Food Security and Peak Oil: A Message to Local Citizens and Leadership

The following is the prepared text for a talk I gave in the city hall of Eugene Oregon the evening of Feb. 17, 2010. It was organized by two Lane County commissioners and the city mayor and is part of a series on Food Security. My role was to discuss food security in the context of peak oil. This speech is similar to one I gave last year that was also posted on The Oil Drum. At the end I recommended people look up The Post Carbon Institute and affiliates for good leads on what ideas and actions are happening in response to our predicament.

My presentation has 4 parts. First, I will connect what is going on in the economy right now with natural resources and the environment. Second, I will explain why oil is an especially important resource and what is meant by peak oil. Third, I will discuss the implications of economic decline and peak oil for the food system. And fourth, I will suggest what families and society can do given our predicament.

The Economy and Mother Nature

I want you all to imagine Mother Nature, in the personified sense. Now, and I realize this may be a stretch, think of her also as a banker, perhaps a matronly Ben Bernanke. Got that image in your head? Okay…

Several generations ago our forefathers walk into “Bank of Nature” and get a loan. Mother Nature approves our loan and offers us plenty of credit. Our ancestors are now endowed with the riches of ancient forests, prolific fisheries, fertile topsoil, clean water, concentrated mineral ores, vast reserves of fossil fuels, and a splendidly stable climate. These assets, Mother Nature’s credit slip, are the source of our wealth and comfort. Every widget, gizmo, thing-a-majig, do-dad, wach-a-macall-it and Winnebago produced in our factories, sold in our stores, stuffed in our closets, piled in our landfills and spilled in our waters originated as a loan from Bank of Nature.

Why are we having economic troubles? Because loans, as we are now discovering, are not just slips of credit, they also come with debt. While we gleefully liquidated the Natural Capital loan Mother Nature approved for us, we failed to develop a business plan that could pay back the debt. This ecological debt is the underlying drag on our financial system.

What this means, practically, is that as soon as the economy tries to heat up again, which we like to call increasing DEMAND, it will be capped on the knees by the henchmen Mother Nature hired. She will not extend us any more credit since we have done a poor job with the first loan. If you are unclear about what I mean here, I’ll explain this a bit more when I talk specifically about oil.

I have seen pictures of some great protest signs over the past couple of years that state this very succinctly: Nature doesn’t do bailouts. This is why the current policy of all central banks and governments to deal with the financial crisis, which is to essentially create and inject more money into the system, has no chance of success. More money doesn’t solve an ecological debt crisis, because money is a claim on resources and not worth anything by itself.

Oil is Special

Okay, now I want to highlight the special role of oil in our economy.

Over the recent decades, we have built what is called a “globalized economy” where materials, labor and services are readily exchanged across the globe. This feat has only been possible due to cheap oil. The “cheapness” is key. Transportation costs are assumed to be only a small part of doing business.

Some economists have calculated what is called the Goldilocks Zone for oil prices. Below $70 per barrel and it makes no sense for oil companies to explore and develop new supplies, while prices above $80 per barrel lead to a curtailing of demand, basically cutting off prospects for U.S. economic growth. And as mature oil fields deplete, the price to explore and develop new oil wells goes higher than $70 per barrel, essentially locking the U.S. into economic stagnation.

Step back for a moment and think about how potent and special oil is. Oil is highly energy dense and easily portable. A gallon of oil contains enough energy to do the work of hundreds of people simultaneously or a single person for hundreds of hours. You can drive a 4000 lb car at great velocity for tens of miles on a gallon of gasoline. Try pushing a car that distance (but before doing so, ask your doctor if that’s okay).

So when you hear the term peak oil, what does that mean? Peak oil is simply the point in time when the global supply of oil stops growing. Peak oil is not a theory, but an historic fact for 2/3 of oil producing countries, including the United States, which peaked in 1970.

What we experience is less supply leading to a spike in prices. High oil prices then choke off economic growth because our globalized economy is structurally reliant on cheap oil. And without economic growth loans are not paid back sufficiently and a financial crisis ensues.

This is essentially what happened between 2005 and 2008. We had a credit bubble because of lax lending policies PLUS a flattening of oil production at the same time.

Connecting to Food Security

Okay, so what does this have to do with food security?

