Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Visions of the Future

A vision is an important thing to have. If you don't know what you're working for, you'll often find you don't like what you've built with all your labor. And even if you do know what you're working for, you may find the product not to your liking, which shows that it's not just a vision, but the right vision, that is important.

Another important point about visions is that, just because you have one, doesn't mean it's guaranteed to come about. This is a really important point, so I'm going to emphasize it: just because you want something, doesn't mean you're going to get it. I find this kind of semi-magical thinking at all levels of society, from individuals who believe a change of consciousness is imminent -- or immanent, if you will -- and that *poof* just like that, next Tuesday we'll all be sipping organic chai wondering what all the fuss was about last Monday.

As an example of that level of thinking at the highest levels of government, I present the following chart (let us call it "Figure 1"):

Figure 1. Magical Thinking at Upper Levels of Government. (source)

In 2009, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), a department of the US Department of Energy (DoE), projected world demand for petroleum at around 105 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2030 (up from below 90mbd in 2008). They also projected all known and expected petroleum extraction projects to decline to around 40mbd -- a disjunction of over 60mbd, or the output of six Saudi Arabias. Now, any sane person would look at that information and say "oh, that's interesting. Maybe it's time to transition off petroleum before it transitions off us?" However, the EIA, a very clever agency, simply filled in the gap with "Unidentified Projects." You see, it is simply impossible for some people to imagine a world in which growth in oil production did not match growth in (nominal) oil demand. They matched their internal reality to their "vision for the future." That's magical thinking in the worst way (trying to influence physical reality with positive thinking and only positive thinking), and it's a mistake.

Similarly, if I presented to you a vision for a transitioned Lancaster, in which we were not dependent on oil, where the air was clean, where noise and light pollution were gone (and I could see the night sky again!), with full employment and a (mostly) localized economy that was insulated against violent hiccups from abroad, and then simply asserted that because I have this vision, and maybe you do, too, it's simply bound to happen, you would see that for the lunacy it was. However, that does not negate the value of the vision. It simply says the vision isn't enough.

My purpose in this post is two-fold. First, to present the beginnings of a vision for a better, relocalized Lancaster economy; and second, to sketch out some of the steps and preconditions that might help in realizing that better future.

A Vision for 2020

First, it's just "a" vision, not "the" vision. I'm just one guy, thinking aloud. Feel free to chime in with some comments.

I'd like to see a carless, or mostly carless future. I admit to a strong bias against cars: I think they're obnoxious and dangerous, in many ways; I think they are inimical to urban life and demeaning to life generally. Now, I'd like this transition to a carless future to be a matter of choice rather than necessity, but I suspect it will be the latter. Peak oil -- barring even more massive government intrusion into, and subsidies of, the oil markets (imagine that) -- will make gasoline and diesel ever more expensive. As Figure 1 above shows, we're already falling off the oil cliff into the relatively uncharted waters of terminally declining net energy per capita. This will necessitate radical changes in how we live our lives; most immediately and obviously, this will mean transportation, of ourselves and our food, will become ever more expensive. A nice side-effect will be cleaner air than any of us have breathed in Lancaster for a long time, if ever. I think the quiet will prove an unexpected boon, as well.

I mentioned the increasing expense of transporting food. It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which buying Chinese garlic from Giant (e.g.) doesn't become impossible; it's already insane: making it economically impossible would be a nice way to put a stop to the practice. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, read this article, published by the Daily Mail in the UK, titled "Nine Meals from Anarchy." It does an excellent job of relaying the extent to which our globalized food system is dependent on (dwindling and dangerous) supplies of petroleum. And then read these articles about the 2008 trucker strike in Spain and this one about the very recent trucker strike in Greece, each of which seriously threatened those two nations' economies, not to mention bringing real hardship to the people those economies nominally serve. Since we clearly can't rely on state or national action to avert this looming catastrophe, my vision for Lancaster's future has us producing all the staple food we eat here in the county. Before you interject: "but don't you know Lancaster has the best soil in the world and is a national breadbasket -- no problem!", let's look at some of the facts. According to the 2007 US Agricultural Census, produced by the US Department of Agriculture, out of 303,222 acres of harvested cropland in Lancaster County, only 6,019 acres (less than 2%) produced vegetables for human consumption. The vast majority (over 90%) of the rest are fed to animals, the vast majority of which are then trucked out of here on a plume of diesel smoke. Also according to the Ag Census, less than 1.25% (or about 6,250) of the county's population (around 500,000 people) self-identified as a farmer.

