Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Industrial vs. Local

The industrialized food system that sustains us all is clearly an abomination to anyone who has bothered to educate themselves and scrutinize it.  Most that I know have not and will not do so, because knowing what's behind that curtain will force changes they aren't willing to make.  Its only real proponents are those who are using it to line their pockets at our expense. It's only "cheap" when you ignore the fact that it damages not only our health but threatens our very existence.  The farmers I've met who are a part of it are rarely enthusiasts, but rather cogs in the machine that they cannot separate themselves from.  Most know little of the chemicals they use (often not even their names, in fact, as much spraying is outsourced), and I suspect that's in large part due to a desire *not* to know.  They know full well that such knowledge might force them to end their use in order to maintain a clear conscience, and thus lead to financial ruin.

So what about the small "local" farms that are the darlings of any local/sustainable foodie?  Show me one, and I'll point out some fundamental shortfalls, many of which I'm intimately familiar with.  Almost without exception, they're purchased and/or sustained with an inheritance, the proceeds from a previous well-paid career, or a spouse who kept their "regular" job and family health insurance. Many work to promote the sustainability image while making significant short-cuts, whether that's the liberal use of diesel fueled equipment, the use of chemically grown feed for their pastured livestock, or poorly compensated intern labor.  The well known Joel Salatin scores a hit on nearly all of these (inherited farm, chemically grown feed, lots of diesel fuel, and loads of interns).

Doubling your food budget by going organic and/or local doesn't really cut it, as these farms are not truly viable even at their seemingly inflated prices. The fact of the matter is that producing food responsibly makes it just as expensive as it was historically, when people typically spent 40-50% of their income on food rather than the current 10-15%.  Historically, farmers (of which most were and will again be) had significant advantages as well.  A lower population made for a greater relative resource base, with consequently lower land costs. A pre-industrialized atmosphere made for greater climate stability and better odds of a successful crop.  The inter-generational accumulation of farming knowledge was unbroken as well, though perhaps the internet will fill some of that gap for us while it's still around.

It probably goes without saying, but a return to spending 50% of our income on de-industrialized food means big changes are in store.  That nice big house will be traded in for something more like the size of a typical garage, or will become a multiple family residence, or -- even more likely -- abandoned in favor of a location with enough land to grow food.  Forget about the car (or paved roads to drive it on), washing machines, retirement, or most anything that has arrived on the scene in the last 150 years.  Forget about the MRI for that head injury, or drugs for dealing with depression.  There'll be no stairmaster or gym membership, and no need for either. There'll be no closet full of plastic clothes from China, cell phones, nor TVs for whiling away your days and fomenting a desire for consumer goods (you'll be too busy anyway).  It'll be no panacea, but many of the changes will undoubtedly be big improvements over the status quo, probably making it a wash overall.

Can we return there?  Should we?  Do you think we really have a choice?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

So long, winter!

The snow is finally melted, and we're done with maple sugaring for the season.  The frogs are out, daffodils are blooming, pastures are greening up, peepers are going wild, the barn swallows are back, and the toads in our barnyard pond serenade me with their impersonation of a Jetson's car while I milk in the morning.  Spring is nice.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Worth Watching

A few months back, Robin Wood blogged about a BBC series in which he was featured, called the"Tudor Monastery Farm".  It looked very interesting, but alas was not available in the US.   Since then, all of the episodes have appeared in full on Youtube.   There are 6 episodes each of the Tudor Monastery Farm, the Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Wartime Farm (notice a common theme here?).

Henry noted that the series is like a collection of our home videos (which is fairly accurate, especially the Victorian series), and seems to enjoy them as much as Rachel and I do.   We've learned quite a bit, and have been impressed with the detail that goes into each show as the historians recreate the practices of each period.  The progression of technology up through the industrial revolution (and especially before) is quite an eye opener, as are the differences with practices here in the US.  These will definitely be of interest to anyone with an interest in history, or the inkling that it might present a closer approximation of our post-oil future than Star Trek.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Your Farm

In conversations about environmentalism and the power of an individual to change the world, I often hear it noted that the good any one of us do is inevitably undone by the overwhelming tide of humanity, most of whom aren't so idealistically inclined.  We're all going to hell in a handbasket anyway, so why make our lives difficult on top of it all?  Damn the torpedoes!  Live life to the fullest, eh?  (imho, a purposefull life is much fuller than a guilt ridden free-for-all, but that's another discussion)

At other times, people relating to our farming adventures note that they can't just go and buy a farm to start doing what we're doing.  So how do they change the world for the better?

The way I see it, none of us are responsible for changing the world, and shouldn't lament that fact.  We are, however, responsible for our portion of it.  The fact of the matter is that we *all* have a farm, and much more.  There is a portion of the planet that we each own and control, based on how we live our lives.  Each of us has a farm, a forest, a mine, a patch of ocean, and a bit of each environment upon which our lives depend.