  1. Globalization and cheap energy led to the development of centralized processing and distribution channels, with what is termed “just in time delivery systems.” The typical grocery store, for example, only has a 3 day supply of food on the shelves, and relies on daily trucking from distance warehouses to restock basic supplies. An oil supply shock would disrupt getting food to stores.
  2. Because of cheap and reliable transportation, it has been possible for entire agricultural regions to become highly specialized in production for export. So the Willamette Valley evolved into a grass seed capital, which replaced a diversified farm economy that contributed significantly to local consumption. Since we no longer have the local farms feeding us, we depend on global trade for basic sustenance.
  3. Farming methods themselves rely on cheap energy, such as tractor fuel and imported fertilizers. Beyond the farm energy is used extensively in processing, distribution, storage and cooking. All told, about 7 calories of fossil fuel go into each calorie of food we eat.
  4. Modern farming is highly connected to the financial system. A depressed economy makes credit scare. Many farms that are in debt and require bank credit to operate will likely go out of business. And some financing is going to be needed to help farms restructure for the transition towards new crops, new methods, and new markets.

What to Do

This brings me to the question of “What to do?”

I’ll first address this towards individual persons and families. As energy flows to society decline, our social systems will become less complex structurally, but our daily lives more complex. What I mean by this is that we will become less of “specialized cogs in a big machine” and instead have to take on more diverse, practical, and flexible roles.

The kinds of work we do will shift too. Consider whether you specialize in a “nice to have job” or a “need to have job”. Jobs are going to be more and more about securing basic needs, such as food, water, shelter, health, and security. Fewer paid jobs will be available. This will require people to rely more on the informal economy, which means getting paid through reciprocal exchange relationships. Start by getting to know your neighbors, joining social networks, and developing a few basic skills, such as gardening, bike repair, and inexpensive health care.

As our formal economy declines more work will be done in the informal economy, as is true now in so-called developing countries. Graph from Post Peak Living based on World Bank data.

This all may sound extreme, but it is already the reality for a growing subpopulation of tens of millions of Americans, and most of the 6.7 billion humans on the planet.

Now I’ll talk about what I’d like to see society do. Instead of thinking about policies and programs, I will talk about values and paradigms.

Primarily we need to recognize that the environment is our primary form of wealth. Bank of Nature, not Goldman Sachs or the Federal Reserve, is our master. It is far more important for us to pay back our ecological debts since these are non-negotiable, whereas financial ones are among people and can be forgiven. If you manage public funds, always ask whether allocating money is going to rebuild natural capital or further its liquidation.

I’d like to see community leaders ask people to consider themselves as contributors rather than consumers. The whole consumer identity should become passé. We will thrive by creating an ecological identity, which is a deep appreciation for our relatedness and absolute interdependence with other people, other forms of life on this planet, and the fundamental forces of sunshine and geology.

What I have said may provoke anxiety, and is certainly an immense undertaking, but ultimately we have no choice so let’s not whine and delay. Let’s take it on as a great adventure, a thrilling challenge. Our success or failure is going to hinge on our attitude. We need to take control of the circumstances and become active participants in transition. I can assure you that doing so is tremendously energizing, healthy, and rewarding in so many ways.

Thanks Jason. I'm curious about your audience. Were you preaching to the choir or were there skeptics? To the uninitiated, your speech relies on what may be construed as assumptions. Did you take questions and, if so, what was their tone?

Imagine who would show up for a town hall meeting on Food Security where the advertised topics were connections to peak oil and climate change. I don't give talks arguing about whether peak oil is happening. It is a given then I discuss implications, connecting dots.

Questions were about whether those of us speaking, and the politicians in the room, were walking the talk, e.g., Do you garden and compost, eat local food, etc. Also some questions about peak phosphorus and natural gas. Laws that could be changed to make it easier to have small animals in the city.

It was a "Let's get going" crowd. Thankful for an honest discussion and more information.

I have to imagine that not too many people like the charming couple mentioned below showed up, eh?

Why are we having economic troubles? Because loans, as we are now discovering, are not just slips of credit, they also come with debt. While we gleefully liquidated the Natural Capital loan Mother Nature approved for us, we failed to develop a business plan that could pay back the debt. This ecological debt is the underlying drag on our financial system.

Now hold that thought and contrast it with this, admitedly extreme example of "The American Way of Life"

For about $2.5 million..."We're instant-gratification people," said Bob McCarrick, a 39-year-old investment banker, as he and his wife, Kristen, 39, walked the floors and touched the drywall of their insta-mansion the first night.

The McCarricks' house was built in two weeks on an assembly line in State College, Pa. It was trucked 205 miles in 21 boxes stacked on a fleet of semis, past handcrafted English country homes built in the 1930s, to its site on York Lane.

I'm not sure I can find the words to express my dismay and outrage at such ostentation!

