Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Soil Erosion Worse than Ever and Still Increasing


Our Good Earth

The future rests on the soil beneath our feet.

By Charles C. Mann (author of EXCELLENT book, 1491)
Photograph by Jim Richardson

On a warm September day, farmers from all over the state gather around the enormous machines. Combines, balers, rippers, cultivators, diskers, tractors of every variety—all can be found at the annual Wisconsin Farm Technology Days show. But the stars of the show are the great harvesters, looming over the crowd. They have names like hot rods—the Claas Jaguar 970, the Krone BiG X 1000—and are painted with colors bright as fireworks. The machines weigh 15 tons apiece and have tires tall as a tall man. When I visited Wisconsin Farm Technology Days last year, John Deere was letting visitors test its 8530 tractor, an electromechanical marvel so sophisticated that I had no idea how to operate it. Not to worry: The tractor drove itself, navigating by satellite. I sat high and happy in the air-conditioned bridge, while beneath my feet vast wheels rolled over the earth.

The farmers grin as they watch the machines thunder through the cornfields. In the long run, though, they may be destroying their livelihoods. Midwestern topsoil, some of the finest cropland in the world, is made up of loose, heterogeneous clumps with plenty of air pockets between them. Big, heavy machines like the harvesters mash wet soil into an undifferentiated, nigh impenetrable slab—a process called compaction. Roots can't penetrate compacted ground; water can't drain into the earth and instead runs off, causing erosion. And because compaction can occur deep in the ground, it can take decades to reverse. Farm-equipment companies, aware of the problem, put huge tires on their machines to spread out the impact. And farmers are using satellite navigation to confine vehicles to specific paths, leaving the rest of the soil untouched. Nonetheless, this kind of compaction remains a serious issue—at least in nations where farmers can afford $400,000 harvesters.

Our species is rapidly trashing an area the size of the United States and Canada combined.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Doomer's Garden

A doomer's garden

by Zachary Nowak

[Originally published on Energy Bulletin on 3 June 2008]

Now that oil is up over $130 a barrel and the subprime debacle is making everyone think that there may just be a Big Problem in the future, I would like to reopen the discussion on the menu du jour, post-Peak. Tractor trailers may not be able to bring in our Krispie Flakes and California oranges, and we may have to “make other arrangements,” as James Howard Kunstler often says, to feed ourselves. I am worried with the frequency that I see “gardens” as a solution to a breakdown in the food supply, and I would like to disabuse the peaknik crowd of this dangerous illusion.

“If there’s a problem with the food supply, I’ll just garden,” you say! If the Peak comes and causes disruptions in the food supply, your Hubbert Victory garden will see you through the winter months. I’m sure most of us love to picture ourselves putting up forty quarts of tomatoes and salting beans for the winter in a large beige crock. With your green thumb and Mason jars you’ll can enough to last until next year’s first corn comes in.

This is a nice fantasy, but I would ask the more serious to do a simple survey. Each of us likely has a friend who has a fairly large garden. Ask him or her what percentage of their family’s yearly food intake comes from the garden – I would be astounded if any say more than two percent. Annual gardening, like agriculture, takes an enormous input of energy for the return you get, and that is assuming you are good at it.

Are you good at it? How much do you know about gardening? To have a truly successful large garden you need to eliminate as many of the risks as possible. Unfortunately, the risks are myriad: poor germination, premature planting (or a late frost), garden pests (from aphids to groundhogs), too much rain, too little water, and so on. Taking each of these individually, we can see that annual gardening has a lot of luck involved in it. A good gardener buys high-quality seeds, uses cold frames to start plants before the last frost, knows the growing periods of each vegetable well, is prepared for the various “enemies” of his/her plants, and spends hours watering if need be.

What happens, though, if it doesn’t work out well? If gardening is your hobby, it’s not a problem. But in a post-Peak situation where food is tight, it just may be. Ask yourself what you know about gardening, and whether that is enough to risk your life on the tomatoes coming in and rows of corn ripening. Horticulture alone is not a valid answer unless you are already an expert, and even then it is tough. I am emphatically not saying that you should not garden – a large garden will be essential – but simply that it is dangerous to depend on gardening alone.

