500 years, leaving many hundreds of millions of human apes as slave labor, food, and compost to reset the human ape population and permit the planet’s ecosystem to recover (or be terraformed sustainably) in the centuries ahead for the remnant 0.1% techno-scientific elite.
If so, a humane process of extermination, i.e., die-off, and reconditioning of the bottom 99-99.9% of us is required to transition to the depopulated, sustainable, techno-utopian planetary intelligent-systems super-organism, i.e., “Gaia” or “Spaceship Earth”, to evolve thereafter to best serve the survival, adaptation, and reproduction of the remnant elite. The sooner the process begins at the current exergetic equilibrium per capita for the remnant 0.1%, the better their chances of surviving intact and prepared to evolve the species to the next phase.
Soylent Green/Pink/Brown/Yellow/Black is people: the “final solution” to most of the problems facing the human ape species (sub-species).
Unfortunately, humans don’t make very nutritious meals, for much the same reason that we don’t eat wolves, bears and other mammals at the top of the food chain.
My understanding is that the reason we don’t eat animals at the top of the food chain is cost, more than taste. Each layer up the food chain raises costs by something like a factor of 10. We do, however, each fish that eat other fish, because the cost we pay does not reflect the higher amount of nutrition required to raise fish-eating fish.
Mr Hemenway’s thesis regarding the problems with agriculture seem to have considerable merit. I read Spencer Wells “Pandora’s Seed” and he has much the same analysis. As much as the readers here (myself included) may find Mr. Hemenway’s analysis fascinating, I wonder if this is little more than an academic exercise that will have little to zero impact upon the destiny of humans and planet earth?
Humans are not likely to address the root problem of population overshoot in any kind of direct fashion. And, I’ve no faith in any of the theories (short of collapse) that propose that various indirect factors will ratchet down our population to a sustainable number in any kind of pleasant manner. If the most likely scenario is some type of nasty bottleneck that results in significantly fewer of us, then what happens on the other side? Once some future version of the foragers morph into agriculturists, what realistic factors would not once again give birth to a reincarnation of the Huns, Mongols, Vandals, Goths, Vikings, the Roman Empire, etc.?
As I attempt to discuss the future of humanity with a variety of friends, neighbors, and relatives, I’m increasingly getting the opinion that my concerns are not only useless, but really quite silly. The most common philosophy I encounter is: we (speaking about the USA) live the way we do because “we can”. Our car culture and material consumption behavior is simply a normal part of human nature and I should stop tilting at windmills and go with the flow – enjoy the life we have. Every generation has its challenges and problems – future generations will adapt to whatever problems they face. And, besides, the doomsters have always been wrong and the human spirit has always been victorious (or other platitudes to that effect).
IMO, horticultural is a pipe-dream as regards sustaining 7B->9B humans on planet Earth as resources deplete. It amazes me that someone like Mr. Hememway can conclude his thesis with a milquetoast statement like:
And his equally limp statement earlier in the article:
I agree that “sustainability” is somewhat of an oxymoron, and is not in the future for humanity, no matter how hard we try or what methods we use. Panarchy is the ruler of everything, and everything goes in cycles. What happens when you try to force a chaotic system into a steady state? Why, chaos breaks out in some other variable.
So in many ways, I’m actually coming around to the realistic — if intellectually lazy — point of view of your friends: just sit back and enjoy the ride. I’m not about to go out and buy an SUV, but really, what impact can we possibly have, when life itself is a chaotic system? Doing the “right thing” when it comes to monstrous problems like resource depletion and climate change is sorta like peeing your pants while wearing a dark suit: you get a warm feeling, but nobody notices.
Sorry, I’m feeling particularly cynical today, as it looks like the sustainable project I have been working on for seven years is going to bite the dust due to lack of interest.
Oops… the above link is broken. Try this link for Panarchy instead. Also, google for Buzz Holling. Everything is a cycle…
(Argh. I’m having a bad HTML day… 🙂
I agree everything is a cycle.
I know that there are a lot of people involved in sustainability projects, and I don’t want to discourage them. But they are awfully difficult to do, and have them come out right. If you can guarantee that in the future everything will be the same as today, only oil will be priced a little higher, then it is possible to come up with a plan that “works”. But if you are trying to deal with a more complex problem, it is much harder.
