Earth Day: Can We Grow Enough Food, Without Oil, to Avoid a Human Dieback?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. — William Gibson

This is a two days-late Earth Day post. I’ve been thinking about this comment from lorrie:

The real problem is that there are too many people on the planet right now. All these people need to eat and sleep somewhere and all want to use energy and aspire to have a great lifestyle. So to me the solution would be that people should decide to have fewer children. This is the only long term solution that is going to work.

To which commenter banger responds:

Since I have lived in places where there is very low energy consumption I don’t agree that there are too many people–there are too many Americans. It is possible to live in a sustainable and even happier way with more or less the current population but the carbon barons don’t want that. Lowering population is the way the oligarchs intend to go with all this–they will choose who lives and who dies or so they appear to believe.

Yes, and then they’ll rocket off to Mars! Anyhow, since I’m feeling the approach of spring, I want to avoid the “too many people” claim here, especially because, whether gleeful, ghoulish, or sadly necessary slash inevitable, talk like that feels way too much like eugenics or genocide for me to be comfortable deploying it; too much like “exterminate all the brutes.” Call me Pollyanna!

Of course, there are many scenarios to solve the “too many people” problem, like “Five Ways to Kill a Man,” but in bulk: Supply chain collapse, shortening life expectancy for the unterbussen, pandemic, nuclear war, and one might even (rationally) believe the elites are managing that entire portfolio, but in this post I want to consider the old-fashioned Malthusian catastrophe: Famine. Is a human, planetary dieback from famine inevitable or necessary, if we assume the end of petroleum-based agriculture? Even if the carbon barons have a sad, a naive back-of-the-envelope calculation shows no.

I’ll begin by deviating sharply from Naked Capitalism’s austere policy on graphics to present an image of my friend’s garden:

Food from the garden

The yield:

Last year, completely organic, we got > 600 pounds of cherry and big tomatoes combined by actual weight. Weighted them everyday after harvesting. Hoping for another good year! It is really nice to go out at lunchtime and pick 8 to 10 ounces of tomatoes for your personal salad!

Now, it is true that not all the materiel originates on the property: Straw, mulch, the climbing structures for the tomatoes, fencing, and seeds are brought in from elsewhere. And tools. And the chair. And there’s garbage pickup, a public water system, the Internet. So although my friend’s patch is highly productive, it’s not self-sufficient. (Should it be?) Nevertheless, one returns to that statistic: 600 pounds of tomatoes or so. So assume 3 tomatoes per pound, and 3 tomatoes a day, that’s 200 days of eating for one person from a quarter acre patch, and that’s before we get to the rest of the garden, or the chickens. That’s not so far from feeding one person for a year.

My own experience is more or less the same; although I’m a lazy gardener — I prefer to sit in the garden, not work in it (I don’t like work) — but even so I grow around thirty winter squash, sufficient for two months eating, especially with butter and salt (and a heat source). With work, I could feed myself, for a year — assuming in my climate, preservation — on about an eighth of an acre.

And we three are not alone. David Blume writes:

On approximately two acres— half of which was on a terraced 35 degree slope—I produced enough food to feed more than 300 people (with a peak of 450 people at one point), 49 weeks a year in my fully organic CSA on the edge of Silicon Valley . If I could do it there you can do it anywhere.

My point is not that everybody gets yields like this, but that yields like this are not exceptional. Do they take place on a larger, continental scale? Yes. Sharashkin, Gold, and Barham, “Sustainable Growing Practices in Russia,” University of Missouri – Columbia:

In Russia, microscale ecofarming is an extremely widespread, time – tested practice. Despite the minuscule size (600 m 2 ) of individual plots and absence of machinery, cultivators have demonstrated exceptional productivity, producing more potatoes, vegetables, berries, fruit, milk, and meat than commercial agriculture’s output of these products. Currently, with 35 million families (70% of Russia’s population) working 8 million [hectares] of land and producing more than 40% of Russia’s agricultural output, this is in all likelihood the most extensive microscale food production practice in any industrially developed nation.

So, 35 million into 8 million hectares is a bit less than a quarter hectare per patch, or an eighth of an acre (my size). And they get very good yield. (These numbers also suggest that my friend, David Bruce, and I are in no way exceptionally skilled.)

So, do these numbers scale up globally? On the back of the envelope, they do. From Prairie Soils & Crops Journal [PDF]:

In July 2009, the world population reached 6.790 billion and the global arable land area is estimated as 1.351 billion hectares (3.339 billion acres). This implies that arable land per capita on a global basis is 0.20 hectares per person (0.49 acres per person).

So, if Big Oil and Big Ag vanished from the face of the earth tomorrow — as perhaps, for the sake of mitigating climate change, they should do — we at least have the arable land to support 6.790 billion of us, on the back of the envelope; and if we consider I could support myself on 0.125 acres, and the Russian yields come with a growing season of around three months, we could have considerable margin. (See also here, here, and here.)

* * *

At this point, I should concede that “But I said back of the envelope!” can’t wave away all objections, and so I’ll deal with a few I can think of.

First, arable land is by no means evenly distributed:

Land for growing food

To which I would respond that most future disaster scenarios assume migration, so why not assume migrations whose end point is one’s own patch of land? I’d also point out that arable doesn’t include forests, but we are also familiar with the concept of edible forests, and so, over time, there are not only many more places to settle than the map above would imply, we have even more margin for our per capita calculations.

Second, what about Manhattan? What about it?

Blume points out that even without modern permaculture techniques, the city of New York, with over one million people, met all its food needs from within seven miles prior to 1850.

Third, vast changes in political economy would be required for such a system of horticulture to come into place. To which I would respond Yes, and your point? This passage on Jefferson highlights the opportunities and dangers:

The Jeffersonian ideal of stewardship, rooted in a contractual relation of a responsible servicing of the land, rested on “good practices” of land management through rational skills of crop rotation, terracing to prevent soil erosion, promoting the diversification of varied crops, and surveying of land, from advocating a regular seven-year cycle of regular crop rotation that follow corn and wheat with a variety of crops, including turnips, clover, vetch and buckwheat. He pioneered innovations that would increase the conservation of resources as well as crop yield, including deep contour plowing, turning the ground far beneath the topsoil, and terracing to prevent soil erosion. And his quest for variety and diversity for the agriculturalist no doubt encouraged him to introduce eggplants, brussels sprouts, rice, chestnuts, cauliflower, nuts and olive plants to the country–Jefferson imported 170 different fruits and 330 vegetables in the period from 1767 to 1824 to diversify the nation’s agriculture. Jefferson was vigilant in advocacy of agricultural stewardship and famously wrote Washington with dismay in 1793 that “we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one.”

And speaking of manure, Jefferson’s “ideal of stewardship” was also “rooted in” chattel slavery, of which he was a “vigilant” advocate, and his “innovations” were powered by the coffle. So we’d have to think about that; a feudal society of serfs tied to the land, or a Reconstruction Era proto-fascist regime of terrorized sharecroppers, would not be a happy outcome, for all the yield of “minuscule plots” owned (for some definition of ownership) and worked by millions of people. We’d also have to be smart about our common pool resources: Water, pollinators, seeds, and even soil. (Maybe if Jefferson had practiced no till cultivation, he wouldn’t have had to worry quite so much about manure. Anyhow, the frontier closed a long time ago. The earth is round!)

* * *

So, I started out wondering if we could feed ourselves from our gardens while moving away from the “too many of us” slash dieback narrative, and I hope I made at least a semi-plausible case that we can, although let me throw in a ceteris paribus to be safe. I ended up with a vision of an alternative society entirely appropriate for Earth Day — a vision that moves beyond the “groaf/jawbz” paradigm that allcoppedout speaks of. Would it really be so bad to work half the year, make your own shoes, and stay loaded on your own beer? Adam Smith’s work ethic is for robots, no? Who needs it? So, optimism!

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

179 comments

  1. jgordon

    The answer is yes. The greening the desert video offers the key insight as to how this will be accomplished. As for avoiding talking about die offs.. Well that is definitely an indivual choice. A mass die off is not necessary even now. And rather than a mass die off it’ll look more like a patchwork die off, where proactive individuals and communities will fare pretty well.

  2. Robert Callaghan

    Wow! You really have no clue. I do not expect you to publish this comment, but I do hope you will read it. You are cut off from reality. Select any line and google it.
    ► 90% of Lions gone since 1993.
    ► 90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950.
    ► 50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985.
    ► 50% of Fresh Water Fish gone since 1987.
    ► 30% of Marine Birds gone since 1995.
    ► 28% of Land Animals gone since 1970.
    ► 28% of All Marine Animals gone since 1970.
    ► 50% of All Vertebrate Species gone by 2040.
    ► Extinctions are 1000 times faster than normal.
    ► Ocean acidification doubles by 2050.
    ► Ocean acidification triples by 2100.
    ► 10 years until wars for food and water. Jim Yong Kim
    ► 13 years to catastrophic, unstoppable, irreversible climate heating. Dr. Michael Jennings
    ► 30 years to catastrophic cascading mass extinction collapse. Leading ecologists.

    Suggested YouTube searches.
    Call of Life, Facing The Mass Extinction Event
    Tim Garrett is it possible to decouple economic wealth from carbon dioxide emission rates?
    Authors@Google: Ozzie Zehner – Green Illusions

    1. Cascadian

      Lambert, you really should step back a moment before publishing totally nonsensical statements like the David Blume claim that he feeds 300 people from the production of a two acre plot. What he should have said is that he has a customer list with 300 people on it, and they all got some food from his plot. Might well have been a single cherry tomato—-.
      Fact of the matter is that in order to grow the entire annual food supply for one person in a long-term sustainable manner– even in a benign climate like the Willamette Valley of Oregon– it takes at least two acres.

      At a minuimum you need:
      1- Enough land seeded in nitrogen fixing crops to plow under and maintain soil fertility on a long-term basis.
      2- Enough seed grain and legume production to preserve for off season consumption.
      3- Enough land devoted to seed and reproduction to allow next year’s crop to be germinated.
      4- Enough protein production to maintain health— humans cannot live on tomatoes alone.
      5- If some of that protein is in animal form the land area requirement will be larger because you have to grow food for the chickens, rabbits, or cows you plan to eat, and there are resultant caloric energy conversion losses.

