174 Responses to Twelve Reasons Why Globalization is a Huge Problem

  1. Jay Carter says:

    Gail; You are The Best. Your insights and ideas, rock. Too bad you can’t give a presentation to our Congress and White House. Petroleum is still way too inexpensive. I recently shopped at Costco in Marina Del Rey, CA. I bought colored bell peppers from the Netherlands, and raspberries from Chile. What does that tell you about the structural inefficiencies built in to the global economy. It won’t be long until the oil age is over. I wonder if Thomas Friedman knows that his book, “The World is Flat”, will soon be obsolete? And that he will have to write a new one titled, “The World is Round Again”.

  2. David O'Rear says:

    End of More,
    Energy input is necessary for just about everything that happens in the modern world; globalization isn’t so special that this needs to be highlighted.

    = = = = =

    Mr Arnold,
    Which world? My 30+ years of travelling around and living and working in different parts of the world tells me that relaxing – not eliminating, but rationalizing – controls over the flow of goods, services, capital people and ideas is the root cause of prosperity among less developed economies. The reverse is also true: no opening, no prosperity (anyone know of a counter example?).

    Which is, of course, the majority of the world’s population. So, unless this is an elitist discussion, and the futures of the majority of the people are simply outside the parameters, that definition is exactly what globalization means. The “lumpy distribution of productivity” to which you refer is a reflection of barriers to interaction.

    • Roger Arnold says:

      Which world?

      Oh this one, for sure.

      I didn’t say that everybody had all the “stuff” that they could possibly need. There is extensive poverty, but at this point it’s more a consequence of, rather than a need for, more efficient means of production. People living in abject poverty go hungry, not because highly automated factory farms can’t produce food that’s cheap enough for them to afford, but because they have no jobs that would enable them to buy what those of us blessed with jobs can easily afford. There is no market for their labor.

      You speak of relaxing or rationalizing controls over the flow of goods, services, and capital (capital including people and ideas) as bringing prosperity to less developed economies. You seem to feel that that is what globalization is all about. I’d say that sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s something else.

      Governments in less developed nations are often corrupt, and the corruption tends to be rooted in alliances of convenience with large multinationals. The multinationals get favorable lease terms for the resources they extract, lucrative contracts for projects, or exclusive access to markets for their particular products. Corrupt officials get kickbacks, covert political support, or license to operate monopolistic concessions involving the corporation’s products.

      I think that for the most part, you’re right, that such controls as exist are generally set up to favor an incumbent elite, and that relaxing such controls is often the first step in a liberalization that brings more people into the economy. But it’s dangerous to generalize. The banner of free trade and “open markets” has been raised as the justification for overthrowing young governments that were so impertinent as to place the interests of their citizens above those of the international banking community and multinational corporations.

      More fundamental than issues of “free markets” vs. protectionism, however, is the cultural dead end in which we’ve trapped ourselves. The celebration of competition and “winner take all” mentality can work in a world with unlimited capacity for growth. In a finite world, it’s a recipe for disaster.

    • Xabier says:

      Maybe you could look at like this:

      A man is hungry and chronically under-nourished and dressed in rags. You give him ample food for the first time, gradually building up, and clothe him, etc.

      He flourishes. Many others do likewise. It feels and looks good.

      But the costs of giving him that food and clothing are increasingly poisoned air, soil and water, and it can only be done by pressing the foot down hard on the resource depletion accelerator (which is what Gail’s statistics illustrate more than anything else.)

      In consequence, he will soon be thrust back into his former state, or worse. Is this an advance? In a short-term humanitarian sense, yes….. But one should have a wider view, which is what this site is about surely?

    • It does have to be highlighted.
      there is a widely held view among many of the great and the good throughout the world that energy is just a side issue in dealing with our problems.
      globalisation is the ultimate focus of world trade, where you can find virtually identical goods being ‘traded’ between nations just to promote the business of trade itself and fuelburning

      • Xabier says:

        This should be emphasized again and again. This is because of the classical economic theory, formulated in the 18thc, that says as one source of power is exhausted another will be found or invented. Many of the axioms of economics apply to past situations, not the 21st century. Also, who likes uncomfortable facts?

