Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Paradox of Production

One of the things that makes the challenge of peak oil so insidious, and so resistant to quick fixes, is the way in which many things that seem like ingredients of a solution are actually part of the problem. Petroleum provides so much of the energy and so many of the raw materials we take for granted today that the impacts of declining oil production extend much further than a first glance would suggest.

Read through discussions of the energy future of industrial society from a few years back, for example, and you’ll find that many of them treat the price of coal and the price of oil as independent variables, linked only by the market forces that turn price increases in one into an excuse for bidding up the price of the other. What these analyses missed, of course, is that the machinery used to mine coal and the trains used to transport it are powered by diesel oil. When the price of diesel goes up, the cost of coal mining goes up; when supplies of diesel run short in coal-producing countries – as they have in China in recent months – the supply of coal runs into unexpected hiccups as well.

I’ve pointed out in previous posts here that every other energy source currently used in modern societies gets a substantial “energy subsidy” from oil. Thus, to continue the example, oil contains about three times as much useful energy per unit weight as coal does, and oil also takes a lot less energy to extract from the ground, process, and transport to the end user than coal does. Modern coal production benefits from these efficiencies. If coal had to be mined, processed, and shipped using coal-burning equipment, those efficiencies would be lost, and a sizeable fraction of total coal production would have to go to meet the energy costs of the coal industry.

The same thing, of course, is true of every other alternative energy source to a greater or lesser degree: the energy used in uranium mining and reactor construction, for example, comes from diesel rather than nuclear power, just as sunlight doesn’t make solar panels. What rarely seems to have been noticed, however, is the way these “energy subsidies” intersect with the challenges of declining petroleum production to boobytrap the future of energy production in industrial societies. The boobytrap in question is an effect I’ve named the paradox of production.

It’s crucial to understand that the problem with our society’s reliance on petroleum is not simply that petroleum will become scarce in the future, and will have to be replaced by less concentrated or less abundant fuels. It’s that a huge proportion of industrial society’s capital plant – the collection of tools, artifacts, trained personnel, social structures, information resources, and human geography that provide the productive basis for society – was designed and built to use petroleum-derived fuels, and only petroleum-derived fuels. Converting that capital plant to anything else involves much more than just providing another energy source.

Consider the difficulties that would be involved in building the sort of hydrogen economy so often touted as the solution to our approaching energy crisis. We’ll grant for the moment that the massive amounts of electricity needed to turn seawater into hydrogen gas in sufficient volume to matter turn out to be available somehow, despite the severe challenges facing every option proposed so far. Getting the electricity to make the hydrogen, though, is only the first of a series of tasks with huge price tags in money, energy, raw materials, labor, and time.

Hydrogen, after all, can’t be poured into the gas tank of a gasoline-powered car. For that matter, it can’t be dispensed from today’s gas pumps, or stored in the tanks at today’s filling stations, or shipped there by the pipelines and tanker trucks currently used to get gasoline and diesel fuel to the point of sale. Every motor vehicle on the roads, along with the vast infrastructure built up over a century to fuel them with petroleum products, would have to be replaced in order to use hydrogen as a transport fuel.

The same challenge, in one form or another, faces nearly every other energy source proposed as a replacement for petroleum. It’s not enough to come up with a new source of energy. Unless that new source can be used just like petroleum, the petroleum-powered machines we use today will have to be replaced by machines using the new energy source. Furthermore, unless the new energy source can be distributed through existing channels – whether that amounts to the pipelines and tanker trucks used to transport petroleum fuels today, or some other established infrastructure, such as the electric power grid – a new distribution infrastructure will have to be built. Either task would add massive costs to the price tag for a new energy source; put both of them together – as in the case of hydrogen – and the costs of the new infrastructure could easily dwarf the cost of bringing the new energy source online in the first place.