IMHO, All bankers should be rounded up and............ (fill in the blank with something creative)

Good presentation. You'll probably get a few people questioning the claim of our present economic troubles being directly due to peak oil. My personal view is that there is a link, simply because everything is connected to everything else, but that the economy is very complicated and the chains of cause and effect tend to be very long and interconnected and complicated.

As to the question: What to do about food security? May I suggest the following:

Imagine a bull's eye target. The concentric rings represent zones of action, starting in one's kitchen and radiating outward.

Right in the center is the Kitchen, and this symbolizes Developing the capacity and capability of preparing your own meals from scratch using whole, basic foodstuffs. Many people can't cook at all, and many others can cook very little. They are too dependent upon fast food and processed food. If we are confronted with a food security crisis, then the ability to work with simple, basic ingredients and prepare them into at least edible, if not delicious, meals, will be an important survival skill. Furthermore, most of the action strategies in the rings radiating outward will consist of obtaining or growing and storing these basic, simple foodstuffs, so you will have to know how to transform them into edible sustenance.

The concentric circle closest to the center symbolized Food Storage. While it is possible we will encounter a sudden and long-term or permanent major disruption of food supplies, it is far more likely that we will experience multiple, intermittent shortages and outages. It is not feasible for most people to store a lifetime supply of food; however, it is feasible for most people to store SOME food, and the more food you can store, the better your ability to ride out short-term or intermittent shortages. The more that people in a community have their own reserves of food, the more that community becomes buffered from shortages. People who have their own reserve of food don't need to rush to the store and panic buy, and thus they become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Food storage will only really be practical, however, if you store what you eat and eat what you store. This is why cooking with basic foodstuffs is at the center - you need to be able to eat the storable foodstuff that you accumulate, and this means that you will have to eat a diet that is based upon these storable foodstuffs.

There are several main categories of food storage we are talking about. One that many people think of is buying things like grains and legumes in bulk and storing them in an ultra-low-moisture, low O2 or vacuum, and pest-proof container. There is also the storage of garden produce, either that you grow yourself or buy in bulk during the growing season. Canning, dehydration, and root cellars are among the methods we use for these. An appropriate food storage strategy will include all of these.

The next ring out will be Homestead Food Production. It will not be feasible, and maybe not even desirable, for everyone, or even very many people, to live in the country. For those who do, obviously the opportunity is there for them to produce most, if not all, of the foodstuffs they require. Most of us, however, live in cities, suburbs, or small towns, and will most likely continue to do so for a long time to come. While it might not be possible for most of us to produce all or even most of our own food, it is possible to produce a lot more than most people realize.

Everyone thinks first of vegetable gardens, and that is indeed a good place to start. Even if someone doesn't have space for a large garden, maybe they have space for a small one, or at least for some containers. We also need to develop many more community gardens for apartment dwellers and others who lack suitable garden space. Most people, with a little effort and progress up the learning curve, can eventually grow a substantial percentage of their annual vegetable intake, even if they don't live on a farm or even a very large urban lot.

Those with even a little land can also grow some fruits. People should be planting dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees wherever they have adequate sunlit space, provided they don't shade their garden plot. Smaller fruits like blueberries, raspberries, etc., are good to fill in available spaces, especially around the periphery of the property. In fact, people should be encouraged to seriously investigate "edible landscaping" and "permaculture" principles, and get to work on transforming their properties so that they can bet the most production out of their limited space.

Almost anyone with even a little space has room for a beehive, and just one or two beehives, if well-managed, will provide a household with most of the honey they may need in a year. We really need to be encouraging as many people as possible to become backyard beekeepers, so that the landscape becomes dotted with beehives. The bees will do much better this way than they are doing being hauled around en masse to huge monoculture plantations. With the intensive development of household horticulture, we are also going to need a lot more polenators around.

People should also consider raising rabbits and/or chickens if they can. Rabbits are silent, and could even be kept in a basement or patio with a little weather protection, so these are even feasible for renters. A few laying hens don't take much space either, and will produce a good yield of eggs. Many communities are not yet ready for roosters, but if one buys replacement hens as needed one can get along without them for now.

Those with a little more space might even consider getting a full-sized or pygmy milk goat. A goat will require a little more time and effort, and might require taking down to public land to graze as often as you can, but one could supply most or all of one's dairy products this way.

The next concentric circle out is Local Growers. If you want to encourage local food security, then encourage people to buy from local food producers. Farmer's markets and CSPs should be encouraged and patronized.