      The one exception to this rule is growing food in a bio-aquaponic greenhouse environment. This farming method uses about 1/10 as much water and is so much more efficient at converting solar energy into plant matter and fish protein year round that the per-person area requirement is about 2,000 square feet rather than two acres. Its energy cycle– solar energy to grow duckweed algae to feed warm water fish to fertilize vegetable crops that harvest solar energy– may seem like a complete biosystem but it still requires exogenous nutrient inputs to fertilize the algae, very minor pumping energy to circulate the water, as well as more significant heating requirements during the winter to supplement passive greenhouse architecture.

    2. LizinOregon

      Thank you for laying out these stats. The last time I checked humans cannot survive on a diet of tomatoes.

      Yes, we should move incentives away from industrial farming toward more sustainable and healthy crops. But there are many policy choices for reducing population growth that do not involve eugenics (really?) – most of which involve reversing all of the rewards for having children in our tax code and the stupid barriers to family planning programs built into our foreign aid spending. If we don’t, Mother Earth will do it for us.

      1. Crazy Horse

        Hmm– I like to post under my preferred citizenship— Cascadian— when the topic is the environment, but the digital censor booted me off. Let’s see if they like my Crazy, cynical self better—-.

        “Lambert, you really should step back a moment before publishing totally nonsensical statements like the David Blume claim that he feeds 300 people from the production of a two acre plot. What he should have said is that he has a customer list with 300 people on it, and they all got some food from his plot. Might well have been a single cherry tomato—-.

        Fact of the matter is that in order to grow the entire annual food supply for one person in a long-term sustainable manner– even in a benign climate like the Willamette Valley of Oregon– it takes at least two acres.
        At a minuimum you need:
        1- Enough land seeded in nitrogen fixing crops to plow under and maintain soil fertility on a long-term basis.
        2- Enough seed grain and legume production to preserve for off season consumption.
        3- Enough land devoted to seed and reproduction to allow next year’s crop to be germinated.
        4- Enough protein production to maintain health— humans cannot live on tomatoes alone.
        5- If some of that protein is in animal form the land area requirement will be larger because you have to grow food for the chickens, rabbits, or cows you plan to eat, and there are resultant caloric energy conversion losses.

        The one exception to this rule is growing food in a bio-aquaponic greenhouse environment. This farming method uses about 1/10 as much water and is so much more efficient at converting solar energy into plant matter and fish protein year round that the per-person area requirement is about 2,000 square feet rather than two acres. Its energy cycle– solar energy to grow duckweed algae to feed warm water fish to fertilize vegetable crops that harvest solar energy– may seem like a complete biosystem but it still requires exogenous nutrient inputs to fertilize the algae, very minor pumping energy to circulate the water, as well as more significant heating requirements during the winter to supplement passive greenhouse architecture.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        Please don’t be tediously literal minded. It’s clearly possible to grow more than tomatoes, or squash. (It’s especially important to go for fruit or nut trees, climate permitting, and other perennials.)

        1. Crazy Horse

          If I’m being tediously literal minded it is because I recently read a long series of reactions to a similar statement by a small organic commercial farmer located in Quebec. The majority of the respondents took his statement at face value and proceeded to debate whether or not he could really feed 300 people from his small plot.

          If the discussion you opened is to have any relevance it is important to ground it in reality from the outset.

          1. jgordon

            I believe that you are bound by cognitive filters that hindering your ability to creatively approach this problem, and thus dramatically underestimate the amount of land required to support a human life. But unfortunately I find no easy way to help you understand this issue better, as every statement I think to make would not seem reasonable or self-evident without a large body of background knowledge to draw from.

            I will say however that the ideal “farm” for supporting human life would look like about a 70% forested canopy, and would likely be indistinguishable from a woodland thicket to untrained eyes. Also, you have probably ignored the wonderful contributions that insect protein and fungi can provide to the human diet–which, in a sustainable future, may likely be the primary source of nutrition available for people, even before plants. If you had not considered those sources before to be significant, then you can see the sort of imagination failure I was referring to earlier.

            1. Cascadian

              I’m not sure your charge of imagination failure was directed at me, but the question raised was: “Can we grow enough food, without oil, to avoid human die-back?”

              If the model chosen is based upon decentralized permaculture supplemented by hunter-gathering the answer is clearly no. Population would have to decrease radically to somewhere around one billion from its present level.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      “I do not expect you to publish this comment.” One can only wonder why you have formed these expectations. Perhaps:

      1) Off topic comments that

      2) insult the poster and

      3) assign work to others you are not willing to do (“select any line and google it”)

      could have something to do with your unhappy experiences?

    4. Crazy Horse

      I set aside one day a month for optimism, and today’s the day!
      Is it possible to feed not 6, but 12 billion humans on this planet,and do it on a long-term sustainable basis? YES!

      Here’s how.
      1- Completely eliminate military and warfare expenditures on the planet… If the Bighorn Sheep I’m watching graze on the hillside across the valley can resolve their differences and decide who gets the girl by butting heads, surely we big-brained humans can do as well? Run marathon races or hold spelling bees to decide the winners?
      2- Use the resulting two trillion dollar planetary budget savings to mass produce fail-safe Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors on assembly lines at the rate of several per day.
      3- Ban the use of all existing natural gas reserves for anything except fertilizer production.
      4- Ban the atmospheric burning of coal. Actually the market will do that because the LFTR revolution will make it archaically uncompetitive for electricity production.
      5- Prioritize the remaining petrochemical reserves to build a worldwide infrastructure of passive solar greenhouses designed for aquaponic farming located near the end users.
      6- Accelerate nanotechnology research to develop solar collectors grown at a massive scale by nano-scale molecular assemblers.

      There you have it—- the outline of a technical solution to feed a vastly more crowded world using technology that is within our immediate capability.

      Would that be a world that I would like to live in? One crowded with humans rather than rich with all the species that have shared the planet since we began walking upright? I don’t think so.

    5. William

      And you know it’s bad when they’ve started marketing plankton as a great nutritious food. I say leave the whales food for the whales.

  3. vlade

    A few points/questions:
    – you can’t survive on one crop. even if it’s suqash :). That said, on micro scale it’s usually people getting one crop and then exchanging/trading for others, which overall is pretty good for the community.
    – densly packed populaiton centres (think NYC/London… ) don’t have 1/4 or even 1/8 of an acre gardens. If you have 1/4 of an acre garden in central London, you most likely belong to the top 0.01%. Yes, there’s much more arable land in (say) the UK, but it means much more population dispersion and involves transport (or other problems. of course, it solves lots of problems too…)
    – “If I could do it there” in Sillicon Valley “you can do it anywhere” CA growing season is pretty much 52 weeks a year. I do wonder what is the growing season in Maine, but I bet it’s not 49 weeks a year. And while say Vegas can have the same vegetation period, it has other problems…
    – A question I have is how long it takes for the soil to exhaust? And I don’t mean the usual exhaust (of say direct nutrients, as lots of that can be solved with crop rotation), but trace-mineral exhaust (which can’t be solved with crop rotation/manure)… I know that most of the soil in Europe lacks selenium (and other trace-minerals) from the few hundreds of years of active cultivation… Even UK has it mosty in areas which aren’t well open to cultivation (moors and hills). US looks different, but again say Maine (IIRC) has little to no soil selenium.. So basically, you may need to supply lots of trace minerals from some other sources, but that brings again other problems…

    1. diptherio

      ““If I could do it there” in Sillicon Valley “you can do it anywhere” CA growing season is pretty much 52 weeks a year. I do wonder what is the growing season in Maine, but I bet it’s not 49 weeks a year.”

      Russia man, Russia!

    2. Vicky Else

      RE: soil exhaustion. Forest-based agriculture (such as hugelkultur and food-forests) take a somewhat longer time to build out, but create more self-sustaining soil environments and offer a lot of promise in avoiding soil exhaustion. I think the major constraint is distribution of knowledge and skill.

      1. vlade

        AFAIK it makes no real difference to trace elements.

        Once they get taken out of the soil, they are gone since there’s no real way to put them back (except artificially). In olden times (i.e. few thousands of years back), most of it wasn’t taken out – the plants rotted where they stood, and the animal carcasses were also relatively evenly distributed so on average it stayed where it was. Now you take selenium (or name-your-trace-element-here) from the soil (in the form of veg, fuit and grain) and ship half across the world…

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        “[T]he major constraint is distribution of knowledge and skill.” Certainly a major constraint, not least because the leap of imagination takes a human teacher, it seems.

    3. William

      A quick check revealed that there are some interesting web sites on the topic of remineralization and on rock dust which is the primary method used to accomplish it. You can even buy mineralized bio-char. Remineralization however needs a healthy microbe-rich soil because, just as with all plant nutrients, the microbes make the minerals available to the plant.

      I found it interesting that selenium is not actually essential for most plants, though many do accumulate it, some in high enough amounts to make them poisonous. For animals and humans though, selenium is an essential trace element. So in that respect it is good to have a trace of selenium in the soil.

    4. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, I know I can’t survive on more than one crop. My friend grows more than tomatoes; I grow more than squash (although, as I say, I’m lazy).

      On population centers, see the material on Manhattan in the post.

      On growing season, see the material on Russia in the post.

      I don’t think soil, well-treated, exhausts itself.

      1. vlade

        soil will exhaust. As I wrote, not in nutrients per se, but trace-elements. TE deficiency was first reported in 19th century, so it’s not exactly new thing. But we’re still not doing enough to replace it in our soils.. You have to do something about it, and it’s not trivial (on a scale).

        IIRC, NYC had less than 600k in 1850, not 1mil (well, it depends sort of how you count, but even the most generous count has about 700k). That alone makes me doubt the source. Also, the surroundings have changed (say a non-trivial amount of it has been paved/concreted over). Regardless, I’m not expert on NYC, but there’s no way in hell that you could make London self-sufficient within M25, and likely would need much much bigger stretch of land. That all said, I believe that smaller population centres that could be reasonable self-sufficient would be better than what we have anyways.