  3. dolph says:

    The world suffers from too much of everything. So much so, that even the hint of less is met by thoughts of collapse.

    I’ve lived a middle class American life filled with so much goods and travel, that now the only thing I want is to be left alone, and nobody understands it.

    I’m afraid the biggest bubble of all is the global human economy. There’s no stopping this train from reaching the end of it’s track. When it does, we’ll go off.

    Humans, like every other creature, are a species born and refined through scarcity. It is always thus. And we came upon this bonanza called fossil fuels, and the rest is history.

    • It is hard to look at a graph of human population growth, and not be concerned.

      World population growth

      • Mark N says:

        That chart is why I am moving to a remote mountain top with the lowest population density I could find…..Also overlay oil consumption over the population growth and they mirror each other. I believe high oil prices will destroy industrial civilization long before we ever run out of oil; I think oil extraction is in the end game right now. Imagine what happens to the population chart should oil production crash because oil became to expensive to generate new growth necessary to run industrial civilization.

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  5. David O'Rear says:

    Mr Arnold,
    You’re right: it is the lack of good jobs that keeps people in poverty. But, there is a huge market for their labor – the experience of China in the past 30 years proves that beyond any doubt. All we, and their own governments have to do is to stop blocking the way.

    Closed borders undermine job creation.
    Open borders encourage and facilitate job creation.

    If globalization isn’t about letting people raise themselves out of poverty, why bother? After all, it is far easier to sell goods and services or invest next door, with my neighbor, than with some stranger half way around the world.

    But, globalization offers so much more. It improves people’s lives like nothing else we’ve ever encountered. This ranks up with capitalism, the industrial revolution and the end of the tyranny of distance as one of the most important poverty eradication tools available to mankind.

    • Xabier says:

      Many good points, but perhaps not going very deep at all. The point is: how is this process of enrichment (which is perhaps more apparent than real or durable) being fuelled?

      You seem reluctant to grasp the implications of this: many are.

      Globalisation is in itself an interesting concept and reality, but how does it really function here and now?

      The elimination of poverty, admirable an ideal as it is, is perhaps not the highest human purpose… (I say this as someone who has been both cold and hungry, and lived in great luxury and privilege in both the terms of our society and historically considered – I’ve seen both sides of the coin, though admittedly not developing world destitution.)

      Consider the Soviet Union and its economy: setting aside the privileged caste, it delivered equality in access to goods, housing, heat, food, clothing, etc, to all. This was in stark contrast to the unequal traditional society before the revolution, and to the horrors of the civil wars: many in the 1930’s in the Soviet State, and outside, thought they were indeed saving humanity – but we know now of the terrible environmental cost of all of this.

    • If there are limits in total, globalization helps us reach them more quickly.

      Jobs disappearing being replaced by a cheaper source aren’t necessarily replaced either. Richer countries find themselves going downhill quickly.

      • Xabier says:

        The trend in the US, Britain, Japan, and Europe in general is for the majority of people to find new jobs at much lower wages, and often under-employed. The unskilled, the older workers, never find anything.

        There is a steady and unremitting deterioration in progress.

        These peopls and their families are then very vulnerable to the next economic shock, have fewer resources to prepare with, and so on.

        In Argentina, skilled workers and managers became taxi drivers and storemen after the Crisis, then those jobs ceased to pay, and the growing generation turned increasingly to crime to survive, and drugs to assuage the pain of collapse: a cycle of about 10 years.

        Now, does the creation of factory slave jobs in China really seem a hopeful development when this proces of destruction is occuring in the West (and indeed in Japan)?

        • It is sad, the way things are going. It becomes difficult for the older generation to depend on the younger generation, because the younger generation is having so much difficulty finding good-paying jobs.

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  7. David O'Rear says:

    Xabier,
    “How is this process of enrichment being fuelled?” About the same as in the US in the 1920s, with an adjustment for population size and density. Not perfect, but successful.

    The elimination of poverty isn’t just an admirable idea; it is in the works, and while it may never be 100% finished, the progress is stunning. We are experiencing, right now, the greatest increase in standards of living, for the most people on earth, at any time in human history.

    Go back and read that last sentence again.