These statistics point to two major issues: (1) our farming is largely devoted to commodity crops and animal production; and (2) our farmers absolutely require vast inputs of petroleum and petroleum by-products to produce those crops and animals.* This latter point is made more clear when one considers that, in 1840, the first year of the Ag Census, around 69% of the nation's population was in farming. Those massive productivity gains made over the past 170 years are the direct result of industrialization, which is directly the result of massive inputs of fossil fuels.

*even if you imagined we could maintain that ratio of animal production to vegetable production, do you really think a healthy diet would consist of 98% meat and 2% veggies?

So, back to my vision for Lancaster's food supply. I envision us producing enough food to supply our population with adequate nutrition and calories, with modest imports of luxury, non-staple foodstuffs. I envision that this food is produced by a vastly increased population of farmers, both rural and urban. Another of the pleasant and unexpected spin-off effects of peak oil, therefore, is that farmers, no longer able to rely on imported, terrorism-supporting (and watershed and climate-destroying) fossil fuels, will be forced to "re-labor", if you will, food production. There, just solved the employment problem.

In addition to labor, the new (old) farm will need a new (actually, quite old) source of fertilizer. It just so happens that Lancaster County, and Lancaster City in particular, has a HUGE supply of potential fertilizer, but one which we currently foolishly flush away into the Conestoga River, and from there to the Chesapeake Bay, where it is presents a seemingly intractable nutrient pollution problem. You ever wonder how we could have something so ridiculous-sounding as "nutrient pollution"? That's your ancient Earthly self speaking up. It's only modern (wo)man that has such a farcical problem. Let me sketch out to you our current system:

Step 1: Pour petroleum and natural gas on farm fields, which have been degraded by centuries of mining them of all their valuable nutrients; and raising food thereby.
Step 2: Eat that food.
Step 3: Urinate and defecate into drinking water, whose potability has taken a tremendous amount of human toil and (yet more) fossil energy to produce.
Step 4: Flush that fouled water into the nearest body of flowing water, fouling it as well.
Step 5: Waive as it bobs merrily out to sea.
Step 6: Repeat until every ocean is full of anoxic (oxygen-depleted) dead zones and every formerly-productive agricultural field is only able to be kept so by the exponentially increasing application of artificial (petro- and natural gas-based) fertilizer.

Is it just me, or is that asinine?

So, here's another part of my vision, which will simultaneously solve the problem of where to get fertilizer once oil and natural gas are out of the question, the problem of the dying Chesapeake Bay (not to mention the unswimmable and drinkinkable Conestoga), and save a whole lot of energy and money to boot! One word: humanure. Well, maybe two words: composted humanure. I'll just let that mentally digest for a while as I move on....

So, we've looked at transportation (which includes a vision for a clean and quiet atmosphere), food, employment, wastewater, and natural fertilizer. That may be a good stopping point for today.

Oh, and I promised one other thing in this post: a discussion of steps and preconditions that might be necessary to see this vision come to fruition. That's actually rather simple. Another two words: accept reality. To elaborate (just a little), we need, as citizens of this county, to give up our personal visions of a future of endless material abundance, forget about what we always thought we were promised as 20th- and 21st-century Americans, and get down to Eaarth. I believe that a better world is possible, but I don't believe it is inevitable. The odds are rather stacked against it, frankly. But if we can shed our illusions and embrace the new Eaarth, we may yet achieve the grandly simply goals outlined by the Founders in our Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and happiness are still possible. But a right that is ignored, or passed up for a flatscreen television, is hardly worthy of the name, is it?

1 comment:

Cassa said...

This is really great. Lancaster is very fortunate to have you!