The Next Agriculture?

This is a guest post by John Michael Greer, who blogs at The Archdruid Report. John is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including "The Druidry Handbook" (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Archdruids take breaks from time to time, but the peak oil debate does not, and during my recent vacation a lively discussion sprang up on The Oil Drum about the future of agriculture in a postpetroleum world. The point at issue was whether today’s mechanized agriculture will remain in place, or be replaced by a new rural economy of small farms using human and animal labor, as the world skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.

Summarizing a vigorous discussion of a complex topic in a few paragraphs is a risky proposition, so I’ll focus here on the two essays that defined the debate, Stuart Staniford’s The Fallacy of Reversibility and Sharon Astyk’s Is Localization Doomed? Staniford argued that those who expected a nonmechanized, small-farm economy in the wake of peak oil were claiming that the history of agriculture over the last century would simply run in reverse, tracking the decline in fossil fuel availability in the same way it tracked the growth in fossil fuel production.

If this view was correct, he claimed, rising fuel prices would have already begun to push American agriculture in the direction of smaller, less energy-intensive farms, and this would show in currently available statistics about profitability, labor costs, farm size and the like. He then demonstrated that no such changes could be found in the statistics, and on this basis claimed that what he called the “reversalist” position had no merit.

Astyk, responding to Staniford, made two major points. First, she noted that nobody claimed that the transition from today’s agribusiness to tomorrow’s rural landscape of small farms would simply run history in reverse, and Staniford was therefore kicking a straw man. Second, she suggested that the emergence of a nonmechanized, small-farm economy in the postpetroleum future was not an inevitability, but a policy choice that Staniford’s so-called “reversalists” considered the best option in the face of peak oil.

Like many readers of the debate, I found neither of these positions really satisfactory. By the time I finished reading the comments, though, it was getting late, and I decided to round out the evening by pouring myself a glass of scotch and reading a few pages of a Gary Larson Far Side anthology. Somewhere toward the bottom of the glass I dozed off; I must have been reading one of Larson’s dinosaur cartoons in my last waking moments, because I slipped into a dream in which a conference of dinosaurs pondered the approaching end of the Mesozoic era.

Quite a few dinosaurs had already given speeches about the threat of global cooling. Several of them had mentioned that mammals, with their warm blood and furry coats, might be better off in a post-Mesozoic world. At this point in the debate, however, another dinosaur lumbered up to the podium to speak.

“This talk of mammals taking over the world is nonsense,” it said. “It’s true, of course, that the ancestors of mammals – the therapsids – ruled the earth back before dinosaurs came along, in the Permian period, before the earth’s climate shifted to its long Mesozoic warm spell.” This sparked a good deal of discussion among the audience, and the Tyrannosaurus rex who presided over the meeting had to display its foot-long teeth and growl to quiet things down.

“Nonetheless,” the speaker went on, “this claim that evolution will run in reverse can readily be refuted. If that were true, the global cooling we’ve seen already would have made dinosaurs become smaller and furrier, and that hasn’t happened. In fact” – at this point it nodded toward the Tyrannosaurus rex – “it’s clear that we’re getting larger and scalier all the time. There’s every reason to think that as the climate cools, and selection pressures become more extreme, big scaly dinosaurs will have even greater competitive advantages than they do now.”

At this point the buzz of conversation in the audience could not be restrained, even when the Tyrannosaurus rex killed and ate one of the loudest talkers. A few moments later, though, a bright light flashed through the sky. “Did you see that?” said the Triceratops sitting next to me, pointing toward the sky with the horn on his nose. “I’ve never seen a shooting star that big.” A moment later I was jolted awake by what felt like the shockwave from an asteroid impact, but was actually the Gary Larson anthology sliding from my lap and hitting the floor.

The parallels between Staniford’s argument and that of his saurian equivalent, as it happens, go well beyond the obvious. Both, strictly speaking, are quite correct in their core assertions. As the Mesozoic era drew toward its close, dinosaurs did not retrace the process that led up to the monster reptiles of the Cretaceous. In fact, important branches of the dinosaur clan – the carnosaurs that led to Tyrannosaurus rex, the ceratopsians that ended with Triceratops, and others – got progressively larger as the Cretaceous drew on.

These successful evolutionary lineages continued to follow their established trajectory as long as it remained viable. When it stopped being viable, they didn’t shift into reverse and shrink back down to the size of their Permian ancestors; they died out, and other organisms better suited to the new conditions took over. In the same way, Staniford’s assertion that today’s industrial agriculture will not throw the gearshifts of its combines into reverse, and gradually retrace its tracks into the 19th century, is almost certainly correct.

Staniford is also correct to point out that in a world intent on pouring its food supply into its fuel tanks, rising energy prices mean that industrial farming is becoming more profitable, not less. As a member of the Grange, I’ve had the chance to watch this from an angle that may be rare in the peak oil scene. Where the rest of the media bemoans rising grain prices, the Grange News is full of satisfied comments by family farmers who can finally make ends meet, now that their grain sells for more than it cost to grow.

Yet Staniford’s overall argument fails, for the same reason that his imaginary Mesozoic equivalent missed seeing the future in plain sight -- both rely on linear models to predict a nonlinear situation. In his essay, Staniford used the distinction between reversible and irreversible processes as a model for historical change in agriculture. The difference between linear and nonlinear change, however, is at least as relevant.

Watch a frozen lake melt and you have a seasonally timely example of nonlinear change. The transition from ice to liquid water doesn’t happen gradually as temperature rises; it happens at a specific point in the temperature spectrum, 32°F, and only then once the ice has absorbed enough energy to overcome its thermal inertia and provide the heat of fusion. A five-degree warming can be irrelevant to the process, if it’s from 15°F to 20°F, or for that matter from 40°F to 45°F. The same rise between 30°F and 35°F, on the other hand, can cause drastic change.

Nonlinear change happens most often in systems that have negative feedback loops which balance out pressures for change. In the case of the frozen lake, the main sources of negative feedback are the stability of water’s solid state and its capacity as a heat sink. Only when enough heat has entered the situation to overcome these factors does change happen, and when it does, the lake shifts from one relatively stable state to another.

The modern agricultural economy is a classic candidate for nonlinear change. The feedback loops resisting agricultural change in the modern world are at least as potent as the ones that keep a lake from melting at 20°F. The food production and distribution system is oriented toward business as usual, and the psychology of previous investment and the very real costs of retooling to fit a different model both raise obstacles to change. Monopolistic practices and the government subsidies and price supports that make most of today’s “capitalist” agriculture a case study in corporate socialism also give the status quo impressive inertia.

At the same time, if something is unsustainable, it’s a given that sooner or later it won’t be sustained. Today’s industrial agriculture, with its far-flung supply and distribution chains, its dependence on huge inputs of nonrenewable resources, and its severe impact on topsoil, water quality, and environmental health, is a case in point. As transport costs rise, fossil fuel and mineral reserves deplete, and the burden of coping with ecological damage climbs, industrial agriculture will sooner or later reach the point of negative returns – and as Joseph Tainter pointed out in a different context, that’s the point at which collapse becomes the most likely outcome.

Staniford has argued elsewhere that the energy crisis caused by the end of cheap oil will be temporary. He proposes that nuclear power and other technologies will sooner or later make energy cheap and abundant again. If he’s right, it’s possible that new energy sources will come on line soon enough to keep industrial agriculture from hitting the wall. None of the theorists he critiques in his essay agree that the approaching crisis will be temporary, though, and this latter assessment gives their argument compelling force: as energy supplies dwindle and a social fabric predicated on cheap energy comes apart, the pressures on the agricultural status quo will eventually reach a level high enough to force nonlinear change.

This is where the second half of Sharon Astyk’s argument comes in. She points out that many of the writers critiqued in Staniford’s essay see a nonmechanized small-farm agricultural economy not as the inevitable result of economic forces, but as a deliberate policy choice. If our existing agriculture could fold out from under us, they suggest, getting plan B in place is a good idea.

Now this may well be true, but history teaches that when ideology collides with economics, it’s inevitably ideology that comes off worst. The same trap that has blocked most proposals for lifeboat communities so far – how do you make them economically viable in the world we inhabit today? – lies in wait for schemes to relocalize agriculture that don’t take the actual economics of farming in today’s world into account.

Fortunately, there’s reason to think that economic factors will favor the rise of a nonmechanized small-farm economy in the industrial world in the decades to come. The best evidence for this suggestion comes, ironically enough, from Stuart Staniford. In posts about the agricultural side of peak oil – notably Fermenting the Food Supply – Staniford pointed out that the use of grain as a feedstock for ethanol is likely to drive up the price of basic foodstuffs so far that many people will no longer be able to afford to eat.

This is potentially a serious crisis, but it also represents an opportunity. Sharp increases in the price of food mean that food production methods that may not be economical under current conditions could well pass the breakeven point and begin turning a profit. To thrive in the economic climate of the near future, of course, such methods would have to meet certain requirements, but most of these can be anticipated easily enough.

These alternative farming projects would have to use minimal fossil fuel inputs, since fuel costs will likely be very high by past standards for much of the foreseeable future. They would need to focus on local distribution, since those same fuel costs will put long-distance transport out of reach. They would have to focus on intensive production from very small plots, since acreage large enough for industrial farming will likely increase in price. They would also benefit greatly by relying on human labor with hand tools, since the economic consequences of peak oil will likely send unemployment rates soaring while making capital hard to come by.

All of these criteria are met, as it happens, by the small organic farms and truck gardens that many relocalization theorists hold up as models for future agriculture. Already an economic success, especially around West Coast cities, these agricultural alternatives have evolved their own distribution system, relying on farmers markets, co-op groceries, local restauranteurs and community-supported agriculture schemes to carry out an end run around food distribution systems geared toward corporate monopolies.

As more grains and other fermentable bulk commodities get turned into ethanol, and food prices rise in response, such arrangements may well become a significant source of food for a sizeable fraction of Americans – and in the process, of course, the economics of small-scale alternative farms are likely to improve a great deal. The result may well resemble nothing so much as the agricultural system of the former Soviet Union in its last years, featuring vast farms that had become almost irrelevant to the national food supply, while little market gardens in backyards produced most of the food people actually ate.

If Staniford is correct and the postpeak energy crisis turns out to be a passing phase, that bimodal system might endure for quite some time, as it did in the Soviet Union. If more pessimistic assessments of our energy future are closer to the mark, as I suspect they are, the industrial half of the system can be counted on to collapse at some point down the road once energy and resource availability drop to levels insufficient to sustain a continental economy. If this turns out to be the case, the small intensive farms around the urban fringes – mammals amid agribusiness dinosaurs – may well become the nucleus of the next agriculture.'s_Law_of_the_Minimum

It also seems to me industrial agriculture is more exposed to the Liebig's Law of the Minimum problem than are small farms close to urban areas.

Also, as I have repeatedly stated, the key problem regarding energy supplies, IMO, is net export capacity, especially net oil exports. The Saudis continue to assure the world that they can supply oil to the market for decades to come--while the volume of oil that they are actually delivering to the market has shown an accelerating annual decline rate from 2006 to 2007.

It occurs to me that there is a parallel between refineries and industrial food producers.

I have suggested a geometric progression in crude oil prices (per barrel) as importers bid for declining net oil exports:

$50, $100, $200, $400. . .

This results in a geometric progression in product prices (gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc., per gallon):

$2, $4, $8, $16 . . .

At each product price doubling, what happens to demand, i.e., the volume of product that consumers can and will buy?

As demand falls, it stands to reason that refinery operators, especially in importing countries, will curtail their refinery runs, in order to match their product output against declining demand.

As noted in the article, this is also the problem with the industrial agricultural model, where they have to match higher fuel and fertilizer costs against the demand for food products, i.e., what consumers can and will buy.

However, unlike petroleum products, consumers can, to some degree, do something about becoming closer to a net food producer.

My long time recommendations:

ELP Plan (April, 2007)

A real life case history:
Published on 22 Jul 2004 by San Francisco Chronicle. Archived on 25 Apr 2005.
Berkeley: Urban farmers produce nearly all their food with a sustainable garden in their backyard

My opinion as to why I agree that a geometric progression in crude oil prices or fuel will occur, is that it would take a similar percentage rise to cause a similar percentage demand destruction.

For example, if it takes a 20 % rise in production to cause a 20 % demand destruction,
at $50 dollars/barrel the price would have to rise to $60., a $10 dollar rise.

If the price was $200/B , a $10 dollar rise to $210/B would just not be significant enough to cause a 20 % demand destruction.

If the price was $200/B , For those people that can afford $200/B, the price would have to rise to $240 to drive another 20% out of the market.

What this means in the markets, is that the higher the price of oil rises, the faster the price of oil will rise. So if the price of oil can rise 40% from $50 to $70 in one month, it can rise 40% from $200 to $280 just as easily in one month.


Kunstler is right never underestimate the power of mases. If you would had lived in Romania you would knew how easy is for the people to go from working their workplaces to looting their workplaces(regular employees with the bag and managers with the truck), you don't need people to be starved, you just need the overall sentiment and mass agreement that something will surely go wrong. They serve the system because they trust it when they will not have sleep because the fear or uncertainty, it is needed just a guy to say loud and clear "Dudes, lets take what is ours, our work!".

It seems to me what Stuart leaves out in his linear model -- and what is central to a nonlinear outcome in the case of agriculture -- is that the discontinuity itself will take the form of disorder in the system. Possibly very bad disorder. Let's also remember that political revolutions almost always grow out of food-and-starvation issues, and very quickly lead to the seizure of land (as wealth is seen to reside in productive land). I can easily see political mischief in the US coming to focus on property issues, as a former middle class grows restive and angry. Stuart seems to imagine economic forces playing out without an sociopolitical overlay.
--Jim Kunstler
The Long Emergency and World Made By Hand

'political revolutions almost always grow out of food-and-starvation issues, and very quickly lead to the seizure of land (as wealth is seen to reside in productive land). I can easily see political mischief in the US coming to focus on property issues, as a former middle class grows restive and angry.'

in reading stuart's post assuming plateau of oil & much higher oil prices with some shortages the main way that i saw the US following current ag practices is thru centralized governmental policies supporting such. in fact if depletion or FF shocks are serious i would see centralized policy/structure as needed to avoid a food crisis. initially that might be about what we want/expect rather than hunger; possibly a couple of waves of food problems.

current industrial farming in highly dependent on having the FF there when you need them [& the parts for equip, etc.].

rationing is always unfair to some & will go against our sensibility.i found stuart's post depressing & scary as i agree the system carries a massive inertia & will not likely be amenable to change other than serious discontinuities.