    • Billions of farmers have become factory workers, and their children can expect to go to school, and maybe find a job working with their brains, rather than their backs.

    • Cheap and readily available global communication is now possible in places barely connected with neighboring villages only a few decades ago.

    • Women are slowly winning the right to own their own property, to make their own decisions about marriage and work and to expect to see their children grow, learn and live a better life.

    • Most important of all, through the poverty eradicating power of globalization we are making it much harder to reverse our way back into protectionism, confrontation and war.

    Worldwide, the number of people living below the poverty line is today 500 million fewer than it was 30 years ago. Much more impressive is that this represents a decline from one-half of the global population to one-quarter.

    In India, the share living in poverty has declined from 60% in the 1980s to barely 40% today. In China, there are 650 million fewer people in poverty, an absolute decline of more than 78%.
    We are winning the war on poverty, but we don’t seem to acknowledge it. Because of 24-hour news and the always–on internet we know much more about greater portions of the world.

    We see the problems more clearly, and so they seem larger. But, the fact is that we have turned the corner, and peoples lives are changing, for the better.

    Gail Tverberg,

    Jobs aren’t disappearing; rather, they are appearing in places where they are sorely needed. Remember, workers are workers, regardless of race, nationality or location.

    • Xabier says:

      I’m afraid that your analysis is that of a One-Issue observer, true up to a point. We are discussing a much more complex situation than the mere ‘elimination of poverty’.

      Another word for this perspective of yours is, I’m afraid, tunnel-vision. People talked like this in the 19thc when they contemplated the benfits of industrialism: you might try reading some of that literature, so full of somewhat naive excitement and hope, backed by statistics – it’s salutory. They missed the environmental calaculation, too. ‘People are being fed, clothed, have gas light, trains to travel on, how wonderful!’ They also said things like: ‘We are so interdependent now (c 1900) it would be irrational to go to war……’

      Yes, many people are leading what seem to be objectively better lives. But you could also look at it like this: a rich friend with whom I was at College invites me to a top-class restaurant in the smartest district of town. Feeling rather shabby, I borrow some money to buy some smarter town clothes. I feel safe in doing this, as business is, if modest, good, based on clients who themselves live off credit but who are reasnably confident. Their limousine picks me up at the station and I am wafted to the restaurant. The meal is superb, sourced from all over the world; we relax with post-prandial cognacs, the world seem rosey. This is where one should be, this is modern life! We think of our peasant grandmothers and toast them: if only they could see us!!

      The next week, my modest business goes bust and I can’t meet my debt obligation, incurred for a few hours of pleasure, as my clients get swept up in a sudden financial collapse. My rich friend goes bust as he didn’t believe such a thing possible and made no practical preparations feling rich enough to face anything. Instead of fine wines, we now drink water of doubtful quality and colour from an intermittent supply, and stand in line at a food bank, our good clothes are inappropriate to the new situation…..

      And the point is, that is where modern life led us, directly; to a position no better than or even worse than that of our peasant grandmothers.

      Many people in the world have been invited to a feast which will seem like a dream or fantasy when they awake, rather abruptly. We are perhaps at the tail-end of a great Delusion which has lasted some 200 years.

    • Roger Arnold says:

      David,

      The elimination of poverty isn’t just an admirable idea; it is in the works, and while it may never be 100% finished, the progress is stunning. We are experiencing, right now, the greatest increase in standards of living, for the most people on earth, at any time in human history.

      I’m as eager as you or anyone else to see the reduction, and if possible the elimination, of global poverty. It’s for pragmatic as well as moral reasons: higher standards of living and opportunities for women, in particular, seem to be the only benign way to curb population growth. The alternative is genocide. That has undesirable side effects.

      I’m less sanguine than you about the extent or durability of the gains in recent decades. I think some statistical measures would support your case, but those measures are dominated by GDP growth in China and handful of other rapidly developing nations. Growth in GDP does not necessarily translate to a better quality of life for average citizens. The 90/10 rule of thumb applies: 90% of the gains go to 10% of the population.