        Re Russia – my point was that Blume’s statement was dumb (if you can do as he did in CA, you can do so anywhere). And is yes, Russia (and quite a few ex Eastern Block countries) a lot of people grow their food (or at least a non-trivial part of it), but they can also spend rather a lot of time doing it. And again, I’m all for people growing non-trivial amounts of their own food (we do it too… ). But you need to know the limitations/costs (and I don’t mean costs in money. time is ultimately much more valuable than any money) and not go via non-comparable statements.

  4. diptherio

    Oh goody! I was starting to wonder why we hadn’t seen a permaculture post in awhile. That said…

    Russia?!? What are you, a Putin-lover? I always knew you were a watermelon, Lambert: green on the outside, commie-red on the inside! {shakes fist and waves tiny American flag}

    Seriously though, if they can do it in Russia on a 3 month growing season, we can do it anywhere. I bet with the addition of cold-frames, we could do even better.

    1. vlade

      Actually, most of populated Russia has much longer vegegation season than 3 months ;) (around Apr-Sep really, so 6 months)… One important thing is that while it has cold winters, it has (or rather can have) really hot summers (there were summer forest fires not far from Moscow few years back..), so while the vegetation season is half of CA, it tends to grow (the right stuff) a lot. In fact, it can grow lots of things better than most of the UK which is more south than most of Russia.

  5. Mark Pawelek

    We can grow enough food because the green revolution is not over yet. So far, there’s been no real green revolution in Africa. Nitrogen-fixing GMO cereals will probably be developed within the next 20 years. Such a cereal will require far less fertilizer; therefore much less energy to grow.

    1. kgilmour

      Pollyanna — ALL OF YOU. What? You think Javanese are going to stop fish bombing? Indonesians will shape up and stop using cyanide to get easy reef fish?

      Or Africans… will they stop eating monkey? Killing Rhinos? Elephants?

      People are a scourge. Lambert thinks Americans are to blame. I beg to differ. The Average American is a push over for Bambi and company…. witness the deer populations.

      The poor brutes with no education, or interest in anything beyond their growing brood – and perhaps boinking the local fauna… aren’t going to hothouse tomatoes instead of popping anything that breathes in their vicinity.

      Things are going to get very messy… very quickly. And Lambert seems to have his fingers in his ears… saying ITS US>.. ITS NOT THEM… ITS US…. I don’t want to hear!! You hear me?

      Kumbaya…. Kumbaya.

      Hamilton’s Rule… I identify with those who look, think and act like ME!! And the misanthropic left and xenophobic RIGHT are going to merge somewhere on the backside of humanity — and rid us of the 3rd world… because some of us want to see fish, whales, birds, big cats and elephants …. I care more for the life of a Giraffe than any Kikuyu.

      And I should be ashamed of that????

      this is turning into la la land.

      1. kgilmour

        You judge a people by the condition of their dogs.

        Americans win HANDS DOWN. I’ll compare passport stamps with anyone on this board. The votes are IN … we are the most beloved of all travelers… 3rd world people are amazed by our kindness – generosity – and yes, our goodness.

        That goodness is not universal. Check out the kitchens of Cambodia. They have no regard for any living thing beyond their own stomach. 8 million didn’t even dent that highly destructive population… I am waiting for the next 8 million to go.

  6. scott

    If you want to or are into gardening, beware of bagged compost from the big-box stores or local composters. There’s a herbicide name “Milestone” that is very persistent and can end up in manure or compost. I had two bags of the stuff ruin my garden last year. I had to remove a lot of soil and add my home made compost.
    Google it, it’s a disaster in the making.

    1. Oregoncharles

      This is a good example of how the “political economy” can intervene. To do the kind of intensive organic gardening he’s describing on a large enough scale to matter, you have to collect and use essentially every bit of available waste biomass. Many towns do make a good effort to do that, collecting yard waste (and even food scraps) separately and composting them on a huge scale. As a landscaper, I use tons of the resulting compost every year. It’s black gold.
      But if the community uses a non-biodegradable herbicide such as you describe, it will wind up in the compost, poisoning essentially the whole system. Without intensive application of the precautionary principle BY THE GOVERNMENT, impacts like that will accumulate and shut down your survival strategy.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      I absolutely agree. Here in the great state of Maine, local composters were destroyed by a corporation named Casella, which introduced municipal solid waste into their product. You touch that stuff, it just feels…. different. Dead. Not so much because of the humanure, but everything else. Heavy metals, who knows what. Never again will I use a Casella compost product, which they don’t make easy, because they operate through straws (“New England Organics,” in Maine).

  7. Ben Johannson

    Currently, with 35 million families (70% of Russia’s population) working 8 million [hectares] of land and producing more than 40% of Russia’s agricultural output, this is in all likelihood the most extensive microscale food production practice in any industrially developed nation.

    Lambert, you might want to take another look at that quote in the paper. It makes claims of efficiency and yield considerably better than this.

  8. Ignacio

    Besides oil, which seems to be the obsession in US blogs, there are other limiting factors in agriculture, and some of them can have a more acute effect and in shorter time compared with oil. Almost certainly the most worrying problem menacing agriculture sustainability is the supply of phosphorus (see the “Peak Phosphorus” entry in Wikipedia for a starter.

  9. Vicky Else

    YES!!! Add to this water harvesting and other ways of combating desertification (the U.N. effort is described here: http://www.unccd.int/en/Pages/default.aspx ) and you can actually reclaim vast amounts of land for micro-agriculture, much of which was originally lost due to unsustainable grazing practices. The quotation from Gibson was exactly right–we have the knowledge, but we need to distribute it globally and very quickly.

    1. TheCatSaid

      And even currently desertified land can be rehabilitated astonishingly quickly using Allan Savory’s approaches to decision-making. (For brittle, desert-like environments, this might include using larger herds (!) in grazing patterns that imitate the impact on the land of tight herds that get moved quickly by predators.) His Tufts talk and Tufts Q&A sessions are outstanding, as well as the introductory-level TED talk.

  10. ArkansasAngie

    I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but how do you get there?
    I garden. I have about 3/4 acres inside the city limits. I have fruit trees, berries and herbs and, and and hop vines :)
    I, too, have been contemplating the population issue. And the fear that hides out in the back of my mind is that we aren’t the only ones to realize the issue. And … we all know that psychopaths make up a fair amount of those currently in power. Their willingness to slowly move to a self-sustaining existence while they get less doesn’t seem likely.
    The question is can we stop them from implementing a quicker solution?
    Or … will we even be aware of their planning of such an event before they push the go button?
    I guess we’re gonna see.

    1. Vicky Else

      I share your fear. I think our constraint is mostly time to spread the knowledge needed, but it’s also that in the U.S. we’ve allowed our communities to dissipate so badly that we have lost the art of co-operation and collective planning. When my grandparents faced a problem, they just knocked on a neighbor’s door, and if enough neighbors shared the same problem, they met and talked about it. Things got done in a socially organic way. We don’t have that, and we need it if we are to stand up to the powers that be.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Those are such important points you’ve raised–the lack of skills and the lack of local communication and cooperation.

        The good news is that even small steps in either/both don’t have to cost anything and can lead to surprisingly fast improvements.

        I’d add to your list that the lack of skills relates to cooking/storing food as well as growing it. Many people don’t even know what “real food” looks like or tastes like any more.

        1. kgilmour

          multi culturalism… our grand parents had something in common with their neighbors…. not anymore.

          Our cities and suburbs defy Hamilton’s Rule. There cannot be any cooperative effort between unlike peoples.

    2. kgilmour

      and just how are you going to protect that garden if the supply chain is interrupted??

      AGAIN .. kumbaya…silly silly silly

      the future is going to require like minded people in highly defended groups – shooting to kill anybody who gets near that orchard.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I’ll never understand why — to take a random example — gun nut preppers imagine the collapse of the supply chain won’t affect their guns and ammo. Just weird.

    3. Oregoncharles

      What, exactly, makes you think they haven’t already pushed it? Granted, we don’t see a catastrophic plague – but we wouldn’t see the preparations for one.

      And global heating has hardly begun to bite, just given the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere. At the very least, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The destabilization effects will be worse than the direct ones.

    4. J Sterling

      “How do you get there” is a good question. Another one is “You’re there. Okay, now what?”

      If everybody has their garden, how many children do they leave it to? If one, then they have a the same garden. If two, then each has half a garden. This doesn’t work as a plan to avoid not having children, because *after you’ve achieved it* you have to not have children.

        1. J Sterling

          It doesn’t go away. So you feed 8 billion from the Common Pool Resource. What’s next? Are you just feeding them to the limit of their ability to stay alive, with nothing left over to start a family with? If so, how is that different from just letting Malthus’s Iron Law of Wages take care of population control for you? The goal should be feeding people in comfort and content.

          So take that scenario: what do they do with a full belly after a day of fulfilling activity? They say “you know what, we should start a family”. Thirty years later Lambert gardens are trying to feed 10 billion. Rinse and repeat until Lambert gardens are just keeping people alive with hungry bellies.

          You may say the population is spontaneously not having children already. In that case why do we need Lambert gardens? Every way you look at it, your solution is either a non-solution, or the solution to a non-problem.

  11. Moneta

    structures for the tomatoes, fencing, and seeds are brought in from elsewhere. And tools. And the chair. And there’s garbage pickup, a public water system, the Internet. So although my friend’s patch is highly productive, it’s not self-sufficient. (Should it be?)
    ———
    It should be but… I guess it’s still better than paving the yard or making a huge outdoor kitchen when you already have an indoor one… think of all the energy used to get the unistone and kitchen paraphernalia…. that has to quite a few years’ worth of energetic input for the garden, no?