The last concentric circle is Cooperative Food Procurement. Most people won't be able to produce all of their own foodstuffs, and there will be some categories that even local growers are not able to produce. Many grains, for example, may have to be produced at considerable distance from most population centers and transported in. I would suggest that the best approach for these is for people in each community to come together and form a food co-op or buying club. The focus of these should be on the procurement of basic foodstuffs that most people can't grow and aren't available at local farmer's markets. The idea should be to pool resources and buy cheaply in bulk, breaking up and distributing the bulk goods into units appropriate for the needs of each household. Such a community food co-op might even be able to develop a community grainery for the long-term storage in quantity of key foodstuffs.

This plan is not perfect and foolproof. However, it is easy to visualize, communicate, and understand. It also provides people with good prioritized guidance.

Good points-the two most practical and fastest ones to get started on are storage and cooperative procurement.The skills learned are applicable to all the others , and even those of us without any outside space at all can probably do something in these respects.

We live on a productive and highly diversified farm, in respect to being food self sufficient, but even so we find it practical to buy in bulk and divide-at various times of the year, we buy hundred pound (or whatever large size is available) bags of pecans, dried beans, rice, curing salt, fertilzer, and several other products.

We just bought a full bushel of extra fancy large (three inch and up) golden delicious apples yesterday from a local roadside retailer who has cold storage for fortyfive cents a pound.

Food is the most important but if there is space available, products such as bath soap and toilet tissue can be bought the same way.When something can't be had in bulk locally , it can be bought when it is sold as aloss leader in a big box store or supermarket.I used to know a thrifty lady who would get her five kids and her husband in line, each with a cart and money, at the register so she could get get a years supply of non perishables such as soap at the lowest possible price.Futhermore she would pull the same trick at three different supermarkets on the same day.The savings considerably exceeded the amount of money she and my Dad could earn in the amount of time it tok to work these strategies.

Of course most visitors here won't need to be so careful of thier money, but " the timestheyahchanginn'" as some old song goes.

This could be a post itself. Add a few graphics and pictures...think about it.

I don't have time to do a post, I'm just putting it out there in the public domain in the hopes that people like yourself will grab it and run with it. Hope you find it useful!

Very well put, WNCO

Those of us interested in data mining might want to take a moment to watch

Interesting. I could imagine using this as a tool for combating peak oil and climate change denialists.

On the other hand I do get the feeling that this is the beginning of Microsoft's full scale attack on Google's dominance in the search engine wars.

I wish we could get away from using the term "denialist". In my view, it comes across as way too judgmental, and not appropriate for the kind of dialog we are trying to encourage on this site. Each person has his or her point of view, and we need to respect these views. "Denialist" does not come across as respectful.

Gail, While I agree that we should have respect for individuals I also strongly believe in calling a spade a spade. Respect is earned and points of view either stand up to scrutiny or they don't. I have zero tolerance or respect for denialists as described below. For example in a scientific debate about astronomy the opinion of someone who believes in astrology deserves to be ridiculed. I know it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between ridiculing an idea and ridiculing the person that holds that idea. They are two very different things.

Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one's viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.

Examples of common topics in which denialists employ their tactics include: Creationism/Intelligent Design, Global Warming denialism, Holocaust denial, HIV/AIDS denialism, 9/11 conspiracies, Tobacco Carcinogenecity denialism (the first organized corporate campaign), anti-vaccination/mercury autism denialism and anti-animal testing/animal rights extremist denialism. Denialism spans the ideological spectrum, and is about tactics rather than politics or partisanship.

So, F, old soak, would it be fair, and respectful if a little piss-taking, to call you a psi-denialist? And also a denialist of all the technologies, both ancient (sometime exceedingly ancient) and modern which have been devised by resolute truth-miners to get on terms with this slippery and deeply perturbing matter, and even to find practical ways to persuade it to do things -- sometimes, when it feels like it -- that we'd like to request?

My memory is leaky these days, F, so I may have misremembered this, but I seem to recall some time recently you taking this denialist position about this perennially difficult, but well-attested subject (well-attested to those who are prepared to face the raw evidence on its own terms, as it presents, rather than trying vainly to force it into one of our pre-conceived philosophical systems). Isn't that right?

I notice too that you exemplify the 9/11 hypotheses (presumably the dissident ones rather than the official explanation, which is also a conspiracy theory, and one of the more preposterous ones at that) as a denialist hotbed. Presumably then you're not yet up to speed with the latest evidence put out by -- for example -- Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (of which I'm a member; approximately number 1003), concerning the increasingly clear fact that the three tall buildings in the WTC were brought down by very-highly-skilled, professional-standard controlled demolitions (scattering considerable quantities of unexploded nanothermite dust and miniature globules of briefly-melted iron around Manhattan in the process)?

