Monday, January 29, 2007

"Threats of Peak Oil to the Global Food Supply"-Richard Heinberg transcript


17 August 2005

Richard Heinberg: I'm actually gonna cover some of the same territory as Richard has already explored here, hopefully from a little different perspective, add a few helpful facts and figures along the way.

Food is energy and it takes energy to get food. These two facts, when we take them together, have always established the biological limits to the human population and they will always continue to do so. The same is and has been true for every other species as well. Food must yield more energy to the eater than is needed to acquire the food. Woe to the fox who expends more energy chasing rabbits than he can get from eating the rabbits he catches. If this energy balance remains negative for too long, death results. For the species in general the outcome is extinction.

We humans have become champions at developing new strategies for increasing our share of energy captured from the environment. Harnessing of fire, domestication of plants and animals, adoption of ards***[1:14] and plows, the deployment of irrigation schemes and the harnessing of traction animals. Developments that occurred over tens of thousands of years all served this end. The process was gradual and time-consuming. Over centuries small inventions and tiny modifications of existing tools from ***[1:38] to horse-collars enabled human and animal muscle-power to be leveraged ever more slightly more effectively. This exercise took place within a network of natural limits. The yearly capture of solar radiation by the green biosphere was immense relative to human needs, but finite nevertheless and the vast majority of that solar radiation served functions that indirectly supported human existence. Giving rise to air-currents by warming the surface of the planet and maintaining life in the oceans and on land. The amount of human muscle-power was limited by the number of humans, who of course had to be fed by draft-animals who also entailed energy costs as they likewise needed to eat, also had to be cared for in various ways. Therefore, even with clever refinements in tools and techniques, in crop development and animal breeding, it was clear that we humans would inevitably reach a point of diminishing returns in our ability to continue increasing our energy harvest and therefore our population.

By the 19th century these limits were beginning to become apparent. Famine and hunger, as we have already heard, had always been common throughout even the wealthiest regions of the planet. But migration to other nations, crop rotation, and the application of manures and composts were gradually making those events less frequent and severe. European farmers, realizing the need for a nitrogen source in order to continue feeding their burgeoning and increasingly urbanized populations, began employing guano (bird excrement) imported from the cliffs of islands off Chile and Argentina. One can only imagine what it must have been like working on those ships. The results were gratifying. However, after only a few decades those guano deposits were being depleted. By this time, in the late 1890's, the worlds population was nearly twice what it had been at the beginning of the 19th century. A crisis was again in view, but again crisis was narrowly averted due to fossil fuels.

In 1909 two german chemists named Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a process to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and the hydrogen in fossil fuels. The process, the Haber-Bosch process, initially used coal as a feed-stock though later it was adapted to use natural gas which is currently the feed-stock of choice. After the end of the great war nation after nation began building Haber-Bosch plants. Today the process produces 150 million tons of ammonia per year, equaling the total amount of available nitrogen produced from all natural sources combined. I think this is a very important point to keep in mind. The Haber-Bosch process has effectively doubled the amount of available nitrogen in the biosphere and concentrated it specifically for the purpose of growing crops for human beings. Fossil fuels went on to offer still other ways of extending natural limits to the human carrying capacity of the planet. Early steam driven tractors came in to limited use in the 19'th century but after WWI the size and effectiveness of powered farm machinery expanded dramatically and the scale of use of farm machinery exploded, especially in North America, Europe and Australia during the 1920's, 30's, 40's and 50's.

In the 1890's one quarter of US cropland had to be set aside for the growing of grain to feed horses, most of which worked on farms. The internal combustion engine provided a new kind of horse-power of course and also increased the amount of arable land available to feed humans. Chemical pesticides and herbicides developed mostly after WWII used knowledge pioneered in the laboratories that had worked to perfect explosives and other chemical warfare agents. Pesticides not only increased crop-yields in, again, Europe, North America and Australia but also reduced the prevalence of insect-born deceases like malaria. The world began to enjoy the benefits of better living through chemistry. Though the environmental costs in terms of water and soil pollution and damage to vulnerable species would only later become widely apparent.

In the 1960's industrial chemical agricultural practices began to be exported, as we've heard, to what by that time was being called the third world. This was glowingly dubbed The Green Revolution and it enabled a tripling of food-production during the past half century. At the same time the scale and speed of distribution of food increased. This also constituted a means of increasing carrying capacity, though in a more subtle way. The trading of food items goes back to paleolithic times but with advances in transport the quantities and distances involved gradually increased. Here again fossil fuels were responsible for a dramatic discontinuity in the slow pace of growth. First by rail and steam ship, then by truck and airplane, immense amounts of grain and ever larger quantities of meats, vegetables and specialty foods began to flow from countryside to city, from region to region and from continent to continent. William Catton in his classic book Overshoot terms the trade of essential life-support commodities as "scope expansion". Carrying capacity is always limited by whatever necessity is in least supply as Justus von Liebig realized nearly a century and a half ago. If one region has water but no good topsoil it's carrying capacity is limited by the lack of topsoil. Another region may have good soil but insufficient rainfall. There the carrying capacity is limited by water. If a way can be found of making up for local scarcity by taking advantage of distant abundance as by diverting water from region A to water crops in region B the total carrying capacity of the two regions combined can be increased substantially. We can put this in the form of a formula, carrying capacity of A+B > carrying capacity of A + carrying capacity of B. >From the ecological point of view this is why people trade but trade has historically been limited by the amount of energy that could be supplied or applied to the transport of materials. Fossil fuels have temporarily erased that limit. The end result of chemical fertilizers plus powered farm machinery plus the increased scope of transportation and trade was not just a threefold leap in crop-yields but a similar explosion of human population which has grown fivefold since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

All of this would be well and good if it were sustainable. But if it proves not to be then a temporary exuberance of the human species would have been purchased by an enormous unprecedented human tragedy. Well, where are we now in this?

Arable crop land until recently was increasing because of clearing of forests, putting new lands into production and through irrigation. Now the arable cropland globally is decreasing because of salinization of soil, because of urban growth, erosion. Topsoil created over tens of thousands and millions of years is decreasing. In the US great plains about half of the original topsoil is gone, much of it washed down the Mississippi river into the gulf of Mexico. The nutritional quality of our food is actually decreasing on a yearly basis due to the gradual demineralization of the soil and this has been actually documented through measurements taken by the US department of agriculture since the 1940's. The number of farmers as a percentage of the population is of course decreasing. In the US at the turn of the last century something like 70% of the population were directly involved in food production. Today that number is more like 1-2% of the population. The number of domesticated crop-varieties is decreasing dramatically due to the consolidation of the seed industry. Not that many years ago in Bali there were 200 varieties of rice, each adapted to a different microclimate of that small island. Now there are only four rice varieties being grown in Bali. Of course the global population, as we've seen, is still growing. We're adding about 80 million people per year currently. We reached 6 billion just back in 1998 and since 1998 we've added another nearly half billion, roughly the total size of the population of North America just since 1998 or 1999 . As we've already seen again, grain production per capita globally decreasing now. A total of 2,000 million tons produced in 2004 which was a record in absolute numbers but for the past decade and a half population growth has outstripped grain production so there's actually less available on a per-head basis. And according to World Watch Institute we may be within sight of a decline in total production figures, in other words absolute production figures in food and especially grain.

Meanwhile the global climate is of course increasingly destabilized resulting in relatively minor problems for farmers now but these are problems that are likely to grow to catastrophic proportions just within the next decade or two.

Meanwhile available fresh water is decreasing. In the US 85% of fresh water use goes toward agricultural production requiring the drawing down of ancient aquifers at far above their recharge rates. Globally, as water tables fall, ever more powerful pumps must be used to lift irrigation water and of course those pumps require ever more energy usage. By 2020 according to World Watch Institute and the UN virtually every country in the world will face shortages of fresh water.

The effectiveness of pesticides and herbicides is also decreasing. In the US over the past two decades pesticide use has increased 33-fold yet each year a greater amount of crops is lost to pests which are evolving immunities to pesticides faster than chemists can invent new poisons. And then of course oil production is peaking as we talked about it in some length last night. That of course makes machinery more expensive to operate as oil prices goes up. It makes fertilizers more expensive to produce and it also makes transportation of food more expensive. And this, I believe, may be the single factor that brings all of these other problems that are like simmering crises to a full boil. The state of dependency on fossil fuels has become enormous. In the US agriculture is responsible for well over 10% of all national energy consumption. Over 400 gallons of oil equivalent are expended to feed each American each year. About a third of that amount goes toward fertilizer production. About 20% to operate farm machinery, about 16% for transportation of food, 13% for irrigation, 8% for livestock raising not including the livestock feed and about 5% for pesticide production. Now this doesn't even include the energy costs for packaging, refrigeration, transportation to retailers or cooking. Trucks move most of the worlds food although trucking is ten times more energy intensive than moving food by train or barge. Refrigerated jets moves a small but growing proportion of food almost entirely, of course, to wealthy industrial nations at 60 times the energy cost of sea transport. Processed foods make up three quarters of global food sales by price though not by quantity. This adds dramatically to energy costs. For example a one pound box of breakfast cereal may require over 7,000 kcal of energy while the cereal itself provide only 1,100 kcal of food energy. All of this is fairly apparent to anyone who bothers to study the modern food system with an eye to it's sustainability. There is therefore already widespread concern over this subject and debate over the problem of how to avoid an agricultural Armageddon. Within this debate two viewpoints have emerged. The first advocates further intensification of industrial food production primarily via the genetic engineering of new crop and animal varieties. The second advocates ecological agriculture in it's various forms: organic; bio-dynamic; permaculture; bio-intensive and other methods. Critiques of the latter course contends that traditional chemical-free forms of agriculture are incapable of feeding the burgeoning human population. Here is a passage by John Emsley of University of Cambridge from his review of Vaclav Smils book "Enriching the earth, Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food".

Here is the passage: "If crops are rotated and the soil is fertilized with compost and sewage, thereby returning as much fixed nitrogen as possible to the soil it is just possible for a hectare of land to feed ten people provided they accept a mainly vegetarian diet. Although such farming is almost sustainable it falls short of the productivity of land that is fertilized with artificial nitrogen. This can easily support forty people and on a varied diet."