If we purchase grass-fed meats, the pastures on our farms pull a bit of carbon out of the atmosphere, and our future looks brighter.  If we stop for lunch at a Subway or Taco Bell, our farm dumps a big plume of carbon and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, our farm's weather goes nuts, and our patch of ocean turns into a dead zone when our nitrogen fertilizer runs into the sea.  The animals on our farm live very different lives based on how we eat.  How are your livestock faring these days?

Buy some "cheap" farmed shrimp, and our patch of formerly productive mangrove coastline gets bulldozed to put up a shrimp farm lagoon, destroying the life in your patch of ocean.  Buy the "expensive" wild caught shrimp (or none at all), and your mangroves remain a valuable nursery for sea life.  Everything is a trade-off; cheap goods usually have the most expensive long term costs.

My own farm has a sizeable patch of northern Alberta in it, and it looks like hell.   Literally.  It got a whole lot worse when I started commuting 300 miles a week last year.  I scraped off the boreal forest to get at the tar sands underneath, cooked them with fracked natural gas (sorry neighbors!), and dumped a big pile of carbon into the atmosphere -- and that's all before I even put any gasoline in my car.  The toxic tailing ponds I left regularly kill migratory waterfowl, and are leaching into my once pristine rivers and killing everything downwind and downstream.  I'm not happy about that, but I am proud to face the fact and not shy away from it.  My patch of the Gulf of Mexico doesn't look particularly good these days either, with a few emaciated corexit-contaminated dolphins washed up on the beach.  I've got work to do.

Just imagine what our whole world would be like if we each managed our farms as if we owned them.  We wouldn't have to change anyone but ourselves.

Nuts

Throughout most of my life there have been a number of things which I never fully understood.  For instance: how does an entire nation, such as the 1930's Germany that my grandparents experienced, go completely nuts?  How does a majority decide that killing their neighbors (jews, homosexuals, capitalist "parasites", etc) is suddenly a-okay?

Or for a more recent example, how does a country supposedly attacked by Saudi-Muslim radicals flying planes into prominent buildings decide that the logical and appropriate response is to destroy one of Saudi Arabia's primary foes (Iraq)?

At the same time, how is it that people presented with a bombproof logical argument (such as anthropogenic climate change triggering the extinction of humanity) manage to completely ignore logic to their own detriment?   We are the "wise ape", aren't we?

I know -- I'm a little late to the game -- but I finally figured it out.  The answer was staring back at me from our barnyard.

All the domesticated animals there are naturally "social" animals.  Before domestication, they all lived in groups.  Group living enhances chances of individual survival, but requires a strong adherence to socialized thought.  Their decisions are primarily based not on individual thought, but on the behavior of the group. This is the very quality which makes them domesticable.  As social creatures ourselves, we're subject to the same thing -- the "groupthink" coined by Orwell.

I'm an excellent example myself.   I fully understand the logical argument, and know full well the likely consequences of my continued car use, my continued reliance upon the electrical grid, as well as all the other amenities of industrial society.   Though I've nibbled at the edges, I haven't rejected any of them.  Why?   Probably because I've yet to see any peers take the steps I should be taking.   I know that somewhere back in the deep recess of my consciousness, I've been waiting for that queue.

If you want to change society (for better or worse) -- you don't need to provide a solid argument.  You only need to convince people that their peers are in agreement with you.  Here in the US, you just need to run (or advertise on) a TV network.  In a country where people move once every 5 years, both parents typically work outside the home, and locate according to the whims of industry, community in the true sense is gone.  TV is the replacement.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Our Finite World

Gail Tverberg is an excellent analyst who wrote extensively for the now defunct "The Oil Drum" website.   As an actuary, she's a master of statistics and does a great job of cutting through the bs.   Her latest article, "Why a Finite World is a Problem" does a great job of detailing exactly why our industrial economy as we've known it cannot continue.   She focuses primarily on raw materials and energy, though her arguments clearly apply to the biosphere's capacity for pollution as well.  Definitely worth a read for anyone who is counting on retirement investments or the continuation of a 20th century type of world.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Going Rural

Among mainstream or green media, you can find a lot to support the opinion that urban life is the green choice.  There are undoubtedly some significant energy savings when you live in a multiple-family housing environment, and particularly if you can ditch the car.

If we're going to compare the typical rural family with the typical urban family of today, I think these stories are spot-on.  The picture changes significantly when we look at what's *possible* in both environments, however.  If we incorporate a forecast of future energy scenarios, the urban option takes on significant new shortcomings.