Factor the impact of declining oil production into this equation and the true scale of the challenge before us becomes a little clearer. Building a hydrogen infrastructure – from power plants and hydrogen generation facilities, through pipelines and distribution systems, to hydrogen filling stations and hundreds of millions of hydrogen-powered cars and trucks – will, among many other things, take a very large amount of oil. Some of the oil will be used directly, by construction equipment, trucks hauling parts to the new plants, and the like; much more will be used indirectly, since nearly every commodity and service for sale in the industrial world today relies on petroleum in one way or another. Until a substantial portion of the hydrogen system is in place, it won’t be possible to use hydrogen to supplement dwindling petroleum production, which is already coming under worldwide strain as demand pushes up against the limits of supply. Instead, the fuel costs of building the hydrogen economy add an additional source of demand, pushing fuel prices higher and making scarce fuel even less available for other uses.

The same thing is true of any other alternative energy system that attempts to replace petroleum in its current uses. The costs differ, depending on how much of the existing infrastructure has to be replaced, but there’s always a price tag – and a large portion of the energy needed will have to come from petroleum, because that’s the energy source our society uses for a great many of its crucial needs. If the new energy source can be produced and used by existing infrastructure with minimal modification, this effect may well be small enough to discount, but it is always there.

The advantage of energy sources that can use existing infrastructure is one of the reasons why ethanol and biodiesel have entered the energy stream in amounts large enough to affect total liquid fuel numbers, and have helped drive grain prices to stratospheric levels into the bargain, while so many other alternative fuels languish on the drawing boards and the imaginations of peak oil optimists. Both of these can be distributed and used as though they were petroleum products. Neither one is a viable response to the broader problem, of course; stark limits get in the way of fueling an industrial economy by pouring our food supply into our fuel tanks. All the arable land on the planet is not enough to produce more than a small fraction of the liquid fuels we get from petroleum today, and long before even that inadequate point was reached, mass starvation or violent revolution would cut the process short.

All other proposed replacements for petroleum, however, require much larger investments of money, energy, and raw materials for new infrastructure. The production of energy and raw materials depends on petroleum nowadays; so does the global economy which gives money its value – and conventional petroleum production worldwide is almost three years into what is most likely an irreversible decline.

At this point the paradox of production can be easily defined. If energy prices are high because supplies are limited, the obvious solution is to increase the supply by producing more energy. If this requires replacing one energy resource with another that cannot be produced, distributed or consumed using the identical infrastructure, though, the immediate impact of such a replacement will be to raise energy prices, not lower them. The direct and indirect energy costs of building the new energy system become a source of additional demand that, intersecting with limited supply, drive prices up even further than they otherwise would rise.

If the new energy source turns out to be more abundant, more concentrated, and more easily extracted than the source that it’s replacing, this effect is temporary; if the new source can be distributed and used, at least at first, via old technology, the effect is minimized; if the new source is introduced a little at a time, in an economy reliant on many other sources of energy, the effect can easily be lost in the static of ordinary price fluctuations. All three of these were true of petroleum in its early days. It started as a replacement for whale oil in lamps, and was distributed and consumed in existing technology; decades later, it found a niche as a transportation fuel, and relied on the old lamp-oil distribution system until a new one could be constructed on the basis of existing revenues; its other uses evolved gradually from there over more than half a century, until by 1950 it was the world’s dominant energy source

None of the proposed replacements for petroleum, though, have those advantages. None of them yield as much net energy as crude oil under natural pressure, and none combine petroleum’s unique mix of abundance, concentration, ease of production and distribution, and fitness for a world of machinery designed and built for petroleum-based fuels. The fuel they need to replace remains by far the most important energy source in the world today. Nor do we have half a century to ramp up a new energy system for the industrial economy; conventional petroleum production is already declining steadily, and the most reasonable projections of future production show it dropping off a cliff within the next decade or so.

At the very least, then, trying to solve the energy crisis on the downside of Hubbert’s peak by bringing new energy sources online will drive up the cost of petroleum further than it would rise on its own, since the direct and indirect energy costs of the new source and its infrastructure have to be met from existing sources. That poses the same political test faced, and failed, by the nations of the industrial world in the late 1970s, when promising steps toward sustainability went into the dumpster because their immediate costs hadf more political impact than their long-term benefits.