      It’s also ironic to see China being cited as support for globalization, free trade, and open borders. China is far from that. If you want to do business in China, you will have to partner with a Chinese company, and the deal you strike will be structured to benefit that partner. If you want to build a factory to make products that will be sold primarily to foreign markets, approvals are easy. If you want to sell products made outside of China into the domestic Chinese market, good luck.

      I don’t fault China for its policies. They make sense for China. But they aim to create exactly the sort of protected environment that I said was necessary in order to support endogenous economic growth. They exploit openness and lack of trade restrictions in the nations to which they export, but it is not a two-way street. It is almost the antithesis of globalization for the domestic Chinese market.

      One other point worth mentioning: recall the pre-revolutionary China was long the victim of the type of exploitative forced globalization that I lamented in a prior comment. You probably know about the opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion, but anyone who doesn’t should look them up.

      All of this is peripheral to the deeper economic issues of job creation in a time of rapidly increasing automation, or the collision between economic growth and finite resources that Gail writes about. I’d love to get into those, but it’s far too much for one comment.

  8. David O'Rear says:

    Xabier,

    Argue the points, not the people. Reducing poverty isn’t important enough, to you? How sad.

    Re Luddites: I’m familiar with the literature of the results of the industrial revolution. Are you?

    Show me a farmer, 19th century American or 21st century Bangladeshi, who would rather continue to work 12-15 hours days in all kinds of weather, rather than earn many, many times the pay in a factory. Sure, there are individuals who want to farm, but they are all – all of them – in rich societies.

    Over the last 30+ years, I’ve watched from very close the transformation of farmers into workers, workers into managers and managers into business owners. I’ve seen both sides of it, the environmental cost and the soaring standards of living. And, I’ve never met a single person who lived through that experience who thought it might have been better if he or she had stayed on the farm.

    Not one.

    • dolph says:

      I’m not convinced meaningful capital is being formed. Much of recent world progress seems to be debt based.

      The problem with credit expansion is that it can turn on a dime, as Xabier states. It is not organic growth in income. One moment you are on top of the world, the next you are destitute.

      If the crisis which started abruptly in 2008 cannot convince you of this, I am not sure what can.

      The world should have long ago dealt with the population problem, with measures far more draconian than China’s one child policy. We should have simultaneously taxed fossil fuel consumption, so genuine capital could be formed by energy production and conservation.

      What really concerns me is what will happen to the internet. Hopefully the internet will remain in some form or another for awhile, as it is the only thing which allows us to discuss these things openly. I’m afraid none of this is palatable for dinner party conversation or mainstream newspapers and magazines.

      • Roger Arnold says:

        I’m not convinced meaningful capital is being formed. Much of recent world progress seems to be debt based.

        Hard to say what “meaningful capital” really is. To me the most “meaningful” capital is education — and, yes, education really is a form of capital. After that comes durable infrastructure for housing, transportation, communication, and public health. After that come factories and tools. I don’t know what being “debt based” has to do with any of that.

        A large part of China’s rapid growth in GDP has been from spending on infrastructure projects. That’s something we in the US have been unwilling to do, regardless of need. It means government spending, anathema to most Republicans.

  9. Don Stewart says:

    Gail

    Here is another aspect of globalization that bears some thought. There is now strong evidence that sugar independently promotes diabetes:

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0057873

    And the authors tested the notion that reductions in sugar usage could reduce diabetes rates. They found:

    We found that in the periods after a country lowered its sugar availability (typically in the context of changes in trade agreements, discussed at length elsewhere, [38]), diabetes prevalence reduced by 0.074% (p<0.05), after correcting for changes in all other controls including the economic variables, socio-demographic variables, and changes in consumption of other food products as well as total calories and obesity prevalence

    Consequently, we can conclude that global trade facilitates the spread of toxins such as sugar.

    Don Stewart

    • I saw that article.

      Maybe we can partially offset the effect by eating turmeric. We usually get that by international trade as well, but I understand that it will grow as far north as Zone 7b, which Atlanta is in.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Gail
        Charles Hugh Smith, stealing from someone else, has recently been commenting on ‘inappropriate scales’. For example, nation states are the wrong scale to solve certain problems while corporations are the wrong scale to solve other problems.