I agree that human responses to The Bottleneck will very much affect the outcomes, even as related to how people get food.

I guess that there will be a big variety of outcomes in different places over the next decade. Eventually people will attempt to move and concentrate population in places where they perceive that they can get food and water and basic needs met.

I suspect that the ecological blowback from human activity will become more manifest over time as well, and will complicate food growing more than most people yet admit.

It is difficult to predict what will happen because "it's complicated."

I do expect that home gardening and local food growing will see a resurgence in many places, as long as it is safe and as long as the basic inputs are available --water, labor, seed, tools, and so forth.

Other issues which complicate the energy issue will have as much to do with the shapes agriculture takes as energy itself.

We could be growing food in vats in basements and caves, if things get really crazy.

"We could be growing food in vats in basements and caves, if things get really crazy."

- using what energy?

Remember that agriculture is basically a solar collector.

An also remember that almost every 'fuel' for man is via photons being processed in some way. (fission/fusion on earth is not a photonic dominated process)

I meant that to be a bit humorous, vtpeaknik.

However some folks believe that farming will not be adequate or viable in the future for supplying food for most people.

Some of us could develop and grow various kinds of fungus.

Welcome to mycoprotein. Welcome to Quorn. As they say on the website: "help yourself" and "it just might surprize you."

And then there is meat grown in labs and edible algae, and herbal viagra. ;)

Seriously, the stuff that's out there like quorn is energy intensive, but not land intensive. Fire up the alternative energy, the nuclear power....yikes!

The more basic version of this would be cultivating mushrooms. If one could come up with a hardy mycoprotien that could be cultivated on a low energy basis, then we might have something.

Myself, I suspect that the human responses to the Bottleneck apart from technology will determine the fate of most or all of us, and right now it looks like our main focus is war.

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes just published "The Three Trillion Dollar War" about the USA's supposed Cakewalk in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One could chalk this up to the folly of Neocons and the Bush administration, but the Democrats have strongly supported these war crimes, and note that the leading candidates all do in spite of some vacuous rhetoric about getting the USA out of Iraq. (We'll pull back to Kuwait and Afghanistan and 14 permanent bases within Iraq: "Mission Accomplished!" Hah!)

The plan is war, not food. Guns, not butter. Kill off, not Die off.

Bruce Cockburn, "Indian Wars" 1990

Out in the desert where the wind never stops
A few simple people try to grow a few crops
Trying to maintain a life and a home
On land that was theirs before the Romans thought of Rome

A few dozen survivors, ragged but proud
With a few woolly sheep, under gathering cloud
It's never been easy, or free from strife
But the pulse of the land is the pulse of their life

You thought it was over but it's just like before
Will there never be an end to the Indian wars?

It's not breech-loading rifles and wholesale slaughter
It's kickbacks and thugs and diverted water
Treaties get signed and the papers change hands
But they might as well draft these agreements in sand

Noble Savage on the cinema screen
An Indian's good when he cannot be seen
And the so-called white so-called race
Digs for itself a pit of disgrace

You thought it was over but it's just like before
Will there never be an end to the Indian wars?

growing food in vats

While that might have been partially in jest, it brings up an idea which which I've been wrestling for past few days. Marginal and absolute returns to society as a whole for its operations/economy as a whole. If we've reached a point in the past few decades where growth no long improves people's lives but arguably makes those lives worse, then what would be the result of a huge economic effort to rebuild infrastructure?

Wouldn't that amount to speeding up the Titanic? If we were to grow food in vats - and society is beyond the point of diminishing returns - wouldn't that make matters worse?

The only way to get back to a good return on investment is to cut back on scale.

cfm in Gray, ME


'human responses to The Bottleneck'

;probably the most neglected [& difficult to project factor] by tod. nate of course is the exception. there is so much difference in an attitude of plenty & one of serious scarcity. i guess history or our current $ expenditures are our best measures.

'ecological blowbacks' re irrigation & soil depletion will i agree be serious factors plus more immediately for many i think climate is the other huge issue for industrial ag as not only do the fuels have to be available, but a tractor's weight creates a very narrow window of when it can get into the field 'when needed'. local ag will gain an advantage here if we continue with such powerfully variable weather.

when times get tough we'll grow food as u say any way we can; but it is quite difficult & hard work. i don't want to grow my wheat for instance. very , very labor intensive w/o mechanization.

It seems to me that there is an even bigger elephant in the room and that is the assumption that people have the "money" to buy food, regardless of its source. Given an economy that is consumer driven, it is rather likely that people will lose their jobs as the economy contracts.

Forgetting about high population density cities, I believe it is far more likely that people will produce most of their own food with the exception of grains. Further, I believe that people will not use "organic" methods but rather hydroponics. And, hydroponics can be done using organic nutrients but I think it is more probable that straight chemical nutrient formulas will be used. One interesting hydroponic unit is sold by

One book that people interested in home food production (and home energy efficiency) should find is The Integral Urban House by the Farallones Institute, 1979, ISBN 0-87156-213-8

My own view of the future as someone who lives in the boondocks and who was once a certified organic farmer is that flexibility is the key. It is far too easy to become trapped by a philosophical belief. In my case, I use quasi-organic methods with Terra Preta thrown in for good measure. I spend a lot of time and effort building the soil but have no problem fertigating using a standard 20-20-20 soluble with trace minerals.



David Holmgren of Permaculture fame was asked whether he thought the Suburbs where doomed. He made the comparison that the suburbs are no more densely populated than some places in Asia that are able to sustain the occupiers with water diversion -the suburbs are huge water courses, as long as the water supply and the energy (Gas, LNG, Coal, Nuclear)to power pumps is still OK he thinks we can retrofit the suburbs [maybe with Aquaponics/Hydroponics systems] and they effectively become one huge land mass of efficient agricultural productivity at a local scale. When I heard this I thought sure its possible.

Whether this will be done or not is the key question but most likely it would take the form of a new wave of Greentech Victory Gardens, the concept spreading/being copied as people see the benefits.

So, hardly 'Necrotic Suburbs' as you might say, in fact they might become quite nice places with local communities of people who trade, etc.

(I've lost the link to the Holmgren YouTube video but search on Permaculture.)

Regards, Nick.

The current agricultural system we employ is dependent not only on the standard critical infrastructure , but on a web of specialized services and goods to work (i.e., parts for tractors/combines and their attachments, non-heirloom seeds, fertilizers, baling wire, etc). The provision of these specialized goods and services also have their own web of dependencies; the complexity of 2nd and 3rd order house-of-card dependencies (not to mention 4th, 5th, ...) are normally not considered, which makes a problem seem simpler than it really is. Hence non-linear disorder extends to the logistical aspect of 'modern' agriculture, imparting a supply fragility that lies out of sight, but but is crucial nonetheless.

There are alternative suppliers of parts. Lots of engineers can redesign products to use different components. Agriculture won't fail for lack of parts. Either we will develop energy substitutes or industrial agriculture will fail.

> There are alternative suppliers of parts.

Perhaps in some limited instances, but I don't think you appreciate the uniqueness of most agricultural equipment. Parts for Allison-Chambers won't automatically fit on a John Deer, Ford, even with an engineer on the farm to redesign and machinist to mill and drill. That's simply handwaving.

> Either we will develop energy substitutes or industrial agriculture will fail.

You are forgetting about fertilizers (nitrogen, potash, potassium), herbicides, pesticides, etc.

Will Stewart,

Some of the harder to replicate pieces are the computers. But Allison-Chalmers and John Deere probably buy their ECUs from basic ECU suppliers that the auto industry uses.

I do not see the need to put engineers on each farm. We aren't going to fall apart so far that we'll cease to use a division of labor.

Look at the US in the late 19th century. We had a national market for many types of manufactured equipment even though we used a small fraction of a current per capita energy consumption.

> Some of the harder to replicate pieces are the computers. But Allison-Chalmers and John Deere probably buy their ECUs from basic ECU suppliers that the auto industry uses.

1. You believe the auto industry will remain robust post-peak? Your example alone highlights a major dependency risk.

2. You seem to believe parts from any number of manufacturers can be substituted easily back and forth. As one who has their B.S. in electro-mechanical engineering, I can assure you that rarely will one manufacturer's parts easily swap out for another, even on a piston/rod/crankshaft/lifter/oil pump/water pump/... and extrapolate that to the specialized farm implements; I think you get the message

>I do not see the need to put engineers on each farm.

So if a farmer has a combine part break down post-PO, and the manufacturer is struggling because of issues with 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th order dependencies with their suppliers, which engineers are going to come to his rescue, as you mentioned above? Are all parts for all existing farm machinery going to be redesigned and re-manufactured? Such a scenario fails the test of the problems the manufacturer was experiencing in the first place.

Your reference to the 19th century was interesting; in a booming economy, many things are possible; in a crisis economy (or even a collapse), the situation is quite different. Of course, we may see a return to agriculture not unlike that of the 19th century.


Let me give you a message: I work in engineering. I watch guys who maintain old products do parts substitution (I tend to work on new designs myself). I'm in the computing end of things. Parts go obsolete. An electronic controller design gets shifted to a newer process of the same instruction set architecture. We keep on going. An analog part goes end-of-life. We work around this and our repair department can still replace parts.

Mechanical designs: The designs exist. I know that Mercedes Benz, for example, can build a piston or valve of a 30+ year old car from original drawings. Porsche routinely provides parts replacements for 30+ year old cars since Porsche owners keep their cars running longer than owners of more common cars (an engineer in Germany I work with heard this directly from Porsche engineers). If there's a market with buying power there'll be suppliers.

If you project an extremely severe collapse then, yes, there won't be parts. But you've got to come with an extremely severe collapse for that to happen. If the farmers are all operating and have money to pay for parts then parts suppliers will supply the parts.

My reference to the 19th century: We'd have to cave in really really far to get back to 19th century living standards. We'd have to fall by an order of magnitude or more to get back to the 19th century. That's not going to happen because we have enough energy coming from non-oil sources to keep our energy consumption at probably about half our current level. So we fall back to maybe 1940 or 1950. Well, we had an industrial economy with lots of valves and pistons and other gadgets back then.


Let's just say you have your opinion and I have mine; no one has a crystal ball, obviously.

Future Pundit, US agriculture of the late 19th century was not sustainable long term. They used iron plows, harrows, combines, etc produced with metallurgic grade coal. They shipped centuries' accumaltions of guano from Pacific islands to the US for the nitrogen. They sluaghtered buffalo for their bones (phosphorous) and burned off New England forrests for the ash (potassium). They hunted the Passenger Pigeon to extinction. Iron plows started the loss of topsoil to erosion that continues to this day.

Again, late 19th century US agriculture was NOT sustainable.

Errol in Miami

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Jim, did you know your "Long emergency" article inspired a videogame (Frontlines: Fuel of War)?

In the intro video (go to "Multimedia" -> "Trailers", it's the fifth video, top to bottom) the narrator even says this:

Something is happening. We've known it for a long time. The West knew it. The East knew it, We've known it for a century. Oil was running out. It's what we grew up in: post peak oil, post everything! What they called the Long Emergency

It's the first Peak Oil Videogame!

Of course what the developers did was just use it as an excuse for another first person shooter, but this is a first for a mass market videogame. I bet they were in some sense, touched by it, they took a lot of trouble to paint what could be a possible future

Some quotes I read while browsing for the intro video at gametrailers:

The war of the future begins today!

Inside Developer Tips: Oil Field Map
This map gets right to the heart of what Frontlines is all about - fighting over energy resources.

In the future the energy crisis rises to a boil, so war becomes more about conservation than destruction.

Also, go to Frontlines website and check "About the game" -> "Worldview" and you'll see that the background story for the game is a "worst case peak oil die off scenario", It even has a timeline! ("About the game" -> "Timeline"), is worth quoting:

2006: The beginning of the Long Emergency, global peak oil extraction is reached.

The rest is super ultra doomer porn that goes beyond peak oil (avian influenza, the world splits into two blocks, the west and China plus Rusia, etc!). After all, is just a game.

Edit: uh, somehow I didn' t realise this wasn't a drumbeat, sorry for the off topic...


Just finished "World" two nights ago. Very much enjoyed it. Probably more than most would, given how well I know that geography of (not quite) nowhere, having been born in and raised probably about as far from GF hospital as 'Union Grove' is. My only critique is that red wolves are a southern species - found here in NC where I now live. And like the New Faithers, my bug out northward is already planned, probably within 6 mos., as I concur with your vision that the SE ain't gonna be no place to be during the LE.


Southern species migrate north in a warmer world...also part of the book's scenario.

Farmers operating near metropolitan areas will have it very tough. For a prime example of street thug behavior during crisis/power outages, look no further than New Orleans during Katrina.

Example; thugs shooting at RESCUE helicopters with guns stolen from Wal-mart. Massive sport-killing of total strangers to no end. The areas within a few hundred miles of any city large enough to support an NFL team will become a war zone. Rolling blackouts in -10 below Chicago in Jan, will cause more human carnage and sport-killing will spill over to paranoid wholesale slaughtering. What will start with inner city gangs will spread like a prairie fire to pretty much everyone.

The entire concept of packs of folks living in a small area will no longer work given full-on PO. Humans, like all mammels, need spread out.