It also risks potentially fatal damage to the industrial economy itself, which will face severe strains already as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end. Pursued with enough misplaced enthusiasm, a crash program to bring some new energy source online in a hurry could drain enough energy, raw materials, labor, and money out of an already fragile system to drive it over the edge into economic and political collapse.

Fortunately, this is not the whole story. There is at least one proven way to counter the paradox of production, exert downward pressure on energy prices, and free up resources and time that can be used to respond constructively to our predicament. I’ll discuss it in next week’s post.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Milestone In The Dust

Earlier this month, according to several peak oil bloggers, the world passed a milestone worth noting: the point at which oil, in constant dollars, became more expensive than ever before in history. Plenty of us in the peak oil community have been expecting that milestone any time now, and the surge that pushed one widely watched price marker past $112 a barrel last week turned the expectation into reality.

Profit-taking and a flurry of margin calls driven by the wider economic crisis brought oil prices back down at the beginning of this week, at least for the moment. Meanwhile, though, the higher cost of oil is already starting to trickle down to the consumer level. Diesel fuel is up over $4 a gallon in many US markets, while gasoline, heating oil, and other petroleum products are following the same curve. Speculation, in several senses of the word, has begun to focus on the upcoming summer driving season and the likelihood of soaring prices at the pump.

Just now, however, it may be worth taking the long view. When Goldman Sachs suggested, not so long ago, that oil prices might rise above $110 a barrel, their analysts thought that it would take a crisis threatening some significant fraction of world oil production to drive such a “superspike.” (That warning was widely and, I think, correctly interpreted as an attempt by New York financial interests to talk the cowboys in Washington D.C. out of launching a war with Iran.) The crisis has so far failed to materialize, but the superspike showed up anyway.

Like any other economic phenomenon in the real world, that unexpected event had numerous causes. One factor not often given sufficient weight, at least in the peak oil community, is the role of speculation. The global economy these days is dominated by flows of speculative money that pour into any investment promising an above average rate of return. Just now, commodities – fossil fuels, grains, metals, and the like – yield better returns than most other investments, and so that’s where the money goes.

Monday’s events demonstrated that. The drastic declines in most stock markets that day resulted in a bumper crop of margin calls. For those of my readers who don’t follow the markets, a margin call is what happens when investments bought with borrowed money lose enough value that the lender demands more collateral for the loan. Since few speculators keep large amounts of ready cash on hand, that usually means that other investments have to be turned into cash in a hurry; this is one of the ways financial panics spread from market to market.

Hit with margin calls in the stock market, speculators unwound positions in the commodities market, and most commodities dropped sharply in Monday’s trading. Oil slumped from $111 to $106 in a matter of hours. They rallied after that, but today’s ticker shows another dive, with oil futures down near $104 a barrel as I write these words. With stock markets sliding again, further declines are tolerably likely. None of this ought to come as any kind of surprise; the role of speculation as a source of whipsaw motions in energy prices has been discussed here on The Archdruid Report, and elsewhere across the peak oil blogosphere.

Still, speculation is only one part of the picture. Another part, hard to miss just now, is the plunging value of the dollar. Since oil, like most commodities, is priced in US dollars – a circumstance that has given the United States some notable advantages – a portion of the price increases that have roiled commodities markets and startled American consumers in recent months are simply readjustments by which commodities retain their value against the measure of a weakening currency.

There are good reasons for the dollar to shed value just now, of course, but I sometimes wonder if deliberate policy may play a role as well. After a quarter century of reckless deficit spending, the United States is insolvent by any reasonable measure, saddled with debts it will never be able to pay off. Unlike other countries that have recently landed in the same bind, though, it has a notable advantage – all those debts are payable in a currency it controls. The other day, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson made the usual ritual noises about upholding a strong dollar policy, but I suspect it has crossed his mind that the national debt would be a good deal less intimidating if the dollar were to slide to 5% of its current value over the next ten years or so. It’s hard to think of another policy, in fact, that will keep the United States from having to default on its sovereign debt sooner or later.