        Last Sunday’s NYTimes magazine had an article about the scientific discoveries which made it possible to precisely formulate addictive junk foods. A globally active corporation is precisely the right scale to flood the world with such addictive junk food. National governments are, for a variety of reasons, not the right scale nor have they the right structures to do much in response. A nimble corporation can quickly addict a couple of billion people, while democratically responsive national governments are going to be very slow, or glacially slow, in responding by removing the addictive substance. In theory, a corporation can also spread solutions, but solutions don’t usually make the kind of money that feeding addictions can make. On balance, I think that the evidence of worldwide deterioration in terms of chronic diseases supports the notion that, in terms of chronic disease, globalization has been a negative.

        Don Stewart

        • I think you are right.

          It seems very likely to me that the changes in food that people eat since 1970 have to be at least partly responsible for the rise in obesity. International corporations selling grocery products played a big role, but so did the growth of fast food chains and restaurant chains. Sitting behind desks more hasn’t helped either.

          International corporations come up with ideas as to what will sell, and national governments (at least ours) doesn’t try to err on the side of caution in protecting the consumer.

          • funglestrumpet says:

            Another factor in the rise in obesity might that when people are unhappy, they seek comfort to compensate and the most easily obtained comfort comes by way of food. This is especially so when the unhappiness seems to be caused by life in general, rather than something specific, such as a failed marriage.

            Treating the symptoms rather the underlying cause will not succeed in the long run. When one looks at the work-life balance of the citizens of modern developed societies, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that somehow the human animal has taken a wrong turning somewhere. As I am writing this, there is a discussion on the radio in which the two interlocutors (senior politicians) agree that globalisation and especially its ability to influence people from ill-defined, remote locations is a major source of people’s unhappiness.

            We cannot expect to get good governance from those returned by a democratic system that is going to reflect a significant and rising protest vote, as is reflected in the support the Italian comedian managed to muster in Italy’s recent general election. This gives me food for thought, but not of the kind that causes obesity.

            • One issue that we don’t hear discussed much now is the fact that making something where you can see the end product gives a great deal of satisfaction. I think this is part of the reason handicrafts are so popular as a hobby for women. (I suppose writing a blog has some of these aspects as well, even if the end product is only pixels.)

              Years ago, I talked to someone who had come from a long line of people who had worked with their hands–I suppose farming, and then making something like furniture. This particular individual was now working in an office, and didn’t feel like he had a “real job,” that provided the kind of satisfaction he expected.

              My father went into psychiatry after many years as a general practitioner. He liked very much being a general practitioner. He would see the same patients over and over, and treated them for illnesses that went away. He didn’t like psychiatry nearly as much. He would dispense pills to a changing group of people, and the changes he saw were very much less dramatic. But specialization was the way medicine was going, and the government would pay to send him back to school to learn to be a psychiatrist.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              We seem to be in agreement, Gail.

              My apologies for commenting under my old ‘funglestrumpet’ name. I was not trying to play glove-puppets. (My true identity, along with that of many others, was revealed by a hacking incident at another website that I comment on from time to time.)

  10. Gr8 article. Just scratchin’ surface. Globalization stands behind merchantilism. As Michael ParentI once said: “…globalization of poverty…”
    Gr8 book for theme: Bad Samaritans-The Myth of Free Trade and Secret History of Capitalism. Gr8 writers about problem:Silvio Gesell, Gottfried Feder.
    Solution? Cooperatives. Did you know that 1 bilion people worldwide are members of coop. As high total population membership as 70% Ireland, 50% Swiss, Scandinavia etc.

    • If we could make things just with local materials, co-operatives would be a great solution. In fact, I think I mentioned mutual insurance companies and employee owned consulting firms in another comment. I am afraid, though, that in today’s globalized world, manufactured goods are likely to be a problem. Even locally grown food is likely to depend on imported oil, and on tools made from metal (made elsewhere). So at best, co-operatives are a partial solution.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Gail

        ‘Even locally grown food is likely to depend on imported oil, and on tools made from metal (made elsewhere). So at best, co-operatives are a partial solution.’