Okay. But given the fact that fossil fuels are non-renewable, limited in extent, it will be increasingly difficult to continue supplying chemical fertilizers in present quantities. Nitrogen can be synthesized using hydrogen produced from electrolysis of water with solar or wind-power as a source of electricity but currently no ammonia is being commercially produced this way because of the uncompetitive cost of doing so. To introduce and scale up that process would require many years and considerable capital investment. The bio-engineering of crop and animal varieties does little or nothing to solve this problem. It is possible to fantasize about mays or other crops modified to fix nitrogen in the way that legumes do but so far efforts in that direction have failed. Meanwhile the genetic engineering of complex life-forms appears to pose unprecedented environmental and human health hazards as has been amply documented by Dr Mae-Wan Ho among many others. The bio-engineering industry itself consumes fossil fuels and assumes the continued availability of oil for tractors, transportation, chemical production and so on. That's one side of the argument. Those arguing in favor of small scale ecological agriculture tend to be very optimistic about it's ability to support large populations. For example the 2002 Greenpeace study "The Real Green Revolution, organic and agro-ecological farming in the south", while acknowledging the lack of comparative research on the subject nevertheless states: "In general it's thought that organic and agro-ecological farming can bring significant increases in yields in comparison to conventional farming practices. Compared to green revolution farming systems OAA is thought to be neutral in terms of yields although it brings other benefits such as reducing the need for external inputs. Eco-agricultural advocates contend that there is plenty of food in the world. Existing instances of hunger are due nearly to bad policy and poor distribution. With better policy and better distribution all could easily be fed well into the future. Thus given the universally admitted harmful environmental consequences of conventional chemical farming the choice should be simple. Some eco-agricultural proponents are even more sanguine and suggest that permaculture, bio-intensive or bio-dynamic methods can produce far higher yields than can mechanized chemical-based agriculture and experiments have indeed shown that small scale bio-diverse gardening can be more productive on a per-hectare basis than mono-crop megafarms and in some cases by far. However, some of these studies tend to ignore the energy and land productivity costs of manures and composts imported onto the studied plots. In any case, and there's no controversy on this point, permaculture and bio-intensive forms of agriculture are dramatically more labor and knowledge intensive than industrial agriculture. Thus the adoption of these methods will require an economic transformation of societies. Therefore even if the nitrogen problem can be solved in principle by agro-ecological methods and/or hydrogen production from renewable energy sources there may be a carrying capacity bottleneck ahead in any case simply because of the inability of societies to adapt to these very different energy and economic needs quickly enough. Even though it may not be politically correct in many circles to discuss the population problem we must recognize that we are nearing or past fundamental natural limits no matter which course we pursue. According to widely accepted calculations humans are presently appropriating about 40% of earths primary biological productivity. It seems unlikely that we, as a single species after all, can do much more than that. Given the fact that fossil fuels are limited in quantity and we're already in view of the global oil production peak the debate over the potential productivity of chemical genetically engineered agriculture versus that of organic and agro-ecological farming maybe relatively pointless.

We must return to a food-system that is less fossil fuel reliant even if it does prove to be less productive. How we might do that is suggested by perhaps the best resent historical example of a society in a fossil fuel famine. Here I want to talk a little bit about the instance of Cuba in recent years and I know there's gonna be a presentation on this subject later on but I hope to just set the stage for that. I'm looking forward to seeing it myself.

Of course Cuba, back in the 1980's, was more reliant on fossil fuels for agricultural production than even the United States. Cuban farmers were using more fossil fuels per acre than American farmers. So the collapse of the Soviet union at the end of the 1980's was a catastrophe for Cuba. Their oil use was reduced by over 50%. At that time the Soviet union, which was the worlds first or second foremost oil producing nation at that time, was exporting oil to Cuba at such a discount that the Cubans was actually re-exporting some of that oil for a profit to earn foreign-exchange income. So that simply went away at the end of the 1980's. Oil use was reduced by over 50%. Per capita energy use in Cuba fell to 1/15'th to 1/20'th of US usage. Since that time Cuba has been in the process of changing from an industrial society to an agrarian society and they have emphasized biological solutions to their various energy and social challenges. They found that their focus is to build human resources through education and of course Cuba produces more doctors per capita than virtually any other nation in the world.

Here's what happened. In 1991 Soviet personnel left Cuba and economic subsidies which had amounted to something like 6 billion dollars a year vanished. The GDP collapsed by 85% in the first two years. As a result of all of this the Cuban people suffered. They lost weight, on average 20 pounds per person. A 30% per capita decline in calorie consumption from food. There were some recorded cases of blindness from malnutrition but probably the full scope of the effects of malnutrition in that society will not be known. A whole generation of Cuban children grew up malnourished. There was of course a major decrease in the material standard of living. So what did Cuba do during what they came to call the Special Period? Well, at that time there had been already some Cuban organic agronomists who had been advocating for the adoption of more organic agricultural methods within Cuba and for the most part their advice had been falling on deaf ears. But once the fossil fuels became much more expensive, weren't available, these agronomists were called in and basically given free reign to redesign Cuba's agricultural system. They abandoned the Soviet industrial model of agriculture. They broke up the large state-owned farms into smaller private plots and co-op farms. They basically went organic because they had to, because they didn't have the chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides. Meanwhile they maintained their free decentralized medical system and used their limited oil resources to generate electricity because to them electricity was actually more important. That was providing the absolute necessities of their minimally industrialized way of life. So they had to save fossil fuels wherever they could so they deemphasized the private automobile and they began moving people around by ox-cart and these giant vehicles that they call a camel which is basically a tractor trailer-rig in which they cram about 300 people in the trailer. They also found a new use for traffic-cops. Traffic-cops now would stop any car on the road that had empty seats and make it wait until enough hitchhikers showed up to fill up the car. As a result of all of this the Cuban society did survive. The economy, as of 2005, is growing again steadily but at a very slow rate. Food production is up to about 90% of the pre-crises period but at nowhere near the pre-crises level of energy inputs. There's been very little new housing, mostly remodeling of existing housing structures. That fact is mostly due to the high energy cost of cement which is very short supply. Transportation is still very much an ad hoc improvised basis. Everybody shares every vehicle on the road. Cubans adopted a mostly vegetarian diet but they did so involuntarily. This wasn't for any sort of ethical reasons, it's just that there wasn't much meat to go around because meat production required more energy. Meat eating went from twice a day to twice a week. Of course therefore they needed to supplement their diets with more vegetable sources of protein. They decreased their consumption of wheat and rice because they simply weren't appropriate to food production on the island. With less transportation they had to move producers and consumers closer together, so this meant more urban gardening. Encouraging the growth of gardens all throughout the cities like Havana. Any kind of empty land was immediately put into agricultural production and rooftop gardening was adopted. Rural areas improved their education for farmers. Many people moved from Havana to the country. In order for this to happen they had to raise salaries for farmers above the salaries being offered for office workers in the cities. So this encouraged people to move from the cities to the countryside to participate in agricultural production. As a result of all of this of course their is very little obesity now in Cuba due to the healthier diet and more physical work. So let's look at some pictures.

Much of this information or all of these pictures are from my colleagues Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan of the organization Community Service in Yellow Springs Ohio who've made a number of trips to Cuba specifically to study the Cuban response to energy famine and how this may offer us lessons for how to deal with the coming energy famine in the rest of the industrialized world.

They found usefulness for raised-beds which help with hand labor.
These raised-beds can be built over existing pavement as on parking lots and even city streets.
The modernized agrarian; this man earns more than an engineer.
Immediately they began breeding more oxen in Cuba because they realized that oxen would be necessary and of course horses tend to compete with people for grain because horses need to eat grain, oxen don't.
So they decided oxen would be a better way to go than horses and they immediately began breeding oxen for traction animals.
I mentioned rooftop gardening.
Very widespread throughout Havana and the other cities but also rooftop raising of food animals like chickens, hamsters and rabbits.
This is a picture of downtown Havana and you can see a really considerable amount of food production right there within the city.
The transition to a non-fossil fuel system will take time.
The Cubans took fifteen years to arrive at where they are now.

We have to emphasize here that we are discussing a systemic transition. We can't just remove oil in the forms of agro-chemicals from the current food system and assume that it will go on more or less as it is. Every aspect of the process by which we feed ourselves has to be rethought. Given the likelihood that global oil peak will occur soon, this transition must occur at a rapid pace backed by the full resources of national governments. Without cheap transportation fuels we will have to reduce the amount of food transportation that occurs and make necessary transportation much more efficient. This implies increased local food self-sufficiency. It also implies problems for large cities that have been built in arid regions that are capable of supporting only small populations on the regional resource base.

Think of places like Las Vegas, Nevada or even Los Angeles, California. How much food can be grown in those places? We will need to grow more food in and around cities certainly. Currently Oakland, California is debating a food policy initiative that would mandate the growing of 40% of the vegetables consumed in the city within 50 miles of city center by 2015. If the example of Cuba were followed rooftop gardens would result as well as rooftop raising of food animals as we saw. Localization of the food process means moving producers and consumers of food closer together but it also means relying on the local manufacturing and regeneration of all the elements of the production process from seeds to tools and farm machinery. This would appear to rule out agricultural bio-engineering which favors the centralized production of patented seed varieties and discourages the free saving of seeds from year to year by farmers. Clearly we must minimize chemical inputs to agriculture both direct and indirect such as those introduced in processing of foods. We will need to introduce draft animals in agricultural production and as the Cubans found, oxen may in many instances be preferable to horses because of the need of horses for grain their tendency therefore to compete for humans for carrying capacity. Governments must also provide incentives for people to return to an agricultural life. I think it would be a mistake simply to think in terms of the need for a larger agricultural work-force. Traditional agriculture requires social networks; intergenerational trust and bonding and knowledge sharing. We need not just more workers but a rural culture that makes agricultural work rewarding. Farming requires knowledge and experience so we will need education for a new generation of farmers but only some of this education can be generic. Much of it must be of necessity locally appropriate. It would be necessary as well to break up the corporate megafarms that produce so much of todays cheap grain. Industrial agriculture implies an economy of scale that is utterly inappropriate and unworkable for post-industrial food systems. Thus land-reform will be required in order to enable small holders and farming co-ops to own their own plots. In order for all of this to happen governments must end subsidies to industrial agriculture and begin subsidizing post-industrial agricultural efforts. There are many ways in which this could be done. The present regime of subsidies is so harmful that merely stopping it in it's tracks and doing nothing else would itself be advantageous. But given the fact that rapid transition is essential, the offering of subsidies for education, low-interest loans for land purchase and support during the transition from chemical to organic production would be essential. Finally, given the carrying capacity limits that we've been discussing, food policy must include population policy. We must encourage smaller families by means of economic incentives and we must improve the economic and educational status of women in poorer countries around the world. All of this sounds like a very tall order but the alternatives: doing nothing or attempting to solve the problem simply by applying more technological intensification will certainly result in dire consequences. In that case existing farmers would fail because of fuel and chemical prices. All of the worries of existing trends mentioned earlier would intensify to the point that the human carrying capacity of earth would be degraded significantly and perhaps to a very large degree permanently. In some, the transition to a fossil fuel free food system doesn't constitute a utopian proposal; it is an immense challenge and will call for unprecedented levels of creativity at all levels of society but in the end it is the only rational option for averting human tragedy on a scale never before seen. Thank you very much.

Presenter: Thank you very much Richard. If you have any ***[36:15] of comments ***[36:16] will take them.

Spectator #1: ***[36:17] Cuban example, what's happened to population in the last fifteen years?

RH: Cuba's population is growing but quite a slow pace. It's the slowest growing population in the Latin-American region. So they have recognized the need to keep population growth low but the population is still growing and it's a bit of a problem because there simply isn't enough housing for everyone in Cuba.

Spectator #2: It seems to me ***[36:43]-***[36:48] transformation ***[36:50] start to work on the perception that it's okay to have ***[36:52] family, it's okay for some couples not to have kids. It's okay to have maybe an only child. It's a perception of time maybe that we measure cities and distances in terms of how far ***[37:04] travel is. 60 minutes away, ***[37:08] by what? Perception of physical work, the change in our perception of what it means to be a physical worker. It's sort of a ***[37:15] theme amongst societies now. I don't garden and I don't get my fingernails dirty, I'm an office worker now. I've worked my way up.