On the other hand, the Dakotas, and western NE, KS, OK, etc will be ideal. We are the worldwide, hands down, low-cost-producer of wheat. Period. We can profitably produce wheat at current prices even with ZERO subsidies and $20 diesel, and not one knowledgable person can deny that. If you take diesel to $30, wheat will march north in tandom and we'll keep on smiling. The only thing that whacks us is $3 wheat that comes with $1 diesel. That scenario requires subsidies, because fixed cost expenses eats us up.

Our farm has gun turrets on bins, as a detterant, and pray every day that we never need them.

The sad fact is that our remoteness from the death traps that the cities will become might be our salvation. Gangs of roving mobs will meet strong resistance as they head west from Minneapolis at every farm they encounter. By the time the elevation tops 2,500 feet, the rioting will be far more manageable.

Cities have no future. Suburbs have no future. Ag is where its at.

The commodity boom will last until human population corrects, then raw materials will again become cheap. How cheap depends on the level of human population contraction.

Now let's see: how many millions of you did you say there were?

And how many million of them?

Mind you, you might have history on your side, look at Russia, when food got scarce in the cities it was still plentiful in agricultural areas like the Ukraine, and the city dwellers didn't bother them.

Oh, hang on.....

You aren't going to dwell in peace in some agrarian paradise, nasty men in large forces will come and see to that.

Example; thugs shooting at RESCUE helicopters with guns stolen from Wal-mart.

I read somewhere that this was debunked as an urban legend. Be careful what you report as fact.

Katrina New Orleans was a very good example of a collapse situation. Everyone cooperated and was helpfull to others. Except when prevented by the government.
When we have superchinnook snowmelt floods every ten years after Global Warming melts the Arctic Ice Cap, we will expect the same helpfull neighbors syndrome as was demonstrated in New Orleans. Because a superchinnook is going to overwhelm the government. When the Mississippi is sixty miles wide and one thousand miles long, the government might as well give up and go home.

They were firing to get attention.

That's what you do when you need to be rescued, you do what you can to get attention - including firing in the air. Just because you're firing as an aircraft passes overhead doesn't mean you're firing at the aircraft. Just ask those Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan who got shot up by the USAF...

Nor was there any "sport-killing" at all in New Orleans. It didn't happen.

Cannibal hordes spilling forth from cities is just something made up by people who like to fantasise about having an excuse to shoot lots of people.

Beyond a simple hatred of 'city people', it makes no sense outside an Omega Man fantasy.

Why would farmers want to kill their customers?

You also forget that there are more city people than farmers and the farmers-turned-soldiers would be overwelmed by superior numbers.

An example of the fate of farmers happened in the USSR in 1928. There was a food shortage in the cities and the fast-track collectivization policy of Stalin was opposed by independent farmers, who destroyed food stocks in protest. At that point Stalin announced a change of policy from limiting the influence of 'kulaks' to
forcibly transporting them to Central Asia under the supervision of the NKVD. You know what happened--food was collected and there was a famine in the country.

All I can say is if there were a food famine in US cities and US farmers refused to help, I would expect the US military to harvest those crops, expropriate property, etc.

As a "small" grower, I'm seeing this bear out. It's a lot of work but I see myself being able to make it financially in 2 years. Produce distributors can not compete with me at $4.50/ gal. diesel. This years market focus is on hospitals and retirement homes, we ain't gonna run out of old and sick folks any time soon.

Arguing by analogy is dangerous, and where the particulars of a situation are available is perhaps best avoided.

Now maybe the transition will prove to be too challenging, I don't know, but to my mind Stuart successfully demonstrated that in pure energy terms that if we negotiated the passage successfully ample resources exist to continue large scale agriculture, and indeed from the arguments I found it fairly difficult to be sure that localisation in fact minimalised fuel use.

Ah that wee little tiny "if we negotiated the passage successfully" problem... Nothing hard there, right? Solved very simply, right?

You know, IF the dinosaurs had responded to that asteroid impact differently... IF Hitler had not attacked the Western front until he stabilized the Easter front... IF Portugal had not gotten itself in dire financial straits forcing Columbus to go to Spain for financing... IF, IF, IF... If you are right, Stuart MIGHT be right. But he might not too.

Are you done stacking cards yet?

Meanwhile out here in the real world, crude oil remains on plateau, oil prices establish new records daily, the financial markets are trying to implode, George Bush is threatening to fire Admiral Fallon (which is a sign he wants someone in there who will use nukes when he wants nukes used), grains establish new records daily, the USS Cole is sitting off the coast of Lebanon, and a whole host of other annoying little problems keep popping up in the way of nice fantasies about perfect tomorrows. I hope that you and Stuart are right but I fear that you may be blowing smoke up your own ass.

You hope that Stuart and I may be right about what? I think, and I will speak for myself here, but have no serious doubt that Stuart would think similarly, that there are grave difficulties and dangers ahead, and in fact if you asked me for a probability assessment would say that war and collapse would be the most likely outcome.

However, there is little point in dwelling on that possibility, and what I am interested in in the present debate is that when it actually comes to putting hard numbers on things, the localisers did not really make their case as far as I was concerned.

Neither Stuart nor I would say that there is any certainty at all of making it through, but I find the arguments and figures of the localisers unconvincing, and a rather large-scale future seems quite possible.

Indeed, should things get that bad, I would guess that we are more likely to see latifundia with slaves being worked to death in the absence of mechanisation to supply an elite than co-ops on organic farms.

I hope that you and other localisers are right, but I fear that you are indulging in sentimental fantasies.

"I hope that you and other localisers are right, but I fear that you are indulging in sentimental fantasies."

This "sentimental fantasy" stuff is what bothers me. I don't see myself as having much of this at all in me. I do like my work as a small farmer, but I don't think everybody has to do this or like this. And I am not completely anti-tech or anti-bigness. There are tradeoffs in matters of scale. Technology can be great or terrible depending upon factors such as ownership and control.

Folks who dismiss those working on local economies as paranoid or sentimental or whatever sound like CERA talking about Peak Oil Theorists. They pick up on elements of an argument, remove the subtleties and caveats and context, and use derogatory descriptive terms for the complex minds of people dealing with an uncertain world and future.

if you find an hour listen to this
Wiping out a unique fish, the Menhaden
blew my mind

Jason, I think you will see if you read back that I chose my words and response in the context of GreyZone's post, which I do not object to but tried to match! :-)

I by no means dismiss those working on organics and seeking to bring some taste back to food, and indeed was much encouraged by comment form some so engaged that it may be possible even in crowded old Britain to keep people fed without the inputs needed for agribusiness.

However, on a more theoretical level it was by no means clear to me from the arguments presented that it used less energy to do things locally - long distance transportation of food is fairly cheap, for instance, whereas taking a bit of produce to the local market and picking it up can be expensive.

So the localisation folk did not really seem to me to have the numbers to back up some of the contentions made.

However, I am not really seriously interested in re-hashing the arguments which have already been thrashed through in the other threads on the subject, as I am not really learning anything new here or finding new information.

I can assure you though, that small farmers have my greatest respect!

Alright, thanks for the clarification. I agree that not everybody has done their homework. I will have a post on TOD whenever the web overlords here get to posting it about the energy data supporting local ag, and also why it is not easy to sort these issues out.

I am not much on philosophical musings, so some of the posts on the last threads left me pretty cold.

It seemed that others could figure out some numbers to pretty much run farms on, and distribute food, at reasonable energy cost.

Pyrolysis and biogas or similar technologies seemed to take care of running the machinery on the farms, and whilst there was some dispute about how much energy refrigeration, processing and transport would take it seemed to be fairly reasonable figures - perhaps around 10% of fuel.

Where I live in England I can get produce delivered to my door, either from local co-ops or the supermarkets, and it is by no means cut and dried that it is always cheaper in fuel to go with the local guys.

I think, although I may be mistaken, that most on the thread came to the conclusion that a lot more produce could be grown locally and that this would minimise inputs, whilst corn and so on would continue to be grown on large farms - transport costs are not great for that.

Personally I thought that very intensive hydroponics and so on might become popular close to cities, but I know nothing about agriculture and could easily be mistaken.

I got same impression from earlier threads that veggies would localize and grains needed larger plots geneally and could stand the longer time and distance delivery so that a mixed agriculutre would be the end result. I understand that people used to garden very much and will return to that again.

It just seems to me that Stuart invents the concept of reversalists as a term for people who do not believe in the concept of linear progression of human affairs based on technological inputs in some way or other. Perhaps progress will be defined in future as preserving various forms of culture which we wish to save from the industrial society which were not damaging to sustainability along with new inventions and older traditional methods. The main point will however be sustainability and this will become the new "progress" or will replace this word entirely as the critical measure of the worth of any concept in the future. I think this will be "the" critical point to understand. Whatever is unsustainable is ultimately regressive and not progressive, i.e. it sends the society backwards.

Dave , I heard the news today, oh boy, that global warming is having an effect on the economy! Care to think about that one for a bit?

Cheaper isn't always better and putting a number on something isn't always best. Any idea how high is up? :)

If you think in a different way, go ahead, but numbers are useful things - for a start that is what gave you the idea that there might be global warming, and then the next question people usually ask is 'how much?'

It does assist rational thinking so much!

for a start that is what gave you the idea that there might be global warming

Well I heard it on the news and it must be true as they say it is effecting the economy. How many people believe in the economy Dave? Would it be a rational act to go against the numbers that hold a belief as popular as that? (Oops misread your statement as a question but I'll leave this as it is sort of funny to see how things can go awry) quite agree with your statement and I think I answer your point below.

About this part of that statement from the news: that global warming is having an effect on the economy It seemed so ludicrous that anyone would put it that way, that the engine (the economy) that is driving global warming would cite global warming as if it were some sort of nefarious beast preying on the economy.

About HOW MUCH, that is something rarely dealt with in a rational solution. Like in: How much CO2 is enough to be released into the atmosphere? Do we wait for a number or do we use our senses and take back the world from the tool (science) that has become master and say, "enough is enough"?
Edit next day : ( above) Do we wait for a number ....what I mean is should we have waited for all theq uestions thrown up by science on both sides of the GW question to be answered before acting on what I would consider the originating question: Should we allow a human produced increase in CO2. That could have been answered using our common senses, how we saw the fitness of that situation, way back in the mid eighties when the CO2 increase was first detected. Science took command at that time and took the answer to that question right out of our control.

what I mean is should we have waited for all theq uestions thrown up by science on both sides of the GW question to be answered before acting on what I would consider the originating question: Should we allow a human produced increase in CO2. That could have been answered using our common senses, how we saw the fitness of that situation, way back in the mid eighties when the CO2 increase was first detected. Science took command at that time and took the answer to that question right out of our control.

Tell me about it!

I was in favour of a major nuclear build at that time, which would have greatly ameliorated our present situation, and might mean that China would now be building nuclear plants, not coal - oh, I forgot, what about proliferation, it is only because we didn't do that that China has no nuclear weapons today - hang on......:-)


Numbers are both (a) abstractions and at the same time (b) controlling mechanisms. As such, their use can both (i) deliver insight and understanding and (ii) screw things up royally.

"How much global warming?"

"It could be as much as 6C or 11F!"

"Oh, then I won't have to wear a sweater anymore! I don't see a problem."

Numbers can just as easily assist irrational thinking.

It is the study of math, science, and logic, and the practice of critical thinking that assists rationality.

And this all still obscures the issues of what increased greenhouse gases are doing to the atmosphere. Warming temperature is only one aspect of many in this complex system. "Climate change" is still a better descriptor.

Yes but we are an acronym(inous) people and what would we think of CC rather than GW ... maybe how many CC's can I inject to make myself feel better in the face of GW?

I agree CC is the more descriptive one, or maybe Chaos Increase, CI, ( which is the way I tend to think of it). Or possibly: We Are Off To Flip City In The Morning Mother So Don't get Up, WAOFCITMMSDGU ... maybe a bit long , but it wouldn't make one feel stupid not knowing what it stood for, like so many shorter acronyms do me.


I'm curious as to what you think about my refinery/industrial farming analogy, posted up top.

I am not a supporter of relocalization but I understand the sentiment. Unfortunately, I am of the opinion that even relocalization is far too little and far too late.

I would go even further. Relocalization has taken on the mantle of local self-sufficiency which is a crock of BS. In addition, it is implied that all the other physical stuff like clothes, etc. currently imported from other locations beyond the magic 100 mile radius will be produced locally.

It really pisses me off because it detracts from approaching the up-coming problems is a realistic manner.


Hi Todd,

Thanks and a very sincere question

re: "the up-coming problems is a realistic manner."

What do you list as the, say, top 5 "things to do" - on any level - in any sphere - that are manifestations of a realistic approach?

In other words, what do you think most needs to be done?


u asked the right guy, todd is the pro .

todd i hope u or others comment as i am doing some finalizing & big picture is how i get to details. i'll take a stab.

security - include nuclear[location, location, location]

ability to sustain above 2-3 yrs.minimum under bad conditions & of course longer term[sustainability, sustainability,....]

many won't relocate & mobility/flexibility is their compromise - a major one; usually assuming lead time to trouble.

todd has an evaluative tool on another site. i've lost the bookmark.

However, there is little point in dwelling on that possibility, and what I am interested in in the present debate is that when it actually comes to putting hard numbers on things, the localisers did not really make their case as far as I was concerned.

This makes little logical sense given Victory Gardens in the US in WWII, Russia post-Berlin wall and Cuba in the same period. No system manages all aspects of food production. Look at the current situation: we produce more than enough food to feed the world, yet much - most? - of the world goes hungry to some degree or other. Expecting more of a post-industrial world, or at least a post-high energy world, again makes little sense.

Focus on mono solutions also makes little sense. As is now the case in both Russia and Cuba, you can expect local and large-scale farming to play a role. This constant debate about it being one or the other here on TOD strikes me as so much posturing/intellectualizing.

Neither Stuart nor I would say that there is any certainty at all of making it through, but I find the arguments and figures of the localisers unconvincing, and a rather large-scale future seems quite possible.

You seem to be saying collapse is likely so both local economies and large-scale economies (farming) will fail. This is contradictory, or at least logically faulty: If collapse happens, by definition there will *only* be small-scale farming.