Whether or not this is on the official agenda, though, some such readjustment is inevitable. The imperial economics that enabled the five percent of the world’s population who are Americans to monopolize a third of the world’s resources have begun to unravel, with predictable results. Pundits who denounce “resource nationalism” and laud the alleged benefits of free trade have conveniently forgotten that America built the largest industrial economy in the world in the shelter of protective tariffs, and used its own natural resources as a political weapon whenever it had the chance – for example, against Japan in the years before the Second World War. We may not enjoy seeing the tables turned, but it’s not as though we have grounds for complaint.

Behind the wild swings of speculative excess and the tidal forces set in motion by a collapsing US dollar, in turn, lies a third factor – from a peak oil perspective, the signal half-hidden by a great deal of economic noise. This is the failure of world petroleum production to break out of the plateau it has occupied since 2004. Those who have been following the peak oil scene for more than a year or so will recall any number of confident predictions concerning improved secondary recovery, new discoveries, or alternative fuels, that would enable oil production to continue on its upward path once prices rose enough to make them economical.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, world oil production has continued to bump along at roughly the same level, while prices have soared through the skylight. The latest news from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that with ethanol, biodiesel, and every other source of liquid fuels added in, world production of petroleum and equivalents nudged just slightly over the records set in 2006, while production of conventional petroleum continues to wobble downward from its May 2005 peak. Demand remains strong and prices have soared, but supply has barely budged – and plenty of technologies and energy sources supposedly poised to surge onto the market once oil broke $30, or $40, or $50 a barrel are still pie in the sky.

What this implies is that for all practical purposes, peak oil has arrived. Pinpointing the peak precisely in time quickly becomes an exercise in quibbling over definitions; petroleum is not a single thing but a diverse assemblage of chemically related resources, extracted in many ways and traded in a baroque diversity of markets. Should tar sand extractives, which require huge energy inputs to bring to market, be counted alongside light sweet crude, which requires little? What about ethanol from American corn, cultivated by energy-intensive methods that burn more fuel than the corn itself yields? Should the ethanol and the oil used to produce it both be included in total production, even though this amounts to counting the same energy twice?

Still, there’s another way to think about peak oil that’s less difficult to define: the point along the curve of petroleum production at which geology trumps market forces, and all the price adjustments in the world can’t make supply increase to meet the potential demand. Set aside the whipsaw motions of speculative excess and the impact of a disintegrating currency, and this is what the rising price of petroleum seems to be telling us. Unless events in the very near future offer a different message, it’s fair to suggest that the milestone of record oil prices fading into the dust behind us may mark the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, and the coming of a new world of limits and scarcities for which most of us are hopelessly unprepared.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pieces of the Puzzle

One of the more interesting things highlighted by recent debates about the future of agriculture after peak oil is the pervasive modern tendency to seek single solutions for complex problems. We had an example here on The Archdruid Report a few weeks back, when a reader responded to a discussion of composting by putting up a comment saying, in effect, that composting was a waste of time and we ought to be talking about sheet mulching instead.

For those who don’t keep up with the state of the art in organic growing, sheet mulching means spreading a thin layer of uncomposted organic material – leaves, straw, or what have you – over the top of the soil. This keeps moisture in the soil, keeps weeds down, and cycles organic matter back into humus to improve soil tilth and fertility. In dryland bioregions, in particular, it’s a key technique for intensive organic food production.

On the other hand, it’s not a panacea, and there are other bioregions where it doesn’t work anything like so well. In the part of the Pacific Northwest where I live, for example, slugs are serious garden pests, and sheet mulch is a slug magnet; if you use mulch early in the growing season, in particular, you can expect to lose much of your crop to slugs. Like many local organic growers, therefore, I use sheet mulching to overwinter the garden, from harvest’s end to planting time, and then dig the mulch under when it’s time to prepare the beds for the new crops.

Like many local organic growers, too, I also compost, and so organic material enters the soil by both routes. Different materials follow their own trajectories: kitchen scraps go into the compost bin, for example, while autumn leaves get raked up into heaps for use as sheet mulching, then finish rotting into humus once they’re turned under in spring. The two methods don’t conflict with one another at all, and the same springtime digging that turns the mulch under also works in the year’s dose of compost from the bin.