And then there's the vaccination/autism dispute, and the animal-testing/ animal-rights 'extremism'. Both of them with considerable bodies of hard scientific evidence on the side of the dissidents, not to mention the equally potent moral, ethical and gangster-capitalism dimensions of those particular arguments.

Wouldn't it perhaps be more intellectually honest to say that we're all -- without any exceptions at all -- often irrational, emotion-driven apes, and our willingness to approach any subject with strict, Vulcan rationality is always highly conditional on whether it has a hot-button effect on our feelings?

If it has, then our chances of being rational about it are poor, to put it mildly.

Cheers, F!

Gail, perhaps you could suggest a more respectful term for the description that FM posted.

Is conservationist disrespectful? Realist? Is denialist the same kind of label as abortionist? Pro-growth and Pro-Choice seem more PC.

I agree we should avoid labels, but they help keep posts shorter :-)

I had a similar opportunity to talk about food security to a local Peak Oil organization last year. I posted my notes in a sharable form online:

Like you, I'm keenly interested in how people can work together in their local communities to meet basic needs with minimal amounts of money. An alternative economy will evolve - already is evolving - whereby people learn to meet their needs without the incomes to which many of us have been accustomed.

Those are nice. Thanks for posting.

Campfire TOD has done some similar articles in the past:

that was much informative... thnx a lot! !!!!

And what will we do about that inevitable aspect of human nature, remnant of our origins in hierarchical, status driven creatures, to want to be leader, to feel that one's own vision is superior, and, thus in need of followers?

Any time you include the "leadership," you must be prepared to be a follower.

My experience working in teams is that leadership is situational. It depends upon who at the moment has relative advantages in expertise, time, passion, and the ability to persuade. I am glad to be a follower or a leader in different contexts.

Well said, Sir.


You talk about paying back our ecological debts. How do you see us going about doing this?

I would think the soils would be one of the first areas to start, and then perhaps the bodies of water--lakes, rivers and oceans. These would seem to be critical to our food supply--one does not really want it poisoned by mercury in the waters, for example.

I agree that we need to start "paying back" the soil. I think some of the permaculture folks have good ideas on this front. Native grasses do a great job of it, with the added benefit that, in building soil, they also sequester carbon.

There are some debts that we cannot "pay back"--species extinction, for example, is forever. And replacing oil and other fossil fuel deposits is not really a possibility. And on the other end of the tail pipe, pushing the planet into a new, much hotter state.

Good reasons NOT to draw on these unrepayable debts, or to do so as little as possible.

Note, as well, that there is another concept of "Ecological Debt" in a book by that name by Andrew Simms. It points out that the developed world owes enormous ecological (and a good deal of other) debts to the developing world, given their long head start in using ecological sources and sinks.

Hi Gail,
I don't talk about specifics much because the conversation is difficult to have until folks wrap their heads around two basic notions:

1. The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment/planetary ecology/geological forces/sunshine, etc.
2. We need to place our identity within this context, i.e., we are evolved animals on this planet.

If people accept these points, then their attention is drawn to soils and water, among other ecosystem services. They are aware of resource draw down and pollution issues and realize that these are threats, mortal peril even, to their lives and the lives of others.

In the context of ag soils, some ways to pay back ecological debts are:

1. Always plant cover crops, don't leave soils bare fallow.
2. Let ruminants eat pasture, don't grow seed crops for them, and replace vast areas of annual cropland with pasture.
3. Get off the pesticide treadmill, as these chemicals poison soil, water and air. The non-target impacts are nasty and we need those other organisms, such as soil biota, pollinators, predators, to create farm food webs.
4. Applying very little to no artificial nitrogen. Legume fixation will suffice once the soils are restored and excess nitrogen burns off soil organic matter and pollutes air and water (see recent Grist series).
5. Restore riparian zones and other habitats on farms, such as wetlands.

Since the methods to do this are well known for those who look for them, and proven successful for those who stick with them, this is not a technological problem. It is social and structural. For example, urea from natural gas is still cheaper to apply than sowing a legume cover crop when you count nitrogen availability. However, what happens to the cost of urea when health and environmental impacts are considered--e.g., cancer and infant morbidity of nitrate pollution in well water, dead zones in oceans, nitrous oxide and methane gases, lack of ability of soils to act as sponges for water and nutrients, etc. What gives somebody the right to farm in a way that hurts their neighbors, themselves and their own family? Why are the farm bill incentives skewed towards subsidizing this kind of farming and not the kind that pays back ecological debts?