  12. William

    There are so many ways that more food can be had and produced. Food waste is extremely high. Starting from point of harvest, perhaps as much as 50%. Also, there is a great deal of farmland laying fallow because there is no one to farm it, or the owner isnt interested. Just drive around US countryside and in some farm areas much of the land has been in unused “old field” condition for years, not even grazed. Government and tax policies have a lot to do with land being farmed or not, and what gets grown.

    Here in Thailand where I’ve been for 4 months, there is so much food everywhere it’s insane. Fresh food markets of all sizes abound. Street kitchens and small restaurants vastly outnumber any other kind of business. Good food and eating is central to life here. Even in the most rural areas, you can’t go a kilometer without encountering at least one little roadside kitchen offering home-cooked food made from fresh produce. This is probably the most food-wealthy country in the world, yet it is condidered poor.

    If you fear for your food security, move to Thailand.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, the food chain in Thailand is fantastically interesting. However, my permaculture friends tell me the state of the soil is not good at all.

      Adding… I wish we could have coincided. I got back to the States the first week in April.

      1. William

        That would’ve been cool. Did we float that idea? Sorry, I have a terrible memory (two bouts of lymes . . ).

  13. Ned Ludd

    “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System“, by John and Carol Steinhart, was published by Science back in August 19, 1974 [pdf]. I don’t know of more recent research, but here are rough numbers from the chart on page 312.

    • Distant fishing and feedlot beef – 10-20 calories energy subsidy for every 1 calorie food output
    • Grass-fed beef and intensive eggs – 2-5 calories
    • Coastal fishing and milk from grass-fed cows – 1 calorie
    • Low-intensity eggs – 0.5-1.0 calories
    • Range-fed beef – 0.5 calories
    • Corn, potatoes, and soybeans – 0.2-0.5 calories
    • Hunting and gathering, and intensive rice – 0.1-0.2 calories
    • Shifting agriculture and wet rice culture – 0.02–0.1 calories

    Figure 1, on page 308, shows skyrocketing energy input into the food system, far out-pacing the actual caloric content of the food consumed. Table 1, on page 309, shows where energy was used by the U.S. food system. As of 1970, here are some of the top energy inputs (values are multiplied by 10¹² kcal).

    • Food processing (including packaging, transportation, and manufacture of vehicles & machinery) – 841.9
    • Home refrigeration and cooking – 480
    • Commercial refrigeration and cooking – 263
    • Fuel, direct use on farm – 232

    As Lambert’s post observes, prior to 1850, “the city of New York, with over one million people, met all its food needs from within seven miles.” Moving away from this model led us to our contemporary, energy-inefficient food system.

    1. TheCatSaid

      Some years ago I read there had been a study (UN?) that small-scale mixed farming was by far the most productive, requiring little or no external inputs. I’ve tried to find where I read it but no success so far.

      Our so-called “green revolution” has been destructive on many levels–but it’s been slow (boiling frogs routine) and much of the destruction remains unseen (loss of nutrients and diversity even though things look ok on the outside; topsoil nearly gone; bee numbers declining, etc.).

  14. The Dork of Cork

    Most of my protein comes from sea fishing in the summer months after the storms pass
    However I don’t save any money as such.
    At those times I am in a more isolated position (without a car) and must therefore depend on more expensive shops and pubs for my more vital carbos and stout far from the center of modern petro supply lines.
    However its good to give away recently dead high value protein to urbanite kids

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjPuRbT6-PU

    The reality of feeding yourself from the local hinterland is not at all rosy.
    For example there is a growing population of resident harbour seals that I must compete with.
    If protein was a more pressing concern I would kill them without blinking.

    Heavy physical work requires carbos in large amounts and indeed very heavy toiling requires red meat.
    Active people in cold climates need to eat a hell of a lot for obvious reasons.

      1. allcoppedout

        We have a few in my local river-park. Can’t convince them to take over the Town Hall though.

  15. Banger

    You made fun of what I said and then proceeded to try an prove my point–what’s that about?

    Advances in farming have been, like alternative energy and transportation schemes been under-reported by the mainstream. Few people, like yourself perhaps, know about vertical farming (from Der Spiegel) which, many estimate, could feed ten billion people. Hydroponics and other forms of farming have the capacity to bring even more efficiency because of the advances in IT and robotics. The fact of the matter is that these techniques, like much of alternative energy, are being actively fought and repressed by energy companies and their allies in the mainstream media.

    My point is this, we have the technology to create, more or less, an earthly paradise where work would be minimal and we could pursue art, spirituality, more parties, interesting relationships and so on but for one major problem: we are dominated by a ruling elite that are power vampires. They must be able to have the power to make people happy or sad on their whim–it really comes down to that. And, alongside that, they swim in a cultural sea that values narcissism and selfishness above all other values.

    1. allcoppedout

      I believe this too Banger, though I think we should go for population reduction. There’s still a lot we can save through technology. I note again the ideas and calculations do not seem to be easily available. The aquifer situation in Saudi is so bad they won’t allow any grain harvests soon, Syria is goosed and there is a lot of talk that southern Spain is running out of water for massive under-plastic agriculture there.

      I like Lambert’s general theme. I’m a bit wary that it can all go authoritarian – though less so than most as I already see our lives as grim in this respect. Sooner or later we have to organise (manage?) the necessary work, including the motivation to do it. When it comes to motivation we need to ask questions like, ‘how many kids will be in classrooms if they aren’t compulsory’?

      The thing we lack to be able to get the changes we need is a proper theory of comparative advantage between nations. The current theory-in-action is war, protection rackets, crony-captured politics and beggar-thy-neighbour. They lie to us using some dross from the 18th century about cloth and wine in England and Portugal that even neglects the fact England was a piss-poor place to grow grapes. Echonomics has a problem with over-elaborate theories on why we can’t do anything, usually based on stupid assumptions or ones no longer relevant.

      We need to build the capacity to live as you suggest. I’d want to hear from more people like EEyore on realistic production. But the big issue is getting rid of captured politics.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        If and more likely when the corporate food distribution model collapses, we will likely get both small scale agriculture and significant population reduction.

        What Lambert and others describe might be possible given enough time for people to learn and become successful at such practices, but there’s only so much available before one starves to death. I garden and come from a farming family and am constantly amazed at how many people think it involves some kind of wizardry as they have never gotten their hands dirty. I had a neighbor several years ago who wanted to garden with me but couldn’t wait for me to show him how. On the day we were supposed to begin planting, I woke up and he was already outside scraping about 18 inches of soil off my garden and throwing it over the fence, soil I had been adding to for a few years to increase the nutrients. Never figured out why he thought this was a good idea.

        You might be able to feed your family for a year off an acre or so (providing the climate remains somewhat stable which is in serious doubt), but you won’t be able to feed all the others who think potatoes grow on trees.

    2. washunate

      Right on. Oil is not a limiting factor. The issue is how to control the political process.

      Although, I would point out that there are too many people. People themselves agree with this.

      In aggregate, when people are given the opportunity to live a lifestyle beyond subsistence, they start having fewer children. This relationship between increasing standard of living and shrinking population growth is quite strong across cultures, from Europe to North America to Asia. Here in the US, we just crossed a major milestone a couple years ago, when the birth rate for native born white Americans dropped below replacement level.

      1. Vatch

        But how are people going to get the opportunity to live a lifestyle beyond subsistence? The gap between rich and poor is expanding, and not just in the United States.

        There’s also the paradoxical problem that when people live beyond subsistence, they consume more resources and create more waste. Since our planet is already overpopulated, overconsumed, and overpolluted, this means that the road to less population, consumption, and pollution first requires an increase in consumption and pollution. It’s not a pretty picture of our future.

        1. washunate

          On the paradox, I’d say poverty alleviation is about allocating resources differently. Whether the aggregate total of human consumption should be more or less is a separate question – in my mind, one governed by political constraints rather than environmental ones.

      2. Banger

        I think there is an advantage theoretically with having a large population and that is that if you are not actively suppressing people they are going to be creative enough to avoid messing up the world particularly if they act in a synergetic way–it all depends on culture not numbers.

        1. Vatch

          The world’s population of 7.2 billion people is far higher than any threshold required for creativity, and the U.N. projected population of 9.6 billion in 2050 is even worse.

          Cultures can change as people become more prosperous. Meat eating is rapidly increasing in many parts of Asia, and that has serious environmental consequences.

          How many United States of America equivalents can the world sustain?

        2. J Sterling

          It logically follows from what you say that 7,000 billion people will be even better than 7 billion, because creativity.

          1. Banger

            Yea, right, that’s what I meant. One person for every square inch.

            Let’s try to give me the benefit of the doubt–there is no iron law that everyone has to live the U.S. lifestyle. It is possible to live on a small fraction of energy and raw materials. I don’t mean, believe it or not, that a limited earth can take on unlimited populations but that people living synergetically can live well with, more or less the current population. Theoretically, more people offer different POV that enrich not impoverish the culture. The problem is that, in our culture, we only think about ourselves as individuals rather than part of a continuum so it’s almost impossible to understand what it is like to live in a truly connected way.

            1. allcoppedout

              That’s true of our biology too Banger. Our brain scans are very different on our own compared with working on stuff together.

      3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        1. Wealth inequality…
        2. subsistence living…
        3. overpopulation….
        4. environmental degradation.

        Perhaps addressing 1 is addressing 4 as well.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      “[W}e have the technology to create an earthly paradise.” Yes. That puts it better than I did.

      So, let’s have no more talk about lesser evils, now that we have a positive good to seek.

  16. mmckinl

    Good luck with transportation, 95% of it is oil based … People will have to move closer to the sources of food, much closer. And all of this depends on other sources of energy for electricity for refrigeration, irrigation and the manufacture of tools and canning supplies.

    Unfortunately I do not see a happy ending. We can mitigate the die-off to a great extent but with our current economic system based on growth the entire transportation system is liable to collapse as well …

  17. The Dork of Cork

    Would western people work as hard without tea ?
    I don’t think so……….

    What was the consumption pattern of a typical small Irish farmer in 1930s western Ireland ?
    He was partially self sufficent but life was made easier via access to imported tea sugar and pints of stout when he attended the local cattle fair…i.e. the money part of the economy.