Nor are these the only options for closing the loop and cycling organic matter back into the soil. You can use green manure – this, for the organically uneducated, means planting a cover crop of clover or some other nitrogen-fixing plant in the fall, letting it grow all winter, and then turning it under in the spring. You can feed your kitchen scraps to chickens, rabbits, or some other livestock and turn their manure into plant food. You can use a worm bin instead of the usual composting methods, using redworms to break down the organic matter in place of bacteria. You can even borrow a lick from the appropriate technology movement of the Seventies, set up an aquaculture system, feed some of your spare organic matter to tilapia or some other tasty fish, and use the waste water, with its load of fish feces, to irrigate your crops.

Which of these is the answer to the challenge of post-peak food production? Put that way, the answer is obvious: none of them is the answer. All of them, and all their various combinations, can be workable responses to some of the needs people will have as they try to keep themselves and their families fed as our society skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak. Put another way, they are pieces of a puzzle; each has its place, but no one piece completes the puzzle by itself.

This same logic can be applied more generally. One of the continuing disputes on the end of the peak oil community concerned with agriculture is whether farming will continue to use tractors and the like, or whether draft horses will prove to be more viable. Both sides have good arguments. On the one hand, a large farm running tractors on homegrown biodiesel can keep them fueled by devoting 10% or so of its acreage to oilseed crops, while it takes around 30% of acreage to produce fodder for draft horses to provide the same amount of power. On the other, you don’t need a factory or its substantial inputs of energy and resources to manufacture horses – they do it themselves, with noticeable enthusiasm and no tools other than the ones nature gave them – and a properly fed horse also produces large amounts of excellent organic fertilizer, a significant value that tractors don’t provide.

Which is the best option? That depends on a galaxy of factors, few of which can be predicted on the basis of abstract arguments. If enough of today’s industrial economy survives long enough into the post-peak era that factories are still around to produce tractors and transport networks can still get them to farmers, that makes tractors more viable; if the industrial economy goes to pieces, chalk one up for draft horses. Issues of scale, crop, and climate are also crucial; the option that would work best for a 16,000-acre wheat farm on the Great Plains might prove disastrous for a 25-acre truck farm growing vegetables on the outskirts of a West Coast city.

For that matter, neither horses nor tractors have any place in the sort of backyard mixed gardens that had so crucial a role in helping people in the old Soviet Union survive its collapse, and may well play the same role in getting Americans through a similar experience in the not too distant future. The form of intensive organic gardening that, as David Duhon documented some years back in One Circle (Ecology Action, 1985), can produce a spare but adequate diet for one person on 1000 square feet of soil, requires only hand tools and human labor. Intensive gardening and extensive field agriculture are not the same thing, but both will likely have important roles to play in feeding people in the post-peak era.

I suggest that this same logic can be extended much further. Consider the ongoing debates about potential replacements for petroleum and other fossil fuels. To some extent, of course, this sort of talk is whistling past the graveyard. None of the proposed alternatives seem at all likely to provide the same combination of vast abundance, low extraction and processing cost, and protean flexibility as fossil fuels – nor is there any good reason to think they could.

The earth’s supply of fossil fuels, after all, represent hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy. Only sheer human egotism justifies the presumption that, after burning through that huge and thermodynamically improbable stockpile in a few extravagant centuries, we can expect the universe to hand us an equivalent in some other form. Much more likely, as I have argued here and elsewhere, is a centuries-long period of contraction and decline, in which we as a species must struggle to get by on much less energy than recent history has taught us to expect.

Whether or not this turns out to be the case, though, the mismatch between a civilization built on abundant, concentrated fossil fuels and the relatively sparse and diffuse energy sources available to replace them makes today’s bickering about which energy source is “the answer” an exercise in futility. Even today, coal, oil, natural gas, and other energy sources fill different roles in the overall energy economy; the future promises much more diversity of the same kind. Far more likely than not, the future of energy lies in a crazy-quilt patchwork in which each of the available energy sources is matched with its most appropriate uses by a process of trial and error.