Hi Jason. Thanks for your excellent contributions. Can I -- once again -- pitch in here this brief but deeply-revolutionary statement of the insights into maintaining perennial soil-fertility and soil building, derived from their aggregated experience by Emilia Hazelip/Masanobu Fukuoka:

I'm sure that I've posted it here before; I scatter it around all the time. It's literally accurate. I grow food according to this idea myself, and have been doing so for some time now. It's also, when you stop to ruminate about it, very deeply revolutionary in its implications -- its +practical+ implications. I suggest that Emilia isn't exaggerating at all in her last line. And that takes some thinking about.

Saw your picture in the Eugene Weekly Jason.

Heres my beef.

In reaction to the multitude of constraints converging on humanity, the call rings out across the land to “LOCALIZE”. Re-localization efforts are reaching fever pitch in communities all across the Country. Calls to increase local food production, manufacturing, energy generation, support small businesses and local products. Transition Town, Sustainability movements, it's HUGE.

All of which is great in theory but the economics of the current paradigm are diametrically opposed to this transition. All of the existing infrastructure of Big Agriculture, Corporate America, and Globalization is still in the drivers seat and will be for some time to come. They will be the ones who provide the least expensive goods and services to an ever increasing majority of the population who have less and less to spend as the “Constraints” continue to squeeze the economy. What this means for any small, local startup business is a steadily contracting customer base while at the same time the inputs for their business continually increase.

Simply tell people to “Shop Local” is essentially telling them to spend more. This is a fact. We can come up with all sorts of morally, ethically, feel good reasons why they should shop local but in the end it is still a matter of economics. Sure some can still afford the Prius, the PV Solar array, hyper insulating the entire house, buy the hand made shoes, shopping at the co-op, but that is not a solution as the vast majority becomes hurt, hungry, and eventually angry

Of course this will not be the case for ever. Eventually the “Constraints” will put the squeeze on Globalization, Industrial Agriculture, and the whole Big Box Store business model. When this happens we had better have as much local production capability in place as possible because it can happen very fast as we saw in 2008.

Encouraging someone to start a small business producing local goods while ignoring all of these hard cold economic realities is basically setting them up to have the rug pulled out from under them. We all want them to do it, but we are not truly invested in their success as we easily just skip over to Trader Joes (as most already do).

If we don't address the Economics of Transition right up front then we are just spouting hollow words.

There is some great discussion of this issue in Greer's book "The Ecotechic Future," which I am happy to loan out when I am finished. He treats the situation as one of ecological succession. We may be able to see what the climax community (economy) will be like, but the current ecology doesn't support it and fighting that reality won't do any good.

The way forward is to be just ahead of the curve, anticipating what will be economic now or in the next couple of years AND will be on the path to the inevitable state of being quasi-sustainable (which may take decades to centuries).

For example, I am a big fan of using existing big ag equipment, such as drill seeders and combines, to grow the local seed crops at highly competitive prices. It is a hybrid model that captures the need to have an economy of scale and utilize previous investments wisely, while still working towards the future when transportation and fuel costs really do matter.

On the other hand, purely manual labor for non-market veggies out of a community garden plot is going to be a great way to go if you have no job, can't afford healthy food, can't afford gym membership, and are depressed because you are sitting around and lost your social connections at work.

Oh good. Greer's on it. No worries then. By the way where can I get my hooded cape?

Greer is a great writer and has a lot to say theoretically which may or may not have value but IMO he is seriously lacking in practical application.

"The way forward is to be just ahead of the curve..."

This sounds like something out of a 1990's self help, get rich, book. This kind of machismo permeates the business environment. In other words if you can make something work you just don't have what it takes. BS!

Success is hugely about luck and being in the right place at the right time. None the less that is not a business model, "so our plan is to be in the right place at the right time and get lucky. We are offering shares at $50,000 per percentage point".

There are known methods of researching feasibility and right now ALL of the people involved in doing this are saying that it is unlike anything they have ever seen, (unless you are the inventor of an exciting new breakthrough in energy generation.LOL).

"The way forward is to be just ahead of the curve..."

This also sounds alot like riding the wave. Trouble is that wave is like that picture of the square rigger sailing off the edge of the falls. The aquatic version of Thelma & Louise.

I have a hooded cape if you really want to go that direction.

