[permaculture] Is permaculture easy? (was Peak Oil)

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Mon Jul 23 13:46:20 EDT 2007

Marjory wrote:
> Toby, there many many scenarios going forward where growing you own food, or
> most of it (and trading what you can) is the only way you will get to eat.
There are enormous numbers of doom-and-gloom scenarios based on total 
collapse of all current supply systems, and a far larger number of much 
more positive scenarios. I've written extensively about why I'm not a 
doomer, so I won't repeat those arguments here. Much.
>  In Tommy's area, a progressive city like Austin, the amount of
> locally grown food is perhaps 3%-5% (I am being generous).  The rest comes
> from an average of 1200 miles away and is highly dependant on oil -
> regardless of conventional or organic farming.
Why do people behave as though the current situation is permanent and 
based on unchanging circumstances? Forty years ago little food in the 
developed world traveled more than 200 miles, and sixty years ago 
agriculture was not at all dependent on oil. For 10,000 years before 
1960, settlements were ringed with farms, so why focus on an anomaly as 
though it's immutable? Tearing up enough asphalt to make a big garden 
takes about a day of work (and, yes, I have done that!).

Today, only 12% of the fossil fuels used in the US go to agriculture, 
including food shipment. Since nearly 50% of our fossil fuel use is for 
transportation, and most of that is wasted in gas guzzlers whizzing 
around unnecessarily, it is certainly not impossible to shift conserved 
petroleum into agriculture as oil gets more expensive. Plus, nearly all 
human and animal manures are wasted; conserving those will reduce oil 
use in agriculture (I am aware that much of that manure derives from 
petroleum-based foods; but the previous sentence accounts for that). 
Solutions abound. And for every "yes, but . . ." that someone comes up 
with, I bet I can propose a solution. Problem-solving is humanity's 
signature trait.

Most cities are surrounded by rich agricultural soils--that's how they 
got there. When expensive petroleum forces the strip malls out of 
business, we'll tear up the highways and parking lots and plant food 
again. That might take a year or two to enact, but I don't think people 
are so stupid that they'll stare blankly at abandoned land and starve. 
My town of Portland, for example, is surrounded by the usual malls and 
parking lots, and outside of that are ornamental plant nurseries and 
turf and mint farms. How quickly will those experienced farmers convert 
to food when oil spikes? Will suburbanites idly starve, or will they 
tear up abandoned stores and asphalt to grow food?

Researchers at Cornell determined that the basic caloric requirement for 
Rochester, NY could be grown within16.5 miles (26 km) of the city 
limits, and that food would travel an average of 11 miles to be eaten. 
The area required would be 90,000 acres (36,000 hectares). Rochester’s 
population is 225,000, compared to Portland’s 550,000. Thus Portland’s 
minimum caloric foodshed would be 220,000 acres (less than 100,000 
hectares). We have vastly more farmland available than that.

The US is still a net exporter of food, so it is fairly immaterial that 
cheap oil has given us the choice of getting food from other countries. 
That 1200 mile number (more like 1500 on average) is at its peak and 
will only shrink as oil prices rise. As I wrote before, the government 
will do everything in its power to keep food on people's tables, 
forgoing schools, health care, retail gasoline, and everything else 
before they let the food system fail. Hungry people topple governments.

I don't see any of these problems as insurmountable. The oil spigot is 
not going to be shut off overnight. We're looking, I think, at the 
beginning of the change within 5 years, but we'll have oil as a huge 
part of our economy for several decades yet. Obviously, oil has allowed 
population to grow to unsustainable levels, and they will shrink again, 
but if you know population biology, you know that population crashes are 
due mostly to drops in birth rate and not to disastrous starvation. 
Cutting the Earth's population by 2/3 can take about 80 years with no 
die-off simply by reducing birth rates to what Europe's are now. Why is 
it that people can see we've tripled population in 80 years by natural 
reproduction, but not that we can shrink it just as naturally? Humans 
are perhaps the most adaptable species on Earth, and my bets are with 
that quality.
> Has anyone seen the latest grain reserves report?  Last year we were down to
> some 60 days of consumption or something like that.  
Grain reserves drop to a very low number in early summer and then go up 
to a very high number at harvest time. Food in the ground is not 
counted. Being afraid of those numbers is like looking at your paycheck 
and saying, I only made $800 this week; that won't get me through the 
year. Food production is continuous. Since it takes 60-120 days to grow 
a crop, having enough grain for 60 days seems like the low end of normal 
to me.

If one looks at any complex adaptive system, be it human or ecosystem, 
it's easy to panic at all the possibilities for it to fail. What we 
forget is that there are nearly infinite ways for it to succeed. That's 
how it got to be complex.


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