I do think that Permaculture, with its emphasis on adaptation to change, holds some hope for the future. I take as a minimum that oil will be higher, but also that many other things will be changing. The keys are resilience and adaptability — and divorcing yourself from oil as much as possible.
For example, our site came with a buried irrigation system that required a tractor driving a PTO pump, which ran huge jets that watered a 100′ circle, using some 50 litres of diesel per day. We use the buried distributions system to siphon water from the reservoir and feed it to low-pressure dripline, and we’ve abandoned the huge sprayers.
But the dripline is made of plastic, and after 3-5 years in the sun, it starts cracking and splitting. So “phase three” of our irrigation plan is to dig swales on-contour next to our beds, so we can flood them from the reservoir, watering our crops from below, and so we can away with the plastic altogether.
How long will the buried 100mm PVC plumbing last? Probably decades, but we’ll start thinking of ways to replace it before it starts to go away.
And that’s the important thing: anticipating change and adapting to it, but also building resilience through redundancy, so that if your anticipation was wrong, you just might have a backup.
Our basic problem seems to be that we are part of the natural order, and in the natural order, every species reproduces much more than is needed for replacement. Every species also makes use of whatever energy sources are available to them. We are doing the same thing (using fossil fuels), but reaching limits, so we can’t keep on doing it.
It is at least a thought-exercise to come up with an ideas as to what might work to provide basic necessities to some subgroup of humans for some period of time (probably not permanently). A person can put together a long list of what might be needed to make such a system work. At a minimum, people choosing the horticultural dream would need to find a way that they would not be attacked by others (or could hold up–difficult against agriculturalists). They would need to find a way to limit their population, so the same thing wouldn’t happen all over. But maybe some people, somewhere, could make horticulture work for a while.
The key is to go as far out as you possibly can get on the margins, and learn how to survive there long enough for most of the Die Off to work itself out.
My bet would be that once JIT fails and the Lights Go Out in many/most of the Big Cities of the world, it will take no more than 5 years for a 90% Die Off of the population of Homo Sapiens.
So you mainly need to survive this period of time, and the best way to do that is to be as far from everyone else as you can possibly get, in a neighborhood where you can acquire enough food to survive and/or bring with you enough supplies to make it through the Zero Point.
Best locations are places where mechanized vehicles cannot move around and where the climate is such most people would not consider going there.
The Bayou in Lousiana comes to mind, and deep in the Amazon Rainforest, at least if you can stand the hot climate and humidity. Or you go cold, and head for the Far North, Nunavut, Siberia etc. The Plains and coastlines in the Temperate climates for the most part are Death Zones. Only a few Fjord type areas in Norway, New Zealand and along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska might be remote and defensible enough coastal locations. Really FAR out islands like Tristan da Cunha, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas might be decent Survival Zones also.
I know that this is one theory–protect yourself during the major die-off, and you will be OK later.
Another theory is that all you need to do is use a little less–buy a Prius; learn to grow a little of your own food, and supplement it with grains and other food you buy.
And a third theory is the “boiling frogs” one, that there will be no sudden die-off, that day by day, week by week, year by year, people will find themselves a bit less better off.
In the “boiling frogs” case, the “doomers” are found dead next to their bug-out bags, surrounded by little foil packets that held emergency food to get them through the crisis.
I can see how enticing it is to protect yourself from an “event,” and then you can easily live off dead people’s stuff afterward. But what we’re going through is not an event; it’s a process.
Maybe it is good that we don’t know exactly.
Even if a person does try to make arrangements, it is hard to think of all of the contingencies. Is our primary problem bank accounts that don’t work anymore, or war with a neighboring community, or international nuclear war, or high priced fuel? John Michael Greer and James Kunstler have tried writing fictional accounts that might give some insight into the kinds of things that might happen.
It’s a process until it becomes an event. The process is known as Cascade Failure, which begins slowly and grows exponentially, until you get an avalanche.
In any event, the idea you will find dead primitivists is silliness. There are several ways to approach this that are actually fun ways to live, and in some paradigms you don’t have to “give up your day job” either.
My co-Admin on the Diner Peter chooses to live remotely, growing his own produce hydroponically and fishing and crabbing for animal protein. He doesn’t hold a regular job, but does fixit stuff for his community.
I live semi-remote, and have a regular job. However, I practice remote survival skills, and have means to rapidly leave the semi-remote location for the fully remote one. Actually I have a few different choices available to me on this end.