    He typically raised young suckler cattle which were further fattened in the east of the country by larger richer farmers – he typically got a poor price for his product.
    The product eventually found itself on English markets.
    Smaller hardier domestic breeds of cattle used for local proiduction and consumption were long gone by the 1930s – indeed their disappearence coincided with the cromwellian “moderization” of the country.
    This was the act of turning a area into a ranch for distant urban conurbations.

    Just to remind metro readers – food was a major fuel source well into the Industrial experiment.
    It powered both human roboton and animal machines which reduced the net production of land by no small margin.

  18. theinhibitor

    The key isn’t micronutrients, trace elements, knowledge etc. It always comes down to water. You need lots of water to grow and lots of water to drink and lots of water to pretty much do anything (building a car, manufacturing materials, etc) . And the sad truth is, we are depleting the major aquifers around the world, and once nearly depleted, they become salty and unusable and DO NOT COME BACK.

    One should read this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquifer#Human_dependence_on_groundwater

    1. Banger

      There are technical solutions to our water problems but they are repressed for political reasons. Conservation is not as hard as many people think. With information technology and a variety of filtering processes water can be quickly recycled if we make the investment to do so.

    2. TheCatSaid

      You’re right about the seriousness of the water problem.

      The good news is that even this has been shown to respond in seriously, “impossibly” desertified areas using Allan Savory’s approaches. His Tufts talks and Tufts Q&A show examples. It’s ironic that the holistic management practices he describes require human involvement to make up for the fact we (mostly) don’t have the huge herds and predators that used to create balanced, abundant grasslands and waterways.

  19. Eeyores enigma

    We can not and do not feed the population of the planet as it is.
    The green revolution has only served to make a small % of the planet wealthy and destroyed local production. Nearly half the population of the planet are malnourished due to industrial agriculture. Even in the US upwards of 80% of all health issues are directly connected to malnutrition.

    There a ton of clever ways to “garden” more efficiently none of which can be implemented on a scale that would be able to “nourish” the current population.

    I live in oregon and farm on 3 acres. It is all about inputs. People talk about yields for so many acres, feeding so many people on so many acres. What they are not saying is that for x-amount of pounds of production you need to bring in x-amount of inputs. Those inputs are equally as important as the acreage being farmed. To be sustainable you would need more than twice the acreage that you farm in order to produce the inputs yourself. Then double again because you must let the land rest and regenerate occasionally. And it is not just a matter of shoving P-P-K in the ground and planting. The soil must be alive in order to produce nutritionally dense food. There is no free lunch not even in nature.

    Also nobody is feeding 400 families on 2 or 3 or 10 acres. They are providing their veg and some fruit but that is not feeding. They need fats/oils which few gardners produce in quantities enough to provide for even 4 or 5 people. Livestock you say? ok then double the land again for grazing and growing silage and you might be able to feed 25 people for a year.

    Here in oregon, a very agricultural centric state we only produce 18% of what we consume. I and others have been advocating for more food production for years and looked into it in great detail with the help of OSU and it would take every resource we have to get that up to 50%.

    Cheers!

    1. James Levy

      And he doesn’t address the problem of bad weather years and crop diseases. Lambert assumes that every year will yield crops the way he and his friend’s gardens did last year. This is unrealistic in the extreme. And localized agriculture lacks surge capacity or the ability to store large amounts of food for multiyear droughts. It also assumes intact distribution and credit systems for those places that experience crop failures or have high population densities. All his thought experiment demonstrates that under ideal, very different conditions, we could probably feed a very bland and unvarying diet to almost all of the people who are on the planet right now, given that we redistribute them and that they all want to be horticulturalists, are physically and psychologically capable of it, and are good at it. Forced back to the land schemes have a dubious history. My extreme, unfair, but not altogether inapt comparison: Cambodia, 1975.

      1. T

        The variability and unpredictability of weather will present serious challenges for sure.

        The Perelandra techniques will be a great advantage–ways of working more closely with nature, so that actions can be finely tuned to local balance and changing conditions.

      2. TheCatSaid

        Variability and unpredictability in weather will present major challenges.

        The techniques and tools developed at Perelandra can help with this. With two-way communication with nature one can fine-tune actions to be in balance with local conditions. Anyone can learn this and try it out for themselves.

        1. James Levy

          Anyone can learn this? People were living “close to the land” for millennia in the Middle East, southeastern Europe, Egypt, the Indus, and several other places. Didn’t stop them from experiencing famines. I reject the idea that they were dumber than us. So centuries of collective wisdom about how to take care and use the land wasn’t enough for them. Why should we do any better?

      3. LizinOregon

        Here in southern Oregon more and more orchards are being torn out to grow wine grapes while GMO beets become more entrenched. I have decided that my small urban plot isn’t really worth much and that I can do more good by supporting local organic farmers. Eat less and better quality of both meat and veggies.

        There seem to be a lot of Oregonians in the NC community.

        1. LizinOregon

          Lambert, assuming you were responding to me I want to clarify that I didn’t mean to suggest that I don’t garden at all. I have so few sunny spots in my tiny yard that I use them for more expensive things that also use the least water. Then I try to keep the local organic farms in business buying the rest. They are all small and much more efficient than moi.

    2. Vatch

      E.E. said:

      We can not and do not feed the population of the planet as it is.

      Thank you for pointing this out! If we can’t take care of the planet’s population when there are 7.2 billion of us, how can we expect to take care of the population when there are 9.6 billion of us in 2050, and petroleum is scarcer and more expensive?

      1. allcoppedout

        My guess is we can feed about 10 billion. So who’d want to plan on the basis of my guess? We’re so dumb on this it’s untrue – away with the Fairies. But do we go to war because another country has over-carbon-footprinted? My real guess here is we are neglecting some monster oral questions that require a re-shaping of moral reasoning.

      2. kgilmour

        No one has addressed the issue of compassion fatigue. One documentary on the kitchens of Cambodia… and Americans will be screaming that 20 million dead Cambodians wasn’t enough.

        One look at the cages of sad eyed monkeys – dogs – puppies

  20. par4

    What about clothing? You need acres for cotton, acres for sheep, acres for hemp?…etc. Domestic animals also need food. Population collapse is inevitable, my bet is the good old USA will precipitate a nuclear war first.

    1. backwardsevolution

      par4 – thank you for some sanity. Too many people here are not “rooted” in reality.

  21. Martin

    Tomatoes have roughly 80 to 85 calories per pound, two pounds a day, 160 calories, is about 10 percent of what an inactive adult needs to stay alive, under 7 percent for someone actively gardening. Tomatoes also have zero protein. I grow LOTS of tomatoes, and can them too, but my math on what it takes to eat for a year without a grocery store says we must include quite a few big sacks of rice or corn.

    1. Oregoncharles

      In the Willamette Valley, potatoes and corn are probably your best bet, combined with wheat or quinoa and beans. All grow very well here, though special varieties are needed to get dry corn (for cornmeal, etc.). There are some important breeding initiatives to accomplish that; it’s possible.
      One big factor for this article is that the requirements are very place-dependent. We have a nearly ideal temperature range, but the water comes at the wrong time, necessitating winter crops or a lot of irrigation (especially corn and beans), and the soils are mostly heavy clay, needing a lot of amendment.
      In another place, the challenges would be different – and the climate is changing.

      1. Propertius

        While maize (being a C4 plant as opposed to a C3 plant like most cereals) is very good at photosynthesis, it’s also a notoriously “heavy feeder” and requires very careful crop rotation and soil maintenance to avoid soil depletion and achieve reasonable yields.
        This is one of the reasons why corn-based ethanol is a real loser as an energy strategy.

  22. allcoppedout

    Echonomics: (sung by vapid cheerleader, but Hilary then walks on to echo the same in 1000 words)

    Groaf jawbz, groaf jawbz
    They’s the meanz for me.
    Groaf jawbz!

    Groaf jawbz, groaf jawbz
    They’re the deal for me.
    Groaf jawbz!

    How stupid are we? These are someone else’s jobs. All we really need is a bit of money and organisation that builds decent green homes and a way of life. What amazes me is how difficult it is to get calculations on what matters beyond echonomics.

  23. jfleni

    “Would it really be so bad to work half the year, make your own shoes, and stay loaded on your own beer?” Hear! Hear!

    1. allcoppedout

      I’m sure we can do that. Prefer wine these days, but we can make that too. Plus my Bulgarian neighbours have a still. I’d like to see a breakdown of work needed. This would all work on the inequality issue too. I can see some snags to do with jobs like surgery.

  24. changebaby

    Two more variables : labor and weather. The first year
    I tried subsistence farming the weather was hot and dry. Melons did quite well, potatoes poorly. The next year it was cool and wet. The melons were poor, the potatoes good. One needs to plant redundantly and early in order to get something to eat.
    Then field work, especially harvesting, is very hard work, and a lot of it, on a relentless schedule in growing season. You can’t just pay in produce. To grow for two, you need two working. I worry that I expend more energy working than the crops yield in Calories.

  25. E.L. Beck

    For those of us who have pursued sustainable agriculture, we have hardly needed the research to confirm the results from our own efforts. There is little doubt large amounts of food can be grown on small amounts of acreage. But researchers from U Michigan and Michigan State have started the confirmation process:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/98667819/Organic-Ag-Yield-Research

    All of this, of course, is dependent on healthy soil and in my estimation, the sustainable ag movement has truly dropped the ball here. Here in the Midwest, the damage being done to topsoils by commodity-crop methods is readily apparent, and yet very little discussion emerges from sustainable ag quarters regarding topsoil conditions (too many well-meaning urbanites, perhaps, focused solely on the end result, i.e., the quality of the food?)

    In the Midwest, topsoil depths have declined to six to eight inches. The proper weather conditions, combined with vast fields devoid of wind shelter from trees (eliminated by tearing out old fence rows so that large-scale ag equipment has room to maneuver), could easily lift the thin layer of topsoil from the ground. The topsoil is where the vegetation grows its roots. Under the topsoil lays a hard-tack clay incapable of cultivation; roots need a loose tilth to grow in, especially at the sprouting stage of the seed.