RH: Could I just say something about that? This is I think a very important consideration for the poorer countries because there you have millions of people who are aspiring to the industrialized urban way of life. For example the townships in South Africa. You don't see gardens there in the townships. Here are people living in extreme poverty and they could certainly benefit by growing a few tomatoes or potatoes or something, but they don't do that because they associate growing your own food with poverty. That's where they came from and they want to move into the urban existence of Cape Town and Johannesburg and be like the folks who own cars and so on. I think that perception has to change, just as you said.

Spectator #3: Can you ***[38:10] share with us your experience about what's happened when you go on television ***[38:15] there is no way of avoiding a population crash ***[38:19] realize that ***[38:20]-***[38:21]. How do you handle this and what's happened to you and you come out in one piece.

RH: Well, I think for people who don't even understand the problem of peak oil for instance, just bringing them that information is about as much as their brains can contain at one moment and it's really only after one has absorbed that and a few other worrisome facts about the un-sustainability of our modern industrial society that one can begin to really talk about the full consequences. It's more than the average person can absorb all at once. But for policy makers, these people have to understand this because even if it's very difficult just from a human standpoint to absorb the news these people are responsible after all for making the kinds of decisions that will determine life and death for perhaps millions of people. They have to be made to understand it.

Spectator #4: I think you need to emphasize the de-urbanization does not necessarily mean de-industrialization because the kind of industrial set of values can be done in local dispersed communities that are self-sustaining in food can be quite as ***[39:34] in sense of small scale. ***[39:37] your talking to ***[39:39]-***[39:40] because it suggests we ought to go backwards. In fact we want to make more intelligent use of the knowledge that we have in a dispersed network of self-sustaining populations.

RH: Yes I partly agree with what you say because I think there's a great deal we've learned during the industrial period about things that can be produced and ways of producing them. We will be able to adapt but we're simply going to have a lot less energy with which to pursue the productive process and that's going to mean, if you look at what industrialization has been and what it has meant, we will have less of it. So you can call it anything you want but it's going to be coming down off that peak of mechanization of the human experience and the human relationship with nature. De-mechanization if you will.

Spectator #5: The ***[40:34]-***[40:36] economy of ***[40:36] living ***[40:38] is the critical term that we've got to get across when we're talking about the future rather than going back. I think there's a whole education process. ***[40:45]-***[40:46] agriculture. Regularly and every time I promote organic farming or ***[40:54] what you're talking about it comes back that she has a view that it's too expensive. People won't pay that money for what? A good food but ***[41:08]-***[41:08]. I'm just wondering whether maybe ***[41:11]-***[41:12] on this as well. On the web I noticed there's an International Kitchen Garden Association, it seems to be a sort of a celebration of growing some of your own food. I'm just wondering whether you've come across that or whether there is anything you can suggest that would help get over this mind-set thing by making it an attractive or popular or interesting change.

RH: I'm not sure I can think of a way to make it seem like an overwhelmingly attractive idea to people who are already overwhelmingly invested in a very elaborate, well-funded, inexpensive in terms of food production per minutes worked to be able to by a tomato or whatever. It's an overwhelmingly attractive system as it's set up, what we desperately need to understand is that we can't continue that. I think your minister of agriculture needs to understand the problem of peak oil. It would be nice if we could advertise the transition to a fossil fuel free agriculture as being easier and cheaper and so on and it is more rewarding in many respects and there are advantages but purely on that basis I don't think the transition will occur. If it were going to it would have by now because there have been plenty of organic advocates around for the last 20 years talking about the advantages of organic versus so called conventional agriculture. What we really have to understand is the chemical based industrial agriculture simply cannot be continued because of the problem of peak oil. The longer we wait to address that problem the more likely it is that we will face this carrying capacity bottleneck in it's direst form. We have a responsibility to anticipate this problem because even the US department of energy or at least a report prepared for the US department of energy is acknowledging that this problem is inevitable. There should be no controversy about that. There may be a little controversy about when it's going to occur but there should be no controversy that the event will occur. We have to prepare for it. If we wait until the event itself there will be very dire consequences. That message has to get across.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Exerpt from "Infinity's Rainbow: The Politics of Energy, Climate and Globalization." by Michael P. Byron


It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned.
The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance and one chance only.

— Fred Hoyle 1

We live at the decisive moment in all of human history — decisive not only for one culture or another, not only for the “developed world,” but for all of humanity.

In a vivid metaphoric sense, civilization is now in a condition analogous to that of the astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere on the morning of February 1, 2003. An eerie videotape of those last moments was found amid Columbia’s debris afterwards. Onboard Columbia, the lights are on, the air is circulating, and all seems well.2

The four astronauts, seen on the flight deck of shuttle, marvel together at the sight of the white-hot plasma flowing outside around them. They are unaware that this plasma is patiently eating away at the damaged left wing of their spaceship. There is only one hint of the slowly unfolding catastrophe: the ship’s guidance thruster begins firing ever more frequently and thunderously, as the computers that are actually flying the vehicle sense the asymmetric drag caused by the eroding left wing and vainly try to compensate for it.

The sights and sounds of these repeated thruster firings are clearly evident in the videotape. The laws of physics, those immutable and cold equations of nature, have decreed that in just moments all seven astronauts aboard the Columbia will die catastrophically. No sensor sounds the alarm because the sensors had already burned up. Although the disaster is unfolding in slow motion around them, the astronauts have no direct way to detect it. All still appears reasonably normal as the tape abruptly ends.

Civilization at this very moment is in nearly the same situation. The world-spanning industrial civilization now seems doomed to certain catastrophe.

With this book I hope to provide you, the readers, with an understanding of the problems and with strategies for the future, and a look toward the renewal of civilization itself.

The linked crises which are bearing down upon humanity are not caused by external disturbances. There are no cruel gods who have determined to torment us for their amusement. Rather, these crises are self-caused and originate within civilization. They have sprung from our deepest values, beliefs, and unquestioning assumptions about reality itself. As Cassius observes in the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar: “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves.”3

Anatomically modern humans have existed upon the earth for perhaps 200,000 years. Civilization has only emerged in the past ten millennia; it is characterized by dense, settled populations centered in cities that do not produce their own food, and with people differentiated by occupation and social class.

Civilization used to depend upon human and animal muscle power. Only the industrialization of the past 200 years has substituted muscle power with
concentrated sources of energy, primarily hydrocarbon fuel, energy in the forms of coal, oil, and natural gas.

As industrialization based primarily upon these fossil fuels has spread across the planet, a globalized economy has emerged. We seem to be standing at the very summit of human achievement with power over nature, and with wealth and opportunity for all. A closer look reveals that we have arrived not only at the summit, but also at the edge of a precipice — a yawning chasm in human history. Civilization’s foundation is fatally insecure.

All of civilization is predicated upon one mostly unspoken assumption: that limitless supplies of cheap hydrocarbon energy will always be available.

Corollaries to this core assumption include the assumptions that, if hydrocarbon
energy ever does become scarce, markets will instigate the development of substitute sources of energy; and that science and technology will be able to rapidly develop these substitute sources of energy. A third assumption is that human actions have little or no effect upon the weather, and on Earth’s ability to maintain the conditions necessary for human life to flourish. Finally, it is presumed that the political leadership will respond quickly and adequately to problems which affect mankind’s very existence.

Unfortunately, ALL of the above are false. The global hydrocarbon reserves which we are so recklessly squandering took several hundred million years to accumulate. Once they’re gone, they are gone forever. The current high-energy industrial civilization can only occur once in the lifetime of the planet. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but the adjustment period, at least, is likely to be disastrous and if no adequate adjustment can be made, then the initial disaster must lead to a dismal end for mankind.

Hydrocarbon energy powers industries, automobiles, and aircraft. It heats homes. It makes possible industrial-scale agriculture. Indeed, fertilizers are made from natural gas, and pesticides from petroleum. So hydrocarbon-intensive is modern agriculture that for every one calorie of food produced, about ten calories of irreplaceable hydrocarbon energy is expended. We are eating hydrocarbon energy!

Simultaneously, the heat-trapping greenhouse gases are disrupting the planet’s thin and finite atmosphere, leading to the ever more rapid warming of the planet and destabilizing the weather patterns.

At this very moment, we are about to begin to run out of these irreplaceable hydrocarbon energy sources. Estimates indicate that we are just about reaching the midpoint of world petroleum production — the point at which one half of all the oil that can ever be produced will have been produced. In the near future there will be ever less oil, less gasoline, less kerosene, less jet fuel, etc., produced each year than was produced the previous year.

This peaking of oil production — commonly referred to as “peak oil” — is occurring at a time when demand for hydrocarbon energy is increasing at a rate of over two percent per year, compounded, as large and populous nations such as China and India rapidly industrialize. In fact, the rate of increase in demand is increasing rapidly. Obviously, this has dire political consequences for the peace and stability of the planet.

Natural gas production in North America is also about to peak. Globally, the natural gas peak is only about a decade away. In any event, even if there was gas to buy, it would take at least a decade to build the immense tankers, specialized ports and refineries required to import natural gas to North America.

The option of importing natural gas in order to stave off impending oil depletion is impractical.

It is true that coal exists in large quantities around the globe. Indeed, the United States possesses the planet’s largest reserves. However, coal cannot substitute for all uses of petroleum, and would itself be totally depleted by several decades of intensive usage. More significantly, it is by far the “dirtiest” of the hydrocarbon fuels. Its widespread use would kick global warming further into overdrive.

Also, the political system in the United States has been decisively captured by multinational corporations which profit immensely from keeping the global political economy based on hydrocarbon energy. The influence of these corporations upon the world’s governments cannot be overstated; and it is an influence that operates to maximize profits, not to maximize what is in the best interests of humanity. As a consequence, government itself has become a major part of the problem to addressing these mounting and imminent crises. It is not part of the solution.

And so here in the early 21st century we find ourselves standing at a turning point in human history. The choices we make will irrevocably determine the fates of all future humans living in all future ages. There is no second chance. The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocations of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the west back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.4

Crisis is coming. However, it is very important to understand that it is not something that is being done to us; rather it is something that we are doing to ourselves. We, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, are the culprit, and not some invisible, cruel gods.

To understand the causes and consequences of our actions, we must first understand ourselves. We must understand how we create our realities, and how this affects the ways that we respond to crisis. Additionally, we must understand systems theory because what we do affects everything around us.

This book is intended to give you, the reader, insight into how and why these crises are bearing down upon us, and what their effects will be. It is further intended to empower you to participate in the creation of a new approach that will support sustainable practices and provide a decent quality of life without destroying the world’s resources.

Early 21st century civilization is a human-created, human-centered, worldspanning,
complex adaptive system, containing within it nested political, social, and economic systems organized at multiple levels from the individual to the world system.

This civilization is itself nested within the earth’s four-billion years old biological system — the biosphere. This gradually-evolved and finely-tuned system has made the planet habitable for eons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we take it for granted and assume that it will always be there to provide for us.

The biosphere is in turn nested within the natural, non-living, physical systems of the earth itself. These natural systems include the planet’s plate tectonic and volcanic cycles and its hydrological cycles. These in turn — especially the earth’s hydrological cycle — are heavily dependent upon the amount of sunlight reaching the planet. Ultimately, the earth, sun, and solar system are nested within the subtle energy fields of the entire surrounding universe.

