Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Should We Do?

Soil-building is one of the answers.
There will be no great leader, this time.

Many have commented that a mass mobilization, on the scale of World War II, is what we need, right now, to prepare for peak oil and preserve a habitable climate and biosphere. There are a number of logical and practical issues with this notion.

First, no one in a position to be a leader -- say, the President, a member of Congress, a Governor, a respected (hah) national news correspondent -- has shown either (a) any understanding of the magnitude of the crises we face or (b) any inclination to be an actual leader on these issues. Instead, we get nonsensical screeds on American "exceptionalism," which I must put in quotation marks due to the fact of its not being either a word or a remotely coherent idea.

Second, the analysis of some very intelligent and thoughtful people (see, e.g., the Hirsch Report) has shown that we would need a WWII-scale mobilization twenty years in advance of oil peaking to successfully avert a peak oil-based global economic and political collapse. Since peak crude oil was five years ago, in 2006, and we are now at the final edge of the "undulating plateau" of oil production, this opportunity was lost nearly 25 years ago.

Third, we have already left the geologic epoch known as the Holocene (from holos = whole, and cene = new; thus: wholly new), which began about 11,700 years ago, and during which we had the steady, stable climate which permitted human civilization to develop for the first time on Earth (anatomically modern Homo sapiens first appeared over 200,000 years ago, and behaviorally-modern humans first appeared about 50,000 years ago). The Holocene is over; we have now entered what geologist call the Anthropocene (from anthropo = human), an epoch characterized by the global extent and impact of human activities on the Earth. This new epoch will be distinguished by (among other things) an increasingly chaotic climatic system, leading to regional and possibly global food shortages, the inundation of human settlements by rising flood waters, continent-sized Dust Bowls in North America and elsewhere, tens or hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, political and economic collapse, regional unrest, disruptions in the shipment of vital materials (such as food, energy, minerals), etc.

As an aside, I will note that part of the reason for this chaotic climate change is that we have already blown past the global carbon budget by at least 40, if not 90, parts per million (ppm). Present concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere stand at about 390ppm. For at least the past 400,000 years, those levels never went much over 300ppm, and the current rate of increase (2ppm / year) is about 10,000 times the natural rate. Just as with our oil addiction, we have missed our deadline for keeping atmospheric carbon at safe levels by over 20 years.

In other words, in almost ever sense, we have overshot. Too many people consuming too many resources dumping too much pollution and waste into a finite global ecosystem. Every year in which we continue to add carbon to the atmosphere, just as every year in which we fail to ween ourselves off of our oil and lifestyle addiction, is another year in which are digging our own collective grave.

Cheerful, huh?

As I said above, and for the reasons already outlined (plus many more besides), don't expect any person purporting to represent that entity known as the United States (or most any other "nation-state") to take any proactive steps on these issues. Don't expect anyone to exhort you, or your neighbors, to take up any great national cause that might effectively meet these foolishly self-imposed threats. You've got no one but yourself, as hard as that sounds. At most, you've got your immediate geographic community; hopefully, that community is organizing, as Lancaster is, around a Transition movement that recognizes the present importance of these issues, and is seeking ways to meet them positively.

So, you've read the above and you agree on the three following propositions: (1) we are in for some hard times ahead, (2) no one is going to help us but ourselves and maybe our friends, and (3) we need to start working now. So what do we actually do?

The bottom pyramid doesn't look terribly stable, does it?
There are very few things I know for sure on this subject, but thanks to some pretty clear statistics this is one of them: start growing your own food. As I showed in a presentation on October 24, 2009 (the Global Day of Action and Eastern Market's first annual Green Fest), the United States has a woefully inadequate supply of farmers right now. Over 170 years ago, in 1840, before the advent of industrialism and widespread use of fossil fuels, the world had a basically solar-powered economy. The sun shown, grass and trees grew, and humans and animals ate food that had been cultivated with human and animal labor in a basically (though not entirely) closed-loop system whose driving energy source was the sun. At that time, 69% of the population of the USA, or 11.7 million people (out of 17 million), was directly involved in farming. In 2008, nationally, that percentage was below 0.62%, or 1.9 out of 304 million. In other words, we had more farmers in 1840 than we have now. Since it is pretty clear to most observers that this extraordinary feat has been made possibly by basically free energy, in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas, it becomes clear that one of the pressing needs we will feel as that free energy disappears is for more farmers -- and farm animals -- to directly work the land.

As a supporting statistic, I will note that, for every one calorie of food you consume, approximately 10 calories of fossil fuel-based energy (primarily oil and natural gas) was required as an input. Or, to put it another way, Americans consume, on average, about 400 gallons of gasoline-equivalent annually to produce our food. It also turns out that a barrel of oil is worth about 11.3 person-years of labor. The amount of energy we shovel into the US food system is thus equivalent to about 33 billion person-years of labor (or nearly 5x the population of Earth -- just to feed the USA). If that sounds like a lot, you're right.

Left: nutrient-poor oxisol. Right: an oxisol transformed into fertile terra preta using biochar. (source)

All is not lost! The first step in solving your problem, as they say, is recognizing that you have one. Well, we can check that step off the list. Step two is knowing where you need to get. Well, I would say, in the context of this post, "where we need to get" is a place that has a sustainable food supply, which means we need more farmers working the land directly with the help of domesticated animals and very little, if any, fossil fuels. This will mean, among other things, much smaller farms; but that's ok and even good, because it has been shown that small farms produce more food per acre than large farms. We also need to reduce and then stop emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and then move to start taking carbon out of the atmosphere (to get from 390ppm CO2 to under 350ppm). Well, damn! Our idea of de-urbanizing and putting more people back on the land as farmers will also help with that as well, as it has been shown that good stewardship of the land and husbandry of animals can actually build topsoil, which means that small farms could actually become carbon sinks rather than carbon sources (topsoil is a reservoir of carbon), especially if they make use of biochar. Might we actually see a return to a stable climate? Well, not in your lifetime, but maybe in your grandchildren's. We need to take the long view on this one. After all, it has taken well over a century to utterly erode the Earth's life-support systems, and it'll probably take much longer than that to restore them. And restoration ought to be our mission.

How likely is all this? Not very, if you're waiting for someone on high to tell you to do it. Doubly unlikely, if you think you can sit idly by doing what you've always done while waiting for your neighbor to take care of all the hard work. Nevertheless, it is possible. If step one is recognizing the problem, and step two is having a vision for the future, then step three is getting there (or maybe having a plan for getting there, followed by getting there, if you are a planner like me).

So how will we get there? What will you do? I look forward to your thoughts.