I basically agree with your points. For these alternative models to work they need to compete in price today and be more competitive in the future.

"I have a hooded cape if you really want to go that direction."

Will it make me invisible? Because I really want to be invisible.

"Simply tell people to “Shop Local” is essentially telling them to spend more. This is a fact."

While I agree wholeheartedly with your main point--that we have to look at and challenge the larger economic picture--this claim is at best uninformed.

For example, studies comparing the value provided by CSA's to the equivalent quantity of produce if bought at the local supermarket, show that the CSA comes out well ahead, and of course the quality is generally far superior.

I haven't seen studies on them, but my personal experience that the same is true for most farmer's markets I've been to.

And of course, if you have a modicum of skill, growing your own food can be dramatically cheaper than buying the same produce, and again the quality is going to be much higher.

And this isn't even considering the enormous indirect, delayed and hidden costs that non-local foods tend to wreak in terms of health, local economies, GW...

On coops, most I know of sell whole grains, beans and flour, often local, in bulk generally much cheaper than the packaged and processed versions in other stores, even if you get the organic stuff.

While it is of course possible to spend more shopping locally, it is by no means "a fact" that it always must be so.

I fear you are perpetuating a myth.

My recollection is that paying for what is in season locally, and buying from CSAs and in bulk is often less expensive than retail prices in major supermarkets. However, often local production is more expensive because:

1. the organic and small farmers will have less mechanical infrastructure and therefore higher labor costs.
2. they will push the envelop and produce goods that are marginal in the region and thus get lower yields than a farm in say, Mexico, that has perfect growing conditions.
3. they will experiment and fail.
4. they will refuse to use practices and methods that boost short term productivity, cheaply, if it risks long-term soil and human health.
5. they participate in immature associate economic relationships, including seed supplies, non-synthetic fertilizers, processors and distributors, in which inefficiencies have not been worked out and supply-demand dynamics are unstable.

From a pure price perspective, for the buyer of food, it is a mixed bag. The buyer has to be savvy. If they want to save money by buying local and organic or "pesticide free" they will need to think more, give up on convenience, and cook for themselves a lot. I believe those who do this are into it because they understand the non-monetary values and are willing to pay more if they can foster a transition to something more sustainable and healthy.

The #1 reason I get for why people don't shop at the Farmers Market and/or Co-op, and I have been asking everyone I run into for several years now, is that it's too expensive. You can quote all the studies you want but the fact of the matter is less than 1% of the population shop there and thats primarily because it has the reputation of being more expensive. Thats my experience also. There is no chance in Hades that farmers market is less expensive than store bought. In fact it is much more expensive, especially local eggs, chicken, meat, pork, etc. This is true also for any other locally produced good you can name, I garantee You can find it cheaper at a big box. Why even try and argue this point?

Are there other factors involved? Hell Yes. But what I am saying is that for 90% of the population that does not matter. Money in hand does.

Re: expensiveness of local and responsible produced foods

I work in a natural foods cooperative grocery store and I sell food all day, and I can tell you that easily 50% of what people buy is luxury food (yes, my opinion). It's either junk food (organic potato chips yum), or precooked frozen foods, or cookies and other sweets. And yet I frequently hear the " Oh the Co-op is so expensive" lament.

Buy beans, grains, vegetables and spices and you will eat much more cheaply and be able to afford local/organic/responsibly produced food without changing the amount of money you allocate to food.

It's all choices. You get to choose.

"Buy beans, grains, vegetables and spices and you will eat much more cheaply and be able to afford local/organic/responsibly produced food without changing the amount of money you allocate to food."

Yes but you can buy all of these items for MUCH less at the big box grocery store and as people loose jobs or fear the loss, thats exactly what they will do.

eeyore - what you are saying is really only insurmountable if actions are done by individuals with no community co-ordination. As you say, if one person decides to "buy local" they probably end up spending more; if one farmer sets up "local production" they can't compete with the bug supermarket.

Thus the whole community focus of movements such as transition towns and other actions Jason talks about - if there is "enough" people in a community who are prepared to buy and sell to each other for a majority of their needs (and co-ordinate their buying and selling to the "outside world") then the benefits of the localisation are captured by that community.

In fact, it is quite possible that the community will be better off than in the "normal" situation where everyone spends most of their money in big stores on the outskirts of town owned by corporations who take most of the profits out of the district. If the "added cost" of buying local / small is recycled in the same community, then the community can become better able to support a diverse array of individuals.

Billy T - This is exactly my point. The percentage of the community that participates in all these things is less than 1%. Of course it is commendable but it doesn't represent any kind of hope, especially in the face of economic down turn.