Saying nobody should prepare for that makes little sense.

As for economies, people are too used to thinking in terms of a capitalism-based economy. I suggest people consider what is possible with a local economy based in barter and using abandoned/used resources for production. An example:

We need to stop thinking in terms of what is produced by industry and get to what can be produced by people applying their brains and local resources. The conversation very much needs to include these kinds of "economies."


You seem to be saying collapse is likely so both local economies and large-scale economies (farming) will fail. This is contradictory, or at least logically faulty: If collapse happens, by definition there will *only* be small-scale farming.

Not at all. I have said that a large scale future seems possible, and collapse perhaps fairly likely but by no means inevitable, therefore a number of alternatives remain on the table.

Large scale agriculture could still remain the norm under two scenarios: First if there is no collapse, that oil prices rise but the system copes, which I do not rule out, and in a second way if there is a collapse but the powerful do what they used to, and simply substitute slaves for the missing machines, which would also have the effect of reducing the population fairly rapidly, just as the 'collapse' in Russian farm produce in the 20's and 30's was 'solved' not by localisation, but by the foundation of huge communes and the starving to death of excess workers.

In neither case would there be much localisation.

I would basically agree with you that it is not really either/or for localisation or agribusiness, but Stuart's post served a useful function in clarifying our thoughts, and it was certainly apparent from the ensuing debate that a greater proportion of present day production could be maintained than I had realised through organic means, which was a considerable relief to me personally as I live on a small and very crowded island, and also that grain production would be more resistant to localisation than market gardening, for instance, and in fact fairly severe breakdowns seem to be needed before much localisation may be catalysed, so in a more gradual scenario then agribusiness might be fairly resilient.

The debate so far as I am concerned served the function which good debate should, of setting out two positions and comparing them.
As is often the case the final result may not be conclusive and outlined a range of possibilities, but the issues are much clearer.

Not at all. I have said that a large scale future seems possible, and collapse perhaps fairly likely but by no means inevitable, therefore a number of alternatives remain on the table.

And here we are going in circles again. I said you seem to think collapse is likely, then you say not at all. Then, above again, you say collapse is fairly likely. I truly don't understand your style of discussion.

Here are my points: if one assumes collapse is likely, then one must assume small farms will exist, and probably be the majority. This really isn't debatable. If one claims collapse will happen but totalitarianism will take over, then that is more a transition from one form of government to another. Perhaps managed farming would be attempted a la the USSR/China/Cuba. But I am talking about breakdown. In most cases of breakdown, I see local farming as a major part of food production. I also don't see that as debatable. History shows us this is the case. When governments can't provide food, people start growing it (in areas where farming is a viable option, that is.)

Debating the obvious isn't very useful. So, I wish people would stop this with this or that solution will be *the* way of the future. While in the sense that *any* relatively civil debate is "productive", the debate has been productive; in the sense that climate change, economic trouble and energy problems are all presenting faster than expected, it is time to shit or get off the pot. It is time to start coming to conclusions.

Time *is* running out. Just as I knew with zero doubt climate change was proceeding far faster than the IPCC stated, I promise you now, so is the energy/economic debacle currently unfolding. Proof? I can point you to a thread on a site for English teachers, but I doubt you want to read through the many posts there. But, just as I knew the IPCC was far too conservative, the things we have seen since then have surprised even me. The same is happening with the economy and energy.

Enjoy your debates. I'm a few years past enjoying debate for its own sake.

Know time is short.


And here we are going in circles again. I said you seem to think collapse is likely, then you say not at all. Then, above again, you say collapse is fairly likely. I truly don't understand your style of discussion.

I think the bafflement is mutual! The 'not at all' was denying that I thought collapse was inevitable, I do however think it probable.

To illustrate, and obviously not being serious about the exact figures, suppose I think that collapse of the mechanics of the society is 66% probable, and I then want to think about whether large scale agriculture will collapse.

I then drew a scenario where you are not using much machinery for agriculture, but you still have large-scale slave farms.

Suppose we give that an equal probability to localisation, we then have 3 scenarios, in one of which at 33% we have localisation, but in the other two where the society survives pretty well intact you still have large scale agriculture, as you do in the last case of slave farms.

So collapse may be likely but at the same time localisation unlikely.

I also have great difficulty with some of your absolutist statements, such as your:

knew with zero doubt climate change was proceeding far faster than the IPCC stated

Since on the one hand you appear to wish to argue for the scientific consensus, by supporting the IPCC's claims that GW is happening,(which I agree with) and further that we should be very reluctant to question this consensus.

You then go on to positions far outside the scientific consensus to support Hansen.

I don't have a problem with that, and Hansen seems to me to have a very strong case, but is still seems very possible that other factors might have influenced the larger than expected rises observed, so where you draw your degrees of confidence from is a mystery, and rather against your argument that we non-scientists, and by that I mean me and you, should tend not to try to make expert judgements but instead try to determine the scientific consensus, which in this particular case is certainly represented by the IPCC not Hansen.

At the end of the day though I think I agree with you that further debate is not worth while, which is what I tried to indicate on other threads - sometimes we just have to accept that it is going no-where, and hence my occasional refusal to engage in further debate with people with whom that has proved fruitless, so at least we agree on something! :-)

First, discussing your numbers is a waste of energy. They are arbitrarily set by you without any actual analysis.

Second, I dealt with your "slave" economy above.


Since on the one hand you appear to wish to argue for the scientific consensus, by supporting the IPCC's claims that GW is happening,(which I agree with) and further that we should be very reluctant to question this consensus.

You then go on to positions far outside the scientific consensus to support Hansen.

the above quote is completely wrong. First, you have no evidence Hansen's views are outside the mainstream. I have seen nothing but universal acclaim for the papers produced last year. I have seen organizations and person after person cite them, however. Perhaps you've not bothered to read Climate Code Red, for example? "" No, Hansen is the mainstream. He is arguably the single most respected scientist in the field. His team's work on climate sensitivity sets the bar by which the IPCC IV is to be evaluated. It is a common fallacy among deniers and doubters that the IPCC IV set the standard in Climate Change discussions. As they note in Climate Code Red, the value of IPCC IV is not accuracy, it is the consensus it unequivocally demonstrates. It was out of date before it was published. The writers knew that. It is only persons like yourself who do not understand it.

My degree of confidence comes where you usually fail: you have stated above in other posts your reliance on numbers. A number of people have attempted to disabuse you of this ivory toweresque view. There is not one - not one - great mind - be it inventor or otherwise - that has relied solely on numbers. Intuitive knowledge, intuitive leaps are a foundation of the world you live in. Without them, we would be far, far behind where we are now. How do you think science moves? How could it move forward if it relied solely on what is known? By that standard the world would, in fact, stand still. So, I looked at simple facts: Rising CO2, the speeding up of various processes (melt, carbon production, etc.), the fact that the IPCC IV data was already two or more years out of date (necessary to allow for review, discussion, consensus building, politics, writing and final approval) at the time of publishing, the new data not in the report even at that time showing greater melt, etc., statements by some IPCC scientists that ice melt not being included was a grave error, my own sense of things framed by my knowledge of cycles, my knowledge of Chaotic systems, etc...

I actually believe there is a great deal our brain computes without our direct input. Intuition is primarily that subconscious processing of information. It looks like magic, but isn't really.

So, it was a no-brainer. So, I predicted things were moving faster. That has been confirmed. Your response is incredulous. Fine. But why is it not, "What does he see that I don't?" instead?

It's not just in the looking, but in how you look. It helps to not be looking for an answer, but looking at a problem and letting it tell you the answer.

As for the melt last summer, what allows you to think the shifts in wind patterns are not also an aspect of CC? You have a combination of the oscillation, unusual wind patterns, warmer water flowing in (especially from the Atlantic) and melting the ice from below and the albedo flip. Yet, again, your response is, "You can't know!" This is the wrong response. We CAN know, even though we cannot prove.

I remind you: Every major belief we have about our existence is a theory in the scientific sense. String Theory, the Theory of Relativity, Personality Theory, Chaos Theory, the Theory of Evolution... Why do you not doubt them all?


Thanks for this thoughtful perspective. However, unless I missed it, I haven't seen in any of these papers and discussions relating to food, bio-fuels and peak oil a consideration of the impact of rising land values.

Today, many farmers are happy beneficiaries of rising commodity prices. Real disposable incomes are rising. But so is the price of farmland. This is a happy situation for current farmers as both their income and their wealth is increasing. They will likely enjoy a materially comfortable retirement.

What of their successors, burdened with a mortgage payment in scale with the new price of farmland? Overtime, all farmers are new farmers and except for those who inherit land, and whose parents did not extract equity on their way out to pasture, burdened with a cost structure commensurate with the new commodity price regime.

What of your marginal, minimally-industrialized, farmer waiting for viability? Well, initially, he or she will indeed enjoy the advantage of higher, bio-fuel (etc)-driven prices, and will also find less disadvantage in his/her proportionally greater dependence of manual labour, and so may thrive, or at least survive with mimimal dependence on off-farm income. But the person who eventually buys the farm will be contending with an elevated debt service problems.

Peak oil, and I think that at least intuitively many PODS (peak oil deniers) are motivated by this picture, poses a problem for the current structure of property relations. Is a system in which a farmers retirement security is tied to the sale price of his/her land viable in a post peak oil world?

As an organic farmer (an accountant and businessman in a previous life, I feel that there is no likelihood of there being a retirement at the end of the game - irrespective of the value of the land.
I hold no hope that my pension from previous employments will ever get paid, and thus at 52, and feeling it, I expect no change in my work status until I croak.
Remember, nothing has any value, except what people can and will pay for it. The price of land, will therefor be based on what can be afforded by the next person willing to work themselves into a early grave.....and it wont be much.
My pension will be a years seed in hand kept in a freezer, coupled with a new orchard of dwarf fruit trees, that can be picked off ladder.

Assuming no changes in the legal structure, the price of land will be what the market bears. I believe it will always rise to the point that leaves most farmers struggling without subsidies of one sort or another.

I note that as I was writing earlier Kunstler posted some remarks including his own speculation on what might happen to the 'sanctity' of private property.

Was the private ownership of land characteristic of the eras preceding industrialism? The answer is no. Is private ownership of land, in the way in which we know it in terms of the current set of legal protections, likely to survive peak oil?

I don't have an answer. I don't know if changes to the property regime will be minor, major or discontinuous. I do think that the status quo will not hold.

toilforoil said:

Was the private ownership of land characteristic of the eras preceding industrialism? The answer is no.

Huh? We have plenty of documents here in every major library in England showing titles to land going back hundreds of years.

The 'real' in real estate is derived from the latin 'rex' or king. In Europe and elsewhere, land for centuries was the King's land, or the Church's land. In Canada, land today is either 'alienated' (private) or 'crown land' (public). Most logging here occurs on crown land, with foresty companies enjoying certain guarantees from the legal system and paying rent in one form or another. Almost all farming is on private land.

In a previous era here, the concept of private ownership of land was alien to the native population. More can be learned about this matter by studying recent and current battles over claims to aboriginal title.

The emergence of a private property regime, lauded by John Locke in his defense of enclosures, was part and parcel of the emergence of the industrial era. Would the emergent private property system have survived if industrialization (including its colonialist trend, its scientific orientation, etc.) had not created food surpluses?

In my view, society as far forward as I can imagine, will benefit from a legal system which provides farmers some kind of tenure, and will benefit from a system that appreciates market incentives. I just don't think the system of tenure and incentives going forward is likely to replicate the status quo. I do think we have to address this question, in the same way that I believe we have to re-evaluate each and every way in which our economy is structured from trade agreements to regulatory regimes.

There is a vast difference between de facto and de jure.

They might have officially held land at the pleasure of the king, just as I am officially the loyal subject of Her Majesty, but If you strayed onto someone else's land they would be pretty sure to let you know about it sharpish.

A question now is whether a system which treats farmland as a commodity is optimal or even viable in a postpeak, world of x billions of people.

Your and my status as loyal subjects of Her Majesty bear faint resemblance to the social, economic and political relations of the feudal, or even mercantile, periods.

As for a sharpish response for straying onto an unfamiliar part of the King's land, there are many possible scenarios. But for the purpose of thinking of 'ownership' in new ways, one might wish to contemplate what often results when a drug dealer, hooker, or incorrectly coloured bandana wearing youth strays into the wrong 'turf'.

I think sometimes of the farmer whose deed to his land provides tenure, but whose decisions on what to do with the land are often effectively decided by others, such as his banker, or the shipping industry, or the food processing industry.... What does ownership mean in this case?

By raising the matter of property relations, I am just trying to make the case that we are in the early stages of a transformational period in which every element of the current structure will ultimately be challenged, even including the most sacred practices such as private property. We will have to find our way to a new sacredness, which may in the end (we'll all be long dead) look a lot like the current setup. Though I doubt it.

You only "own" the Land you hold Title to, regardless of where you reside, until the taxes are not paid, so in effect, you, and everyone else, rents. Property taxes are just one of the many problems we need to address when the SHTF.


going back hundreds of years

But what about records continuous through a period of diminishing returns? What happened to property title in FSU? What about Ireland during famines? What about the West Bank or Gaza or any other place where a culture is being exterminated - hard to imagine more "negative return" than that? There is the Monbiot quote that rolls around now and then top right on TOD, about cats fighting in a sack.

I guess the eastern roman empire was able to maintain order through a long long decline - because it decentralized (relocalized) - but the western roman empire tried to become more and more centralized. Poof.

cfm in Gray, ME

I agree with your comments on the liklihood of retirement.

It's the getting to that last croak that concerns me. Few, or their spouses/family or their physicians, resist those attempts in the end years to prolong life or belay suffering. And in come monumental medical bills.

And looking to another afternoon of pruning standards and large semis on ladder, the appeal of dwarfs resurfaces. But their special needs, esp on poor soil, longevity and susceptibility to below and above ground herbivores hold me back.