My focus is on the crises caused or exacerbated by humans, and that are bearing down upon civilization. For this book’s purposes, humans are at the very center of this concentric set of nested systems. This central position of humans means that understanding the manner in which our minds, or more precisely, our brains, process, store and organize information into ordered patterns is crucially important. This is because these structured patterns of information determine the very nature of large-scale human social and societal organization — our beliefs, dogmas and cultures — from the individual level all of the way up to the level of our global civilization itself.

These belief structures in turn determine what we do — and what we don’t do. Furthermore, the nature of these cognitive building blocks determines what types of belief structures can be built in the future. As we shall see, the methods by which we create our ordered patterns of understanding the world around us determine how we respond to fundamental crises, both as individuals and as civilizations.

This book is divided into three sections.

Part I, “Conceptual Foundations,” explains two vital topics: how our brains process and organize information, and systems theory. It is a bit more technical than the remaining several chapters of the book.

Part II, “The Crises,” investigates the linked crises which threaten the collapse
of civilization. Our high-energy, world-girdling civilization runs mainly on hydrocarbon energy sources: Coal, oil, and natural gas. These irreplaceable energy sources are being consumed at an accelerating rate. They are about to go into permanent and irreversible decline.

Part III, “Survival & Renewal,” addresses the possible impending catastrophe and ponders the essential qualities of a better civilization we might wish to build.

Humanity stands facing a historical chasm. A great discontinuity is about to separate the future from the past. Ahead lie decades and perhaps centuries of turmoil and tumult.

Those who control the global corporations, with their eyes only on the bottom line, bear the ultimate responsibility for the impending collapse of civilization.

Even now, citizens are increasingly reduced to politically-disempowered consumers. The now near-total control over the consolidated and corporatized media gives them control over the public’s understanding of reality, and ensures that most citizens are sleepwalking towards doom.

By understanding the crises that are by now perhaps unavoidable, and by preparing ourselves, we can hope to minimize the suffering of the adjustment when the irresponsible practices of the present become absolutely unsustainable and force us to change our ways, radically reducing consumption of resources we still treat as infinite even today.

With prudent planning and action, by acting methodically and with purpose in coordination with many others, we can plant the seeds of a future that will offer a much greater quality of life for our descendents than that offered by today’s soulless, materialistic, global corporate oligarchy.

Viewed from this context, the opportunity to correct the errors of the present age and of our social and political order, and to bequeath this new order to future ages, is an exciting challenge. It is time we got things right and designed a more mature civilization.

To begin to develop a picture of how and why these interrelated crises have been allowed to develop, and to understand what we can do, we next need to take a careful look at three related concepts as they apply to human beings: cognition, crisis and systems theory. All deal intimately with the very nature of reality as it operates for humans organized into large scale entities such as nations, economies, and ultimately, globalized civilization taken as a whole.

Then we shall investigate the crises bearing down upon us, and what we can do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. Finally we will investigate
how our actions can bring about a better tomorrow for our descendents.

Beyond our personal survival and the survival of those closest to us, we can begin to plan for the rebirth of civilization — of a better, far more humane and fulfilling civilization than the tragically flawed one around us which is now racing towards its utter doom in the years just ahead. This topic shall form the final portion of the book. We can act to create the seeds, the nodes, of a democratic and humane civilization, based upon a stable foundation of renewable energy sources, sustainable agriculture, smaller, closer, more caring communities, which is predicated upon a social foundation of individual and human rights.

Ultimately, by changing the way that we think about our external reality, we can change how we interact with one another and with nature. Such a change may yet give a more humane human civilization a new lease on life and eventually still lead us to the stars in ages to come. Surely such a world is not to be feared but rather, it is to be embraced.

The alternatives are nightmarish! We must make the effort!

1. Hoyle, Fred, Of Men and Galaxies. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA, 1964, pp. 73. Infinity’s Rainbow.

2. Washington, Feb. 28, 2003, Recovered Video Fragment Shows Crew During
Reentry, ,
NASA has the video online at:
and also at:
and finally at:

Note: The actual video can be watched online. A reconstruction of Columbia’s final seven minutes which synchronizes ground video with Mission Control dialogue is available at: .

3., Julius Caesar,

4. Ward-Perkins, Brian, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, pp. 182

[Conclusion to Chapter 11 (the book’s last chapter)]

This work began with the assertion that we live at the decisive moment in all of human history — decisive not only for one culture or another, not only for the “developed world” but for all of humanity. This may have appeared to be an
extravagant claim, but the information in this book shows it to be a factual one.

Humanity is faced with immense challenges. However, the chance to create a long-term ecologically sustainable and humane future also represents a correspondingly immense opportunity.

In the coming years we must all act and think flexibly and creatively if these challenges are to be surmounted. If we can rise to this occasion we will bequeath an open-ended future to civilization and to the biosphere. This book has focused upon analysis and description of the inter-linked crises facing our civilization. In a subsequent work, I will focus upon prescription — specifically upon strategies for dealing effectively with these crises and thereby creating a positive future.

The promise of this hopeful future is what, consistent with the ancient legend of a
new world following a global deluge, I refer to as “Infinity's Rainbow.” I’d like to end this work where I began it, with this quote:

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing
intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary
physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone,
high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If
we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance and
one chance only.335

This is our one and only chance. Let’s not blow it!

335. Ibid., Of Men and Galaxies, Prologue, #1.


Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire!
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

— Omar Khayyam336

Two apparently unrelated changes (each one improbable enough on its own) set the trajectory of human civilization in its present disastrous direction: we discovered how to exploit the energy locked up in hydrocarbon deposits; and the legal enfranchisement of corporate personhood led to ordinary humans losing control over their political economy.

These corporate entities represent a type of complex adaptive system, which organizes the individual abilities of numerous humans towards a collective goal. Since these entities exist only to produce short-term profits for their investors, that goal has been the creation of wealth as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible. This means that externalities such as the effects of wealth extraction upon the earth’s biosphere are disregarded to the maximum extent legally possible.

Since governmental regulation is the only check upon what is legal for these corporate entities, it follows that corporate profit maximization requires the subordination of this other human system — government. Human laws that stood in the way of corporate profit maximization have been subverted, as corporations gained power over governments.

In pursuit of corporate goals, it looks as though we have far exceeded the planet’s natural carrying capacity. Only hydrocarbon energy allows, for the moment, for humanity’s billions to continue multiplying. And if the supply of hydrocarbon energy is about to enter into permanent decline, the ramifications are beyond prediction.

336. Rubiayat of Omar Kayyam, Fitzgerald translation,

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Waiting for the lights to go out
We've taken the past 200 years of prosperity for granted. Humanity's progress is stalling, we are facing a new era of decay, and nobody is clever enough to fix it. Is the future really that black, asks Bryan Appleyard

The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.

It's been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won't this time, either. But, frankly, it's not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.

To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to grasp just how extraordinary, how utterly unprecedented are the privileges we in the developed world enjoy now. Born today, you could expect to live 25 to 30 years longer than your Victorian forebears, up to 45 years longer than your medieval ancestors and at least 55 years longer than your Stone Age precursors. It is highly unlikely that your birth will kill you or your mother or that, in later life, you will suffer typhoid, plague, smallpox, dysentery, polio, or dentistry without anaesthetic. You will enjoy a standard of living that would have glazed the eyes of the Emperor Nero, thanks to the 2% annual economic growth rate sustained by the developed world since the industrial revolution. You will have access to greater knowledge than Aristotle could begin to imagine, and to technical resources that would stupefy Leonardo da Vinci. You will know a world whose scale and variety would induce agoraphobia in Alexander the Great. You should experience relative peace thanks to the absolute technological superiority of the industrialised world over its enemies and, with luck and within reason, you should be able to write and say anything you like, a luxury denied to almost all other human beings, dead or alive. Finally, as this artificially extended sojourn in paradise comes to a close, you will attain oblivion in the certain knowledge that, for your children, things can only get better.

Such staggering developments have convinced us that progress is a new law of nature, something that happens to everything all the time. Microsoft is always working on a better version of Windows. Today's Nokia renders yesterday's obsolete, as does today's Apple, Nike or Gillette. Life expectancy continues to rise. Cars go faster, planes fly further, and one day, we are assured, cancer must yield. Whatever goes wrong in our lives or the world, the march of progress continues regardless. Doesn't it?

Almost certainly not. The first big problem is our insane addiction to oil. It powers everything we do and determines how we live. But, on the most optimistic projections, there are only 30 to 40 years of oil left. One pessimistic projection, from Sweden's Uppsala University, is that world reserves are massively overstated and the oil will start to run out in 10 years. That makes it virtually inconceivable that there will be kerosene-powered planes or petroleum-powered cars for much longer. Long before the oil actually runs out, it will have become far too expensive to use for such frivolous pursuits as flying and driving. People generally assume that we will find our way round this using hydrogen, nuclear, wave or wind power. In reality, none of these technologies are being developed anything like quickly enough to take over from oil. The great nations just aren't throwing enough money at the problem. Instead, they are preparing to fight for the last drops of oil. China has recently started making diplomatic overtures to Saudi Arabia, wanting to break America's grip on that nation's 262 billion barrel reserve.

Even if we did throw money at the problem, it's not certain we could fix it. One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. "The number of advances wasn't increasing exponentially, I hadn't seen as many as I had expected — not in any particular area, just generally."

Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation — which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year — is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.

The calculations are based on innovations per person, so if we could keep growing the human population we could, in theory, keep up the absolute rate of innovation. But in practice, to do that, we'd have to swamp the world with billions more people almost at once. That being neither possible nor desirable, it seems we'll just have to accept that progress, at least on the scientific and technological front, is slowing very rapidly indeed.

Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size of the human brain. Either it's just not worth pursuing certain innovations since they won't pay off — one reason why space exploration has all but ground to a halt — or we already know most of what we can know, and so discovering new things is becoming increasingly difficult. We have, for example, known for over 20 years how cancer works and what needs to be done to prevent or cure it. But in most cases, we still have no idea how to do it, and there is no likelihood that we will in the foreseeable future.

Huebner's insight has caused some outrage. The influential scientist Ray Kurzweil has criticised his sample of innovations as "arbitrary"; K Eric Drexler, prophet of nanotechnology, has argued that we should be measuring capabilities, not innovations. Thus we may travel faster or access more information at greater speeds without significant innovations as such.

Huebner has so far successfully responded to all these criticisms. Moreover, he is supported by the work of Ben Jones, a management professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Jones has found that we are currently in a quandary comparable to that of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Basically, two centuries of economic growth in the industrialised world has been driven by scientific and technological innovation. We don't get richer unaided or simply by working harder: we get richer because smart people invent steam engines, antibiotics and the internet. What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. "The result is," says Jones, "that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact."