Take for example our local Co-op. They have booked 20%+ growth every year for the last 6 or 8, until 2008. It is really down as of end of 2009 and now we have a new Trader Joes in town and the Co-op is getting hammered. I am not making this up.

Farmers market and co-ops are feel good, elitist, distractions. This is a distinctly consumer capitalist construct and not sustainable. There is a model for local production but these are not it.

Just a few thoughts;
Producer based not consumer based co-op markets.
Local food broker who puts together produce from a group of farmers to fulfill wholesale requirements.
CSA has a chance.
Permanent Community Market.

All of these would need to be heavily subsidized.

Simply tell people to “Shop Local” is essentially telling them to spend more. This is a fact.

A fact you say?

1) People can opt to buy, say Microsoft software or they can 'shop local' and have a locally supported open source solution.

2) When I buy various ag products, many times the local price is less then the non-local sourced version.

So there ya go - 2 examples showing your "fact" as, well, wrong.

The financial markets may be screwed up, but real markets like commodities and services have been around for centuries. People can fire up grills and sell food on street corners if they have to, it's all about being a hustling eco-entrepreneur.

For instance...

Bright Neighbor, LLC. is an upcoming company that helps communities become self-sustaining. It is a profitable business with huge growth potential as communities and local governments need help stabilizing budgets and economies while growing green business markets. Bright Neighbor fuses modern social and mobile technology with intensive urban agriculture. This market mashup is a hot niche, and Portland General Electric, The City of Portland, and other organizations subscribe to the program.

Our pricing: We offer monthly subscription rates for our menu of greening services offered to local government bodies, businesses, and communities. Bright Neighbor's menu includes modular services, including:

*Sustainability Technology Platform*: Complete supported private sustainability social network with all modules (ride sharing, carbon tracking, etc.) -
*Impact Analysis* - Understand the impact a change has on sustainability requirements and related items
*Carbon Audits*: We identify, quantify, and report all auditable carbon, including Scope 1, 2, and 3
*Carbon Offsets*: Through innovative community based fruit and nut tree management -
*Eco-Classes*: We grow eco-entrepreneurs and urban agriculture within any organization or community
*Supplies*: Bright Neighbor operates multiple cooperatives and micro-agriculture market producing materials needed for self-sufficiency

Bright Neighbor is currently in fundraising mode, seeking to raise $1 million dollars to scale the business beyond Portland. 20% (200 units) in equity of the company is available for sale at $50,000 per percent / $5,000 per unit. I appreciate you helping us locate potential investors who might be able to help this business grow.

I agree with you Jason that food security is job 1.

- Randy White

The solution?

There is a demographic that enriched themselves directly off the depletion of our one time shot, natural capital.

It's time they gave back.

They must be the ones that finance transition. There is no other.

This either happens in a well planned, managed way or it happens in an ugly, painful destructive way and we are all very soon going to be forced to decide which way it will be, which side we are on.

Just saying.

There is no such thing as a "consumer identity." People live they way they live because the corporate elite dictates the macro-choices, all while slandering product users by calling us "consumers." We buy and use stuff because of practical circumstances and a lack of alternatives, not because of some sense of "identity."

Blaming people for supposedly holding "the consumer identity" is disempowering and leaves the trillion-dollar-a-year marketing juggernaut unexamined.

People need to know what they're up against, so they can figure out how to fight back.

to compliment Jason's post see George Bernard Shaw's preface to his play Heartbreak House, 1919. "Nature's way of dealing with unhealthy conditions is unfortunately not one that compels us to conduct a solvent hygiene on a cash basis. She demoralizes us with long credits and reckless overdrafts,and then pulls up cruelly with catastrophic bankruptcies."

Hi Jason,

Thank you for a great article. I wanted to clarify your definition of "peak oil". In the "Oil is Special" section, you state:

"Peak oil is simply the point in time when the global supply of oil stops growing."

I believe a more accurate way of stating it is:

Peak oil is the point in time when global oil production (oil out of the ground and into a barrel per unit time) reaches an all-time peak. After this peak, no matter how hard the world sucks, it will never be able to fill as many barrels per day as that fateful day.

Also, for those commenters complaining that seasonal, organic and local food is more expensive, just wait until oil is no longer cheap. Cheap food is powered by cheap oil. When the price of oil reaches a certain point, those diesel powered Safeway trucks are going to start dwindling in numbers and there will be nothing left BUT seasonal, organic and local food. And being hungry sucks.