[permaculture] Dear oil will favor local, seasonal food as distant sources lose competitive edge

Jerome Rigot rigot.3 at osu.edu
Thu Aug 31 13:45:03 EDT 2006

Dear oil will favor local, seasonal food as distant sources lose 
competitive edge
Long-term scarcity will put cities, suburbs, global trade under 
stresses they weren't created to endure.

By Lester R. Brown

Posted June 8, 2006: Peak oil is described as the point where oil 
production stops rising and begins its inevitable long-term decline. 
In the face of fast-growing demand, this means rising oil prices. But 
even if oil production growth simply slows or plateaus, the resulting 
tightening in supplies will still drive the price of oil upward, 
albeit less rapidly.

Few countries are planning a reduction in their use of oil. Even 
though peak oil may be imminent, most countries are counting on much 
higher oil consumption in the decades ahead, building automobile 
assembly plants, roads, highways, parking lots and suburban housing 
developments as though cheap oil will last forever. New airliners are 
being delivered with the expectation that air travel and freight will 
expand indefinitely. Yet in a world of declining oil production, no 
country can use more oil except at the expense of others.

Some segments of the global economy will be affected more than others 
simply because some are more oil-intensive. Among these are the 
automobile, food and airline industries. Cities and suburbs will also 
evolve as oil supplies tighten.

Stresses within the U.S. auto industry were already evident before 
oil prices started climbing in mid-2004. Now General Motors and Ford, 
both trapped with their heavy reliance on sales of gas-hogging sport 
utility vehicles, have seen Standard and Poor's lower their credit 
ratings, reducing their corporate bonds to junk bond status. Although 
it is the troubled automobile manufacturers that appear in the 
headlines as oil prices rise, their affiliated industries will also 
be affected, including auto parts and tire manufacturers.

Two-way impact on food

The food sector will be affected in two ways. Food will become more 
costly as higher oil prices drive up production costs. As oil costs 
rise, diets will be altered as people move down the food chain and as 
they consume more local, seasonally produced food. Diets will thus 
become more closely attuned to local products and more seasonal in nature.

At the same time, rising oil prices will also be drawing agricultural 
resources into the production of fuel crops, either ethanol or 
biodiesel. Higher oil prices are thus setting up competition between 
affluent motorists and low-income food consumers for food resources, 
presenting the world with a complex new ethical issue.

Airlines, both passenger travel and freight, will continue to suffer 
as jet fuel prices climb, simply because fuel is their biggest 
operating expense. Although industry projections show air passenger 
travel growing by some 5 percent a year for the next decade, this 
seems highly unlikely. Cheap airfares may soon become history.

Air freight may be hit even harder, perhaps leading to an absolute 
decline. One of the early casualties of rising oil prices could be 
the use of jumbo jets to transport fresh produce from the southern 
hemisphere to industrial countries during the northern winter. The 
price of fresh produce out of season may simply become prohibitive.

During the century of cheap oil, an enormous automobile 
infrastructure was built in industrial countries that requires large 
amounts of energy to maintain. The United States, for example, has 
2.6 million miles of paved roads, covered mostly with asphalt, and 
1.4 million miles of unpaved roads to maintain even if world oil 
production is falling.

Modern cities are also a product of the oil age. From the first 
cities, which took shape in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago, until 
1900, urbanization was a slow, barely perceptible process. When the 
last century began, there were only a few cities with a million 
people. Today there are more than 400 such cities, 20 of them with 10 
million or more residents.

The metabolism of cities depends on concentrating vast amounts of 
food and materials and then disposing of garbage and human waste. 
With the limited range and capacity of horse-drawn wagons, it was 
difficult to create large cities. Trucks running on cheap oil changed all that.

As cities grow ever larger and as nearby landfills reach capacity, 
garbage must be hauled longer distances to disposal sites. With oil 
prices rising and available landfills receding ever further from the 
city, the cost of garbage disposal also rises. At some point, many 
throwaway products may be priced out of existence.

Suburbs facing hardest hit

Cities will be hard hit by the coming decline in oil production, but 
suburbs will be hit even harder. People living in poorly designed 
suburbs not only depend on importing everything, they are also often 
isolated geographically from their jobs and shops. They must drive 
for virtually everything they need, even to get a loaf of bread or a 
quart of milk.

Suburbs have created a commuter culture, with the daily roundtrip 
commute taking, on average, close to an hour a day in the United 
States. While Europe's cities were largely mature before the 
onslaught of the automobile, those in the United States, a much 
younger country, were shaped by the car. While city limits are 
usually rather clearly defined in Europe, and while Europeans only 
reluctantly convert productive farmland into housing developments, 
Americans have few qualms about this because cropland was long seen 
as a surplus commodity.

This unsightly, aesthetically incongruous sprawl of suburbs and strip 
malls is not limited to the United States. It is found in Latin 
America, in Southeast Asia, and increasingly in China. Flying from 
Shanghai to Beijing provides a good view of the sprawl of buildings, 
including homes and factories, that is following the new roads and 
highways. This is in sharp contrast to the tightly built villages 
that shaped residential land use for millennia in China.

Shopping malls and huge discount stores, symbolized in the public 
mind by Wal-Mart, were all subsidized by artificially cheap oil. 
Isolated by high oil prices, suburbs may prove to be ecologically and 
economically unsustainable.

In the coming energy transition, there will be winners and losers.

Countries that fail to plan ahead, that lag in investing in more 
oil-efficient technologies and new energy sources, may experience a 
decline in living standards. The inability of national governments to 
manage the energy transition could lead to a failure of confidence in 
leaders and to failed states.

National political leaders seem reluctant to face the coming downturn 
in oil and to plan for it even though it will almost certainly become 
one of the great fault lines in the history of civilization. Trends 
now taken for granted, such as urbanization and globalization, could 
be reversed almost overnight as oil becomes scarce and costly.

Developing countries will be hit doubly hard as still-expanding 
populations combine with a shrinking oil supply to steadily reduce 
oil use per person. Such a decline could quickly translate into a 
fall in living standards. If the United States, the world's largest 
oil consumer and importer, can sharply reduce its use of oil, it can 
buy the world time for a smoother transition to the post-petroleum era.

Lester Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute 
(<http://www.earth-policy.org/>www.earthpolicy.org), Washington, D.C. 
He started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in southern New 
Jersey through his college years. Brown helped to pioneer the concept 
of environmentally sustainable development and his writings have 
given practical policy handles to the world's complex ecological challenges.

Adapted from Chapter 2, "Beyond the Oil Peak," in Lester R. Brown, 
Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in 
Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), available for free 
downloading or for purchase on-line at 

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