The point that has to be recognized, it seems to me, is that nobody alive today has the least idea how an ecotechnic civilization – a society that can maintain relatively advanced technology on the basis of sustainable resources – might best be constructed. All the experience of the last three centuries has focused on the opposite end of the possible spectrum of technic societies, where you’ll find the civilizations that burn through nonrenewable resources at the fastest pace they can manage. We’ve followed that road just about as far as it can go, far enough that the dead end at its terminus should be visible to anyone who is willing to notice it.

Nor can we turn to the past for conclusive answers. The societies that existed before the industrial revolution offer hints about how sustainability can be woven into the fabric of human life, and warnings about the results when this fails to happen, but it’s only the most simpleminded or polemical analyses that define the task of our future as a return to the past. The resources available to us and the limits imposed on us by history and environment are different enough from those of past cultures that we don’t have that option. Rather, the challenge imposed on us by the predicament of our time is that of moving into uncharted territory.

In energy, just as in agriculture and in many other fields, all we have are pieces of the puzzle. It will likely take ruthless sorting and a great deal of trial and error to make those pieces fit together in any sort of meaningful way. This makes the habit of fixating on a single response more than usually useless just now, and makes it imperative that any option in harmony with the wider project of building a sustainable civilization in harmony with the biosphere needs to be taken into account.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Next Agriculture

Archdruids take breaks from time to time, but the peak oil debate does not, and during my recent vacation a lively discussion sprang up on The Oil Drum about the future of agriculture in a postpetroleum world. The point at issue was whether today’s mechanized agriculture will remain in place, or be replaced by a new rural economy of small farms using human and animal labor, as the world skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.

Summarizing a vigorous discussion of a complex topic in a few paragraphs is a risky proposition, so I’ll focus here on the two essays that defined the debate, Stuart Staniford’s The Fallacy of Reversibility and Sharon Astyk’s Is Localization Doomed? Staniford argued that those who expected a nonmechanized, small-farm economy in the wake of peak oil were claiming that the history of agriculture over the last century would simply run in reverse, tracking the decline in fossil fuel availability in the same way it tracked the growth in fossil fuel production.

If this view was correct, he claimed, rising fuel prices would have already begun to push American agriculture in the direction of smaller, less energy-intensive farms, and this would show in currently available statistics about profitability, labor costs, farm size and the like. He then demonstrated that no such changes could be found in the statistics, and on this basis claimed that what he called the “reversalist” position had no merit.

Astyk, responding to Staniford, made two major points. First, she noted that nobody claimed that the transition from today’s agribusiness to tomorrow’s rural landscape of small farms would simply run history in reverse, and Staniford was therefore kicking a straw man. Second, she suggested that the emergence of a nonmechanized, small-farm economy in the postpetroleum future was not an inevitability, but a policy choice that Staniford’s so-called “reversalists” considered the best option in the face of peak oil.

Like many readers of the debate, I found neither of these positions really satisfactory. By the time I finished reading the comments, though, it was getting late, and I decided to round out the evening by pouring myself a glass of scotch and reading a few pages of a Gary Larson Far Side anthology. Somewhere toward the bottom of the glass I dozed off; I must have been reading one of Larson’s dinosaur cartoons in my last waking moments, because I slipped into a dream in which a conference of dinosaurs pondered the approaching end of the Mesozoic era.

Quite a few dinosaurs had already given speeches about the threat of global cooling. Several of them had mentioned that mammals, with their warm blood and furry coats, might be better off in a post-Mesozoic world. At this point in the debate, however, another dinosaur lumbered up to the podium to speak.

“This talk of mammals taking over the world is nonsense,” it said. “It’s true, of course, that the ancestors of mammals – the therapsids – ruled the earth back before dinosaurs came along, in the Permian period, before the earth’s climate shifted to its long Mesozoic warm spell.” This sparked a good deal of discussion among the audience, and the Tyrannosaurus rex who presided over the meeting had to display its foot-long teeth and growl to quiet things down.