I find this interesting coming from a highly agri/horticultural country (New Zealand) which is totally devoid of the industrial agriculture you debate. As all our productive farms are relatively small I find the argument that industrial Ag will continue unopposed weak, globally it already has competitors and the restrictions the NZ faces in access to markets is testament to that. So small holding production will grow but it will be a lifestyle choice as the urban industrial machine falters.

In support of Stuarts position the pragmatist in me sees that food being a critical commodity and Ind Ag being a concentrated solution will probably get more government support when push comes to shove.
I have a vision of an electric Combine Harvester fleet fed by a boomed "cable truck".

Neven MacEwan B.E E&E

Many other factors that have not been discussed play into this thread:

  • Peak phosphorus and nitrogen
  • credit markets
  • drought and flood
  • water rights
  • commodity foods- easily shipped / stored grains vs. fresh vegetables and meat
  • international trade rules
  • USDA and subsidies geared toward BigAg
  • taxes and revenue distribution
  • zoning and planning
  • U.S. currency decline

In short we need to model the whole system in order to see the choke points. Liebig's law may apply to more than just agriculture! It's a large question whether commodity grain prices can keep up with oil prices, and for how long, so I would question Staniford's suggestion that BigAg can continue indefinitely.

I'm starting to write a series of essays on Permaculture as it relates to these issues, especially energy, net energy, yield and cost of ecosystem services. I'm looking closely at H.T. Odum's work on energy flows in ecosystems. This is my first comment here and I'd appreciate if you all can point me to any posts of relevance on these topics.

Peak Nitrogen?

You're serious?

What's that all about? I thought that , huh, 70% of the atmosphere was nitrogen... Was I mistaken? Or is it that difficult to take out such a rare gas out of the air?

Serious. Nitrogen in the air is useless to plants. It has to be fixed in the soil by bacteria that live symbiotically with leguminous plants (beans, peas, clovers, alfalfa, acacia, locusts, eleagnus, etc.), or chemically produced with inputs of natural gas and applied to fields.

See this article on the basics of fertilizer production. Note that the US imports virtually all its N fertilizer due to cheaper NG elsewhere, like Russia.

In the "old" days, when farms included both livestock and crops, fields were spread with manure, which is rich in nitrogen, every fall. Instead, we "moderns" have separated the livestock from the crops and have created two massive problems: nitrogen deficiencies in cropland and sewage problems on factory livestock farms.

As Pollan says in 'Omnivore's Dilemma',

"Industrialized Agriculture took a solution (our small scale, symbiotic farming heritage), and divided it into several problems." (paraphrased)

Bob Fiske

Nitrogen can easily be fixed using any energy source. Stranded NG just happens to be cheap and uneconomical to move and ammonia or derivatives like ammonium nitrate just happen to be quite easy to move around.

Ammonia can be produced with fair efficiency using high temperature electrolysis and haber-bosch from geothermal or nuclear energy or poor efficiency using electrolysis at ambient temperatures.

There is work being done on solid state ammonia synthesis which is more efficient and not quite as reliant on a heat source for efficiency. See for instance .

You can also get hydrogen gas from various other sources like syngas from coal gasification(already somewhat common) and from farm waste pyrolysis(the char can be used for soil building and carbon sequestration, the CO and "pyrolysis oil" can be used for process heat).

High temperature electrolysis, which depends on solid oxide fuel cell technology, is not an established industrial process. Solid oxide fuel are availble in pre-production form only. The costs are extremely high and the expected lifetimes are not long. Such technology may eventually becomes a source of reasonbly priced nitrogen, but it certainly is not so today. If average electricity prices go up as fossil fuel supplies decline then the cost of electrolytic hydrogen will rise further.

High temperature electrolysis, which depends on solid oxide fuel cell technology, is not an established industrial process. Solid oxide fuel [cell] are availble in pre-production form only.

I stand corrected.

If average electricity prices go up as fossil fuel supplies decline then the cost of electrolytic hydrogen will rise further.

If you're using fossil fuels for electricity production you're going to want to convert the coal or whatever you're using directly to hydrogen using a chemical process instead of going the long way round.

The scale is quite small(only a couple of percent of total natural gas production goes to ammonia). If the electrolysers are cheap it could be an economical way to dump surplus electricity(e.g. surplus hydropower in spring when there's plenty of melt water and consumption may not keep up or if consumption ever falls below baseload so that you can't throttle back).

Methane produced from landfills, waste etc. is also a realistic alternative:

I'm not going to quibble about 10 percent here or there. Here in Sweden our biogas production for 2006 was 1.4 TWh/year and it is believed that it can theoretically grow to ~14 TWh/year. It's mostly used for transportation, but nothing in principle prevents its use for ammonia production.

Most of the energy in biogas is in the form of methane, so these 1.4 TWh work out to ~129 million m^3 methane using 39 Mj/m^3. Using 0.72 kg/m^3 that's ~90 kTonnes. For each methane molecule you can produce 4 hydrogen gas molecules(total reaction including water shift: CH4 + 2H2O-> 4H2 + CO2). That's 8/3 ammonia molecules per methane. An ammonia molecule weighs about 17/16th's of a methane molecule. 90 kTonnes of methane is good for ~260 kTonnes of ammonia. World production of ammonia is 109 MTonnes; so this would represent .24% of world production. While it doesn't sound like a lot, per capita this level of ammonia production would correspond to ~1.8 times world average per capita.

If you do the same for coal with water gas shift you get 2 H2 per carbon. You need on the order of ~1-2% of world coal production to keep ammonia production going.

N-fertilizer is too important and the scale of the problem is too small. Society would almost have to completely collapse before we stopped producing ammonia.

credit markets

An issue, but how does one address, with the 50% tax rate and cost of inputs.

drought and flood
water rights

This is the killer - you can be right and control everything else...but how can you control this?

commodity foods- easily shipped / stored grains vs.
fresh vegetables and meat

On meat, don't forget the prions in the food chain.

USDA and subsidies geared toward BigAg
taxes and revenue distribution

Considering the effective tax rate is about 50% for the US - the high expense of land-land taxes/ag machines/fuel and then the GMO/fertilizer inputs - subsidies are needed otherwise the poor would have expensive food which could lead to revolt or the 'I will go to jail where at least I get 3 squares and am out of the weather'

The farmers will be the only ones Guaranteed Fuel.

It takes 80 gallons of ethanol to raise 10 acres of corn. That 10 acres will yield about 450 gallons of ethanol, and 7600 lbs of Distillers Grains. Those Distillers Grains can either be fed to livestock, or put back on the ground as fertilizer.

When TSHTF, the farm is where you want to be.

You should provide your numbers to the USDA so that they could finally make a convincing case against the evidence based arguments of Pimental et al. Be sure to tell the officials that you are but a humble retired insurance salesman with no agenda.

Oh, wait a second, I get it. You're actually making the case that since ethanol production is so hugely viable that subsidies and mandates are no longer required.

My numbers ARE accurate. I DEFY you to find PROOF that they're not.

As for Ol' Doomer Pimental, I notice he's starting to come around to MY numbers. Didn't he just say that it takes 40% as much btus of fossil fuel to produce ethanol as it yields?

As for USDA numbers, they give the eroei of ALL the ethanol plants, currently operating (many of these are in the process of improving.) I always state that the "Newer" plants get much better than the 1.67:1 that USDA uses. I, also, tend to look at what work the fuel can, practically, do.

We saw from the Mn Study that a 20% blend of ethanol will, for all practical considerations, replace a gallon of gasoline (if you want to quibble over the 1.4%, knock yourself out.)

You remind me of the old story of the guy standing at the back of the train as it crossed the countryside and screaming as loudly as his lungs would allow. He was asked by an alarmed conductor what he was doing. Keeping the marauding elephants at bay, was his reply. There are no elephants here, the conductor responded. You see, said the screamer, it's working.

No, Mr ethanol pusher, it is up to you to provide whatever shreds of evidence you have supporting your outlandish claims.

I think the case made by Pimental for a negative energy return from corn sourced ethanol is convincing. I am willing to entertain the possibility that the evidence and arguments marshalled by the USDA are realistic. Yet even if the USDA case for a small net energy gain is defensible, the energy gained is far too insignificant to overcome the inefficiences introduced into the economy by ethanol subsidies and mandates. Price signals are blurred, and resources are misappropriated. It is also arguably far too low to support the social infrastructure that sustains the economy as we know it, or anything close to it.

The land and other inputs committed to ethanol production are all better used elsewhere in the economy.

Well then, how about the $18 Billion/Yr that we're keeping at home in our own economy, and NOT sending to a bunch of people that would just as soon kill us?

Don't feed the trolls...

You mean like us Canadians?

Money circulates. For example, much of the money that goes to Saudi Arabia seems to quickly make its way back into Lockheed Martin's coffers. And really, very, very few people would just as soon kill US Americans. I'd sooner have my hands around our PM's throat.

Most folks I've met while abroad would like to kill your foreign policy though.

In my view, economic policies should optimize utility while minimizing nest fouling. Corn-derived ethanol production achieves neither objective.

If you are truly opposed to using farmland for food production, you should turn to bio-heat, such as switchgrass for pelletization. Sawdust pellets are up 50% recently, natural gas supplies are rapidly depleting, due in part to their misappropriation for ethanol and syncrude (tar pit) production. A market beckons.

I bet the military will get fuel ahead of farmers. :(

It takes 80 gallons of ethanol to raise 10 acres of corn. That 10 acres will yield about 450 gallons of ethanol, and 7600 lbs of Distillers Grains.

That's a good start. Now what about all the other energy inputs, such as NPK-fertilizer, producing, distilling and drying the ethanol. transporting the distiller's grains and ethanol to end users? I think you'll find that operating the farm machinery is an insignificant part of the energy input into farming.

thanks for your support.

John, thanks for the editorial, now please cast a spell of:
-Growth on the corn fields used for ethanol production
-Control Winds in the Texas Wind Farms
-Sunbeam above the Arizona solar farms.

Are there any Clerics out there that can raise King Hubbert from the Dead?

I never thought I'd meet a Wandering Monster on TOD :D

It's a pity the Trolls have Regeneration, makes 'em hard to kill.

...but history teaches that when ideology collides with economics, it’s inevitably ideology that comes off worst.

I disagree with this assertion. I can think of a number of historical scenarios in which ideology trumps economics. The Former Soviet Union is the most glaring example, but one could even cite small zealotry movements such as Jonestown in which the operating principle is 'ideology uber alles.'

Then the end game becomes reality trumping ideology. This may not happen for many decades, if at all, such as in North Korea.

Ultimately, us deluded reversalists hold out the hope that:
1. economics wins out over ideology
2. this economics is held subservient to good ecological principles (ecology wins out over economics)

re: ".. when ideology collides with economics, .."

Maybe he should just have offered some actual examples, in any case, since this claim hangs on two, VERY vague sciences, so finding any hard and fast relationship between them is going to be shakey. (or 'Unprovable and UnDISprovable')


.. and I suppose there are some who would call economics an ideology in the first place, which really makes a mess of that statement.

In the US, the amount an average person spends on health care went up 250% over the last ten or so years, and life goes on. If a person cooks their own food, it would be difficult to spend more on food than health care in the US.

If food triples in price, certainly adjustments will be made, but the wealthy countries have the resources to adjust. Not so easy for the third world nations.

.. and of course, we are among those families who spend a LOT on quality foods, in the hope that this has some (likely immeasurable/unprovable) benefit on our future need for Healthcare Services..


Thanks for the excellent contribution Mr. Greer. You have made exactly the point I would liked to have made, but with much more clarity and eloquence than I ever could.

This post is somewhat interesting, but in its essence, utterly wrong. And I'm not an expert, nor is it required for me to be, as the simple mathmatics of agriculture and the simple library that is google and the internet can give us all the best of pictures, and the debunk of such theories become not easy, but inevitable and undeniable.

Unless of course, if we start asking too many questions, which is a fallacy out of itself. Run as you can with other questions and others, the infinite recession of horizons or something similar that is frequently talked about is nothing short of a doomer-cult apocalypse prison-break free pass of what otherwise would require logical thinking.

I'll take for granted that everyone in here has access to the EROEI of biofuels. They are not so great. Still, they are positive, which means that, theoretically, a farm which is not fed with fuel can ultimately create its own fuel. In such an extreme case, the farms create its own fuel to create food. I don't believe that a single farmer with a simple small farm can both create fuel and food, therefore a corporative agro-business solution or, alternatively, a cooperation between farmers would, in such extreme cases, be essential.

One can argue that no, ultimately, mankind will want more fuel rather than food, and we will witness famine. But this is not exactly what we should be discussing, as the reasons for such famine are not embebbed in such solution, but rather in the inherent inequality of the society we are living in. One could, even, reason that the social violence against the state would reach such a critical stage that no state would ignore it and leave the farmers happily producing energy only for the rich to use it. Understand though that this is a political question, not a question of agro-business feasability. In such cases, it is history that teach us that no tirant that wanted to stay in power has let its peasants die of famine. "Let them eat cake" reminds us of the foolishness to do so.

Other case in point is that as food is such a primary need, no state would leave agro-business to die within a energy crisis situation. Fuel would be rationed, leaving the best part... to agriculture. Obviously. And it doesn't require that much, so it isn't such a bad-ass solution. Therefore, the theory of the meteorite, the catch-phrase of TSHTF doesn't pan out against agriculture. Food is an essential aspect of the defence of the state. The moment that agriculture collapses is well beyond the collapse of other essential aspects of our civilization.

If the aspect of TSHTF is not paramount to agriculture, then one can argue that simple economics will be the most defining forces that resolve around agriculture. Stuart will be right. If we wait until the meteorite crashes, then do so. Diatribe it all you want. In my opinion, you are waisting brain processing power, though.

Luis, too many absolutes in there. Red meat for Jokuhl-raptor..

It sounds like a rant against doomers, more than any practical kind of thinking about what will be around us 10 or 50 years in the future.

'A single farmer can't create both fuel and food..'
As is said a few posts down, actually distilling alchohol isn't that hard to set up, so small growers could certainly be setting themselves up for some ethanol and a bit of methane production, if only to run a couple of essential machines, while moving other tasks over to electric, mules, the kids, etc..

