Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

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

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

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.


  1. Diamond, Jared. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discover, May 1987.
  2. Mollison, Bill. (1988). Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. Tagari.
  3. Cohen, Yehudi. (1971). Man in Adaptation: The Institutional Framework. De Gruyter.
  4. Lee, R. and I. Devore (eds.) 1968. Man the Hunter. Aldine.
  5. 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.
  6. Milton, K. 1984. Protein and Carbohydrate Resources of the Maku Indians of Northwestern Amazonia. American Anthropologist86, 7-27.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Braudel, Fernand (1979). Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century: The Structures of Everyday Life. Harper and Row.
  10. Godesky, Jason (2005). Human Societies are Defined by Their Food.

Copyright 2006 by Toby Hemenway.

(Published in Permaculture Activist #60, May, 2006)

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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143 Responses to Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

  1. donsailorman says:

    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.

      • donsailorman says:

        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.

        • OldStone50 says:

          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.

          • donsailorman says:

            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.

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      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 .

  2. p01 says:

    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.

  3. Jan Steinman says:

    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.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        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.

  4. Jan Steinman says:

    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…

  5. donsailorman says:

    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.

  6. Ikonoclast says:

    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.

  7. Bicycle Dave says:

    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:

    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.

    And his equally limp statement earlier in the article:

    At some point humans need to get the message to slow their breeding


    • Jan Steinman says:

      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.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Oops… the above link is broken. Try this link for Panarchy instead. Also, google for Buzz Holling. Everything is a cycle…

        • Jan Steinman says:

          (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.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            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.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            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.


    • Don Stewart says:

      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…

      Don Stewart

      • Jan Steinman says:

        I got snipped in my 20s, childless. Where do I apply for my child-bearing-right credit? 🙂

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        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.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Don Stewart,

        This is from the UN –

        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).

        • Don Stewart says:

          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.

          Don Stewart

  8. BC says:

    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).

    • Drive By David says:

      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.

  9. robindatta says:

    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.

  10. 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

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