“Nonetheless,” the speaker went on, “this claim that evolution will run in reverse can readily be refuted. If that were true, the global cooling we’ve seen already would have made dinosaurs become smaller and furrier, and that hasn’t happened. In fact” – at this point it nodded toward the Tyrannosaurus rex – “it’s clear that we’re getting larger and scalier all the time. There’s every reason to think that as the climate cools, and selection pressures become more extreme, big scaly dinosaurs will have even greater competitive advantages than they do now.”

At this point the buzz of conversation in the audience could not be restrained, even when the Tyrannosaurus rex killed and ate one of the loudest talkers. A few moments later, though, a bright light flashed through the sky. “Did you see that?” said the Triceratops sitting next to me, pointing toward the sky with the horn on his nose. “I’ve never seen a shooting star that big.” A moment later I was jolted awake by what felt like the shockwave from an asteroid impact, but was actually the Gary Larson anthology sliding from my lap and hitting the floor.

The parallels between Staniford’s argument and that of his saurian equivalent, as it happens, go well beyond the obvious. Both, strictly speaking, are quite correct in their core assertions. As the Mesozoic era drew toward its close, dinosaurs did not retrace the process that led up to the monster reptiles of the Cretaceous. In fact, important branches of the dinosaur clan – the carnosaurs that led to Tyrannosaurus rex, the ceratopsians that ended with Triceratops, and others – got progressively larger as the Cretaceous drew on.

These successful evolutionary lineages continued to follow their established trajectory as long as it remained viable. When it stopped being viable, they didn’t shift into reverse and shrink back down to the size of their Permian ancestors; they died out, and other organisms better suited to the new conditions took over. In the same way, Staniford’s assertion that today’s industrial agriculture will not throw the gearshifts of its combines into reverse, and gradually retrace its tracks into the 19th century, is almost certainly correct.

Staniford is also correct to point out that in a world intent on pouring its food supply into its fuel tanks, rising energy prices mean that industrial farming is becoming more profitable, not less. As a member of the Grange, I’ve had the chance to watch this from an angle that may be rare in the peak oil scene. Where the rest of the media bemoans rising grain prices, the Grange News is full of satisfied comments by family farmers who can finally make ends meet, now that their grain sells for more than it cost to grow.

Yet Staniford’s overall argument fails, for the same reason that his imaginary Mesozoic equivalent missed seeing the future in plain sight -- both rely on linear models to predict a nonlinear situation. In his essay, Staniford used the distinction between reversible and irreversible processes as a model for historical change in agriculture. The difference between linear and nonlinear change, however, is at least as relevant.

Watch a frozen lake melt and you have a seasonally timely example of nonlinear change. The transition from ice to liquid water doesn’t happen gradually as temperature rises; it happens at a specific point in the temperature spectrum, 32°F, and only then once the ice has absorbed enough energy to overcome its thermal inertia and provide the heat of fusion. A five-degree warming can be irrelevant to the process, if it’s from 15°F to 20°F, or for that matter from 40°F to 45°F. The same rise between 30°F and 35°F, on the other hand, can cause drastic change.

Nonlinear change happens most often in systems that have negative feedback loops which balance out pressures for change. In the case of the frozen lake, the main sources of negative feedback are the stability of water’s solid state and its capacity as a heat sink. Only when enough heat has entered the situation to overcome these factors does change happen, and when it does, the lake shifts from one relatively stable state to another.

The modern agricultural economy is a classic candidate for nonlinear change. The feedback loops resisting agricultural change in the modern world are at least as potent as the ones that keep a lake from melting at 20°F. The food production and distribution system is oriented toward business as usual, and the psychology of previous investment and the very real costs of retooling to fit a different model both raise obstacles to change. Monopolistic practices and the government subsidies and price supports that make most of today’s “capitalist” agriculture a case study in corporate socialism also give the status quo impressive inertia.