What then, is the answer? Lowering your inputs, increasing your outputs, and redundancy. In other words, get more food from plants that don’t require such babying, and don’t rely on just a few main crops. The key is diversification with hardier, low-maintenance crops: perennial vegetables, bush- and vine-fruits, and trees. If you’re a gardener you likely already have the two most common perennial vegetables, asparagus and rhubarb (the latter we often eat as a fruit, with strawberries), but don’t limit yourself to these! There are a number of perennial onions that come up every year without the hassle of planting sets, tubers like Jerusalem artichokes that are easy to the point of being pesky, and even old-fashioned favourites like lovage. Fruits like currants and gooseberries are easy to propagate and can, and you can even have kiwi fruit growing along your fence (it’s a smaller, hardier relative than the kiwi in the grocery stores). For trees, go beyond apples and peaches to hazelnuts, quinces, and persimmon trees. All have fewer pests than their more common cousins and produce fruit and nuts earlier and more steadily.

Of course a bountiful harvest just begs more questions, like are there other methods of preservation that are less energy-intensive than canning? This is an optimistic problem, one you should be happy to face. A much more immediate problem is feeding yourself in an uncertain world. Don’t get me wrong, I will still have an annual garden long after Hubbert’s Peak – I can’t be without tomato sauce or fresh corn – but having tried my hand at gardening, I’ve realized that it’s a gamble as far as what you get, and not one most people should make. Peakniks with green thumbs, go buy some currant bushes!

Monday, August 4, 2008

How To Explain Peak Oil To Anyone

Sharon Astyk is author of the forthcoming Depletion and Abundance: The New Home Front, Families and the Coming Ecological Crises and A Nation of Farmers. Sharon (both will be available in the Permaculture Activist online book catalog) has an M.A. and most of a Ph.D. in English literature, where her research centered upon literary, philosophical and historical responses to disaster and demographic crises in 16th and 17th century Britain. Final completion of the Ph.D. is presently on hold while she responds to the forthcoming disasters and demographic crisis of the 21st century. Five years ago, Sharon and her family moved to rural upstate New York to begin a life attempting to consume only a fair share of human resources. She and her husband, a physicist, run a small Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA), and in their copious spare time, they are raising four sons and assorted critters and livestock. Some of her work can be seen at her blog www.casaubonsbook.blogspot.com, and at her website on peak oil preparation for families, http://www.sharonastyk.com/.

Enjoy the following article recently written by her and visit her blog and site. Be forewarned! You could lose track of time and stay there for hours.

How To Explain Peak Oil To Anyone

It has occurred to me that there must be a simple way of explaining peak oil to everyone - but most solutions have concentrated on creating a *single* simple method of explaining peak oil, when what is needed is a highly specialized approach, designed to help people grasp the issue in the most basic terms imaginable. Being a helpful sort, I have undertaken to provide those explanations. Thus, all you need to do is evaluate the person you are explaining things too, and from there, insert the proper explanation. BTW, just in case you can't figure this out, this is intended to be funny and is bound to offend someone, probably everyone. Deal.

-If the Person is a lot like: Homer Simpson

The way to explain it is: "Beer comes from oil. You use oil to run tractor to grow barley. You use oil to run fermenting equipment. You use oil to ship beer to liquor store. You use gas, made from oil, to drive drunk to the store to get beer. No oil means no more beer - ever."

The solution you offer is: "More beer good. Beer comes from oil. Must. Save. Beer."

-If the Person is a lot like: An Uber-Soccer Mom

The way to explain it is: "Yes, I heard how awful it was that the coach criticized your Christina - I agree, that he was completely out of line to hurt her self esteem like that. Speaking of self-esteem, did you know I've lost 11lbs on the 100-mile diet? I feel great, and I fit into some clothes I haven't worn since Jared was born. All that fresh produce and unprocessed food has been so wonderful - Mike says I look younger too, and it seems to improve my skin. And Jennifer is a lot less hyperactive since we've been biking everywhere. And Lisa is writing her college application essay on the impact of our environmental lifestyle changes. My friend Rita who is a guidance counselor told me that this will really help differentiate her from all the soccer players and school newspaper writers for the people at Yale. Green is the new black, you know."
The solution you offer is: That you will be thinner, happier, sexier and your kids will be smarter if you do this stuff. Oh, and btw, it saves energy too.

-If the person is a lot like: Rush Limbaugh

The way to explain it is: "Evil people in China and India are burning up all of America's oil. Those selfish bastards are trying to compete with us just so that they can have running water, and the democrats in congress won't let us nuke them like we really should. They are trying to prove that Americans can't compete without a lot of energy. We need to prove that we're better than they are, with or without oil, because God loves America best. With Jesus to help us conserve, we don't have to have oil."
The solution you offer is: Conservation is Patriotic, and a good way to stick it to people in other countries.

