Monday, January 13, 2014

For Future Famers and Camel-Riders

One of the positive externalities of episodic insomnia is that occasionally I get to chip away at the backlog of reading and writing that I have been meaning to do.

I just read the article, "Solutions for a cultivated planet" by JA Foley et al., in Nature Vol. 478 (2011).

Now, granted, us scientists have a saying that, “Just because it was published in Nature doesn’t make it wrong…” Nonetheless it did stir my thinking of what's perpetually missing from our conversations in academia, the media – and everywhere, basically – about "sustainability" and the future.

The authors posit projected growth in population and thus increasing food demands heading towards 2050. They rightly indicate that current agricultural practices compound manifold forms of environmental pollution, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and contribute to climate change – all while failing to meet the nutritional needs of a large segment of the human population. (Doh!) They suggest that “intensification,” and “closing the yield gap” can substantially increase food production and thus meet growing future demands. But nowhere do they acknowledge the utter dependence of contemporary agriculture on a steadily increasing supply of cheap and abundant fossil fuels.

Acknowledgement and consideration of the absolutely central role of our ability to increase the supply of cheap fossil fuels is what is missing from so many academic analyses and journal articles, University classroom discussions, national media attention, Presidential debates, NPR programs, etc., etc., etc.

Affordable and accessible fossil fuels underpin our entire contemporary economy. Being able to continually increase our access to cheap fossil fuels is what has enabled continued economic growth over the past several decades. The rules of our economic "operating system" have been developed and deployed under these circumstances; so we have become "growth-dependent."

Now, as cheap accessible fossil fuels (primarily oil) peak and begin to decline, in lieu of increased access to cheap high-net-energy sources we have resorted to attempts to substitute, for example:
  •  The inflation of credit bubbles ensnaring, among others, home buyers (often poor/working class minorities targeted by predatory lenders) and hordes of hapless Millennial generation university students
  • Engaging in extreme financialization of the economy and creation of wildly, preternaturally abstruse instruments such as “collateralized debt obligations,” “credit default swaps,” and sub-prime “mortgage backed securities” (Warren Buffet famously labeled derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction…)
  • The societal countenance of – and bi-partisan government support of and subservience to – swindle at the highest levels, and the enshrinement of fraud on Wall Street (“Everything’s fucked up, and nobody goes to jail…”)
  • The feckless pursuit of “ZIRP” and umpteen rounds of QE "money printing" by the Fed
  • Tragically overweening hyperbole about “fracking” and shale gas/oil making the US energy independent and representing some great (cheap) energy bonanza; and…so on….

…all in order to make it appear that we still have a growing economy, and will be able to have a growing economy indefinitely.

So how does this relate to things like Foley et al.'s Nature article, and in general to themes of sustainable development and the future? 

Without being able to increase our access to high-net energy, cheap, accessible and abundant fossil fuels we cannot have continued economic growth. Without continual economic growth, under the current political economy we cannot form and deploy financial capital for socially productive purposes (this is the proper role of the finance sector). If we cannot deploy increasing sums of capital towards agricultural intensification we cannot increase food production, according to Foley et al.'s model which is reflective of most all mainstream ag “development” intentions.

In fact, if fossil fuel scarcity increases and energy becomes more expensive and lower net-energy – as inevitably it shall – then any "solutions" to our food production dilemma that require vast expenditures of capital and energy will be nonviable. This applies to anything that is colloquially considered to be "high-tech," as well as anything organized on a massive scale.

And this applies not only to “solutions” to our food production problem, but to all critical sectors of human and community life: transportation, energy, water and sanitation, consumer goods, health care, the built environment, even entertainment and recreation. Anything organized on a vast scale and dependent upon long and intricate supply chains – thus anything that is expensive, energy intensive, and technologically complex – is therefore vulnerable and fragile. (Uh-oh.)

So here’s the punchline:

Any meaningful discussion of strategies for meeting development goals – in any sector – henceforth has to take into account increasing scarcity and therefore costliness and lower net-return on basic energy inputs, and the impairment of capital formation and deployment implied therein.