Even if it did Frog Boil for the rest of my life, I love where I live and being far from the madding crowd. I was born in New York City. I know what it’s like. It sucks, and at some point the Lights won;t go back on, and it will be a Death Zone. I don’t know if that day is 5 years away, 10 or 20, but the math says its coming soon enough that your a damn idiot if you hang out in places like that.
Dear Bicycle Dave
Toby Hemenway thinks that a pastoral/ horticultural way of living could support between 500 million and 2 billion humans. He gave that answer to a question at Duke University. You can find the talk on his web site under “How to save humanity, but not civilization’. The question and the answer are not shown on the video. I was there, so heard the Q and A.
He also pointed out that a one child policy, world-wide, could reduce the population to that level over a period of several decades.
If you are a pessimist, you ask how humans can be realistically expected to endorse something as sensible as a one-child policy just to save humanity–when there is very little evidence that humans have ever acted sensibly. If you are an optimist, well…
I got snipped in my 20s, childless. Where do I apply for my child-bearing-right credit? 🙂
Before a ‘one-child’ policy can ever be even be seriously considered there has to be an equitable distribution of the wealth that modern society currently so disproportionately distributes. Children are for a great many people their pension. That translates into children being their means of surviving and it is pure folly to expect them to lay down their lives so that other, richer, people can live.
Hi Don Stewart,
This is from the UN – http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Analytical-Figures/htm/fig_1.htm
Key result: The world population is expected to keep on rising during the 21st century, although its growth is projected to experience a marked deceleration during the second half of the century.
According to the medium variant of the 2010 Revision of World Population Prospects, the world population is expected to increase from 6.9 billion in mid-2011 to 9.3 billion in 2050 and to reach 10.1 billion by 2100. Realization of this projection is contingent on the continued decline of fertility in countries that still have fertility above replacement level (that is, countries where women have, on average, more than one daughter) and an increase of fertility in the countries that have below-replacement fertility. In addition, mortality would have to decline in all countries.
If fertility were to remain constant in each country at the level it had in 2005-2010, the world population could reach nearly 27 billion by 2100. A future fertility that remains just half a child above that projected in the medium variant would result in a population of 15.8 billion in 2100 (high variant), but if fertility remains just half a child below that of the medium variant, the world population in 2100 could be 6.2 billion, the same size it had at the start of the 21st century.
Today, 42 per cent of the world population lives in low-fertility countries, that is, countries where women are not having enough children to ensure that, on average, each woman is replaced by a daughter who survives to the age of procreation (i.e., their fertility is below replacement level). Another 40 per cent lives in intermediate-fertility countries where each woman is having, on average, between 1 and 1.5 daughters, and the remaining 18 per cent lives in high-fertility countries where the average woman has more than 1.5 daughter
Even if the fertility of each country would reach replacement level in 2010-2015, the world population would continue to increase over the rest of the century, reaching 9.1 billion in 2050 and 9.9 billion in 2100 (see the “instant replacement variant” in the figure above).
Dear Bicycle Dave
I think Toby was saying half a female child per adult female. That is, a strict one child policy. If Asian abort females, then there would be even fewer females and lower population.
I don’t think Toby was saying he expects the world to enact such a policy–just that the matter is in our hands to deal with.
The article indicates that total collapse is the only possibility. And it might well be right. It’s hard to see things going any other way.
Ultimately, a horticulture/permaculture society using animal power, wind power and sun power might be the sustainable model. Given the damage to the biosphere, it’s hard to see more than 100 million global population at that point.
Eventually, due to global warming, Antarctica will be the most viable continent. But that could be 100,000 to a million years hence.
Pastoralism, especially of sheep and goats, frequently leads to overgrazing. For example, the ancient Israelites were primarily sheep herders, and they ran into this problem. The Old Testament describes the Garden of Eden as a foraging type of society–an idealized myth to be sure, but one based on the realities of leisure in a hunting and gathering society. The Israelites changed from an economy based mainly on sheep to one based mostly on agriculture and fishing during a period of roughly one thousand years.
The food surpluses that agriculture permits makes possible kings and standing armies. Agricultural societies are almost invariably warlike, highly patriarchal and strictly patrilineal. Not all agricultural societies are monotheistic (e.g., those of ancient China, ancient India, ancient Egypt, and ancient Rome) but a monotheistic patriarchal God seems to have agriculture as a prerequisite. You can see this transition in the Old Testament, when the unnamed God changes from a jealous one among lots of other gods to the One and Only True God of the ancient Jews.