        I would like to add some of my recent experiences to your observation. I joined a community garden this year. As I have gotten to understand the garden better, I have run into more and more problems. The garden is built on an old gravel parking lot with raised beds with wooden sides. The beds are filled with compost. The land is laid out with surveyor’s lines and industrial thinking as opposed to watershed thinking.

        While gardening with compost is wonderful, gardening in nothing but compost is not a good idea. So for the last few weeks I have been trying to figure out how to mimic Mother Nature’s garden processes in an environment which is decidedly ‘not natural’. The plot has a very high Cation Exchange Capacity, so it retains nutrients, but it is also low in humus so that it doesn’t retain water very well. (How can you get low humus growing in compost? Microbes are apparently attacking the humus.) The soil is low in potash. I tried to start a cover crop but the thin layer on top dries out very rapidly which has not helped germination. I try very hard not to drive around looking for stuff–but I have been doing a lot of driving buying things and consulting people and so forth.

        In short, we humans made a ‘not natural’ environment and I am paying the price in terms of trying to manage that environment back into some semblance of what Mother Nature wants. My own yard was abused by the developer, but it was still close enough to Nature that some fairly easy management has it largely self-sustaining and productive.

        Then, last evening, I watched Allan Savory’s TED talk on desertification in the grasslands of the world:

        What I draw from his talk is that if humans make fairly simple substitutions in Mother Nature’s scheme (cattle instead of wild herbivores, humans instead of lions), we can pretty easily get a surplus which can feed us. But if we fail to keep Mother Nature’s methods, then we are very likely to produce the deserts that Allan shows.

        Much of the complexity of trying to make a human designed grassland meat production system lies in the water management area. Mother Nature had it all figured out a long time ago. Humans resort to more and more manhandling (trips to the store?) as they struggle against the forces they have unleashed. In my community garden, we are currently struggling with water because we cannot apply Permaculture water management principles. So we resort to things like rain barrels and solar pumps and more trips to the store. My side yard uses swales and mulch–which don’t require trips to the store.

        In short, my experience is that staying as close to Mother Nature as possible while also nudging Mother Nature in a direction which gives you what you need is the only ultimately feasible thing to do.

        Don Stewart

        • It seems like staying close to mother nature often requires more land and more time. It also requires allowing a mix of plants, some of which do not provide human food. Insects and animals are other visitors are also part of the natural landscape, but are eliminated by modern techniques. This allows us to feed a much larger number of people on the same land. This is an academic article that talks about much greater land use in years past, for this reason. (Also slash and burn type of land clearing for fertilization.) The Anthropocene

          The start of the period of large-scale human effects on this planet (the Anthropocene) is debated. The industrial view holds that most significant impacts have occurred since the early industrial era (1850), whereas the early-anthropogenic view recognizes large impacts thousands of years earlier. This review focuses on three indices of global-scale human influence: forest clearance (and related land use), emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2 and CH4), and effects on global temperature. Because reliable, systematic land-use surveys are rare prior to 1950, most reconstructions for early-industrial centuries and prior millennia are hind casts that assume humans have used roughly the same amount of land per person for 7,000 years. But this assumption is incorrect. Historical data and new archeological databases reveal much greater per-capita land use in preindustrial than in recent centuries. This early forest clearance caused much greater preindustrial greenhousegas emissions and global temperature changes than those proposed within the industrial paradigm.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Gail
            I didn’t buy the article. But I do agree that humans had a very large impact on the Earth well before the industrial age. Consider, for example, the evidence that Albert Bates marshals that the native peoples in the Amazon created the Little Ice Age by sequestering so much carbon in Bio-Char. Could we do a similar trick today? Yes, if we got our act together. But Albert doesn’t think we will get our act together. And so when he travels, he plants trees to offset his carbon footprint.

            More broadly, I think we need to examine statements such as ‘food is just fossil fuels’ with a critical eye. There is no doubt that fossil fuels have enabled us to change many things relative to food. For example, shipping Chilean grapes to the northern hemisphere in the spring, or wrapping tomatoes in cellophane. Or cooking on a gas stove. Fossil fuels have permitted the destruction of most farm land within easy reach of New York City.

