June 24, 2011

Our oil-dependent culture is sleepwalking into the future

Denis Thoet and his partner, Michele Roy, own and

What is agriculture going to look like 30 years from now? Probably a lot like agriculture 130 years ago.

* No more tractors -- horse power and human labor will rule;

* No more chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides -- they are based on fossil fuels. Compost, manure, and green cover crops will bring back fertility lost by "conventional" farming methods;

* No more factory farms, no more animal containment operations that depend heavily on oil. Food production will once again be local and performed by a much larger segment of the population;

* No more big-box discount food stores, and no more supermarkets that are heavily dependent on global and cross-country transportation systems that will no longer exist because oil is too expensive or unavailable.

This is part of the story told by James Howard Kunstler in his 2005 book, "The Long Emergency." The rest has to do with our long bumpy ride since passing "peak oil," yet we're still using oil as if the supply is endless. We seem to think that technology will come to the rescue with alternative sources of power like wind, nitrogen, solar and nuclear.

We are "sleepwalking into the future" if we think things will not change drastically once oil becomes less and less available, Kunstler says. None of our political leaders has considered life without oil. Most of the rest of us can't imagine it either. The last president to take the energy crisis seriously was Jimmy Carter ("just wear a sweater and drive 55"). We all know what happened to him in 1980. We elected Ronnie, and those White House solar panels were sent packing too. No one is planning for a future without oil. No one is even talking about it seriously.

A major flaw of our political system is that it lives within the two- and four-year electoral cycle -- not conducive to long-range planning. Who can run successfully on a "no more oil" election platform? Nobody.

And a major flaw in our economic system is that the giant corporations which control it are very good at making money but not very good at safeguarding the planet or the people on it. Our massive industrial food system has simultaneously destroyed millions of acres of cropland, polluted the entire Mississippi River watershed, created a 16,000-square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and created a population that is 75 percent overweight or obese -- all while making enormous profits.

The corporate industrial food model is also unsustainable in the post-oil era, Kunstler says. Without oil and natural gas, the industrial food system will be deprived of most of its chief attributes: cheap road transportation carrying no-nutrition iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast; GPS-driven tractors and combines running on gasoline and diesel throughout the Midwest, and the dumping of millions of pounds of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and nitrate fertilizer on our cropland, polluting our waterways and weakening the soil, helped by massive government subsidies. Mostly, the profit will just go away as oil inevitably goes away.

Since government, big or small, is not planning the food system of the future, and large corporations are acting as if everything is just fine, what can be done?

Start acting as if your future depends upon you. We all eat every day. How much of that food do you grow yourself or is grown nearby? If it's 10 percent now, think about 100 percent within the next generation. In 1910, 30 percent of our population produced food. Now, it's about 1.6 percent and much of that production is worthless as food (chips, soda, etc.).

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