    Modern biotechnology has allowed scientists to engineer crops, particularly corn and soybeans, to grow in almost any soil condition. The topsoil serves merely as an anchor for the crop’s roots. The required nutrients for these crops are synthetic, added by the farmer, with very little input from the soil. The technology is at a place where the soil’s health is almost irrelevant, and this has turned away the commodity-crop farmer’s concern over soil conditions, but the topsoil >remains a requirement< to hold roots.

    The very management of large-scale commodity-crop farming makes soil tilth development very difficult, and American agriculture may be at the cusp of a collapse due to the nutrient depletion and/or erosion of topsoil.

    And with hedge funds helping the rapid run up of farmland prices, affordability issues are also becoming critical. Yet, alternatives are present:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/34227688/Urban-Redevelopment-for-Agriculture

    which also contains legitimate arguments for expansion of sustainable ag for macroeconomic reasons, countering Strether's concerns regarding a return to feudalism.

  26. Vatch

    People in North America and Europe may not realize how much of the world’s wood is used for fuel in many other parts of the world. Forest regions used for fuel are not available for growing food, or for human living space. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has information about how heavily forests are harvested for fuel. See The State of the World’s Forests 2011, a 2.5 megabytes PDF file. (The 2012 edition doesn’t seem to have as many charts, and there’s no 2013 edition, at least not yet).

    For Africa, see figure 4 (page 7), For Asia and the Pacific, see figure 8 (page 12), and for the Near East, see figure 20 on page 23. It’s really surprising just how heavily dependent people in these parts of the world are on using wood for fuel. This dependence will increase as petroleum products such as kerosene become more expensive, and as there are more people who need to use fuel for cooking and heating.

    The main web site for the FAO “State of the World’s Forests” series is here:

    http://www.fao.org/forestry/sofo/en/

  27. Ron

    NO, without oil and its byproducts, (distribution,fertilizer,pesticides), the chance is very slim that enough food could be produced and distributed to feed the masses.

  28. Cal

    “there are too many Americans”
    Americans have already done their part to limit fertility and make wise choices as to family size. All our population increase is caused by immigration.

    You take third world people that have a small number of children in a Latin American or Asian country, limited by scarce resources and poverty and you allow them, encourage them, militate for them, promote them, amnesty them, facilitate them, celebrate them, whatever word you want to chose from the current lexicon, to come here and have large families and use the same large number of resources per person that Americans do and then you lament the exorbitant use of resources and come up with financial solutions to the problem such as cap and trade and building more low income housing for poor people with large families that can’t survive in an economy where wages are not rising because there are not enough jobs because there are too many people seeking them etc. etc.

    All our garden hardware comes out of dumpsters. The average new building waste pile has more than is needed. Learn about grey water and water harvesting. Plant a tree today and start small.

  29. Peter L.

    Anyone else interested in aquaponics? It seems like it could be a good way to produce food in a city. The set up is fairly simple in abstract: water circulates between a plant growing bed and a fish tank. The waste from the fish feeds the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish. The inputs are food for the fish, energy to run the circulation system & maybe grow lights, and maybe mineral supplements. It looks quite difficult to execute well.

    If you search for the term “aquaponics” you will find lots of stuff. YouTube has some great examples of what people are doing with the technology. Here is an example:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IryIOyPfTE

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I’ve seen a permaculture aquaponics set-up that used no external power source and wasn’t chemical intensive. The soil was volcanic from Hawaii IIRC.

  30. Cal

    Right, and the average African is going to be able to pay that licensing fee to Monsanto for his “nitrogen fixing cereal” seed? Most of Africa is not suitable for crop production. Rainfall does not equal fertility. Plus there is the population explosion there. Nigeria will soon have more people living in it than the U.S.
    Suggest you read the past blogs John Michael Greer, the Archdruid, for a debunking of cornucopian solutions.

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/

  31. digi_owl

    “and aspire to have a great lifestyle.”

    This is a core issue, imo. At least as long as the corporations, via marketing, are allowed to set the agenda on what a great lifestyle is supposed to be.

  32. optimader

    “I started out wondering if we could feed ourselves from our gardens while moving away from the “too many of us” slash dieback narrative, and I hope I made at least a semi-plausible case that we can, although let me throw in a ceteris paribus to be safe.”

    Yes we can all have fun gardening and we can all have nutritional deficiencies while trying to be self-reliant w/organic garden plots and hydroponic vertical gardens.

    Hopefully the dentist wont be taking half the year off because there will be plenty of bad teeth to pull. Nor the optometrist as he will be busy hand grinding lenses from discarded beverage bottles.

    IMO delusional to even contemplate a global pushback to locally sustainable agrarian societies w/o some fantastic calamity w/ associated human population die off forcing it.

    I think a more likely scenario will be societies migrating to more efficient transportation systems–> electric long haul and light electric rail. Food will represent a progressively increasing % of personal/family income.

    Agriculture yields will decline back to the historical mean as more sustainable soil beneficiation will eventually prove to be more economical than petroleum based fertilizers. More grazing animals, more carbon fixing back into prairie land.

    Animal husbandry will migrate back to free range (and fewer) domestic animals.

    More people will be hunting, not for sport, for meat (how charming, sustainable organic meat).

    Here in the US, land associated w/ the Great Lakes will become more valuable due to access to fresh water. (I think its an inevitability that greater Detroit will eventually become “blueberry fields” again.)

    Desert western and heartland states will revert to being… well the deserts that they are. Artificially supported population densities will decrease. At least it will make sense to grow more environmentally appropriate crops like blue agave?

    Anyone thinking Russia and client states are some communist/socialist panacea of agrarian paradise should really go spend some time there, maybe immigrate?
    Certainly if you learn the (local) language and have some practical skill set ( take a diesel engine repair and welding class at your local J.C. before you go) you would be welcome to immigrate to a farm, say in Belarus, if you can pull your own weight.

    1. Banger

      Advances in robotics, materials science, and AI will make producing food far easier as we go on. These technologies, however need funding and nurturing by collectives of one kind or another. We have to remember that it is not to the advantage of the oligarchs to install new methods. Instead of using technology for toys let’s put it to work meeting real needs.

      1. mansoor h. khan

        Banger,

        I agree with you. The problem is not ideas/creativity or physical resources. The problem is proper understanding of our situation, and teamwork and a proper goal and proper leadership.

        Consider the following:

        As an immigrant from Pakistan and having spent a couple of summers in India in my youth I have observed the following:

        These countries have much, much more corruption than USA at all levels, governments are nothing more than leeches. They also have much, much more income inequality (yes more than the current USA). And very little/almost no governmental public assistance for the poor.

        Also, these countries have much, much, much lower carbon footprint per capita than USA and there are 1,270 million people in India, and 180 million in Pakistan and 154 million in Bangladesh (a very large number people).

        Therefore my conclusion is:

        It IS possible to survive with much, much less in terms of resources per capita (water, arable land, fossil fuels, etc) than what we consume in USA . People in these countries do it somehow.

        Also, with better leadership/management and better distribution of resource/income they can even live much better lives than they do now (without more natural resource input to the system).

        Therefore, I think it is more a matter of WILL, CREATIVITY and TEAMWORK than anything else. We in the USA (alhumdolillah) have so much more natural resources per capita even if we stop receiving resources from over seas (like oil or whatever).

        Mansoor H. Khan

  33. F. Beard

    Too many people? That depends. I’ve been reading the history of the ancient Hebrews and when they were acceptable to God, He multiplied and prospered them greatly; when they were not, He greatly reduced their numbers with war, pestilence, famine, etc.

    I suspect that those who think there are too many people per se are likely to be the victims of the next Kill-Off by their Creator – poetic justice if you ask me for their lack of faith in goodness.

    1. Cal

      In other words, send your welfare caseload and homeless people to your local Catholic Church or Synagogue to enjoy the “banquet of life”, quoting some pope in the 1970s.

  34. optimader

    I’ll try again..
    Deep Down and Dirty: the Science of Soil.

    This is such a brilliantly crafted programme http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b040y925/Deep_Down_and_Dirty_The_Science_of_Soil/, that I decided to summarise its contents here (along with a few comments of my own). The microscopic photography is just amazing, revealing the structural components of soil in intricate detail: grains of sand, silt and clay, and the creatures that live in it, most of which are invisible to the naked eye: nematodes, protozoa, mites, bacteria, fungi etc. It is through its soil that the world springs into life, in this eponymous season, awakening from a winter torpor. Originally the Earth was barren rock, but was transformed into a vibrant living planet by soil. So where did the soil come from and why is it so important? What is it that gives soil its amazing life-generating force? In a forest, everything is supported by what is inherently in the ground, whereas in a human-tended garden or farm, fertilizers are added to replenish what is lost from the soil. In the forest too, those nutrients must also be replaced, but this is largely accomplished through the symbiotic balance of natural processes.

    The forest floor is covered with leaf litter from last season’s life. Plants cannot use this to grow on, because the fallen leaves are too tough to be broken down and digested: thus, any nutrients they contain are locked within them. Samples taken using a soil-corer reveal intact leaf litter as a top layer, but below that is a much darker layer where the particles are smaller and much more broken down, and below this is topsoil. The different layers are described as soil horizons and collectively as the soil profile. Below this, the individual components disappear, so that the trapped nutrients are ultimately released into the soil. The key organism for breaking down the leaf litter is a fungus: strictly, mycelium – the vegetative part of the fungus – which we often observe as fine, white threads that grow out from dead wood, leaves etc. The mycelium releases enzymes to break down wood or leaves. Fungi are the only organisms on Earth that can decompose wood. As the fungus breaks down the wood and leaves, a rich material called humus is formed.