That you see big orgs as 'Essential' to this task doesn't necessarily make them inevitable. They have to be economical and feasible in other ways, too. The big dinosaurs 'worked' because of the conditions that allowed them to grow, the atmosphere, the flora, the average temps and landforms.. I have to wonder if the ADM-asaurus can hold it's bulk together above the Dustbowl that used to be a warm and slushy swamp. I don't insist that it cannot, but the environment is changing, and the Big stuff looks to be much more vulnerable.


Keep in mind, small farmers were making moonshine in this country, before There Was a Country. We fought our first Civil War over taxation of Moonshine. It won't be the least bit difficult for the small farmers to figure out how to produce the right amount of ethanol/biodiesel for their own use. It's, also, natural to assume that they will be selling some to their friends, and neighbors.

Guys, I just read an article about a company that's making thin-film with an Ink-Jet Printer! Another article about Saab's 1.4 liter engine that turns out 200 hp. In another article Pioneer says they will increase crop yields by 40% in 10 yrs.

For a bunch of "Scientists, and Engineers" some of the commenters seem to pay very little credence to the Magnificent, Energy Saving Scientific advances taking place in our world. We may not need More energy; we might very well need considerably Less.


Well, first, I have no idea on what will come ahead. But I have to say (and I'll be repeating myself) that any scenario has to take into acount that machines can do much more usefull work per "food" than can people or animals.

Taking that into account, peak oil does favor machines over labor or animal work. But that doesn't imply BIG machines, it is quite possible to have an automatized small farm. Altough biger machines are normaly more efficient, the difference isn't as big as the people-machine difference. Also, machines are dependent of supplies. So, we may end up with simple machines, if we don't end on a cornocupian scenario. Again, we can have both big or small simple machines.

Another point is that here:

"Today’s industrial agriculture, with its far-flung supply and distribution chains, its dependence on huge inputs of nonrenewable resources, and its severe impact on topsoil, water quality, and environmental health, is a case in point."

Those topics aren't a consequence of big farms. They are caused by the huge amount of food that is produced. We can't sustainably feed as much people as we are today, it doesn't matter the size of the farms. What does matter is how long we can sutain current production, since that is the difference between doom and business as usual.

The key point is: will there be sufficient energy and mineral resources to maintain our industrial system and and industrial agriculture? SS says yes, or maybe. But I don't see how. Because it's not just energy, it's metals and minerals -- it's everything that we have to dig to get. It's all finite and will become progressively harder to get. (Not that collapse will be a linear downward process, there are critical points.)

At some point we will be left with what we can do on the surface of the earth, without major assistance from beneath. Biology and earthly cycles will be our major resource. We will have to relearn what our ancestors knew and build on top of that. Science will have to refocus its efforts in that direction.

I certainly hope we can retain at least selected parts of our modern industrial infrastructure. Global communication and interchange for one. But no one knows for sure how much of our industrial way of life can be saved. It's still, even now, really only the way of life for a minority of us. But that minority has peaked and will recede. There is really no other option but returning to a far more intimate involvement with the soil and all that entails.

I certainly hope we can retain at least selected parts of our modern industrial infrastructure. Global communication and interchange for one.

A very short story from master gardener class today. Hemlock blight. Not present in Maine until... ag agents checked Wal-Mart. It's still not known if any has gone native yet.

Wal-Mart will say didn't know, not their fault, sue the nursery. That's not enough; those trucks need to be stopped. To be fair, it's not just Wal-Mart but the whole system of trade. It's the Gray Goo problem. Wal-Mart [and business in general) profits most by destroying as much entropy as it can as rapidly as it can.

Global interchange is a huge disease vector. Blight or other invasives in ag supplies can destroy a farm. A goat farm near here is overrun with a weed - can't remember the name - from the feed that survives the manure and compost. Every plant they try to grow is being choked out.

cfm in Gray, ME

Mr. Greer's arguments are based on little more than false analogies that the disappearance of dinosaurs and the spring melting of ice are sufficiently similar to agriculture that conclusions about the future of modern agriculture can be made. This is patently false on its face. Modern agriculture is not comparable to the extinction of dinosaurs and the melting of ice.

Modern agriculture as practiced in the U.S. is different from the way agriculture is practiced in other parts of the world. To lump all the world's agriculture together is plainly combining apples and oranges to a degree that is beyond belief. Things do not fail in a vacuum especially in the age of globalization and the internet. There is no evidence that American agriculture is a prime candidate for non linear collapse any more than any other form of agriculture. China is nearly supporting 1.3 billion people on a fraction of it's land. What evidence is there that America can't support 300+ million and have room for ethanol too. There is no evidence but fallacious arguments that compare unlike forms of energy and commit the sin of omission by leaving out the critical factor of price in determining how to use resources to produce energy. American agriculture is the most efficient and highly developed in the world. It has some of the best land and the best biotechnology bar none. If it collapses it will be one of the last in the world.

Currently land prices here is Iowa are skyrocketing. There is talk of prime land that recently sold for a round $3000 to $4000 is being bid up to the area of $7000 to $8000 due to high commodity prices. So how is this land earning high returns going to be purchased buy city folk with no money? The answer is it isn't. Force and revolution will be the only way. Zimbabwe is the model for what happens next.

Where does the author get the idea that agriculture in the U.S. has long distribution and supply chains? It is the importers of U.S. grain in Asia and Africa that have long distribution and supply chains. If he is talking about Midwest agriculture, the oil comes from Canada and Texas. Ethanol is now produced locally. Fertilizer is also produced locally from animals and nearby in Canada. The farm equipment comes from iron ore in Minnesota and recycled scrap. John Deere is still producing equipment big time in the U.S.. The seed and herbicides are produced locally. The Midwest is economizing on transportation by using corn locally to produce ethanol (ELP).

The point that agriculture will reach a point of marginal returns is silly. Been there, done that. What do you suppose was behind the collapse of the rural economy and the creation of farm subsidies over the last 50 years|?

And again the author repeats the totally unsubstantiated allegation that ethanol made from animal feed is the cause of rising food prices. Inflationary monetary policy that foisted the dot com and housing bubbles on us is the real culprit. The bigger cause is Peak Oil which raises the cost of transportation, packaging and storage of food. Ethanol plays a minor part since it uses corn which is so cheap that it is a small portion of the retail price of products which use it.

First, modern mechanical agriculture uses about 2.2% of current petroleum useage so even if all imports stopped we could still provide all the fuel needed by agriculture today and in the forseeable future. Farmers will have priority on fuel just as they did during WWII.
Second, there was a post about how much alcohol could be produced and how much it took to produce crops. Sorry, but modern agriculture is all diesel. Biodiesel yes, alcohol no.
Third. Before there was oil, farmers grew all their own energy in the form of oats & hay for horses and other draft animals, but it took a lot of the farmers land to supply that fuel. Today we can use about 1/2 the draft animal land to produce oil seed crops that can be turned into biodiesel right on the farm. The biodiesel will fuel the tractors, combines, crop driers, fuel oil furnaces for heating the home and barns, etc... Farmers are starting to do this right now to reduce their escalating fuel bills.
Fourth, as a home shop machinist, I can attest that any farmer can easiely make a simple furnace to melt and cast aluminum, bronze and cast iron. And then machine the castings to make any part they need to keep their equipment running. The only reason they keep buying parts is that it is either cheaper or easier to acquire them that way.

So, I really don't think anyone needs to keep worrying or thinking about going back to the dark ages and all manual labor - It isn't going to happen - You can't stuff the mechanical agricultural advantage back into the bottle.

I agree with you, Jon; but we don't have a good oil seed crop in the U.S. Soybeans only get about 60, or 70 gallons/acre. All the farmers could plant some Chinese Tallow Trees; but they're a pain. It'd be easier to convert to Spark Engines.

Rape Seed gives about 100 gallons per acre and grows just fine in the Midwest and up into Canada.
EROEI on biodiesel is also higher than ethanol so you get a better return in producing biodiesel. BUT, biodiesel will never be able to satisfy the needs of the rest of the transportation industry in the country due to our inability to produce enough of it (and still eat).
Spark engines have a higher specific fuel consumption than compression (diesel) engines do so they use more fuel to produce the same amount of power to the wheels. Farmers are not going to go backwards.
Science, scarcity and economics will determine when and how much diesel fuel on the farm is replaced by biodiesel.

Yeah, I did forget rapeseed, didn't I?

Jon, everything you say is true, of course; but, I could foresee a situation in the midterm when diesel is $10.00/gal, and corn farmers start showing up with E85 powered tractors. Ethanol would have the advantage that you can get about four times more per acre; and, you can achieve the efficiency of diesel with ethanol if you burn it in an optimized, high compression engine.

I know; Maybe, maybe not. Just a possibility.

Stuart modeled the effects of increasing oil prices on industrial farming, but he didn't model those effects during global decreasing oil production, to which Peak Oil actually refers. Still, I don't see a reason why the amount of farmers would necessarily increase. I don't consider "increasing the amount of farmers" to be part of the definition of localization, but the term is vague enough to include that

I think that the shrink in the economy from Peak Oil will be soft and gradual, due to technological advancement in alternative energy, and because we have a huge amount of discretionary energy in the meantime. I think that people in most industrial cultures today are smart enough to be able have less discretionary energy without panicing into chaos or accepting a tyrant

The analogy used in the post is not quite right - the dinosaurs are still with us. After feathered dinosaur fossils were discovered during the last couple of decades (the most famous ones in China), it became clear that one clade of the dinosaurs survived: the birds. More, as usual, at wikipedia:

So you're saying they survived, but became much smaller, playing new and different roles in the ecosystem than they did in their Supersized Heyday?

I'd say the analogy is holding together ok. Unless I really got it wrong, It's as much about 'will we be changing?' as it is about 'Will it be us or them?'


I thought this was such a good response to Stuart Staniford's classic mumbojumbo about industrial agriculture. IMO Stuart does a great job of analyzing oil production and should stick to it. He loses credibility when he twists himself into knots trying to find a way to prevent human dieoff.

I thought this was such a good response to Stuart Staniford's classic mumbojumbo about industrial agriculture.

Giggle, giggle. It definitely was a hilarious response to Staniford!

Did you catch it? The leader of an attempt to revive a religion that went completely extinct more than 1500 years ago called Staniford a dinosaur!!!!! Haw Haw!!

Thanks to the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids for more than a few belly chuckles!!

[Talk about being a reversalist!]

As a fanatical new age freak believer devoid of all logical or numerical abilities myself and living in stone-age superstition, I am personally highly offended that you attack the integrity of the great Arch-Druid Celtic priest whose great wisdom from the dream world , the far side and a glass of whisky are obviously inspired by the almighty.

Ad Hominem attacks on such a rationally scientific site as TOD are fully out of place of course.

I think you've missed a very important aspect of Stuart's argument. He has projected the cost of solar power and found that energy gets cheaper in the future not more expensive. Under this condition, it is hard to use an energy argument to break industrial agriculture though the environmental issues you raise point to a problem with sustainablity.

Stuart may well be correct about the falling cost of solar. Even at today's prices, I can see a way to get 3 GW of average generation in the US from solar at less than a penny a kWh:
The more demand for solar, the sooner we'll realize the scale savings that Stuart has anticipated.

The flash in the sky in this picture may be something completely different.


He has projected the cost of solar power and found that energy gets cheaper in the future not more expensive.

And yet this flies in the face of our experiences as a species in recent times. We are discovering that where energy is dependent on a limited resource the price goes up. Now yes, you will claim solar is unlimited, but it's not just about the sun shining is it? It's about all the other materials needed to harvest that sunlight. Whilst they might not be about to run out, every bottleneck in a chain of dependence will introduce price increases in the final product.

There don't appear to be bottlenecks in the supply chains for silicon and glass; production of solar-grade silicon is ramping up quickly.

Difficulties with Fossil fuels are wrongly extrapolated to other resources.

Both solar and nuclear have excellent resource bases with very good EROI.

Much discussion of EROEI on biofuels bandied about these days--but they miss the systemic nature of the problem we face. Let's assume you do gain energy from them, anywhere between 1.5x-4x EROEI. Great. We can make self-sufficient farms. How do those numbers fare against fossil fuel sources? Not well. And there in lies the problem.

The global capitalist economy (and the US in particular) requires GROWTH to stave off crisis. How do you expect to maintain growth when the EROEI on your primary motive force is going down? If you say "efficiency increases" you are neglecting (empirically demonstrated) Jevon's Paradox. Obviously, there are several other areas to extract surplus (wages, prices, debt, and corporate consolidation) to temporarily maintain growth, but the first three are already tapped out--hence the "last recession" we are now experiencing in the United States.

Those of you who doubt that we are in the midst of the "punctuated" component of "punctuated equilibrium"--man, I just don't know what to tell you if you can't figure this out.

PS: Economics IS ideology.

Those of you who doubt that we are in the midst of the "punctuated" component of "punctuated equilibrium"--man, I just don't know what to tell you if you can't figure this out.

One wonders if such people are not reading the same stories I am with quote after quote stating current events have never before been seen. The poles are melting, the financial system is headed to a depression, energy prices are going through the roof, food is at all-time lows of stocks and extreme highs in price...

but all is well, or at least manageable.

Gotta love it. ;)

“Men argue; nature acts.”



We can make self-sufficient farms. How do those numbers fare against fossil fuel sources? Not well.

I guess I don't post enough, because I've been saying that for years.

I also found a way to do something about it.

Hey EP,

I didn't notice in your post where you transitioned the national economy to one that did not rely on growth...? That's the crux of the issue. Unbeknownst to many, there truly are limits to growth.

Doesn't matter; if the energy and materials systems can be transferred to renewables, the financial system will just have to deal.  Nature doesn't depend on debt or derivatives, and it's been going great guns since the invention of chlorophyll; I think humanity will do okay with silicon, which is considerably better.

The economy: "doesn't matter". Wow.