Like Huebner, he has two theories about why this is happening. The first is the "low-hanging fruit" theory: early innovators plucked the easiest-to-reach ideas, so later ones have to struggle to crack the harder problems. Or it may be that the massive accumulation of knowledge means that innovators have to stay in education longer to learn enough to invent something new and, as a result, less of their active life is spent innovating. "I've noticed that Nobel-prize winners are getting older," he says. "That's a sure sign it's taking longer to innovate." The other alternative is to specialise — but that would mean innovators would simply be tweaking the latest edition of Windows rather than inventing the light bulb. The effect of their innovations would be marginal, a process of making what we already have work slightly better. This may make us think we're progressing, but it will be an illusion.

If Huebner and Jones are right, our problem goes way beyond Windows. For if innovation is the engine of economic progress — and almost everybody agrees it is — growth may be coming to an end. Since our entire financial order — interest rates, pension funds, insurance, stock markets — is predicated on growth, the social and economic consequences may be cataclysmic.
Is it really happening? Will progress grind to a halt? The long view of history gives conflicting evidence. Paul Ormerod, a London-based economist and author of the book Why Most Things Fail, is unsure. "I am in two minds about this. Biologists have abandoned the idea of progress — we just are where we are. But humanity is so far in advance of anything that has gone before that it seems to be a qualitative leap."

For Ormerod, there may be very rare but similar qualitative leaps in the organisation of society. The creation of cities, he believes, is one. Cities emerged perhaps 10,000 years ago, not long after humanity ceased being hunter-gatherers and became farmers. Other apparently progressive developments cannot compete. The Roman empire, for example, once seemed eternal, bringing progress to the world. But then, one day, it collapsed and died. The question thus becomes: is our liberal-democratic-capitalist way of doing things, like cities, an irreversible improvement in the human condition, or is it like the Roman empire, a shooting star of wealth and success, soon to be extinguished?

Ormerod suspects that capitalism is indeed, like cities, a lasting change in the human condition. "Immense strides forward have been taken," he says. It may be that, after millennia of striving, we have found the right course. Capitalism may be the Darwinian survivor of a process of natural selection that has seen all other systems fail.

Ormerod does acknowledge, however, that the rate of innovation may well be slowing — "All the boxes may be ticked," as he puts it — and that progress remains dependent on contingencies far beyond our control. An asteroid strike or super-volcanic eruption could crush all our vanities in an instant. But in principle, Ormerod suspects that our 200-year spree is no fluke.

This is heartily endorsed by the Dutch-American Joel Mokyr, one of the most influential economic historians in the world today. Mokyr is the author of The Lever of Riches and The Gifts of Athena, two books that support the progressive view that we are indeed doing something right, something that makes our liberal-democratic civilisation uniquely able to generate continuous progress. The argument is that, since the 18th-century Enlightenment, a new term has entered the human equation. This is the accumulation of and a free market in knowledge. As Mokyr puts it, we no longer behead people for saying the wrong thing — we listen to them. This "social knowledge" is progressive because it allows ideas to be tested and the most effective to survive. This knowledge is embodied in institutions, which, unlike individuals, can rise above our animal natures. Because of the success of these institutions, we can reasonably hope to be able, collectively, to think our way around any future problems. When the oil runs out, for example, we should have harnessed hydrogen or fusion power. If the environment is being destroyed, then we should find ways of healing it. "If global warming is happening," says Mokyr, "and I increasingly am persuaded that it is, then we will have the technology to deal with it."

But there are, as he readily admits, flies in the ointment of his optimism. First, he makes the crucial concession that, though a society may progress, individuals don't. Human nature does not progress at all. Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong. "The thing that scares me," he says, "is that these institutions can misfire."

Big institutions, deeply entrenched within ancient cultures, misfired in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, producing years of slaughter on a scale previously unseen in human history. For Mokyr, those misfirings produced not an institutionalism of our knowledge but of our aggressive, animal natures. The very fact that such things can happen at all is a warning that progress can never be taken for granted.

Some suggest that this institutional breakdown is now happening in the developed world, in the form of a "democratic deficit". This is happening at a number of levels. There is the supranational. In this, either large corporations or large institutions — the EU, the World Bank — gradually remove large areas of decision-making from the electorate, hollowing out local democracies. Or there is the national level. Here, massively increased political sophistication results in the manipulation, almost hypnotising, of electorates. This has been particularly true in Britain, where politics has been virtualised by new Labour into a series of presentational issues. Such developments show that merely calling a system "democratic" does not necessarily mean it will retain the progressive virtues that have seemed to arise from democracy. Democracy can destroy itself. In addition, with the rise of an unquantifiable global terrorist threat producing defensive transformations of legal systems designed to limit freedom and privacy, the possibility arises of institutional breakdown leading to a new, destructive social order. We are not immune from the totalitarian faults of the past.

The further point is that capitalism is one thing, globalisation another. The current globalisation wave was identified in the 1970s.

It was thought to represent the beginning of a process whereby the superior performance of free-market economics would lead a worldwide liberalisation process. Everybody, in effect, would be drawn into the developed world's 200-year boom. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that it hasn't happened as planned. The prominent Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul argues in his book The Collapse of Globalism that globalisation is, in fact, over and is being replaced by a series of competing local and national interests. Meanwhile, in his book Why They Don't Hate Us, the Californian academic Mark LeVine shows that the evidence put forward by globalisation's fans, such as the World Trade Organization, conceals deep divisions and instabilities in countries like China and regions like the Middle East. Globalisation, he argues, is often just making the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is also destroying local culture and inspiring aggressive resistance movements, from student demonstrators in the West to radical Islamicists in the Middle East. Progress is built on very fragile foundations.

Or perhaps it never happens at all. John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, is the most lucid advocate of the view that progress is an illusion. People, he says, are "overimpressed by present reality" and assume, on the basis of only a couple of centuries of history, that progress is eternal. In his book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, he argues that human nature is flawed and incorrigible, and its flaws will be embodied in whatever humans make. Joel Mokyr's institutions, therefore, do not rise above human nature: they embody it. Science, for Gray, does indeed accumulate knowledge. But that has the effect of empowering human beings to do at least as much damage as good. His book argues that, far from being a medieval institution as many have suggested, Al-Qaeda is a supremely modern organisation, using current technology and management theory to spread destruction. Modernity does not make us better, it just makes us more effective. We may have anaesthetic dentistry, but we also have nuclear weapons. We may or may not continue to innovate. It doesn't matter, because innovation will only enable us to do more of what humans do. In this view, all progress will be matched by regress. In our present condition, this can happen in two ways. Either human conflict will produce a new ethical decline, as it did in Germany and Russia, or our very commitment to growth will turn against us.

On the ethical front, Gray's most potent contemporary example is torture. For years we thought the developed world had banished torture for ever or that, if it occasionally happened here, it was an error or oversight, a crime to be punished at once. Not being torturers was a primary indicator of our civilised, progressive condition. But now suicide terrorism has posed a terrible question. If we have a prisoner who knows where a suitcase nuclear weapon is planted and refuses to talk, do we not have the right to torture him into revealing the information? Many now reluctantly admit that we would. Even the means of his torture has been discussed: a sterilised needle inserted beneath the fingernail. Having suffered this pain for a few seconds when having an anaesthetic injection prior to the removal of a nail, I can personally attest that it would work.

The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is now arguing for giving proper legal status to torture. "Torture is a matter that has always been unacceptable, beyond discussion. Let's not pretend, those days are passed. We now have ticking-bomb terrorists and it's an empirical fact that every civilised democracy would use torture in those circumstances." Dershowitz doesn't like the "surreptitious hypocrisy" that allows torture but pretends it doesn't. Look, he says, at the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al-Qaeda planner captured in 2003 in Pakistan. American interrogators subjected him to "water-boarding", effectively threatening him with drowning. This wasn't classified as torture because he wasn't hurt, but of course it was.

Dershowitz thinks a legal basis for torture would prevent abuses like the horrors perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. If, for example, Tony Blair or George Bush had to sign a torture warrant, the whole business would be kept visible and legal. For Gray, torture represents obvious regress. Dershowitz partly agrees but argues that progressives must be ready to do deals. "Terrorism is a major step backwards in civilisation. Hitler was a major step backwards. Sometimes we have to step backwards too to combat such things. But progress happens in other areas. A generation now growing up may have to accept more security measures and less privacy, but in other areas like sexual conduct we are making progress. I don't think overall we are making a step back."

Progress, therefore, is faltering but, on aggregate, it moves in the right direction. Hitler was defeated and judicial torture may, in time, defeat terrorism. We just have to accept that three steps forward also involves two steps back. The point is to keep the faith.

But what if it is just faith? What if the very "fact" of progress is ultimately self-destructive? There are many ways in which this might turn out to be true. First, the human population is continuing to rise exponentially. It is currently approaching 6.5 billion, in 1900 it was 1.65 billion, in 1800 it was around a billion, in 1500 it was 500m. The figures show that economic and technological progress is loading the planet with billions more people. By keeping humans alive longer and by feeding them better, progress is continually pushing population levels. With population comes pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming caused by human activity is happening. According to some estimates, we will pass the point of no return within a decade. Weather systems will change, huge flooding will occur, and human civilisation if not existence will be at risk. This can be avoided if the US and China cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by 50% at once. This won't happen, as they are fighting an economic war with progress as the prize. There are many other progress-created threats. Oil is one diminishing resource, and fresh water is another, even more vital one. Wars are virtually certain to be fought to gain control of these precious liquids.

In addition, antibiotic drugs are currently failing through overuse. No new generation of medicines is likely to be available to replace them in the near future. People may soon be dying again from sore throats and minor cuts. The massive longevity increase in the 20th century may soon begin to reverse itself.

Joel Mokyr's response to all this is that our open-knowledge societies will enable these problems to be solved. John Gray replies: "This is faith, not science." We believe we can fix things, but we can't be sure. And if we can't, then the Earth will fix them herself, flicking the human species into oblivion in the process.

Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future. Perhaps we can't cure cancer because the problem is simply beyond our intellects. Perhaps we haven't flown to the stars because our biology and God's physics mean we never can. Perhaps we are close to the limit and the time of plenty is over.

The evidence is mounting that our two sunny centuries of growth and wealth may end in a new Dark Age in which ignorance will replace knowledge, war will replace peace, sickness will replace health and famine will replace obesity. You don't think so? It's always happened in the past. What makes us so different? Nothing, I'm afraid.


So, as a new Dark Age approaches, are you just going to carry on living your life as if nothing has changed? John-Paul Flintoff, for one, decided he couldn't bury his head in the sand. He explains how he went on a one-man crusade to show that humanity can adapt and survive

I had just dropped my daughter at the nursery when I began to save the world. I mention this detail because it's important to emphasise that Nancy loves her nursery. If she didn't, I wouldn't drive four miles from home — into London's congestion zone, at a cost of £8 a day. I wouldn't have found myself in Connaught Square that morning, fretting about newspaper stories suggesting the price of petrol was going up. I wouldn't have seen a woman sitting inside a peculiar car parked beside me. Nor would I have noticed, on returning to my VW Golf from the nursery, that the car had moved some yards away and the woman had disappeared.

