August 2009


Family Life and Peak Oil and Self Sufficiency21 Aug 2009 02:26 pm

Potato harvest

Many people in today’s society (myself included) are astoundingly disconnected with — and naive about — food and its production.

I’m not talking here about the nastiness of our overly-manufactured foods, or our inhumane and unsustainable practices around raising animals for food (topics for another time).

I’m thinking about a couple of more fundamental issues: how much land you really need to support yourself and your family, and how fragile our modern food chain is.

I’ve talked before about how amazingly cheap and easy it is in our society to buy your day’s worth of calories. This is directly attributable to the fact that we still have relatively abundant cheap energy in the form of oil. But that easy life is going to be pulled out from under our feet over the next few decades.

One of the most eye-opening things about gardening is that you begin to appreciate how much time, energy, and resources (land, water, nutrients, etc.) are required to feed a person. For example, our greatly-expanded garden this year gives us roughly 800 square feet of planting area. Yet I am surprised how many people assume that we can basically feed our family from what we grow there. Ahh, were it so simple! It is a nice garden, to be sure, but the reality is that it only makes a small contribution to our diet (less than 2% now, but hopefully more once our soil is better and we become more proficient growers).

Just how much land do you need to feed a person in a sustainable way? It depends on a lot of things, obviously, but roughly speaking you’ll need about 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of planting area to supply all the food (year round) for one person.1 That assumes a vegan diet — if you start adding animal products (milk, eggs, meat) to that diet, the land requirement goes up pretty quickly. It also assumes that you really know how to garden well (I’m in my second year of serious gardening, and I’m sure I’ll still be learning plenty 5 years from now). And you will need to store a good bit of food for the portion of the year when the garden isn’t producing so much.

When you combine that reality with the things that we are doing now and will be seeing in the near future, it can get kinda scary.

As oil becomes increasingly more expensive and difficult to extract from the ground, the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ is going to crumble (relying as it does on cheap fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel, all of which are derived from petroleum). We are depleting topsoil on our commercial farmland at an alarming rate (something that has caused many societies to collapse). We are (literally) flushing key agricultural inputs (like phosphorus) down the toilet. Our fishing practices are on the verge of sending ocean ecosystems into collapse. In our car-induced madness we are starting to use biofuels, which (in the current corn-to-ethanol model) means wealthy people taking food away from the poor to use in our cars. In the slightly longer term, climate change (in combination with scarce fuel for transportation and habitation needs) is likely to make large areas of the planet uninhabitable by humans.2

I’m not looking forward to the likely near-term scenario when a spot shortage of oil over several weeks results in supermarket shelves emptied of all food. I’m trying to do something about it, but as we slowly grow and store more of our own food, I realize what a challenge and commitment it is. I am struck by the thought that pretty soon we will realize how remarkably easy we had it.

Footnotes:
1. Those figures are based on discussions in two of the gardening books I trust most:

2. More good reading material on all of this:

Biking and Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources and Peak Oil21 Aug 2009 09:39 am

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Today marks the second anniversary of my biking-to-work adventure. Still enjoying it! I’m especially appreciating the summer riding; the winter, with all those layers and all that cold, gets to be a bit of a drag.

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to getting the bike commuter tax credit (AOL is still working out details of how they are implementing the legislation).

My old bike is still going strong, although I’ve gone through several chains, freewheels, and wheels. The last flat I had was over a year ago. About 5 months ago I moved to Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires — not the lightest, but more important to me is avoiding flats.

My old ’92 Accord, on the other hand, is showing its age and may not be with us much longer (it logs ~3500 miles / yr taking kids to soccer practice, running weekend errands, etc.). Which would ruin my plan to have this car be the last internal combustion vehicle I own :-/

Life and Peak Oil12 Aug 2009 11:44 pm

A little less than a year ago I wrote about how the imminent energy descent will likely mean the end (over the next couple of decades) of our high-tech tools and toys (especially anything that uses a microprocessor or other sophisticated solid state electronics). That post was triggered by this excellent paper by Alice Friedemann.

Here are some more recent articles that deal with the same topic:
* The monster footprint of digital technology, by Kris De Decker.
* The End of the Information Age, by John Michael Greer.
* Will the Internet Still Be Here in Tough Times?, by Sharon Astyk (which draws heavily from the two articles above).

As Sharon’s post and the resulting comments discuss, two of the major adaptations we will face are losing easy access to a world’s worth of readily searchable information, and learning to live and interact solely with those physically close to us (instead of the like-minded communities we find online).

Computers have been a regular part of my life for nearly 30 years, and the Internet for half that time. It is hard for me to imagine living without them, but that is exactly what we will eventually have to do. It does help to remember that quite a few people who came before us seemed to manageĀ  ;-)

Family Life and Self Sufficiency12 Aug 2009 07:41 am

Sunflower

New gardening pics.

Economy and Peak Oil05 Aug 2009 01:46 pm

We spent this last week at the beach (an enjoyable family tradition that I am all too aware will probably come to an end sometime in the next decade or two). While there I read a book that has been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for the better part of a year: “Culture Change: Civil Liberty, Peak Oil, and the End of Empire” by Alexis Zeigler.

This is a small book (126 pgs), but one full of weighty ideas, drawn from a large body of literature and eloquently argued. Even though I am well-acquainted with many of the issues Zeigler covers (peak oil, climate change, and resource depletion among them), he ties these together and explains their likely impact on our society in ways I hadn’t encountered or considered. The book confronted several deep-seated assumptions I had, and exposed some relationships that had never occurred to me. It was only by the time I was finishing the book that the concepts really came together for me.

Zeigler’s thesis is that human societies are mostly shaped by their economic and ecological circumstances. The ‘great man’ view of history holds that great thinkers and their ideas shaped their respective societies, but Zeigler convincingly argues — using a broad set of examples taken from recent and more distant human history — that this simply isn’t the case. For example, he holds that the rise of the Nazis in the last century is attributable primarily to the circumstances that German society was in after WW I, not so much the particular person named Adolf Hitler.

Economic and ecological crises allow individuals and groups (today that includes corporations) that are waiting in the wings to step in and advance their agenda. Given this, combined with the ingrained human response to defer to leadership in times of crisis, and the stage is set for the rise of an Adolph Hitler (or any number of similar figures throughout history).

Why should you care?

Well, what follows from this analysis is the conclusion that the coming decades of energy depletion, resource scarcity, and climate change are likely to bring with them ugly changes in our society: the rise of totalitarianism, scapegoating and repression of minority groups, and a loss of civil rights for many in our society.

[Zeigler also touches on a number of other themes, including how women's role in society depends on economic / ecological circumstances, why biofuels are an ecological and ethical nightmare, how the first-world economy rides on the back of the world's poor, and why humans have a way of behaving collectively that makes them susceptible to repression of their normally highly-tuned social awareness.]

Does Zeigler offer a way out of this? Yes, in a fashion. He has some suggestions; as one example, we need to voluntarily reduce our energy use faster than supplies deplete. At the same time, he acknowledges that the changes required to avoid the path to totalitarianism are going to require ‘a quantum leap, both in thought and in action’. While they are simple solutions, in a sense, they will require the rich of the world (which includes anyone reading this) to give up much of the material world that they now have. On many fronts, this is something that we are proving daily that we don’t have in us.

This is the kind of book that stays with you long after reading. If you aren’t yet convinced that you should order a copy, at least read this good review.