Agricultural societies tend to destroy foraging, herding, fishing, and horticultural societies. Similarly, the greater military might of Industrial societies tends to destroy tradition-based agricultural ones. Today, what we are seeing is the self-destruction of industrial and post-industrial society, a self-destruction based on the factors identified in “Limits to Growth” back in the early seventies.
I do not know what the future will look like. I am sure, however, that military power, both offensive and defensive, will be a key determinant of whether or not we end up in city states or villages or empires. As stated earlier, food and other economic surpluses are prerequisite to military power.
One thing we do know is that the future is likely to be fairly different from the past, played in reverse.
With the current dominant approach to food supply being agriculture, it is very hard for anything else to get a foothold. If nothing else, the others don’t seem to allow as large a population per square kilometer, or whatever other measure you are using.
I agree that there is likely to be fighting of some sort. If there is not enough to go around, fighting seems to be the natural response.
One other point: as human civilization declines from catabolic collapse, pastoralists surviving on “public” land may be an escape from the inevitable serfdom that will further divide humans into land owners and land workers. At least that’s my plan for my herd of dairy goats and the thousands of acres of crown land behind our property…
I can understand pitting foragers against agriculturalists and industrialists, but like p01 (above), I was disappointed that pastoralism was left out of the equation. Modern examples, such as the Masai, indicate that pastoralism can be carried out in a sustainable manner.
Indeed, Permaculture’s emphasis on integrating animals into sustainable agricultural systems is a hint at the sustainability of this form. In many regions, pastoralism predates agriculture or even horticulture, as possibly the first step away from hunter-gatherer.
Pastoralism based on dairy may be the maximum power point “sweet spot” in the curve between foraging and industrial civilization. By focusing on high-protein, high-fat, renewable food, pastoralism allows animals to do our foraging for us, with little in the way of added energy besides the somatic energy required to herd animals in order to rotate pasturage. As with foraging, feedback is immediate and clear — the animals will tell you when you’re over-grazing an area. (The #1 principle of fencing: make the area inside the fence more attractive than the area outside the fence!)
It is difficult to hoard pastoral products. Meat can be salted, milk can be fermented, but unlike grain, neither of these provide more than a winter’s storage. So, as with foraging, pastoral societies tend to have flat hierarchies, avoiding internal power struggles and external wars.
I don’t know how realistic pastoralism is for seven billion humans. But if unsustainable agriculture causes a population crash, it sure would be nice to give pastoralism another try.
It seems like the need for animals as part of the mix is most obvious in colder climates, since animals can live year around, and thus store food on the hoof. In warmer climates, it seems like plant foods make up a larger part of the mix. So the answer may vary somewhat by location.
That is a good point about pastoral societies having flat hierarchies, since it doesn’t allow huge storage.
I’m not so sure cold-hot climate is such an issue.
Perhaps the best known modern pastoralists, the Masai, herd their animals in equatorial Africa. In colder climates, domestic animals conventionally are fed hay in the winter, which is a fairly energy-intensive crop the way it is done today.
I think low-energy temperate-climate pastoralism might depend on seasonal migration, which is going to be difficult as long as powerful people own land that can block such migration.
Grains are also the precursor of money. Not to mention all plant seeds are highly toxic to most/all animals, since plants don’t particularly enjoy animals eating their off springs.
So, yes, agriculture is not sustainable, and it`s health-destroying.
Here is, however, a real life example of sustainability:
Pastoral existence is sustainable, but it implies letting grandma carry her own water uphill and grandma dying when she cannot do it anymore. No gas genny for granny, and no one to carry her water all day long (maybe for brief periods in times of illness, but not on a permanent basis) is what makes those communities truly sustainable (unlike what Mother Culture tells the documentary maker/reporter he should do, and in doing so, missing the whole the point of why those communities are truly sustainable).
So, are we prepared for real sustainability? The answer is a resounding: NO! Mother Culture has already programmed otherwise since childhood.
Humans have had trouble with survival of the fittest for a very long time. We are programmed not to accept it. We are “smart enough” to match mother nature to pick out which are the best mutations, and to limit our own population to a number which will allow other species to grow in balance with our growth.