The entire social order of our country (and in many respects, the world) is based on economic growth. Without it, you have unemployment and stagnation. The economy doesn't just "deal"--if your economy collapses, you have social disorder. Where does your silicon come from if there is no motivation to produce it? Make sense?

I said the financial system doesn't matter; it's a convenient fiction anyway.  Your argument amounts to claiming that "economies" won't exist if we can't keep expanding debt, which implies that they didn't exist before we had anything but hard money and other assets.  Need I point out that this is risible?

The USA has had economic contractions before, and the social order survived; an asymptotic end to expansion wouldn't even imply that.  We could have a contraction in activity, but if the population contracts faster the personal standard of living could continue to increase.  Last, there is a huge amount of room to expand energy production based on photovoltaics and similar technologies without covering any more area with artificial materials*; we have to get through a transition, but there is a lot of upside potential remaining.

* US area covered with impervious materials is roughly 112,610 km².  If this receives an average of 1000 kWh/m²/yr and the incident sunlight is converted to electricity at 20%, the total energy production would be about 22 trillion kWh, or 76 quads of pure electricity.  The USA currently uses only about 4 trillion kWh/year and ~100 quads of energy from all sources, including those used to make electricity.

Hello Jon Kutz, and kdolliso

In my neck of the woods (central Texas) there are many shallow oil wells which are on two acre spaceing and produce 1/4 to 2 BBL per day of high gravity, sweet (no sulphur) oil. the land is excellent for farming but usually used for cattle. I have often wondered if a small batch type refinery could be utilised to produce diesel and gasoline. Then you would have a farm that could produce its own fuel and crops. This situation occures in many areas of the country

Sweet, I sure don't know anything about oil refining; but, I wish you all the luck. A couple of two barrel/day wells in a few years, and you might want to forget the farming, and concentrate on "managing your money," though. :)

SS says model the data, seems to fit a linear model, extrapolate, bigAg isn't going anywhere.

Poster says yes but linear model may be overly simplistic, may be inflection points, may need more complicated model, more complicated model may prove out my hypothesis.

Poster comes with no data and no model of his own though.

Of course linear model is probably overly simplistic. Still, if model fits, wear it. Until someone comes with a better one. Which Poster did not come with.

Could use Posters logic to argue for ANYTHING. Could use it to argue cornucopia scenarios. Could use it to argue for the Rapture. It's null input.

Your post concisely gets to the point. There haven't been any counter models to Staniford, only "scenarios". Greer wastes several paragraphs on meaningless anecdotes, then briefly speculates about non-linearity in agriculture. He then takes this as proven, as do many of the subsequent posters.

I would expect a cogent rebuttal to Staniford to contain a detailed analysis of the supposed non-linearity, since this is the main counter argument. Indeed Staniford is compelling because he shows that agriculture is largely driven by economics, which provides a linear response.

Yes - what we are dealing with is scenarios. My biggest eyebrow raiser with SS analysis is this, most of his cost chart is based upon a model that assumes fuel costs are the biggest riser in costs is fuel. The first thing you learn in Peak Oil is all costs rise in proportion. Its the reason that Turkey guts and other bio diesel conversion don't economically work.

If an economist broke down each cost and added inflationary costs due to 150, 175 and 250 barrel oil I wonder at what point does industrial ag faces radical evolution?

OK replaying to my own post

Fertilizer and chemicals seem to me to be the most vulnerable to inflationary pressures

That 30% of total costs

Add fuel thats adds up to 39%

Capital replacement and capital recovery thats under a little less pressure but pressure due to transportation costs

17 %

Hired Labor and repairs will also be under inflationary pressure


so non symmetrical inflationary costs can hit about 63% of overall farm costs that have to be made up in higher prices.

It does seem the current model can trend a good wave for a while longer - now if that is in the interests of us food consumers is other story altogether.

My gut tells me 400% oil price rise form $105.00 is the chock point but thats still a guess.

Have you got an example for us where collapse led to food production by the state/big business (or its equivalent for any given epoch) staying intact? Is that what happened to the Maya? The Roman Empire? The Mongols? The Anasazi?

Should there be a partial collapse or further transition to totalitarianism of some form, I could see it. But in collapse? Someone please share the precedent.


By definition, collapse would encompass drop in food production, so you are arguing a tautology.

You are assuming there will be a collapse, but that is the question yet to be determined.

You asked for analysis of non-linearity, I gave you history. This not a tautology. He is arguing that history will not repeat. Again, show me the precedent.

I didn't notice there was an argument presented in the article.

The 60's were good to him!

We went through this problem on the Ugo Bardi's thread about LTG. It takes years of experience and expert feeling to build up such a model. Real life changes continually, minute by minute as there are millions, billions of active agents with their own agendas and things you could never anticipate. A model such as Stuart's is simple at best and actually dangerous as it leaves much more out of reality than it includes. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing".

So show us yours!

No-one at all has come up with anything other than a bit of verbiage as a counter, or in the case of the present article, some sort of bed-time story, which must have taken some of the 'good stuff' to write, one imagines, there have been no serious attempts at showing when and how a break-point occurs.

So Ugo said that the program the LTG guys developed has taken him years to get used to and he is just scratching the surface. It seems to me like becoming a tibetan Guru over decades or as Ugo said learning chess. I cannot just put up realistically some BS here and expect you to take it seriously. That is what I am saying about Stuart's so-called model. In terms of physical reality it is no more than verbiage, an opinion masked behind a few graphs. Matt Savinar said precisely that but much less respectfully. After seeing the LTG stuff and how they are backed up by extremely complex models with hundreds of variables dveloped over years by lots of researchers I must come to the same conclusion as Matt Savinar about any simplistic models about such real world stuff cooked up by someone on the side over the weekend who comes from a completely different field. We should not base our decisionmaking process on that sort of thing. It serves more to reveal Stuart's prejudice than anything else. If I were an expert in a technical field with similar tools in my kit (modeling capabilities) I could do the same thing of course. This is not my direction and I won't pretend to try something like that. I must say that it is a tendency of people with a technical degree to overestimate the capabilities of their models to predict real world scenarios. Artists of all sorts have more respect for the unpredictability of reality as the subconscious direction they use in art takes everything into account. Interpreting your dreams for example could be just about impossible. Could it predict what will happen today, tomorrow, or be some sort of reworking of childhood traumas or something? You don't know what is going on and cannot have total control of reality as you yourself are just a small part of this reality observing it. This is the fundamental problem with science, the proposition that we observe and control, like God. We change things by observing and controlling so that everything keeps out of our control more and more. Intuitively doing nothing and letting happen allows everything to fold out in front of you. "Go with the flow" of nature.This typically 60s/70s nonsense is hated I know but eventually we must allow nature to be or we will manage to destroy it and ourselves along with it unfortunately. No I can't prove offhand the obvious in a couple of graphs over the weekend and I am not arrogant enough to try.

We change things by observing and controlling so that everything keeps out of our control more and more. Intuitively doing nothing and letting happen allows everything to fold out in front of you. "Go with the flow" of nature.This typically 60s/70s nonsense is hated I know but eventually we must allow nature to be or we will manage to destroy it and ourselves along with it unfortunately.

If we let nature be, we will be very dead.

The current population of the world is based on technology, so at lest 5 billion of them would have to die, and even then we would be heavily manipulating nature.

In fact, we did so even in the stone age, burning off the vegetation to assist hunting and radically changing the environment.

So 'going with the flow' is going with the flow of being a human being as we actually are, that is a major force of nature in our own right, and one which willy nilly affects the environment greatly.

My objection to the whole 'back to nature' approach is that it is nothing of the sort, but is based on a fantasy about the nature of man for a start, and this disconnect with reality then becomes endemic, and leads to the wholesale supplanting of what is reasonable and rational by the products of those fantasies.

I don't necessarily expect graphs, which as you say are not the be-all and end all, but no one has indicated in any rigorous sense why dearer energy should lead to localisation, the favourite argument being that you would reach a breakdown point beyond which society would not be able to organise itself for large scale agriculture.

Fair enough, so how dear would oil have to be for that to happen?

If mechanised agriculture broke down, why should not huge slave estates worked to provide for the few, whilst encouraging the 5 billion or so die-off that might be needed be the norm instead of this idea of localisation?

The holistic approach is just so fuzzy that the most outrageous claims can be made, and the mechanisms to think about them have already been ditched, so that they can't be assessed.

It is sentiment masquerading as thought, and often sentiment held in the most fundamentalist way.

My own thoughts on the continuance of the agriculture or it's replacement by localisation are falsifiable, IOW I am continuing to think about it and if shown a break point and reasons why localisation might occur would change my mind.

Once you wander off into holistic philosophy, you have entered the realm of magic and faith, and reason has effectively been discarded.

I think with such extremely complicated computer simulations as LTG uses we simulate approximately an intuitive reality as exists in real time on earth. This sacrifices neither reason nor intuition as reason can only hold, say 7 variables at a time in your head. How do you decide what move to make in a chess game? If a then B then c. But with decades of expeience you take shortcuts like a farmer or something who just knows what to do all depending on his intuition of generations. Rationality is too narrow. It can impossibly collect enough data to make nay difference in a short time period. This is why politics is such BS. You get some unrealistic ideology that steers us into the abyss as it is inflexible. Intuition is not irrational but overrational. Rationalism is 2+2=4 but intuition is quantum mechanics when used in conjunction with long experience and common sense. This is why it is important to find the right Guru/leader who has real judgement and experience and wisdom. Otherwise you get someone like me or Matt Savinar or Stuart Staniford leading the pack. The blind leading the blind.

Hey Galactic;
I'm with you, while I suspect that you and Dave are simply speaking in nearly incompatible languages.

There are things you just can't use charts for. Prove Love. If you can't measure it, are you sure it exists? I'm not against models, either.. but I won't take all my info from that side of the brain.


"A joke is like a frog. You can dissect either one to see how they work, but they both will probably die in the process."

I don't understand why people think that small agricultural communities will work in a post-peak world. That idea works in a very lightly populated country but the world is going to get more chaotic as the infrastructure starts to break down and because of that, totalitarian rule will be the order of the day. Whether it is on the world, nation, or local level, rulers will be vying to control the last crumb, so to speak. When there are significant numbers of people going without food and the potential for anarchy ensues, all resources will be socialized. Free market capitalism only goes so far. Oil will be first, then oil derivatives will follow until we get to the biggest fulcrum of post-peak Small farms that are self-sufficient will be collectivized for the "good of all". Our corporate ag system in this country is already poised for that event and government will go right along with whatever keeps the masses from causing a revolution. Crop yield will suffer dramatically when fossil fuel based fertilizers are very expensive, if available at all, and planting and harvesting equipment starts to get replaced by human and animal.

It really all comes down to which scenario plays out, doesn't it?

If the slow-motion transition to a soft landing plays out, then Stuart is probably pretty much correct in the short term, and indeed for much of the path along the way. I'm less certain what place large-scale mechanized grain production will have in a renewables-based sustainable economy; I suspect that the scale will be smaller, places that long ago gave up growing grains might do so again, and they will definitely need to transition to an organic model - but there probably still will be "amber waves of grain across the fruited plains", more or less. At the same time, just as home gardening (and particuarly organic gardening) begain a renaissance in the 1970s which continues to grow, and just as farmer's markets, CSAs, food co-ops, natural food stores, and producers of organic foodtsuffs continue to see growing levels of patronage, these trends must inevitably continue and expand. It may take quite some time, though, before they come close to becoming the predominant model. The inevitable rise in food prices (which we are already starting to see) due to increasing costs in energy inputs, the diversion of food supplies to biofuels production, and the impact of GCC - especially drought - will undoubtedly be the primary driver that transforms these trends from a niche phenomenon to something that becomes increasingly mainstream. If we have lots of time to transition gradually, that is OK.

On the other hand, if our future is a fall off a cliff -- the full-scale doomer die-off nightmare scenario -- then the outlook does not appear to be very hopeful at all for things to play out along Stuart's suggested lines. However, prospects don't really look all that much better for Sharon's localization vision either. There may be a few lifeboats with a few people in them, but most people will have drowned. I suspect that if we (and I include myself pretty much in Sharon's camp) were really honest with ourselves and other people, we'd have to admit that we are really hoping that it won't really come to that worst case scenario, and if it does, that our own little local communities will somehow be spared from the storm that will encircle the globe. Unfortunately, that may very likely be a vain hope if worst actually does come to worst.

So thus we come to two sets of decisions that need to be made: one set at the macro level of national political, economic and social policies and programs, and one set at the micro level of what individuals, households, and local communities should do.

At the macro level, I think we can take it for granted that national governments (or more accurately, those who manage or have influence over national governments) really don't want to see that worst case doomer scenario become a reality, for this would be the end of the road for them. Thus, avoidance of the worst case scenario would seem to me to be the most rational first priority. Unfortunately, governments are not always run in a rational manner. The dustbin of history is filled with extinct empires, regimes, and nations that were governed by stupidity.

More likely, national governments will proceed on the wishful assumption that either things will continue on in a business-as-usual perpetual growth path (which we now know is unlikely given the impending peaking and decline of FFs - and indeed, most non-renewable resources), or failing that, they will have the luxury of a long time to adjust to the new realities. Thus, I suspect that thinking along Stuart's lines can be fairly characterized as the "default" policy framework for most national governments. Stuart's scenario is about as bad as they ever allow themselves to think things could get.

Is it possible for national governments to look disaster in the eye, and to really admit to themselves and to their citizenry how bad things could get? I don't know. Such behavior is not totally unprecedented in human history, but it is quite rare. Even when it does happen, it tends to only happen quite late in the game.

On the other hand, if the premises of the doomer die-off scenario are correct, then the collapse is pretty much inevitable and unavoidable at this point. If this is the case, then why should national governments try to prevent the unpreventable? If our future is doom, then why spoil what time we have left worrying about it? I am not justifying or condoning this line of thinking, only recognizing that the temptation to think this way probably does exist, and may very well help to explain why we are seeing neither acknowledgement of any possibility of the collapse scenario amongst national governments, nor any prevention or mitigation initiatives in response.

