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.

Acknowledgement

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.

References

  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. 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)

143 thoughts on “Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

  1. Pingback: Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron? « Achaques e Remoques

  2. Here is a new video featuring Geoff Lawton, a Permaculturist from Australia.
    http://www.geofflawton.com/fe/32461-surviving-the-coming-crises?affiliate_number=10005

    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.

    Don Stewart

  3. Toby Hemenway has just posted:
    http://www.patternliteracy.com/697-the-last-nomads-and-the-culture-of-fear

    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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

        • 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.

    • 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.

  6. 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’.)

  7. 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.

  8. Yet another heavyweight weighs in on the Food Forest concept:
    http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2013/01/04/in-the-forest-kitchen-garden/

    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.

    Don Stewart

    • 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.

      • Jan
        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:
        http://www.uctv.tv/shows/Food-and-Addiction-The-Other-Side-Chronic-Calorie-Restriction-for-Healthy-Living-18566

        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.

        Don Stewart

        • 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.

          • Leo
            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.

            Don Stewart

        • 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 🙂

          • Jan
            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.

            • 🙂 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.

  9. 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

    Don Stewart

    Click to access Registration%20Mailer%202013.pdf

  10. 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.

    Don Stewart

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