The horticultural kind of society has been well studied by anthropologists. Bronislaw Malinowski wrote a whole shelf of books on the Trobriand Islanders of N.E. Melanesia who had a prosperous economy based on horticulture and fishing. Islanders almost invariably develop effective techniques of population control, because population control is essential for the well-being of a horticultural society. Another interesting trait of horticultural societies is that they are often matrilineal and either matrilocal or avunculocal. In my somewhat informed opinion, many (not all) horticultural societies/ecosystems/economies/cultures are indeed sustainable.
What kills horticultural society is the market. When labor and land become commodities, the restraints of tradition rapidly dissolve. Present-day visitors to the Trobriand Islands finds little or nothing of the culture and society described by Malinowski.
I think part of the reason for the need for effective population control is the obvious limits of the islands themselves.
Once we have an international market for everything, labor and land become commodities. Then we have the problems we have today.
I strongly recommend a book by Karl Polanyi, “The Great Transformation” which explains the power of the market to destroy traditional societies. Another good book is “Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft” by Tonnies, a classic of socoiology.
So long as the market rules, we shall have modern society, or some variant of it. The only way to break the power of the market would be a devastating collapse. My conjecture is that for the next fifty years some variation of Business as Usual and market power will continue to rule most societies.
Economists, of course, like market-based societies. Anthropologists, who have seen what modern market-based societies do to traditonal ones, are not so friendly toward modern industrial market societies. My sentiments are with the anthropologists, but most of my education has been in economics and finance. Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that, with rare exceptions, tradition-based societies are doomed.
There are exactly three ways to organize a society: tradition, command, or the market. Command societies tend to rapidly self-destruct, as did the Soviet Union. In my opinion, market societies also self-destruct, though the process takes hundreds of years. Sooner or later, I think we will be forced to return to tradition as the organizing basis for societies, because of the self-destructive tendencies of both markets and democracies.
Donsailorman – your assumption that there are only three ways to organize a society is, I think, a bit presumptuous. Perhaps humankind is capable of invention, perhaps not, but simply because we have seen (maybe) only three forms of organization in the past, does not mean there are no possible alternatives. Likewise, just because the experienced organizational forms have not done well in the past, it does not mean they are inherently unworkable since details matter in organizations – just as details in a ICE engine is the difference between one that can run for an hour and one that can run for thousands of hours.
We may indeed be forced back to some low intensity agricultural or gathering based organization, but it will not be the fault of organizational forms. Rather, it will be because humankind is too uninventive and slow-witted to manage large scale organization.
You are 100% correct when you write “. . . humankind is too uninventive and slow-witted to manage large scale organization.” The only way we know to do large-scale organization is bureaucratically–true of big corporations, armies, universities, churches, and any other group with a goal that requires a mobilization of resources (land, labor, capital) in an environment of scarcity.
In the real world we often find mixtures of tradition, command, and the market–though small groups of hunters and gatherers can be organized purely by tradition. Bureaucracy has both functions and dysfunctions. From the evidence of both history and cultural anthropology I think it is clear that the only three principles by which an economy can be organized are tradition, market, or command. I doubt that there is a fourth organizing principle which is just waiting to be discovered. In other words, we are stuck with variations on themes that have existed for a long time. Bureaucracies often flourish when the environment stays the same, as it did, for example, in ancient Egypt for thousands of years. With few exceptions, bureaucracies flounder when it comes to change. Military forces are notorious for always being ready for the previous war, and hence we will often see military fiascos such as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
It seems to me that organization is mostly self-organization around the rules that society lays down. This self-organization takes time. I see time as much of an issue as lack of inventiveness.
In pre-contact times, the Marshallese Islanders also had an economy based on horticulture and fishing. This economy was in Malthusian equilibrium for centuries. When a “big hunger” occurred, people died of malnutrition.
A side effect of this equilibrium was that these islanders were very war-like and dangerous. Whaling vessels avoided the area, since Marshallese sailing canoes were much faster than a whaler. Marshallese were always on the lookout for intruders from other atolls. Sentries often slept on the beaches to sound the alarm when enemy canoes where about to land. The violence subsided only with the influence of Christian missionaries on their culture. Later colonization by European, Asian and North American countries greatly affected household economies and diminished the importance of horticulture and fishing as opposed to imported food and a cash economy.
“Population control is essential for the well-being of a horticultural society” sugar coats the fact that without the condom or the pill, war and famine was often the method of population control for these early cultures .