It sounds common-sense, but turns out nobody is doing it. Not even in the pages of Nature.

*          *          *

I’d like to believe that we’ll transform our economy to one that’s sustainable because we recognize the severe moral failing of permitting the catastrophic loss of biodiversity that’s already well underway. We won’t.

I’d like to believe that we’ll transform our economy to one that’s sustainable because we’re hard-nosed utilitarians, fully and rationally abreast of the true value of the “ecosystem services” we’re currently destroying. We aren’t.

I’d like to believe that we’ll transform our economy to one that’s sustainable because we are prudent conservatives and thus adherents of the precautionary principle and therefore adamant to avert the unknown and mostly unknowable deleterious effects of the climate destabilization we’re causing. We aren’t.

The Vietnam War ended not because it was morally wrong to begin with, not because of compassion for the suffering of millions of innocent villagers in SE Asia, not even because it became intensely unpopular among the middle-class constituents of the US Congress. It ended because it was too expensive.

We are going to transition to a sustainable economy because our ability to sustain the unsustainable is rapidly eroding to zero. If we “got our shit together” along the lines of the above aspirational conjectures, we could do the transition with substantially less collateral damage (in terms of other species, human lives, climate stability, etc.). But all you need to abolish any hopes of that happening, however, is to watch about five minutes of television. (Any channel, any time of the day will do.)

Those of us contemplating what “sustainability” really means (i.e. that our present condition is characterized by extreme unsustainability and super-fragility) cannot afford to wait for society (i.e. government, the economic elite, and the culture in general) to “do the right things for the right reasons.” Ain’t gonna happen. We have to start working now to develop and spread the local, bioregional, “low-tech” modes of existence that are going to increasingly predominate in the decades to come.

To wit:

Recognizing the finitude of oil and the transience of oil-derived affluence, the former Emir of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum (1912-1990) remarked, “My grandfather rode a camel. My father rode a camel. I drive a Rolls Royce. My son flies a jet plane. His son will drive a Mercedes. But his son will ride a camel.” 

Perhaps some Millennial generation American will observe, "My great-grandfather worked on a farm. My grandfather worked in a factory. My father worked in a cubicle. I am unemployed (with $xxx,xxx in student loan debt). My son will work on a farm..."

An ending note: this is perhaps getting to sound a little apocalyptic, but it isn’t at all. I’d need another essay to explain fully why this is so, but for now here’s a short illustration:

A lower-tech, poorer (less affluent), more local life that involves manual labor doesn’t necessarily make you worse off. Presently, we work far, far too many hours fastened to a computer terminal (see, you can tell something is wrong right there in the name “terminal”…). This we do in order to make money. A sedentary life spent under the constant hypnosis of screens – work station, laptop, iPhone, GPS, iPad, flat screen TV, etc. – makes us pallid, flabby, unfit, and unattractive (non-sexy). So we need to pay a big portion of the money we make doing all this terminal nonsense to specialists and corporations who compel us to exercise (e.g. perform aerobics, spin classes, lifting weights, yoga, etc.).

What your personal trainer or yoga instructor is doing is leading you through a series of motions approximating farm labor – bending and stooping, crouching, lunging, twisting and stretching, fetching weight over your head, and so on. These elaborate gyrations are designed to get your pulse up, burn fat, tone your muscles, and improve sex-appeal.

The good news is, when the corporation employing you to inhabit that cubicle goes belly-up in the collapsing economy and you have to go get a manual labor job on a farm, you will actually be coming out way ahead. You’ll be getting paid (a little bit) to become tan, fitter, and more attractive. Now, that’s not so apocalyptic, is it?

After all, Mephistopheles - that old truth-telling devil - did point out:

There is a natural way to make you young...Go out in a field 
And start right in to work: dig, hoe, 
Keep your thoughts and yourself in that field,
Eat the food you raise...
Be willing to manure the field you harvest.
And that’s the best way - take it from me! - 
To go on being young at eighty.