    The fungus also feeds an entire world that we are not normally aware of, called the soil food web, consisting of millions of tiny creatures, all of which are dependent on the nutrients released by the fungus. There may be half a million different species of organisms in the soil, including bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, mites (arthropods), tardigrades (water bears), and rotifers (with a tail that appears to revolve like a wheel). As they eat, and are eaten themselves, along with their excrement, these creatures disperse nutrients that were initially released by the fungi. Breaking down all these tough materials is too hard a job for the fungi to do alone, and earthworms are their greatest ally. The earthworm has been called an ecosystem engineer. There may be two million earthworms in an average field. Charles Darwin studied earthworms for over 40 years, fascinated by the question of why they are so important in soil. While the majority of the organisms in the soil are invisible, it is not necessary to make recourse to a microscope to determine the health of the soil food web, since the abundant presence of earthworms is a clear indicator that all its members are present in mutual harmony…
    ergobalance.blogspot add dot com

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      This is why if I believed in any sort of supreme being or planetary intelligence, I believe it would be in the form of a mycelial mat.

      Thanks for the great quote because soil is key to all of the earthly paradise.

  35. optimader

    Regenerative Agriculture.

    “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself” (Roosevelt 1937).

    Modern agriculture is based almost entirely on fossil fuels and natural gas. The former are used to run tractors and other kinds of farm machinery while the latter is cracked in a thermal catalytic process called “steam reforming” to make hydrogen which is combined with nitrogen to form ammonia, using the Haber-Bosch process. Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work which he developed with Carl Bosch. He has also been described as the “father of chemical warfare” for his work developing and deploying chlorine and other poison gasses during the First World war. Haber’s wife, Clara Immerwahr, who also held a PhD in chemistry, opposed his work on poison gasses and committed suicide with his service weapon in their garden, possibly in response to his having personally overseen the first successful use of chlorine at the Second Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915.

    When I was at school we were taught it as just the Haber process, but Bosch has since then been recognised in this, probably the most important reaction ever performed in the world. Indeed, it was Bosch who transformed Haber’s bench-top demonstration into an important industrial process to produce megatons of fertilizer and explosives. It is the fully developed system that is called the Haber-Bosch process. After World War I, Bosch extended high-pressure techniques to the production of synthetic fuel and methanol and in 1931 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with Friedrich Bergius for the introduction of high pressure chemistry, e.g. the Bergius Process for converting coal dust to synthetic diesel by reacting it with hydrogen gas under pressure. Ammonia, as formed by the Haber-Bosch process, may then be oxidised using the Ostwald process to form nitric acid, and by the combination of these two materials, the fertilizer, ammonium nitrate is created. In fact this is a pretty dangerous material since along with other highly nitrogenous materials such as nitroglycerine, it is a powerful explosive. During World War One, the Allied forces dug trenches underneath the German lines, which they then filled with ammonium nitrate and detonated it, so that the explosion was heard in London, some 30 miles away across the English Channel.

    While modern farming almost entirely relies on such synthetic fertilizers in “open systems”, regenerative agriculture refers to “semi-closed systems”: i.e. those in which inputs of energy, in the form of fertilizers and fuels, are minimized because those key agricultural elements are recycled as far as possible. Conventional agriculture is mostly “open” and hence large inputs are necessary since much of them are wasted and it is a matter of maintaining a sufficient productive density of fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical energy, to maintain production on poor soils with much of the living matter and natural animal life (earthworms, beetles etc.) gone. Indeed, modern soils have been described as dead, and only remain productive because of artificial and voluminous inputs derived mainly from crude oil and natural gas. As the latter sources of energy and chemical materials begin to wane and finally fail, so will most of the world’s agr….
    ergobalance.blogspot add (dot com/2009/03/nation-that-destroys-its-soil-destroys.html)

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Interesting the world could have gone another route, without this PhD, that PhD or that Noble Prize Winner.

      1. optimader

        It would just be a different set of issues in the parallel world. The “PhD or that Noble Prize Winner” just reveal the phenomena/opportunity, others kick it to death in the wrong direction.

  36. LillithMc

    100 years ago my family was self-sufficient. Today around them is pollution from not only fossil fuels, but lack of regulation over corporate animal farming. In CA farmers are deciding now whether to plant due to lack of water. The central valley is being tested for fracking. My intentional community hopes to be away from extraction pollution. Enough veggies are grown to feed us. Green energy gives us access to the internet. New types of food production are being used. Not too soon to try to get ahead of the curve.

  37. Oregoncharles

    First of all, I want to thank Lambert for an antidote to my own usually gloomy appraisal of our likely future. Then, without having read the other comments, I want to raise the biggest question:
    “vast changes in political economy would be required for such a system of horticulture to come into place. To which I would respond Yes, and your point?”

    Does anyone here see the slightest sign that such changes are happening or even on the horizon? Broad scale, that is? To be clear, there is a whole movement, called Transition Towns, to create the kind of horticulture and society Lambert is talking about. It’s extremely important and I strongly recommend looking it up and joining. But it isn’t broad scale – it’s effective precisely because it focuses on local communities. It would have to be adopted by essentially everyone to save us.

    The real problem isn’t just food. Yes, we could, in principle, produce enough to feed the present population well and support a much larger one. But would we? Would it be distributed? Would those fence posts make it to the people who need them? The manure or other biomass?

    Social efficiencies are very limited, and at present, our “political economy” is working against us, especially considering that many stocks and support systems are already collapsing.

    I’ve long made a seat-of-the-pants calculation (the only kind that’s really applicable – too many unknowns) that indicates we’ve overshot the carrying capacity of the planet by about 4-fold, at least for a decent standard of living (as contrasted with consumption). There are decent ways of reducing population, and a few countries have already started; of course, they now face the problems of an aging population. Then there’s nature’s way, and that’s started, too. You could call it a race.

    The “political economy” Lambert mentions is the reason we’re all here. I may not agree that his point applies to the larger picture, but I do appreciate Lambert’s effort at another sort of antidote.

  38. allcoppedout

    This has a fairly factual ring to it:
    http://monthlyreview.org/2009/07/01/the-world-food-crisis-in-historical-perspective

    “a recent Chatham House report claims, producing “one tonne of maize in the US requires 160 litres of oil, compared with just 4.8 litres in Mexico where farmers rely on more traditional methods”

    The echonomics of groaf-jawbs has long been “hiding” a great deal of squalor. We have been eating oil and gas and puking their effluents into air for a great deal longer than necessary. I doubt we can do much without a peoples’ revolution to bring peace and cooperation. With the kind of politicians we get out of the way and a new constitution to control those doing the job, we could genuinely turn our attention to “modern money” to produce the capacity we need in green production. We need to go beyond the echo. I think we can do what we need to on a half-year, 4 day week. I don’t see much sign we can talk the talk yet.

  39. Lord Koos

    I disagree that the elite or powers that be are in favor of somehow reducing the population. It is always to the benefit of the elite to have 100 workers applying for a single job. There is always someone willing to work for less…

    1. Garrett Pace

      Not when there’s robots to do those jobs.

      We are in an era of surplus populations, and as far as the economy is recognized, anyone without money does not exist.

        1. Garrett Pace

          What does the economy need us for if we don’t have money? If we can’t buy any goods?

          The mechanized economy will be something else. All this production, run essentially without workers, to suit the demands of the elite.

  40. McMike

    Couple things…

    (1) I believe something like two thirds of our US capacity is directed at making corn syrup, ethanol, corn for cows, and wheat for crackers. So we’ve got some room to re-purpose.

    (2) Smart composting and good practices keeps the soil plenty healthy.

    (3) There’s plenty of room in and around a city to grow food. Rooftops, vacant lots, parks, brownfields. If it is important enough and prioritized, we could find or make the space. Hell, once the oil age ends, there’ll be bazillions of acres of parking lots to tear up.

    (4) I believe that the average US diet includes something like 200 pounds, pounds, of sugar per year. That’s a lot of ag activity that could be eliminated while actually improving health.

    (5) Haven’t GM crops been revealed as a self-defeating sham already?

  41. F. Beard

    Of course land reform (See Leviticus 25) would allow everyone to have their own gardens and harvest their own solar energy too. And build their own houses. And get away from their neighbors. And allow their children to play safely. And … And …

    And one day it will happen. For some …

    1. Vatch

      “For some” is right, especially if Leviticus 25 is the model. The final part of chapter 25 of Leviticus (verses 44 to 55) is about the management of slavery. Verses 44 through 46 are especially unpleasant (I suspect antebellum plantation owners liked these verses):

      44 ” ‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (NIV)

      1. allcoppedout

        You have to hand it to Beard Vatch – he’s the best damned selective referencer on the planet, possibly excluding Judge Leo Strine.

      2. F. Beard

        Correct. The Old Testament is outstanding wrt social justice but mostly only for the Hebrews and, I suppose, converts to their religion. In fact, Palestine was to be wiped clean of the original inhabitants but they were a nasty bunch who did things like sacrifice their own children to Molech. The Hebrews themselves were later cast out for the same reasons but also for social injustice..

        But what? Are we worse than they that we don’t even aim for social justice among ourselves?

      3. F. Beard

        And now, most of us are debt-slaves because we ignored the Bible wrt to money/credit creation.

      4. Garrett Pace

        From the verses you reference, am I to understand that since slaves can be bought and willed, but selling is not mentioned, a slave was not a financial asset as such?

        And since these “perpetual” slaves could easily join themselves to the house of Israel and claim the jubilee amnesty, should this be taken as an effort to rehabilitate the lowest-class-victims of other nations and thereby swell the ranks of the House of Israel?

        1. Vatch

          If you’re asking me, I don’t know. There are references to selling people in other verses of Leviticus 25. Maybe F. Beard can answer your question.

        2. F. Beard

          Excellent point though some, such as the Moabites and the Ammonites, could never join the Assembly of Israel, that is the males could not join yet Ruth the Moabitess was the great-grandmother of David and in the genealogy of Jesus Christ so apparently exceptions were made for females.

  42. Jeff N

    “Would it really be so bad to work half the year, make your own shoes, and stay loaded on your own beer?”

    I’m a recovering alcoholic, so, yes. ;)

  43. John Yard

    It is absolutely fallacious to scale up from micro scale ‘proof of concept’ type project to a global scale. Clearly with enough capital/skilled labor/resources a large output can be derived from any given input, but it says nothing about the real world.