First of all, let's look back into history a bit. If we venture back before the time of the fossil-fueled industrial revolution, we'll find cities that would hardly qualify as such by today's standards. Why?  Because any concentration of people requires that all resources (food, fuel, construction materials, etc) be brought in from outside the city.  There are numerous instances throughout history of cities collapsing when the distance to their nearest fuel sources (firewood, typically) became to great.

When your transportation options are limited to your own two feet, animal power, or water transport, the area from which you can draw these resources shrinks dramatically -- probably no more than 10 miles for anything moved in significant quantity (though water transport would allow a greater range for high-value items that justify the additional expense).  If you're limited to drawing all of your goods from within a 10 mile radius, you'll find that supporting a large city, say of 100,000 or more, is nearly impossible.

Why is this important to consider today?   Our fossil fuel sources have now entered a decline which will be exponential in nature.  Like it or not, our history, in terms of energy supply, is going into reverse.  The ever-optimistic oil industry, in their attempt to retain investors, trumpets the fact that we still have a 54 year supply of oil, though their calculations do not incorporate what is likely to happen to us economically as the price of this energy rises ever higher, nor the fact that our planet would no longer be habitable if we burned it all. The fact that our Federal Reserve now has to inject $85 billion each month into our economy just to keep it on life support should tell us something of where our economy now sits, 6 years after hitting peak oil.  That 54 year supply is fully dependent upon our ability to pay for it.   Like the cities of old, we're watching our energy supply retreat over the horizon.

Our ability to pay for energy depends upon our economic condition, which in turn depends upon both our environment (climate change, anyone?) as well as the price of energy.  Also worthy of note is that the energy return on our oil supply here in the US has dropped from 100:1 to less than 10:1 in 80 years, with most of our newer sources even below 5:1. Chart that trend out for a few more years and tell me where it leads us. Suffice to say that there will always be loads of fossil fuels in the ground that are not worth digging up.

While urban living does offer significant efficiency advantages over rural living, it has an achilles heel which will become painfully apparent over the next decade, and which cannot be overcome. The problem is that urban energy requirements on the modern scale can only be met with fossil fuel sources, no matter how efficient their use is.  There is no way for Los Angeles or New York residents to return to burning firewood. The supply simply isn't available within economically transportable distance, and resulting air quality would make China's current problems look like a walk in the park.  Any attempted return to animal-based transportation in our oversized urban regions would fail for similar reasons.

So what about the renewable energy revolution and the high-tech green future?  Well...  It may have some limited application in our future, but suffice to say that much of it is hogwash when you look at net energy return.  The solar industry, when all inputs are considered, uses far more energy than actual solar output. Wind may be somewhat better, but I'd be willing to bet that most of it will disappear along with our fossil fuel sources as well.  At best, most of what's been presented to us as alternative energy is little more than the leveraged use of fossil fuels.

It is quite possible for a rural family to beat their urban counterparts in energy use.  The major difference in current energy use in urban vs. rural areas is that for transportation. There are tens of thousands of rural Amish and Mennonite families who do not use fossil fuels for their family transportation, but rather the "antiquated" horse and buggy, with many of them also making great use of bikes.  It always makes me smile when I see an Amish grandpa riding his bike to town, at an age when a lot of "English" Americans (as the Amish refer to the rest of us) can barely fit behind the wheel of the SUV they purchased to accommodate their super-sized physiques.

Keep in mind also that roads themselves require significant energy to maintain (which will soon be lacking).   The Amish of the 1800's rarely owned buggies, for the simple reason that most rural areas did not have suitable roads for them.  This is one area where downsized urban regions may maintain an edge, as paved roads were historically found only in towns.

The second energy advantage for urban residents is that of heating, though it's realized primarily through the use of multiple family dwellings.  The prudent rural resident wins here as well -- by heating with locally sourced wood.  Because wood is not a fossil fuel, the carbon emissions to not result in a net gain in biospheric carbon.  Keep your population density within traditional standards, and the smoke really isn't a problem either, particularly with newer recirculating stove designs.

Last but not least, it's important to remember that most energy use is industrial, not personal.  It's not the gasoline burned in the car you shouldn't drive, but the coal that was used to smelt the steel. It's not the natural gas used to heat your apartment, but the coal burned to create the concrete it's constructed with, and the diesel used to transport the building materials.  The rural resident has a distinct advantage here as well, as they have the option to provide for their own food, clothing, construction materials or household goods sourced from local materials, all of which can be (and was historically) accomplished sans fossil fuels.

So while the typical rural resident of today is in fact less green than their urban counterpart, a rural location offers far greater flexibility -- which can, should, and will be used as a matter of necessity. Probably the greatest shortcoming of rural life at this point in time is that of employment (which I should note, is also a product of the industrial revolution).