Intrigued, I wandered over and scribbled in my notebook. When I got home I began to investigate what I had seen. It may seem grandiose to describe my actions that morning, and in the days that followed, as "saving the world". It may be factually incorrect, because I may not have averted global catastrophe after all. You decide — but first get your head round the following, rather terrifying background information. A barrel of oil contains the equivalent of almost 25,000 hours of human labour. A gallon of petrol contains the energy equivalent of 500 hours — enough to propel a three-ton 4x4 along 10 miles; to push it yourself would take nearly three weeks. To support economic growth, the world currently requires more than 30 billion barrels of oil a year. That requirement is constantly increasing, owing to population growth, debt-servicing, and the rapid industrialisation of developing countries such as India and China. But we are about to enter an era in which less oil will be available each year. And many believe that industrial society is doomed. Are we really running out?

Well, half of all supplies come from "giant" oilfields, of which 95% are at least 25 years old; 50% have been producing for 40 years or more. In the North Sea, production peaked in 1999. Late last year, Britain began to import more oil than we export. Worldwide, discoveries of new oilfields peaked in the 1960s; and despite technological advances, new discoveries are at an all-time low. A recent story in The New York Times suggested that oil companies are failing to recoup exploration costs: significant discoveries are so scarce that looking for them is a monetary loser. Not that I normally read The New York Times' coverage of the oil business — like most people, I have tended to consider news about the oil industry to be extremely dull. That started to change when it crept out of the business pages and into the general news, and into advertisements. Practically every day, it seemed, a big oil company took a whole page to promote the fact that we are facing a crisis. One, paid for by Chevron, called on readers to help find a solution. I visited Chevron's website,, where a whirring clock monitored worldwide oil consumption: nearly 1,500 barrels a second. The more I read, the scarier it became. Michael Meacher, who was Britain's environment minister for six years, is plainly terrified. "The implications are mind-blowing... Civilisation faces the sharpest and perhaps most violent dislocation in recent history."

Matthew Simmons, a Houston-based energy-industry financier and adviser to George Bush and Dick Cheney, was asked in 2003 if there is a solution. He replied: "The solution is to pray."

These people are not loonies. Optimists believe that the market — the law of supply and demand — will solve the problem. As oil becomes more expensive, we'll shift to some other energy source. But do high prices really cut demand? Since early 1999, oil prices have risen by about 350%. Meanwhile, demand growth in 2004 was the highest in 25 years. That's bad news, because the market won't push energy companies into pursuing alternative sources of energy until oil reaches considerably higher prices. And then it will be too late to make the switch.

The former oil-industry executive Jan Lundberg reckons the crisis will be sudden. "Market-based panic will, within a few days, drive prices skyward," he says. "And the market will become paralysed at prices too high for the wheels of commerce and daily living." So forget the price at the pump: when oil becomes truly unaffordable, you will be more worried about the collapse of distribution networks, and the absence of food from local shops.

Ecologists use a technical term, "die-off", to describe what happens when a population grows too big for the resources that sustain it. Where will die-off occur this time? Everywhere. By some estimates, 5 billion of the world's 6½ billion population would never have been able to live without the blessed effects of fossil fuels, and oil in particular: oil powered the pumps that drained the land, and from oil came the chemicals that made intensive farming possible.

If oil dries up, we can assume, those 5 billion must starve. And they won't all be in Africa this time. You too may be fighting off neighbours to protect a shrinking stash of canned food, and, when that runs out, foraging for insects in suburban gardens.

Dr Richard Duncan, of the Institute on Energy and Man, has monitored the issue for years. "I became deeply depressed," he notes, "when I first concluded that our greatest scientific achievements will soon be forgotten and our most cherished monuments will crumble to dust." Of course, this isn't the first time people have predicted imminent apocalypse. During the late 19th century, Londoners feared they would all be killed by the methane in horse manure. But oil is certain to run out eventually, and most experts believe that will happen during the lifetimes of people now living. Pollyannas point out that the size of official oil reserves went up dramatically in the 1980s, and the same will happen again as oil companies discover new oilfields. But geologists say the world has been thoroughly searched already.

Not everyone believes we're doomed. Cheerier prognostications suggest that our future will more closely resemble 1990s Cuba. The American trade embargo, combined with the collapse of Cuba's communist allies in eastern Europe, suddenly deprived the island of imports. Without oil, public transport shut down and TV broadcasts finished early in the evening to save power. Industrial farms needed fuel and spare parts, pesticides and fertiliser — none of which were available. Consequently, the average Cuban diet dropped from about 3,000 calories per day in 1989 to 1,900 calories four years later. In effect, Cubans were skipping a meal a day, every day, week after month after year. Of necessity, the country converted to sustainable farming techniques, replacing artificial fertiliser with ecological alternatives, rotating crops to keep soil rich, and using teams of oxen instead of tractors. There are still problems supplying meat and milk, but over time Cubans regained the equivalent of that missing meal. And ecologists hailed their achievement in creating the world's largest working model of largely sustainable agriculture, largely independent of oil.

Can we steer ourselves towards the Cuban ideal? If so, how?

Well, let me tell you what I did. First I switched exclusively to wind power as the source of my domestic electricity, through a company called Ecotricity, which promises the price will not differ significantly from what I paid before. Then I got a man round to give us a quote for installing double-glazed sash windows. The latest, high-specification glass, I was told, traps domestic heat but allows sunlight to pass through, which means you can turn the thermostat right down in winter. I contacted a company that specialises in solar power. If I acted quickly, I could get government subsidies. I put my name down for a domestic wind turbine — apparently, traffic at the end of my street makes a greater racket, but I would need planning permission. The turbine would cover roughly a third of my electricity needs. The cost: £1,500.

I bought a tray for sprouting seeds (highly nutritious, apparently) and started the long process, as yet unresolved, of persuading my wife that we must dig up our flowerbeds and turn the garden into an allotment. I even got in touch with a local vicar who keeps chickens in his garden, and asked how I might do the same.

Does this really amount to "saving the world"? I've saved the best till last. Remember Nancy's nursery, and the peculiar car I saw in Connaught Square? The car is called a G-Wiz; it runs entirely on electricity, has four seats and storage in the bonnet, and is no bigger than a Smart car. A G-Wiz costs as little as £7,000. It does not incur road tax. It's in the cheapest insurance bracket, and exempt from the congestion charge. In Westminster you can park for nothing in pay-and-display spaces, or in your local car park, with free electricity to charge the batteries.

The downside? It can't go faster than 40mph, and the batteries go flat after about 40 miles. That didn't bother me: we'd use it in London, and for trips further afield we could hire a car. There was one problem. Unless local councils install a socket on the pavement, the only people who can run an electric car are the lucky few with off-street parking.

So I started a campaign. I wrote a letter to drop through my neighbours' doors, explaining about the coming oil crisis and describing the electric car. I promised to write to the council urging it to install electric sockets if at least a few of my neighbours would do the same. Within hours, two names appeared. Over the next couple of weeks, eight others had joined them. With this support, I wrote to my local councillors. For good measure, I sent through government proposals to subsidise that kind of installation by up to 60%. Placing my order for the G-Wiz, I popped a non-refundable cheque for £1,250 in the post. I would just have to hope Barnet council comes through before the car arrives.

I felt proud to belong to a district that was saving the world. And, to be honest, I felt rather pleased with myself. I sent for some fake parking tickets to leave on the windows of petrol-guzzling 4x4s. And I wrote a letter to the Saudi oil minister, urging him to invest in alternative energy technology before it's too late.

It has been a long and tiring campaign. I realise it may not work. I don't honestly believe most people will be motivated to match my shining example. Eventually, the government will impose the kind of restrictions normally used in wartime. When that happens, we'll move out of London to begin a new life of genuine self-sufficiency.

Oil isn't only useful as fuel

Most oil we consume is burnt as fuel. But hundreds of everyday objects are made from petrochemicals. We take them for granted now, but to drive your car, or fly away on a holiday that might just as well have taken place near home, is to burn a valuable resource that can be used to make products like these:

Household: Ballpoint pens, battery cases, bin bags, candles, carpets, curtains, detergents, drinking cups, dyes, enamel, lino, paint, brushes and rollers, pillows, refrigerants, refrigerator linings, roofing, safety glass, shower curtains, telephones, toilet seats, water pipes.

Personal: Cold cream, hair colour, lipstick, shampoo, shaving cream, combs, dentures, denture adhesive, deodorant, glasses, sunglasses, contact lenses, hand lotion, insect repellent, shoes, shoe polish, tights, toothbrushes, toothpaste, vitamin capsules.

Medical: Anaesthetics, antihistamines, antiseptics, artificial limbs, aspirin, bandages, cortisone, hearing aids, heart valves.

Leisure: cameras, fishing rods, footballs, golf balls, skis, stereos, tennis rackets, tents.

Agriculture: Fertilisers, insecticides, preservatives.

Other: Antifreeze, boats, lifejackets, glue, solvents, motorcycle helmets, parachutes, tyres.

How to survive when the oil runs out

Living without oil, if we don't start to prepare for it, will not be like returning to the late 1700s, because we have now lost the infrastructure that made 18th-century life possible. We have also lost our basic survival skills. Dr Richard Duncan, of the Institute on Energy and Man, believes that we will return to living in essentially Stone Age conditions. Here is a taste of how to deal with the essentials.

Water: Animal trails lead to water. Watch the direction in which bees fly. Make containers from animal bladders and gourds.

Food: To remove the bitterness from acorns, soak them in a running stream for a few days. The common dandelion is a versatile and delicious plant. Open pine cones in the heat of a fire to release the nuts inside.

Luxuries: Make soap using lye (from hardwood ash) and animal fat. For candles, sheep fat is best, followed by beef. (Pork fat is very smelly and burns with thick smoke.)

Medicine: Use hypnosis for pain control. Frame suggestions positively. Use the present tense. Be specific and use repetition. Keep it simple.

Develop a survivor personality: Survivors spend almost no time getting upset. They have a good sense of humour and laugh at mistakes.

From: When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance and Planetary Survival, by Matthew Stein
Why Our Food Is So Dependent On Oil

By Norman Church

07 April, 2005
From The Wilderness

"Concentrate on what cannot lie. The evidence..." -- Gil Grissom

"Eating Oil" was the title of a book which was published in 1978 following the first oil crisis in 1973 (1). The aim of the book was to investigate the extent to which food supply in industrialised countries relied on fossil fuels. In the summer of 2000 the degree of dependence on oil in the UK food system was demonstrated once again when protestors blockaded oil refineries and fuel distribution depots. The fuel crises disrupted the distribution of food and industry leaders warned that their stores would be out of food within days. The lessons of 1973 have not been heeded.

Today the food system is even more reliant on cheap crude oil. Virtually all of the processes in the modern food system are now dependent upon this finite resource, which is nearing its depletion phase.

Moreover, at a time when we should be making massive cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in order to reduce the threat posed by climate change, the food system is lengthening its supply chains and increasing emissions to the point where it is a significant contributor to global warming.

The organic sector could be leading the development of a sustainable food system. Direct environmental and ecological impacts of agriculture 'on the farm' are certainly reduced in organic systems. However, global trade and distribution of organic products fritter away those benefits and undermine its leadership role.

Not only is the contemporary food system inherently unsustainable, increasingly, it is damaging the environment.

The systems that produce the world's food supply are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production: from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases.

