A discussion of personal choices and public policy options that address the
population boom and resource crash we face in the next 30 years, with an
emphasis on what you can do in your life today.
[Delivered as a talk at the True Nature Country Fair in Barnardsville, North Carolina, Sept. 26, 2009]
– Cecil Bothwell
This week I harvested my first wheat crop. It was kind of a bust. It was supposed to be spring wheat, but I planted it a little late. And the part of my yard where I planted it was in the shade too much because of trees on my neighbor’s lot. And then I didn’t harvest until after the recent torrential rain which flattened most of the stalks. But now I’ve got some tiny sheaves of wheat drying on my back porch and in a while I will learn about threshing to shake the seeds off the stalks. Then I guess I’ll wait for a breezy day to separate the wheat from the chaff and I’ll end up with a few hands full of wheat berries.
I also dug up the last of my potato crop this week. I planted five varieties to see how the different types worked in my particular location with my particular soil and sunlight. I planted five varieties because Fedco offered a five-type bundle of varieties that store well and it seemed like a good plan. I had mixed success there. The Red Pontiacs did best in production and the German Butterball’s taste best, so I’ll probably just plant those next year. I paid $20 for the seed potatoes, got more than $20 worth of potatoes out of the garden and gave away seed potatoes to a few friends (who gave me pepper and tomato plants in return) so I’m happy.
Those were my big agricultural efforts for this year: wheat and potatoes. Partly I wanted to keep the garden simple because I knew I’d be campaigning for Asheville City Council and wouldn’t have a lot of garden time, but more importantly I wanted to get some experience with staple crops. Outside of one year in the mid 90s, when I planted a quarter acre of barley on a friend’s fallow field, I’ve never grown grain and I’ve arrived at the belief that it’s important to get as deep an understanding of where our staple foods come from as possible. Although we’ve been discovering a lot of people with gluten intolerance in recent years, wheat remains the staff of life for those of us in the mid-latitudes. And potatoes represent the other big group of storable foods, the tubers.
But why am I concerned to learn more about staple crops after 40 years as an organic gardener? Haven’t I learned plenty already? I mean, I wrote a book on gardening. I was garden editor of the Mountain Xpress. I ran a small scale farm operation for a couple of years and sold produce at farmers markets. What’s so special about staples anyway?
What’s happened is that some recent events have gripped my attention and confirmed some long-held intuitions and generally made me more worried about the prospects for humanity than I have been since my teacher taught us to hide under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack back in the 1950s or when I read “Silent Spring” in 1960.
The U.S. used to have a system of federally funded grain storage facilities where we held about a year’s worth of wheat at any given time. In the late 1990s while the newspapers were all full of Monicagate and other important celebrity sex scandals, a Republican led Congress defunded that storage system. They adopted the Wal-Mart model of just-in-time-delivery. That is, just like the big box stores which eliminated warehouses with computerized ordering and carefully timed delivery, grain now moves rapidly from farm to factory to market.
It can be argued that this means that the grain we eat is fresher, but it also means that there is no buffer. If the midwest, the area we have historically called our national breadbasket, were to experience the kind of sustained drought we had here in the southeast from 2006 to 2009, there could easily be famine in America. We don’t have enough storage capacity to bank food for the future. What Congress lost sight of is that there is a big difference between cheap plastic crap and food. If Wal-Mart runs out of sunglasses or lawn chairs or iPods it hurts their business. If we run out of bread we starve.
Starvation isn’t an abstract idea. The original version of this story was published in the Mountain Xpress in late fall of 2007 and appears as chapter 41 of my book, Garden my Heart: Organic strategies for backyard sustainability, Brave Ulysses Books, 2008.
A time for heroes
In the fall of 2007, as September turned to October, I had two very singular conversations over a four-day period—one with a scientist born in Pennsylvania and the other with a mystic who drew her first breath in India. Yet what they had to say differed little in terms of either analysis or prescription.
David Orr chairs the environmental-studies program at Oberlin College and lectures at four dozen other colleges and universities each year. Two of his books are academic bestsellers, and as an environmental educator, Orr has few peers. He came to Asheville to keynote the tenth-anniversary celebration for South-Wings, the Asheville-based environmental group that puts eyes in the skies over clear-cuts, blasted mountains and disappearing estuaries throughout the Southeast. I caught up with Orr at the nonprofit’s offices on Haywood Street.
