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Your Children's Farm, Part 2
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Meet Dr. Hubbert
In the 1950s, M. King Hubbert, a far-thinking scientist who worked for Shell Oil, postulated that one day oil production would peak and then begin a predictable decline.  He guessed that this would occur in the United States in about 1970 and would occur on a global basis in the 1990s.  Revered for his intellect before he made his predictions, he was immediately denounced as a heretic by the vast majority of oil experts.  When, two decades later, it became clear that America had reached its peak oil production in 1970, there was more than a little chin-scratching in the oil community, and Hubbert belatedly received the accolades that were his due.
Today, there is an ongoing and heated debate about whether we have reached Hubbert's peak on a global oil-production basis.  Some analysts believe we have, and this conclusion is even being reported in the venerable Wall Street Journal.  The majority seem to place the peak within the next decade.  The ever-optimistic federal agency charged with guessing at such things estimates we will reach the global oil peak in about 2028.
What virtually everyone seems to miss is that 'peak oil' is an abstraction that has little meaning when it is not tied to human population growth.  With the global population expanding at the rate of about 1.5 million people per week and global oil production remaining flat, we reached peak oil on a per capita basis more than two decades ago.  So, for each child born while you're reading this sentence, there is incrementally less oil available for that newborn baby...and for you as well.
At any rate, whether we reach global peak oil production tomorrow or in twenty years, virtually all analysts agree that when the peak is reached the downside of the oil depletion curve will cause an extreme displacement in the way we, as a species, go about our business.  (Some wet blankets predict that this displacement will result in widespread global famine and a massive die-off of the human population.)  To an unprecedented degree we will need to re-engineer society in our transition to surviving on real-time energy --the sun-- and that transition may not be very smooth unless we plan for it far in advance.  Unfortunately, much of the knowledge and many of the tools that would have eased that transition have been lost after generations of living off the stored energy of petroleum.
The implications of this are so immense and potentially threatening that they are difficult to fully process.  This is one reason, as commentator James Kunstler has noted, that we prefer the 'collective coma' of mindless TV and cheese doodles rather than the stark reality that now awaits just outside our front doors.  The industrialized raising of animals in vast climate-controlled buildings; the unrelenting use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to support the continuous planting and re-planting of huge swaths of monoculture crops like corn; the transportation of food around the globe; the thrifty five-gallon jar of malted milk balls you bought at Costco --all these things go away.  And the question remains, what will replace them?
Your Children's Farm
Even though you may not live on a farm, it is a far more likely career path for your children.  As our oil supply dwindles and with it our ability to use brute mechanization and industrial-scale farming methods, we will need to re-populate farms with people instead of machines.  They will be there not only to provide labor, but to provide intelligent oversight, constantly monitoring and shifting tactics in response to ever-changing conditions.
The farms of the future will ring our cities, shuttling fresh food in each day, the menu of items shifting with the seasons.  Micro-farms will also be interwoven in the urban landscape; perhaps some will overlay what were once-sprawling subdivisions that will eventually be dismantled because of their sheer impracticality.  The energy costs of transporting food will be cut by more than 95 percent.  While today the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles before it lands on your plate, in the future it may travel no more than 15 miles --or 15 blocks.  Eating will become more seasonal, and the concept of eating watermelon in winter will return to the dusty drawer where we store our agricultural hubris.
Farms will use less energy but more intelligence than any previous agricultural system.  Today we understand far more about growing food than we did a half-century ago, and our knowledge of genetics, chemistry, biology, and ecology --accessed and applied through the use of low-energy information technology-- will revolutionize the operation of small farms.  Efficient drip irrigation will replace the high-energy, high-evaporation practice of spray irrigation.  Computers will monitor environmental conditions and use artificial intelligence to suggest the best agricultural practices.  Species will be carefully selected and cultivated together creating diverse mini-ecosystems specifically designed to thwart pests and disease.
Your children's farm will share one very important thing with your grandparents' farm:  the sun will be its primary source of energy.  Over the coming decades America's farms will have to be re-solarized in order to conform to the realities of oil depletion.  The virtuous energy loop of earlier farms will be re-established in an even more robust form, and farms will self-generate most of their soil nutrients.  You will be able to trace the food you eat directly to the sun without the intervening layer of petroleum energy.
If they can survive for a few more years, near-obsolete animal and plant varieties will be resurrected to populate the farms of tomorrow.  The narrow-purpose hybrids of today that as animals can only survive in climate-controlled metal buildings or as plants require a full chemical regimen to prosper will finally be relegated to the genetic dumpster.  Old indestructible breeds  --breeds on which the hand of man has lightly lain-- will return to the fore.  Pineywoods cattle, red wattle pigs, Gulf Coast native sheep...these were breeds conceived at a time before the petroleum takeover, and they will return at a time when the petroleum is spent.  (You can play a role in this:  I have a pig with your name on it.)  Tomato varieties will once again be chosen for how good they taste rather than how well they withstand the rigors of transcontinental shipping.  And you may find yourself in the unusual position of waxing nostalgic about your children's tomatoes rather than your grandparents' tomatoes.
These marvelous farms may be born of necessity, but their service to us will be beyond merely their ability to provide food.  We will be forced to turn away from what are essentially mindless industrial processes and re-acquaint ourselves with what is elemental:  the sun, the seasons, the weather, the living soil, our world teeming with interconnected life.
This is the path that looms before us and one that will be well-trod by our children.  But if you pay close attention you can sense the shift even now.  Lean your elbows on our field fence, quietly take in the pasture in the golden evening light, and listen to the lowing of the pineywoods cattle as the sun goes down.  Most people would tell you that night is descending.  But you know you're seeing a new dawn.