            In my oft-expressed opinion, we should first make a distinction between gardening and farming. Gardening is mostly about growing perishable foods on one’s own land very close to home. Farming is about selling mostly non-perishable foodstuffs to distant people that one does not know. The farmer’s product will be things like wheat, while the gardener will produce leafy greens. These products are not at all like each other, in functional terms.

            We should also beware of the fallacy that ‘modern is better’, which is thoroughly dissected by John Michael Greer in his new book Not The Future We Ordered. The Iowa State trials showed that, in terms of On The Farm Productivity, high fossil fuel farming is no better than traditional farming and generates a lot more pollution.

            That is, the things that are usually pointed to as fossil fuels contributions to increased productivity are really not any better than cover crops. Cover crops can fix nitrogen, stop erosion, encourage the soil food web, conserve moisture, bring nutrients up from deep in the soil, add organic matter to the soil, and do double duty as edibles. Fossil fuel derived products can do some of those things, but not all of them. So farming with cover crops is sustainable, while farming with fossil fuels is not.

            It is true that modern varieties of corn and wheat and other staple crops are much more efficient users of solar energy than the crops of 500 years ago. When we examine old Flemish paintings of workers harvesting crops in the field, we find that the crops towered over the workers. We now have varieties which put more energy into the seeds that we are interested in and less into foliage. It could be argued that it was a fossil fuel powered society that invented the modern varieties. Perhaps so, but we should remember that the native peoples in the Andes developed hundreds of varieties of potatoes without benefit of fossil fuels.

            My conclusion is that fossil fuels enable us to take terribly degraded land and do something with it quickly (which tends to give us the 75 dollar tomato), and to do a lot of things (many of which are not wise) after we harvest the crop. Which circles me back around to gardening. The best strategy for a fossil fuel limited world is to have a garden in soil you have rendered fertile and to have learned how to garden with a minimum of inputs. One should also have learned some tricks about preparing and preserving foods in a low energy world, because preparing and preserving use more energy than producing. Packaging and marketing and the other BS that we seem to find essential nowadays should simply be eliminated.

            As for the New York City which ate its farmlands rather than the food its farmlands could produce–good luck with that strategy!

            Don Stewart

            • The thing that bothers me about the model of farmers in the country shipping non-perishables to customers in the city (who grow their own perishable food) is that it assumes today’s supply approach will work. We know it will cease to work at some point (because it is dependent on roads, and trucks, and oil for the trucks, and banks to pay the drivers of the trucks). The system works until it doesn’t. If we plan this way, we have a fairly fragile system for the longer term, even though it may work now, and for the next few years.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Gail
              The way I look at it is that several conditions have to be met. Among them:
              1. Whatever a farmer does right now has to be economically viable for the next 2 years or else the farmer won’t survive for the next few decades.
              2. Climate change is going to change the specific adaptations which are going to have to be made in order to survive but our ability to predict those adaptations is not very good.
              3. Non-perishables can be stored for shipment at the time of year when the roads are in their best shape. Right now, the non-perishables are mostly harvested in summer to fall, and shipped in the fall, when the roads are the driest.
              4. Non-perishables are adapted to water transport, which is likely to become increasingly dominant. If trains survive, then trains will continue to transport a lot of non-perishables.

              There certainly are no guarantees on anything. We could have a new set of Jesse James and Dalton Brothers gangs who hold up trains to get the corn and wheat–let your imagination work a while and you can come up with all sorts of scenarios which take us back to isolated homesteads pretty quickly. But isolated homesteads will look like the one Wendell Berry described in Kentucky at the end of the Civil War–struggling to stay alive.

              Also, compare Ugo Bardi’s current post on the sad state of Italian politics and James Howard Kunstler’s guest article for Chris Martenson. Bardi notes that when coal became available in northern Europe, waterways were improved in order to move the coal which led to the industrial revolution in those countries. In Italy, only the north (the Po Valley, I assume) had navigable rivers or terrain suitable for canals and so southern Italy remained a backwater which was conquered by the Piedmont kingdom with the help of the British.

              Kunstler does describe the importance of water, but I don’t think he has really thought it through. He talks about ‘localization’–without contemplating that the people in next valley were frequently strangers in a world of poor transportation. In Europe, one could have completely different languages over in the next valley.