Ironically, the food industry is at serious risk from global warming caused by these greenhouse gases, through the disruption of the predictable climactic cycles on which agriculture depends. But global warming can have the more pronounced and immediate effect of exacerbating existing environmental threats to agriculture, many of which are caused by industrial agriculture itself. Environmental degradation, water shortages, salination, soil erosion, pests, disease and desertification all pose serious threats to our food supply, and are made worse by climate change. But many of the conventional ways used to overcome these environmental problems further increase the consumption of finite oil and gas reserves. Thus the cycle of oil dependence and environmental degradation continues.

Industrial agriculture and the systems of food supply are also responsible for the erosion of communities throughout the world. This social degradation is compounded by trade rules and policies, by the profit driven mindset of the industry, and by the lack of knowledge of the faults of the current systems and the possibilities of alternatives. But the globalisation and corporate control that seriously threaten society and the stability of our environment are only possible because cheap energy is used to replace labour and allows the distance between producer and consumer to be extended.

However, this is set to change. Oil output is expected to peak in the next few years and steadily decline thereafter. We have a very poor understanding of how the extreme fluctuations in the availability and cost of both oil and natural gas will affect the global food supply systems, and how they will be able to adapt to the decreasing availability of energy. In the near future, environmental threats will combine with energy scarcity to cause significant food shortages and sharp increases in prices - at the very least. We are about to enter an era where we will have to once again feed the world with limited use of fossil fuels. But do we have enough time, knowledge, money, energy and political power to make this massive transformation to our food systems when they are already threatened by significant environmental stresses and increasing corporate control?

The modern, commercial agricultural miracle that feeds all of us, and much of the rest of the world, is completely dependent on the flow, processing and distribution of oil, and technology is critical to maintaining that flow.

Oil refined for gasoline and diesel is critical to run the tractors, combines and other farm vehicles and equipment that plant, spray the herbicides and pesticides, and harvest/transport food and seed Food processors rely on the just-in-time (gasoline-based) delivery of fresh or refrigerated food Food processors rely on the production and delivery of food additives, including vitamins and minerals, emulsifiers, preservatives, colouring agents, etc. Many are oil-based. Delivery is oil-based Food processors rely on the production and delivery of boxes, metal cans, printed paper labels, plastic trays, cellophane for microwave/convenience foods, glass jars, plastic and metal lids with sealing compounds. Many of these are essentially oil-based Delivery of finished food products to distribution centres in refrigerated trucks. Oil-based, daily, just-in-time shipment of food to grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools, etc., all oil-based; customer drives to grocery store to shop for supplies, often several times a week


Our food system is energy inefficient...

One indicator of the unsustainability of the contemporary food system is the ratio of energy outputs - the energy content of a food product (calories) - to the energy inputs.

The latter is all the energy consumed in producing, processing, packaging and distributing that product. The energy ratio (energy out/energy in) in agriculture has decreased from being close to 100 for traditional pre-industrial societies to less than 1 in most cases in the present food system, as energy inputs, mainly in the form of fossil fuels, have gradually increased.

However, transport energy consumption is also significant, and if included in these ratios would mean that the ratio would decrease further. For example, when iceberg lettuce is imported to the UK from the USA by plane, the energy ratio is only 0.00786. In other words 127 calories of energy (aviation fuel) are needed to transport 1 calorie of lettuce across the Atlantic. If the energy consumed during lettuce cultivation, packaging, refrigeration, distribution in the UK and shopping by car was included, the energy needed would be even higher. Similarly, 97 calories of transport energy are needed to import 1 calorie of asparagus by plane from Chile, and 66 units of energy are consumed when flying 1 unit of carrot energy from South Africa.

Just how energy inefficient the food system is can be seen in the crazy case of the Swedish tomato ketchup. Researchers at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology analysed the production of tomato ketchup (2). The study considered the production of inputs to agriculture, tomato cultivation and conversion to tomato paste (in Italy), the processing and packaging of the paste and other ingredients into tomato ketchup in Sweden and the retail and storage of the final product. All this involved more than 52 transport and process stages.

The aseptic bags used to package the tomato paste were produced in the Netherlands and transported to Italy to be filled, placed in steel barrels, and then moved to Sweden. The five layered, red bottles were either produced in the UK or Sweden with materials form Japan, Italy, Belgium, the USA and Denmark. The polypropylene (PP) screw-cap of the bottle and plug, made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), was produced in Denmark and transported to Sweden. Additionally, LDPE shrink-film and corrugated cardboard were used to distribute the final product. Labels, glue and ink were not included in the analysis.

This example demonstrates the extent to which the food system is now dependent on national and international freight transport. However, there are many other steps involved in the production of this everyday product. These include the transportation associated with: the production and supply of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium fertilisers; pesticides; processing equipment; and farm machinery. It is likely that other ingredients such as sugar, vinegar, spices and salt were also imported. Most of the processes listed above will also depend on derivatives of fossil fuels. This product is also likely to be purchased in a shopping trip by car. dependent on oil...

One study has estimated that UK imports of food products and animal feed involved transportation by sea, air and road amounting to over 83 billion tonne-kilometres (3). This required 1.6 billion litres of fuel and, based on a conservative figure of 50 grams of carbon dioxide per tonne-kilometre resulted in 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (4). Within the UK, the amount of food transported increased by 16% and the distances travelled by 50% between 1978 and 1999.

It has been estimated that the CO2 emissions attributable to producing, processing, packaging and distributing the food consumed by a family of four is about 8 tonnes a year (5)

..and is unnecessarily contributing to carbon emissions.

It is not that this transportation is critical or necessary. In many cases countries import and export similar quantities of the same food products (6). A recent report has highlighted the instances in which countries import and export large quantities of particular foodstuffs (6). For example, in 1997, 126 million litres of liquid milk was imported into the UK and, at the same time, 270 million litres of milk was exported from the UK. 23,000 tonnes of milk powder was imported into the UK and 153,000 tonnes exported (7). UK milk imports have doubled over the last 20 years, but there has been a four-fold increase in UK milk exports over the last 30 years (8).

Britain imports 61,400 tonnes of poultry meat a year from the Netherlands and exports 33,100 tonnes to the Netherlands. We import 240,000 tonnes of pork and 125,000 tonnes of lamb while exporting 195,000 tonnes of pork and 102,000 tonnes of lamb (6).

This system is unsustainable, illogical, and bizarre and can only exist as long as inexpensive fossil fuels are available and we do not take significant action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.


The threat of global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions

The nearness of the depletion stage of oil supplies

Discovery of oil and gas peaked in the 1960s. Production is set to peak too, with five Middle Eastern countries regaining control of world supply (9). Almost two-thirds of the world's total reserves of crude oil are located in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq (10). An assessment of future world oil supply and its depletion pattern shows that between 1980 and 1998 there was an 11.2 per cent increase in world crude oil production, from 59.6 to 66.9 million barrels of oil per day (10). Current world production rates are about 25 Gb (billion barrels) per year. A simple calculation shows that if consumption levels remain constant, world crude oil reserves, at approximately 1 trillion barrels, could be exhausted around 2040 (11).

The oil crises of the 1970s when the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) states reined in their production have passed into folk memory. However, they were accompanied by massive disruption and global economic recession. The same happened in 1980 and 1991 (12).

Colin J. Campbell, a pre-eminent oil industry analyst, believes that future crises will be much worse. "The oil shocks of the 1970s were short-lived because there were then plenty of new oil and gas finds to bring on stream. This time there are virtually no new prolific basins to yield a crop of giant fields sufficient to have a global impact. The growing Middle East control of the market is likely to lead to a radical and permanent increase in the price of oil, before physical shortages begin to appear within the first decade of the 21st century. The world's economy has been driven by an abundant supply of cheap oil-based energy for the best part of this century. The coming oil crisis will accordingly be an economic and political discontinuity of historic proportions, as the world adjusts to a new energy environment" (9).

The three main purposes for which oil is used worldwide are food, transport and heating. In the near future the competition for oil for these three activities will be raw and real. An energy famine is likely to affect poorer countries first, when increases in the cost of paraffin, used for cooking, place it beyond their reach. Following the peak in production, food supplies all over the world will begin to be disrupted, not only because of price increases but because the oil will no longer be there.


The organic system is more energy efficient to the farm gate...

One of the benefits of organic production is that energy consumption and, therefore, fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, are less than that in conventional systems.

The energy used in food production is separated into direct and indirect inputs. Indirect inputs include the manufacture and supply of pesticides, feedstuffs and fertilisers while direct energy inputs are those on the farm, such as machinery. One measure of the energy efficiency of food production that allows a comparison between different farming practices is the energy consumed per unit output, often expressed as the energy consumed per tonne of food produced (MJ/tonne) or the energy consumed per kilogram of food (MJ/kg).

A study comparing organic and conventional livestock, dairy, vegetable and arable systems in the UK found that, with average yields, the energy saving with organic production ranged from 0.14 MJ/kg to 1.79 MJ/kg, with the average being 0.68 MJ/kg or 42 per cent (13). The improved energy efficiency in organic systems is largely due to lower (or zero) fertiliser and pesticide inputs, which account for half of the energy input in conventional potato and winter wheat production and up to 80 per cent of the energy consumed in some vegetable crops.

In conventional upland livestock production, the largest energy input is again indirect in the form of concentrated and cereal feeds. When reared organically, a greater proportion of the feed for dairy cattle, beef and hill sheep is derived from grass. In the case of milk production, it has been found that organic systems are almost five times more energy efficient on a per animal basis and three and a half times more energy efficient in terms of unit output (the energy required to produce a litre of milk) (13).

...but not when it goes global.

So far so good - but once passed the farm-gate, things begin to go wrong. Britain imports over three-quarters of its organic produce, and despite consumer demand, only two per cent of its land is organically farmed (14). As the market has grown it has been met by imports.

A study looking at the energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions when importing organic food products to the UK by plane (15) found that carbon dioxide emissions range from 1.6 kilograms to 10.7 kilograms. Air transport of food is the worst environmental option but road transport, especially unnecessary journeys, is also bad. For example 5kg of Sicilian potatoes travelling 2448 miles emits 771 grams of carbon dioxide.

The problem is that, overall, human beings have developed a tendency to deal with problems on an ad hoc basis - i.e., to deal with 'problems of the moment'. This does not foster an attitude of seeing a problem embedded in the context of another problem.

Globalisation makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote, can cause problems for prosperous societies on other continents, and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilising).

For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline.

Shocks to the system

As already stated, the three main purposes for which oil is used worldwide are food, transport and heating. Agriculture is almost entirely dependent on reliable supplies of oil for cultivation and for pumping water, and on gas for its fertilisers; in addition, for every calorie of energy used by agriculture itself, five more are used for processing, storage and distribution.

Since farming and the food industry are not famous for spending money unnecessarily, there must be a presumption that there is very little short-term 'slack' which would allow its demand for energy to be reduced at short notice without disruptions in food prices. In the case of transport and heating fuel, there is more scope for saving energy at short notice; cutting leisure journeys, for instance, wearing extra pullovers and, in the slightly longer term, driving smaller cars have a role to play while, in the longer term, there is a totally different low-energy paradigm waiting to be developed. But it is the short term that has to be survived first and, in that short term, the competition for oil for food, transport and heating will be real and raw.

Through its dependence on oil, contemporary farming is exposed to the whole question of the sustainability of our use of fossil fuels. It took 500 million years to produce these hydrocarbon deposits and we are using them at a rate in excess of 1 million times their natural rate of production. On the time scale of centuries, we certainly cannot expect to continue using oil as freely and ubiquitously as we do today. Something is going to have to change.