At the same time, if something is unsustainable, it’s a given that sooner or later it won’t be sustained. Today’s industrial agriculture, with its far-flung supply and distribution chains, its dependence on huge inputs of nonrenewable resources, and its severe impact on topsoil, water quality, and environmental health, is a case in point. As transport costs rise, fossil fuel and mineral reserves deplete, and the burden of coping with ecological damage climbs, industrial agriculture will sooner or later reach the point of negative returns – and as Joseph Tainter pointed out in a different context, that’s the point at which collapse becomes the most likely outcome.

Staniford has argued elsewhere that the energy crisis caused by the end of cheap oil will be temporary. He proposes that nuclear power and other technologies will sooner or later make energy cheap and abundant again. If he’s right, it’s possible that new energy sources will come on line soon enough to keep industrial agriculture from hitting the wall. None of the theorists he critiques in his essay agree that the approaching crisis will be temporary, though, and this latter assessment gives their argument compelling force: as energy supplies dwindle and a social fabric predicated on cheap energy comes apart, the pressures on the agricultural status quo will eventually reach a level high enough to force nonlinear change.

This is where the second half of Sharon Astyk’s argument comes in. She points out that many of the writers critiqued in Staniford’s essay see a nonmechanized small-farm agricultural economy not as the inevitable result of economic forces, but as a deliberate policy choice. If our existing agriculture could fold out from under us, they suggest, getting plan B in place is a good idea.

Now this may well be true, but history teaches that when ideology collides with economics, it’s inevitably ideology that comes off worst. The same trap that has blocked most proposals for lifeboat communities so far – how do you make them economically viable in the world we inhabit today? – lies in wait for schemes to relocalize agriculture that don’t take the actual economics of farming in today’s world into account.

Fortunately, there’s reason to think that economic factors will favor the rise of a nonmechanized small-farm economy in the industrial world in the decades to come. The best evidence for this suggestion comes, ironically enough, from Stuart Staniford. In posts about the agricultural side of peak oil – notably Fermenting the Food Supply – Staniford pointed out that the use of grain as a feedstock for ethanol is likely to drive up the price of basic foodstuffs so far that many people will no longer be able to afford to eat.

This is potentially a serious crisis, but it also represents an opportunity. Sharp increases in the price of food mean that food production methods that may not be economical under current conditions could well pass the breakeven point and begin turning a profit. To thrive in the economic climate of the near future, of course, such methods would have to meet certain requirements, but most of these can be anticipated easily enough.

These alternative farming projects would have to use minimal fossil fuel inputs, since fuel costs will likely be very high by past standards for much of the foreseeable future. They would need to focus on local distribution, since those same fuel costs will put long-distance transport out of reach. They would have to focus on intensive production from very small plots, since acreage large enough for industrial farming will likely increase in price. They would also benefit greatly by relying on human labor with hand tools, since the economic consequences of peak oil will likely send unemployment rates soaring while making capital hard to come by.

All of these criteria are met, as it happens, by the small organic farms and truck gardens that many relocalization theorists hold up as models for future agriculture. Already an economic success, especially around West Coast cities, these agricultural alternatives have evolved their own distribution system, relying on farmers markets, co-op groceries, local restauranteurs and community-supported agriculture schemes to carry out an end run around food distribution systems geared toward corporate monopolies.

As more grains and other fermentable bulk commodities get turned into ethanol, and food prices rise in response, such arrangements may well become a significant source of food for a sizeable fraction of Americans – and in the process, of course, the economics of small-scale alternative farms are likely to improve a great deal. The result may well resemble nothing so much as the agricultural system of the former Soviet Union in its last years, featuring vast farms that had become almost irrelevant to the national food supply, while little market gardens in backyards produced most of the food people actually ate.

If Staniford is correct and the postpeak energy crisis turns out to be a passing phase, that bimodal system might endure for quite some time, as it did in the Soviet Union. If more pessimistic assessments of our energy future are closer to the mark, as I suspect they are, the industrial half of the system can be counted on to collapse at some point down the road once energy and resource availability drop to levels insufficient to sustain a continental economy. If this turns out to be the case, the small intensive farms around the urban fringes – mammals amid agribusiness dinosaurs – may well become the nucleus of the next agriculture.