              The ‘neighborhood’ of the future might be defined in terms of the distance one is from navigable water. Eastern China has always been threaded with thousands of miles of canals. A famous old drawing in China depicts the ‘Emperor on the Grand Canal’. So getting trade goods from eastern China to New York City may be easy. Getting trade goods into Manhattan from Morristown, NJ, may be really hard. During the time Washington’s army spent at Jockey Hollow just outside Morristown, it was the bad winter roads that protected them from the British army in New York City. But communication between the British army in NYC and London worked just fine.

              In short, if we go far enough into the future, I suspect we will relearn the importance of navigable water.

              In either event, I think that a near term adaptation which thinks and works in terms of the distinction between perishables and non-perishables is most likely to be commercially viable and also to be adaptive physically.

              Don Stewart

            • Maybe so. It is hard for people to plan for a future different from today, though. Even though we could use more water transport, it will take a while to ramp up. Our current water transport is geared to oil powered boats. If oil isn’t available, we will need to make a change.

              The amount of non-perishables transported will need to depend on the amount of transport really available. Grain is pretty compact, so hopefully we can transport what is needed.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Gail
              Let me reconsider my statement about Morristown, NJ to NYC. The newly independent United States constructed the Delaware and Raritan canal which connected those two rivers and thus New York City and Philadelphia. I am not a student of the canal, but I imagine it carried a lot of fuel such as coal and also a lot of staple agricultural products from the rich farmlands of New Jersey. I believe it operated until about 1960. When I used to take my children walking on the towpath, or canoeing on the canal, it was in pretty good shape. The locks still worked. So my guess is that, sometime in the not too distant future, that canal may assume new importance. However, the ‘rich farmlands of New Jersey’ are mostly no more–turned into Suburbia. If you look at maps, you will find that the ‘improved farmland’ which used to ring NYC has mostly disappeared. And canals are not very good for transporting perishables such as leafy greens grown on suburban lawns in the absence of refrigeration because the mules just move too slowly.

              Still, I think the point about water making close neighbors more so than mileage is still a good thing to think about.

              Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Gail
            I also recommend Albert Bates’ current post on the Research Farm in Belize:

            http://peaksurfer.blogspot.com/2013/02/returning-to-deep.html

            It would be a mistake to say that the Farm is merely going back to what the Mayans did. It would be accurate to say that the Mayans knew some things which the Europeans did not know and could not appreciate. It would be accurate to say that the Big Ag companies despise everything that is going on here–because it makes them negligible amounts of money. One can currently make more money in the short term with extractive agriculture (treating it like a mine).

            The first European farmers in my county in North Carolina used extractive techniques for 15 or 20 years and then moved west. The county would look entirely different if the first Europeans and every succeeding generation had thought and acted like the people at this Farm.

            You have commented that economists make a big mistake by discounting the future so that the results of current actions which show up in 25 years are essentially irrelevant. If one reduces the discount rate to zero, then planting the big trees which will take decades to mature on this Farm makes perfect sense. Their goal is a juvenile forest–not a pristine old growth forest untouched by disturbance; not a perpetually disturbed, freshly plowed field of annuals. Juvenile forests are most easily managed with reasonable amounts of labor and are highly productive. A medium term swidden system fits into that goal in many locations in the world. By focusing on maximum utilization of solar energy and nutrient retention and carbon storage and water management, this Farm is behaving admirably in terms of a zero discount rate world.

            Can it feed ten billion people? That is simply the wrong question. The right question is: Is this method of agriculture regenerative? If the answer to that question is ‘Yes’, then we need to do it. Then maybe we can intelligently think about the question ‘How much surplus can it generate for humans?’. And when we get really skillful we can ask ‘How can we generate even more surplus for humans without harming the regenerative capacity?’

            Don Stewart

            • We do need systems that regenerate themselves. The question that arises is whether people can be persuaded to leave them alone if the trees, say, will provide some wood in 10 years, even though they won’t mature for 20 years. Wood today will always have more value than wood tomorrow, if the difference is not being able to do something essential (keep from freezing, cooking one’s food, or making a product to sell). If the alternative is not being alive in 10 years, the discount rate will be very high, as much as we would like to change the situation.

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