The same applies more widely to every natural resource on which industrial civilisation relies. Furthermore, one might think that there is a compounded problem. Not only are there more people consuming these resources, but their per capita consumption also increases in line with the elaboration of technology. We seem to be facing a problem of diminishing returns, indeed of running out of the vital raw materials needed to support our economic growth.

Almost every current human endeavour from transportation, to manufacturing, to electricity to plastics, and especially food production is inextricably intertwined with oil and natural gas supplies.

Commercial food production is oil powered. Most pesticides are petroleum- (oil) based, and all commercial fertilisers are ammonia-based. Ammonia is produced from natural gas Oil based agriculture is primarily responsible for the world's population exploding from 1 billion at the middle of the 19th century to 6.3 billion at the turn of the 21st Oil allowed for farming implements such as tractors, food storage systems such as refrigerators, and food transport systems such as trucks As oil production went up, so did food production. As food production went up, so did the population. As the population went up, the demand for food went up, which increased the demand for oil. Here we go round the Mulberry bush Oil is also largely responsible for the advances in medicine that have been made in the last 150 years. Oil allowed for the mass production of pharmaceutical drugs, and the development of health care infrastructure such as hospitals, ambulances, roads, etc.

We are now at a point where the demand for food/oil continues to rise, while our ability to produce it in an affordable fashion is about to drop.

Within a few years of Peak Oil occurring, the price of food will skyrocket because the cost of fertiliser will soar. The cost of storing (electricity) and transporting (gasoline) the food that is produced will also soar.

Oil is required for a lot more than just food, medicine, and transportation. It is also required for nearly every consumer item, water supply pumping, sewage disposal, garbage disposal, street/park maintenance, hospitals and health systems, police, fire services and national defence.

Additionally, as you are probably already aware, wars are often fought over oil.

Bottom line?

If we think we are food secure here in the UK and other industrialised countries simply because we have gas in the car, frankly, we are delusional. Despite the appearance of an endless bounty of food, it is a fragile bounty, dependent upon the integrity of the global oil production, refining and delivery system. That system is entirely dependent on the thread of technology. Modern, technology-based agriculture produces both food, and seeds for next year's food, on a just-in-time basis. There are precious little reserves of either food or seeds to sustain any protracted interruption.

Technology and the incredibly rich tapestry it has made possible has created a false sense of security for so many of us. The thread is flawed; the tapestry is now fragile; famines are possible. We must take that seriously. . .

Our food supply, and our economic survival as a whole, depends on the steady availability of reasonably priced oil. Is oil our Achilles heel?

This means our food supply is:


The oil supplies that fuel the food system could be exhausted by 2040 (19). In many regions oil production has peaked and most reserves lie in the Middle East. Food security is also threatened: for example, even if all UK fruit production was consumed in the UK, of every 100 fruit products purchased, only 5 will now have been grown in the UK.


For every calorie of carrot, flown in from South Africa, we use 66 calories of fuel. The huge fuel use in the food system means more carbon dioxide emissions, which means climate change, which means more damage to food supplies, as well as other major health and social problems.


Even organic supplies are becoming hugely damaging as imports fill our shelves (17). One shopping basket of 26 imported organic products could have travelled 241,000 kilometres and released as much CO2 into the atmosphere as an average four bedroom household does through cooking meals over eight months (18).

Other problems highlighted include loss of nutrients in food, increased incidence and spread of diseases such as Foot & Mouth and other major animal welfare problems. Poor countries producing food for distant markets are not necessarily seeing benefits through increased and often intensive production for export. The report reveals how such trends could be reversed through industry, government and public action.

In other words, we won't have to run completely out of oil to be rudely awakened. The panic starts once the world needs more oil than it gets.

To understand why, you've got to fathom how totally addicted to oil we have become. We know that petroleum is drawn from deep wells and distilled into gasoline, jet fuel, and countless other products that form the lifeblood of industry and the adrenaline of military might. It's less well known that the world's food is now nourished by oil; petroleum and natural gas are crucial at every step of modern agriculture, from forming fertiliser to shipping crops. The implications are grim. For millions, the difference between an energy famine and a biblical famine could well be academic.

Independent policy analyst David Fleming writes in the British magazine Prospect (Nov. 2000),

With a global oil crisis looming like the Doomsday Rock, why do so few political leaders seem to care? Many experts refuse to take the problem seriously because it "falls outside the mind-set of market economics." Thanks to the triumph of global capitalism, the free-market model now reigns almost everywhere. The trouble is, its principles "tend to break down when applied to natural resources like oil." The result is both potentially catastrophic and all too human. Our high priests-the market economists-are blind to a reality that in their cosmology cannot exist.

Fleming offers several examples of this broken logic at work. Many cling to a belief that higher oil prices will spur more oil discoveries, but they ignore what earth scientists have been saying for years: there aren't any more big discoveries to make. Most of the oil reserves we tap today were actually identified by the mid-1960s. There's a lot of oil left in the ground - perhaps more than half of the total recoverable supply. Fleming says that that is not the issue. The real concern is the point beyond which demand cannot be met. And with demand destined to grow by as much as 3 percent a year, the missing barrels will add up quickly. Once the pain becomes real, the Darwinian impulse kicks in and the orderly market gives way to chaos.

Some insist that industrial societies are growing less dependent on oil. Fleming says they're kidding themselves. They're talking about oil use as a percentage of total energy use, not the actual amount of oil burned. Measured by the barrel, we're burning more and more. In Britain, for instance, transportation needs have doubled in volume since 1973 and still rely almost entirely on oil. Transportation is the weak link in any modern economy; choke off the oil and a country quickly seizes.

This wouldn't matter much, Fleming laments, "If the world had spent the last 25 years urgently preparing alternative energies, conservation technologies, and patterns of land use with a much lower dependence on transport." (He figures 25 years to be the time it will take a country like Britain to break its habit.) Instead, "the long-expected shock finds us unprepared."


UK food supply chain

UK food retailing market was worth £103,800 million in 2001
Food manufacturing is the single-largest manufacturing industry in the UK
Food supply chain employs 12.5% of the entire workforce in the UK
Food supply chain contributes 8% to the UK economy
Food and drink accounts for 21% of weekly household expenditure

Food supply chain and unsustainability

Food supply chain is the largest energy user in the UK
Food production and distribution contributes up to 22% of the UK's total greenhouse emissions
Food travels further than any other product - 129 km compared to the average product travel of 94 km
Wages in the food industry are notoriously low compared to other sectors
Nearly 30% of household waste is food waste


Proximity and localisation of food system would be beneficial.
The contemporary food system is inherently unsustainable.

Indicators of social, environmental and economic performance, such as food security, greenhouse gas emissions, food miles, farm income and biodiversity highlight this fact. This process could be reversed by re-establishing local and regional food supply systems and substituting 'near for far' in production and distribution systems. This would reduce both the demand for, and the environmental burdens associated with, transportation.

The proximity principle is a straightforward concept in Eating Oil, where production processes are located as near to the consumer as possible. When applied to food supply, local food systems in the form of home-delivery box schemes, farmers' markets and shops selling local produce would replace imported and centrally distributed foodstuffs.

Taking UK food supply and trade at present, there is great potential to apply the proximity principle, in the form of import substitution. Apart from products such as bananas, coffee and tea, many of the foodstuffs that are imported at present could be produced in Britain. Many meat products, cereals, dairy products and cooking oils are - or could be - available here throughout the year. So could fruit and vegetables, perhaps the most seasonal of food groups, through a combination of cultivating different varieties and traditional and modern storage and preservation techniques.

The land currently used to produce food that is exported could be used to increase our self-sufficiency.

There is growing evidence of environmental benefits of local sourcing of food in terms of reduced transport-related environmental impact. In the case of organic produce, a survey of retailers compared local and global sourcing of produce marketed in different outlets between June and August 2001. Products were chosen that were available in the UK during these months but are at present imported by the multiple retailers. These included spring onions imported by plane from Mexico, potatoes imported by road from Sicily, onions imported by ship from New Zealand. It was found that local sourcing through a farmers market, for example, would therefore reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with distribution by a factor of 650 in the case of a farmers' market and more for box schemes and farm shop sales (16).

The value of UK food, feed and drink imports in 1999 was over £17 billion. It is clear that a reduction in food imports through import substitution would not only be of benefit to the UK economy as a whole but could also be a major driver in rural regeneration as farm incomes would increase substantially. Local food systems also have great potential to reduce the damaging environmental effects of the current food supply system.

A sustainable food system cannot rely, almost completely, on one finite energy source; an energy source which causes enormous levels of pollution during its production, distribution and use. Although food supplies in wealthy countries such as the UK appear to be secure and choice, in terms of thousands of food products being available at supermarkets, seems limitless, this is an illusion.

The vulnerability of our food system to sudden changes was demonstrated during the fuel crisis in 2001. A sharp increase in the price of oil or a reduction in oil supplies could present a far more serious threat to food security and is likely to as oil enters its depletion phase. Food production and distribution, as they are organised today, would not be able to function. Moreover, the alternatives, in the form of sustainable agriculture and local food supplies, which minimise the use of crude oil, are currently unable to respond to increased demand due to low investment and capacity.

The food system is now a significant contributor to climate change. Reducing the carbon dioxide emissions from food production, processing and distribution by minimising the distance between producer and consumer should be a critical part of any strategy to mitigate global warming.

There are many benefits to organic farming, including reduced fossil fuel energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. However, these are often overshadowed by the environmental damage of long distance transport. Organic products that are transported long distances, particularly when distribution is by plane, are almost as damaging as their conventional air freighted counterparts. Highly processed and packaged organic foodstuffs have an added adverse environmental impact.

The priority must be the development of local and regional food systems, preferably organically based, in which a large percentage of demand is met within the locality or region. This approach, combined with fair trade, will ensure secure food supplies, minimise fossil fuel consumption and reduce the vulnerability associated with a dependency on food exports (as well as imports). Localising the food system will require significant diversification, research, investment and support that have, so far, not been forthcoming. But it is achievable and we have little choice.

Compiled by Norman Church

Norman Church
April 2nd, 2005


The biggest problem I feel is not the actual demise of fossil fuels, like Peak Oil, but that all that all our systems, finance, communications and power (electric) depend on, and interrelate and depend either directly or indirectly to each other. Obviously from this point oil is a major supplier of not only power but many other products. It is this, an obviously food as a main concern, that must be understood. I also think that in understanding this then people may be more able to understand what is being said about Peak Oil.

I wonder if those that seem to accept the Peak Oil problems, or more so the fossil fuel problem, see the effects that it will have and that it may well even now be too late to do anything much to mitigate its coming effect on society.

I am starting work on another similar article that expands on my earlier article 'Domino Effect and Interdependencies' which can be found at

I feel that it will be this that will ultimately bring us all down, as the amount of oil decreases and the price increases.

It is this systems dependence which is not clearly understood or appreciated. This also includes the relationship between Peak Oil and global earth change situations like global warming, soil erosion, higher sea levels, water depletion and deforestation to name a few. They are all interrelated.

Norman Church

Somerset, UK


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