Thus, with regard to national agriculture and food policies, I am inclined to hold quite limited hopes and expectations. In particular, I am hoping first and foremost that national governments can at least manage to keep their harm to a minimum. Subsidizing maize to ethanol is certainly exhibit one as an example of a government policy that can do harm. Almost all agricultural subsidies, and indeed just about all government agricultural programs in general, arguably do more harm than good. While I won't argue with Stuart that the economics might continue to favor large-scale mechanized grain production for many decades to come (if we avoid rapid collapse), if this is the case then such operations should be able to stand or fall on their own. The fact of the matter is that organic and smaller-scale alternataives have not by any means had a level playing field to compete on up to now. As for the consumer end of things, the one helpful thing that governments could do would be to help and encourage people - especially people strugging with food prices - to grow more of their own food themselves.

As for the micro level of individuals, households, and local communities, I don't know what to tell you wrt the collapse scenario. Dmitri Orlov has written about a handful of survivors living on sailboats, and landing to cultivate organic gardens wherever they can find a shore that can still support cultivation. Literal lifeboats. Maybe that will work for a few people, or maybe not. Who knows? I'm assuming that I won't survive for very long during the collapse scenario in any case, so I don't worry about it.

That leaves the other possibility -- the only one where any rational planning can actually be done: the gradual transition. In this scenario, I think it does make a very good deal of sense for every household to be actively developing their capacity to grow as much of their own food as they can. For most of us, it is a multi-year process of learning, improving the soil, growing fruit trees and other perennial crops, etc. That's OK if the gradual transition scenario is assumed, for if that is the scenario that plays out, then we do have that time. To the extent that more rather than fewer people do this in a given community, to that extent I think that community will be better off. As food prices continue to rise, those communities will see less money flowing out to distant food producers, and instead staying within the local community. They will also have stronger food security, as they will be less vulnerable to sudden disruptions in distant food supply chains.

I think that Stuart's analysis does provide some useful guidance though, in that he points out that under the gradual transition scenario, grains are likely to continue to be economically produced at large-scale, mechanized farms. They will continue to be available, and they will be less expensive to buy from these large-scale specialists than to produce locally on a small scale. Thus, this suggests to me that for most local communities, and certainly for most households, small scale local grain production can safely be deferred as the lowest food production priority. Household and community production of fruits and vegetables, animal proteins (meat, eggs, dairy), and honey should clearly be the top priority.

I think you underestimate governments.

They certainly have plans in place for massive dislocations of society, plans for martial law, rationing and so on.

The only thing they skip is the localisation scenario.

They intend to be in as full control as possible, with the population fully mobilised, not all doing their own thing.

I don't buy the "evil government" theory, but history repeatedly shows the "inept government" theory.

Governments seem to have less planning than the general public; certainly they seem to be caught on the hop by events that are widely predicted. Their plans are based on BAU, anything outside that is a surprise.

No one is saying, or at least I am not, that all governments are evil.

I am just commenting on the way disaster plans work in all countries, - they will not have been purpose designed for this emergency, but would be adapted from the plans for major civil emergencies, and many of them are a matter of public record, or at least the de-classified ones.

They intend to be in as full control as possible, with the population fully mobilised, not all doing their own thing.

I think that what governments want to do, and what they are able to do will be highly divergent...think central planning and the Katrina response. Besides, the absence of understanding and the use of "canned" plans will pretty much assure that the actions taken by the government will be orthogonal or outright wrong.

Yes, they have plans, but I doubt that most of them have done much serious planning for the catastrophic collapse, doomer die-off scenario. I seriously doubt that it has even crossed their minds as a serious possibility.

You are right, localization will be happening in spite of national governments, not because of them. As I said, the most I hope for is that they'll get out of the way and not cause more harm than good. Fat chance.

Detention Centers

Martial Law; Inequality of Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches

The National Continuity Coordinator... will lead the development of a National Continuity Implementation Plan (Plan), which shall include... guidance to promote interoperability of Federal Government continuity programs and procedures with State, local, territorial, and tribal governments, and private sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure, as appropriate.

Guidance and not cooperation?

(e) "Enduring Constitutional Government," or "ECG," means a cooperative effort among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Federal Government, coordinated by the President, as a matter of comity with respect to the legislative and judicial branches and with proper respect for the constitutional separation of powers among the branches,

Doesn't the Constitution of the united States clearly state the president has zero oversight of the other two branches of government? Given the thumbing of the nose at the other two branches thus far, who would trust this president to "coordinate" their sock drawer, let alone all three branches of government?

Further, this seems to supersede National Emergency Act which requires the president to go through Congress for any declaration of Martial Law. There is no provision for this in these two presidential orders.

Oh, and there is already a citizen shadow government, InfraGard, coordinating with the FBI:

FBI Director Robert Mueller addressed an InfraGard convention on August 9, 2005... he said they could sic the FBI on “disgruntled employees who will use knowledge gained on the job against their employers.”

...The ACLU is not so sanguine.

“There is evidence that InfraGard may be closer to a corporate TIPS program, turning private-sector corporations—some of which may be in a position to observe the activities of millions of individual customers—into surrogate eyes and ears for the FBI,” the ACLU warned in its August 2004 report The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society.

InfraGard is not readily accessible to the general public. Its communications with the FBI and Homeland Security are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act...

“The interests of InfraGard must be protected whenever presented to non-InfraGard members,” the website states.

...benefits of joining InfraGard, it states: “Gain access to an FBI secure communication network complete with VPN encrypted website, webmail, listservs, message boards, and much more.”

“We get very easy access to secure information that only goes to InfraGard members,” Schneck says...

On November 1, 2001, the FBI had information about a potential threat to the bridges of California. The alert went out to the InfraGard membership... Barry Davis... notified his brother Gray, the governor of California.

...the governor got a lot of grief for releasing the information. In his defense, he said, ‘I was on the phone with my brother, who is an investment banker. And if he knows, why shouldn’t the public know?’ ”

Maviglio still sounds perturbed about this: “You’d think an elected official would be the first to know, not the last.”

In return for being in the know, InfraGard members cooperate with the FBI and Homeland Security... "...We want everyone to have a little black book.” InfraGard member... would have an easier time obtaining a “special telecommunications card that will enable your call to go through when others will not.”

This special status concerns the ACLU.

“The FBI should not be creating a privileged class of Americans who get special treatment,” says Jay Stanley, public education director of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program. “There’s no ‘business class’ in law enforcement.

...One business owner... tells me that InfraGard members are being advised on how to prepare for a martial law situation—and what their role might be. He... attended a small InfraGard meeting where agents of the FBI and Homeland Security discussed in astonishing detail what InfraGard members may be called upon to do.

“...All of a sudden we were knee deep in what was expected of us when martial law is declared... Then they said when—not if—martial law is declared, it was our responsibility to protect our portion of the infrastructure, and if we had to use deadly force to protect it, we couldn’t be prosecuted,” he says.

I was able to confirm that the meeting took place where he said it had, and that the FBI and Homeland Security did make presentations there.


Just as a general comment I have the impression that smaller countries like the Netherlands and Scandianvian countries have the most effective and flexible policies. They have homognous and small populations so that thy can turn on a dime and experiment with all sorts of concepts. Germany, UK are more spread out with lots of different types of peoples, Bavarians, Scots, etc. blcok the central governments from moving in a certain direction. How many languages/dialects are spoken in Spain, Ialy, Germany, UK? USA is just a nightmare in this respect. Decentralization is a real solution as local people understand one another and their physcial environemnt intuitively while far away central governemtns do not but have to balance interests of all regions.Maine should decide or South Carolina for that matter or LA or Bavaria what they need to do.

Natural selection and dead-end paths of evolution don't work as an analogy with humans who research and develop technologies to adapt their environment to their needs. Humans can adapt orders of magnitude more rapidly by generating technology. The rate at which adaptive mutations occur is much slower.

Whether we can adapt to the coming decline in oil production remains to be seen. We have the capacity to generate enough energy from non-fossil fuels sources to operate mechanized agriculture. It will take a mighty effort to construct the nuclear reactors, wind turbines, solar thermal electric power plants, photovoltaics, and geothermal plants. Will we find the will to do all this?

Nonlinear change happens most often in systems that have negative feedback loops which balance out pressures for change.

this statement looks funny to someone from where the term negative feedback was first coined. when the idea, later known as negative feedback, first came to Harold Black riding on a ferry between NYC and NJ, he was working on the problem of how to linearize a system with a very nonlinear component. what is the relevancy of negative feedback to the phase change in water anyway?

What has held back the relocalization of agriculture has been the lack of a replicable, economically viable business model. SPIN-Farming provides one. Developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, SPIN-Farming is an organic-based, non-technical, easy-to-learn, inexpensive-to-implement farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from land under an acre in size. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and situating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. SPIN therefore removes the 2 big barriers to entry for new farmers – land and money, and is as close to a franchise-ready farming system as you can get while still respecting the creative and place-based nature of farming. It is now enabling a growing corps of first generation entrepreneurial farmers around the world to, literally, take matters into their own hands by establishing farm businesses wherever they live. Can thousands of backyards and front lawns and small lot farms be a solution to thousands of acres of monocrops? You bet!

Had to look that one up..
'Small-Plot INtensive Gardening'

Looks neat.


Nice post, thank you, although I admit, while the substance of my disagreements is one that I retain, the original post is not my favorite piece of my own writing, as it was done in far too much haste (I should have been doing something else). I admit to ambivalence about seeing it back ;-). Still, I'm glad this discussion continues.

My only quibble would be with your claim about the intersection of ideology and economics. Because when ideology and economics conflict, my own take is that you get our present day American economics - that is, scholarly objectivity takes a back-seat to market orthodoxy.


Has anyone got any insights on how a lack of oil will affect agriculture in places like China and India?

At first blush I would guess it might not hit them so hard, as they are closer to the time when they did not have them anyway, so probably naively I imagine a relatively easy adaption, but OTOH there have been riots in very poor countries when kerosene can't be bought cheaply, so perhaps it is all not so easy as it might appear.

We have discussed things mainly through Western eyes, but insight into the likely affects on other societies would be helpful.

The situation for countries with large water deficits would appear to be grim.

It'll hit them very hard indeed. Let's be realistic about the world market. If there's (say) a 10% drop in world oil production, that does not mean that the whole world will have 10% less; that means that the West will just pay more and have the same amount or only slightly less, while places like Ghana will have almost nothing.

Think of it this way. Two blokes each take a paycut of $100 a week; one started with $1,000, and the other with $125. Or if you prefer it in percentage terms, say each had a 50% cut, one from $1,000 to $500, and the other from $125 to $62.50. Would you say that the second guy will be okay because he started with so little?

It takes relatively little energy to make a material difference in the lives of the very poor.

A gallon of diesel a week means the subsistence farmer can have a diesel pump instead of a treadle pump, saving them a couple of hours a day and much miserable physical labour.

100W of power mean that children can have light to study in the evenings, increasing their chances of education beyond primary school; and higher literacy and general education correlates well with general wealth and a lowering of women's fertility rate, infant mortality and so on.

A mobile phone for the village means that when the merchant comes to buy their surplus grain and says, "oh yes, 12 rupees a bushel, down from 50 rupees last year, all the villages are paying that now", they can ring up other villages and check, thus getting a decent price; which makes the difference between just enough spare cash for a packet of tobacco, or enough to repair the roof instead of having to take a loan and enter into indentured labour.

And so on. The small amount they consume makes a significant difference to their lives. Below's a plot of Human Development Index (longevity, per capita income, and literacy and primary, secondary and tertiary enrolment) vs electricity use - you get about the same result with total energy use, which comes out as nine times electricity use.

Notice that HDI basically maxes out after 4,000kWh annually per person. But notice also that going from (say) 1,500 to 2,000kWh, a 33% increase, has a bigger effect on HDI than going from 3,000 to 4,000kWh, also a 30% increase.

Given that, a drop in available energy by any arbitrary percentage or absolute amount is going to hit the already energy-poor much harder than the currently energy-rich. We have a lot of waste in our energy use, so even if supply wasn't available to use at any price, we could adapt fairly well to that scarcity; but they're already in the poo, so....

Thank you for the information.

It seems we are back to the same sort of grim scenarios as were prevalent in the early 60's, when I was young, and the suggestion was that we would have to triage nations, with mass starvation in places like Bangladesh.

I realise that the poorest nations are indeed in very severe trouble, but wonder how the middle ranking nations who have recently been experiencing strong growth, South-East Asia, China and India are likely to do?

Triage is the principle of just giving up on those you deem hopeless cases. I do not believe that ought to be the policy when dealing with entire nations, it's only one moral step above deliberate genocide.

I don't think it's that grim. There are no physical, technical or financial obstacles to providing renewable energy to the entire world. The obstacles are merely political and diplomatic.

Consider: North Korea says, "we need nuclear power for energy for our country."
We reply, "instead of oil, we'll come into your country and set up 100,000 MW peak capacity of wind, solar PV and solar thermal capacity. That'll give you about 20,000MW of delivered electrical energy, that's 1kW per person, should be heaps. After that, it's up to you to arrange the railroads and batteries or whatever else you want. Only conditions are, no nukes for you, and that you allow uncensored internet access, and no longer block or ban foreign radio and tv."

At $40 billion or so, this would be a lot cheaper than the constant payoffs we give them when they bail us up with their nukes, and the bloated military budget of South Korea and Japan to defend against the DPRK threat, and the tyranny wouldn't last long with that openness.

Hell, the Australian federal and state governments could pay for the whole thing out of their 2007 budget surpluses, without even considering the wealth of South Korea and Japan.

But that would be sensible, not very macho and confrontational, therefore we won't do it. Again, there are no physical, technical or financial obstacles to it, only political and democratic.

About the "middle-ranking" nations, the thing to remember there is that each is essentially two nations: the rising middle class, and the impoverished masses. The rising middle classes are in effect an upper class, since they're so far above the peasants in wealth. There we can expect the masses to lose out, and the rising middle class to do alright.