-If the person is a lot like: Paris Hilton

The way to explain it is: "Without oil to manufacture tv sets, run "Entertainment Tonight" and power all that tv, no one will watch what you do. No one will care if you have sex on the internet, go to jail or kill Brittney Spears with your bare hands while mud wrestling on reality tv. Yes, you'll probably still be rich enough to buy oil, but all the good hotels will be having brownouts, and everyone will be so busy trying to get alone that they won't care about you. Oh, and if they get a chance, you servants will probably kill and eat your little rat-dog."

The solution you offer: "Think how much attention Angelina Jolie got by adopting all those poor kids. Maybe you should take some of your money and adopt a whole town in Bangladesh and go carbon negative. You could have a series on almost any network but Fox about making your home environmentally sound and helping poor people get access to renewable energy."

-If the person is a lot like: Grandpa Simpson
The way to explain it is: "You know, back in the old days we didn't have all this newfangled technology crap. We just did good, hard work, and knew the value of a dollar. Back then we didn't need tv, or cell phones or cars. We didn't sit around downloading music from that there internet, we had real music, in real speakeasies, and we danced for hours. And that porno-graphy on that there filthy computer - in our day we had to do real work to see naked women, carve real peep holes through rock-hard chestnut boards. These kids today are too fat and spoiled to dance, and they wouldn't know what to do with a hoe or a horse or a jackknife if it bit them in the ass. We need legislation to get them off the streets and back onto the farms!

What to suggest: National service programs, Chain gangs and Victory Gardens

If the Person is an Aging Hippie:

What to say is: "You were right about everything. Absolutely everything. Growing your own food. Renewable energy. The economy. Drugs. How sexy greying ponytails are. Not trusting old people...oh...wait..." Well, almost everything.

What to suggest: Stop looking so smug.

-If the person is a lot like: An Economist
The way to explain the problem is this: "Ok, just for a moment, let me ask you to suspend your belief for just a moment. Imagine that unicorns and faeries roam the forests, that the sun goes around the earth and that the US has a meaningful third party. Ok, now imagine that it is just possible that we can't actually substitute grain for gasoline, or benzene for water. And further imagine that people dying is bad, even if it seems like it is good for the economy.
What to suggest: Give up now.

-If the Person is: Your Dubious Spouse What to say: "I'm doing this because I love you and I want us to have a positive future. Preparing for a low energy future will definitely bring us closer together and make our marriage stronger, happier and sexier. I can't think of anything more romantic than discussing our feelings, the current depletion rate and the latest apocalyptic novel while canning okra in the 90 degree heat. And I think you are never more beautiful than when you are putting up rainwater cachement.
What to suggest: A literal roll in the hay. Move the scythe first.

-If the person is a lot like: The President of the United States

What to say is: Ask Dick. He'll explain it to you.

What to suggest: Immediate impeachment with a heavy, blunt instrument.


Americans, and all oil-dependent nations, need to Relocalize their economies, not an easy task entangled as we are in the sticky web of global trade. Not only is it getting more expensive to get goods from elsewhere, the opposite is also true.

"When Tesla Motors, a pioneer in electric-powered cars, set out to make a luxury roadster for the American market, it had the global supply chain in mind. Tesla planned to manufacture 1,000-pound battery packs in Thailand, ship them to Britain for installation, then bring the mostly assembled cars back to the United States. But when it began production this spring, the company decided to make the batteries and assemble the cars near its home base in California, cutting more than 5,000 miles from the shipping bill for each vehicle. The cost of shipping a 40-foot container from Shanghai to the United States has risen to $8,000, compared with $3,000 early in the decade, according to a recent study of transportation costs. Big container ships, the pack mules of the 21st-century economy, have shaved their top speed by nearly 20 percent to save on fuel costs, substantially slowing shipping times."

“If we think about the Wal-Mart model, it is incredibly fuel-intensive at every stage, and at every one of those stages we are now seeing an inflation of the costs for boats, trucks, cars,” said Naomi Klein, the author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.”

Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/business/worldbusiness/03global.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

Friday, August 1, 2008

Eat the View!!!

"Eat the View" is a campaign to plant healthy, edible landscapes in high-impact, high visibility places, whether it's the "First Lawn" or the lawn in front of your child's school.