  44. Garrett Pace

    Only poor babies are being added to populations right now. Everyone else is at replacement rate or less. It will suck for those babies, but it’s not that the world cannot support them. And they won’t be the ones to destroy the planet.

    Right now the West is the serpent that devours not just itself, but everything else. If there’s half as many wealthy & middle class do you really think they’ll pollute less? I think they’ll work harder to make up the difference.

    People aren’t the problem.

  45. JohnnyGL

    Good post, Lambert. Interesting links, too. You’ve done an excellent job distracting me from my work today!

  46. allcoppedout

    The British farming effort for WW2 began in 1936. Of course, still unbeknownst to the British public, we lost WW2 and had to redouble our efforts to feed Germans. Wheat yields went up, as promised by scientists from 1 ton an acre to about 4. Modern robotics may be about to help us not to use weed killers (it’s expensive to keep training cheap imported labour who rarely turn up next year), save soil compacting and much more. We already have some of Banger’s vertical farms under trial here.

    Great post Lambert. I think the answers lie deeper, but we need to be exploring alternatives to echonomics. I think the answer is closely connected with our attitude to money, getting it into productive investment and expecting money returns rather than capacity building.

  47. burnside

    Lambert, I’m reasonably sure we have the means.

    One of them, so-called ‘terra preta’, is under study at the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension. There are a cluster of unexpected benefits which surround the practice (among them the carbon sequestration figures which may interest you especially). India and particularly Australia are moving far more rapidly to implement than others.
    Our own response, which has taken a more stately pace, leads me to question whether or not either agriculture or individuals will employ one of these several methods soon enough or in great enough numbers to avert suffering and worse.

      1. burnside

        I haven’t, but thanks for the suggestion – I’ll have a look.

        The subject got an airing online many years ago. And turned up again at MIT Technology Review back in (I think) about 2007 or 08. After which a fair bit of searching laid most of the available info bare for me.

        I’m not so interested as you in the sequestration possibilities, but punching a hole in the runoff problem, reducing the demand for fertilizer, making an end run around slash and burn, and the concentrated yields (and those brilliantly healthy crops) would interest most anyone, I imagine.

        1. different clue

          “Biochar” is an extension of this concept. Lots of search entries under “biochar”.

  48. wafranklin

    We have a spaceship, with NO backup, designed for 3 billion people with a population of 9 billion pending,using finite resources that matter to all life. What in hell, there is NO other argument. This is sophistry and crap.

    1. kgilmour

      Long before any of these pie in the sky solutions – there will be compassion fatigue by Western Middle Class — when squeezed – will want drastic population reduction – by ANY MEANS…. yes, any means.

      Once we start seeing documentaries on Cambodian kitchens… with sad eyed monkeys, puppies and kittens… waiting for the wok…. or Indonesian fishing practices that kill an entire reef to get a meal…. Americans and Europeans will say ENOUGH…. I don’t want to have less so these monsters can have more.

      Just the 3rd world attitude towards dogs, horses and cats will turn the average Liberal into a raving hater…. When push comes to shove…. there are plenty of reasons for Americans to ignore the plight of the 3rd world breeding populations… if only because of their cultural blind eye to animal cruelty.

      There are specific thresholds for 3rd world peoples to meet before the West will muster any thought of helping them.

      1. If you and yours has not discovered that feces in your drinking water is a bad thing. Your DNA is destined for extinction.

      2. If you and yours hasn’t figured out that more children means more hunger and poverty… not extra help …. your DNA is destined for extinction.

      3. If you and yours haven’t figured out why it is a heinous crime against man and nature to keep a goat tied in the tub for lack of refrigeration… as you hack off limbs for consumption… sorry… EVEN YOUR GRANDPARENTS deserved to die before they had YOU! This last practice has been discovered in [of all places] Wisconsin. Emigrating Hmong and Somalians…. keep their meat alive – as they butcher it slowly

      Sorry… the end can’t come soon enough for some cultural monsters.

      1. Rosario

        I usually don’t reply negatively to comments but I feel this post is incredibly insensitive. I personally know some of these cultural monsters you speak of and they are quite like the rest of us. Generalizations of entire people usually indicate a lack of exposure to said people, but to the point. Every, and yes I mean every, person living in so called 1st world countries is participating in a violent lifestyle everyday (this includes myself). Driving cars and even using public transit, living in heated homes, eating food from the grocery store, using plastics, enjoying a beer, using contraceptives (this said to illuminate your not understanding that there is a lack of birth control in these “3rd world countries” and/or no cultural awareness of them therefore little acceptance of them), I could go on and on. A privileged life is a life of externalized violence. We have what we have because we have exploited it from others. I do feel strongly that those things I listed above are quite good for us all. It is how we go about obtaining and distributing them that I take issue. An “I got mine where’s yours?” mentality is ridiculous. Get to know WHY these people come from there circumstances and behave the way they do and maybe you could start reflecting on just how privileged you are.

      2. different clue

        What the hell. I’ll feed you too, Mr. Troll. India and Pakistan have numerous atom bombs and missiles and the will to use them to extort help. So they qualify for aid.

  49. Rosario

    I think it would be incorrect to dismiss the Green Revolution as a wholly Capitalist operation to make food production more adept to Capitalist ends (though Capitalists have done far worse). It has increased food production, and decreased famine around the world demonstrably, at least relative to the past, and at an immense cost. As often happens, the problems present themselves after the implementation. Today, many of the innovations of the Green Revolution seem sloppy at best:

    -monoculture (a personal irritant in both agriculture and society)
    -dependence on oil
    -ruinous disregard for the sustainability of natural systems (not an innovation but clearly understood at the time of implementation therefore inexcusable)
    -ultimate full integration into a profit oriented Capitalist structure (its final stage operating now)

    The Green Revolution “worked” and “works” the same way any Capitalist solution works (I’m sure I’ve said this too many times already), if we just produce enough we can cover all of our shortcomings in terms of culture, morals, ethics, etc. The issue we are slowly coming to terms with is that this production was at the expense of all the Externalities disregarded in Capitalism’s cost to profits ratio. A workable agricultural model is one that purposely grows food/gathers food for the sustaining of human life. Something we did quite well for most of our existence as a species without the advantages of oil, complex machinery, and so on. At present, considering our immense cumulative knowledge there is no excuse for the inability to implement a purposeful, rational, and sustainable system that can at least feed our current population levels. That all being said I’m really enjoying the environmental and sustainability posts. Please keep them coming.

  50. different clue

    There are too many rich people at rich levels of consumption and at least in some poor countries too many poor people at poor levels of consumption. Maybe the rich people can solve their problem by lowering their consumption. Maybe the poor people will solve their problem with greater use/production efficiencies or with large dieoffs or with mass migration into whatever rich countries let them in. Such poor migrants into rich countries can all get rich and increase the rich countries’ overconsumption. I almost betcha that one Bangladeshi American has a bigger eco-footprint that 20 Bangladeshi Bangladeshis, for example.
    The oil won’t stay abundant till it suddenly runs out. It will get scarce and then get scarcer. If non-foodgrowing users of oil are ready to pay more for oil than farmers are able to pay for it, then farmers will run out before NASCAR runs out, for example. So maybe lots of rich country people can watch NASCAR or Grand Prix or gamble at Monaco to dull the pain of starvation because they wouldn’t pay enough for food to let the farmers use some of their food-money to buy gas/diesel to grow food. But if the military establishments decide to impose oil rationing, then NASCAR/Grand Prix/ Monaco gambling will be cut back so foodgrowing may continue.

    The best land in the poor countries is all being bought up by China/Saudi Arabia/ etc to produce captive food for China/Saudi Arabia/ etc. Unless the poor people around those plantations are able
    to conquer them and expel or exterminate eveyone controlling that land for China/Saudi Arabia etc., the population problem will be solved in those countries firstest of allest.
    Some other poor countries with ag science establishments working together with ancient village/civilization knowledge may go back to a pre-oil food future. India, Bangladesh, etc. maybe.
    Manmade deserts can be re-terraformed into the pre-deserts they used to be. Alan Savory, Groasis, permaculture, some traditional pastoralist knowledge, etc.
    Urbia and suburbia can grow more food than it grows now, lessening the burden on farmland. Farmland so de-burdened can grow more modest amounts of food more sustainably, maybe even grow enough alcohol and vegediesel to power the farm machinery ( or smaller farm machinery in the hands of more smaller farmers).
    Acres USA features many articles on farmers claiming to grow sustainably and even increase the
    carbon content of their soil. There are still some copies of a book by Bargyla Rateaver called The Organic Method being sold by Acres USA at $39 per copy till the copies run out. (They were once $250 per copy when Bargyla Rateaver was still alive and running her little bussiness). That book is
    not a bunch of Rodale simple science and homilies and testimonials. It is full of science and technical knowledge and many sources. It offers much dense detailed info on legume and NON-legume sources of nitrogen fixation for when Haber-Bosch nitrogen runs out.

  51. different clue

    How did the Indians do it? There were millions of Indians before the European Holocaust of the Indian Nations. Explorers noted how healthy and well fed they all were.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Again, I recommend Charles Mann’s amazing 1491 for a description of “Indian” agricultural practices in North, South, and Central America. Amazing, mind-bending stuff backed by scholarship.

  52. robertvincin

    Well planned soil can be grown in anthropogenic deserts. 2-4% of vegetation known as C4 photosynthesis pathway converts CO2 to grow soil soil-carbon food fodder. Check that seed dropped by a bird onto concrete slab or high wall. Check in every week see “soil” growing. Yes there is more to do it on a national level. The multitude of issues facing Mankind can be address in a planned reversal. Well designed by sequestering this CO2 we meet UNFCCC goal The sale of low cost offsets to emitting industries funds desert reversal CO2 sinks with income to research non polluting industries. The business model is “desert impact nations reversing deserts can within a yr feed livestock 2-3 grow food including for export. Its not new its replicating nature. Bottom up global recovery on many levels Robert Vincin

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