“Humanity has faced crises before, but there has never been such a high likelihood that we would destroy ourselves,” Orr declared. “Even nuclear war would probably have left survivors, but climate change, collapsing biodiversity and toxic pollutants are all hitting at once. Any one of them could do it.” He described his recent correspondence with Wes Jackson (of The Land
Institute) and Amory Lovins (of the Rocky Mountain Institute) about the appropriate public stance to take in the face of these bleak circumstances.
Jackson is utterly pessimistic about the prospect of a technological fix for modern society, and in his writings, he notes that since the invention of agriculture, human society has inexorably drawn down the Earth’s capital stock. So his life’s work has been trying to reinvent agriculture as a sustainable practice.
Lovins, on the other hand, tends to be an optimist who devotes his energies to inventing our way out of the shrinking ecological box we inhabit. His headquarters in Snowmass, Colo., is solar-powered, with an atrium where tropical-fruit trees grow. Lovins envisions hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered autos that will generate electricity for our homes and produce pure hot water as a byproduct.
Orr says he sees no use in preaching pessimism, because if people don’t believe that they can save themselves, they may not try. On the other hand, he finds no rational basis for optimism. There are few people alive who have devoted more time and attention to the living systems that sustain us, and Orr is convinced that we are in very deep trouble.
“What we can talk about is hope,” he said. “We can hope for heroes. We can hope that many of us can be heroes. It will take heroic work for our species to survive, to make the changes necessary, but people are capable of heroism.”
Orr’s prescription fit my visit three days later with a woman who goes simply by the name Maya. Born to Dutch parents in India, she spent her childhood in Java during World War II. The Japanese invaded the island, forcing 10,000 women and children into a concentration camp while the men were taken to Japan.
“They forced us into an area, put barbed wire entirely around it and a bamboo fence, and then guards,”
Maya recalled, sitting beneath a photograph of Meher Baba. “And we starved for three years.”
Maya described how she and her mother and sisters scratched up a patch of lawn using a table knife. “Mother planted spinach—I don’t know where she got the seeds—and tomatoes that first year, but just as they got ripe they were always stolen, so we didn’t plant them again. We grew other greens and would eat mixed, chopped greens every day, so we would get some vitamins. But we were always hungry.”
Maya’s memory of that time is indelible: “Hunger is a terrible thing. All you can think about is food all day and at midnight. It gnaws at you; it eats your bones. Although Mother grew all she could and traded greens with others, even gave some away when there was extra, one morning we found all of the greens had been stolen. The dogs and cats disappeared quickly, and some people even ate rats.” She grimaced.
As we walked through Maya’s glorious West Asheville garden, her thoughts turned toward the near-term future. “There will be hunger,” she predicted. “Maybe not starvation here, but times will be very hard. We’re running out of oil; prices will go up, and a tomato might cost five dollars. The weather is changing, and who knows what farmers will be able to grow? The economy cannot hold; we’ve been living on credit. Hard times are coming.”
The two conversations left me musing on an ecological crisis that looks rather like the subprime-mortgage mess in which people borrowed excessively, anticipating that rising home values would help them pay the piper. But conditions changed.
Environmental conditions are changing too. This summer, the sea ice in the Arctic melted at a record rate, while the New Climate Almanac 2007, published by The Globe and Mail of Toronto, predicted that the U.S. wheat belt will disappear within fifty years.
That’s what fed our nation’s rise to world power, a commodity at least as important as oil and rather more personally interesting.
“There will be hunger.”
Maya’s prescription also echoes Orr’s. “It is time for us all to plant Victory Gardens,” she said.
A year after that was published we began to hear about food riots on the other side of the world in places where drought caused sudden changes in food availability. In truth, they might as well be called water riots, because water is quickly becoming the most important limiting factor in food production. In India there were stories of farmers committing suicide because they were so ashamed of their inability to fill their societal role of providing sufficient food to their communities.
It seems that human beings have now diverted the great majority of our planet’s fresh water for our use, and yet our population continues to grow, with the prospect that there will be another 2.5 billion of us by mid century.
Our ability to produce more food is running into a resource wall. The famous Green Revolution, founded by Norman Borlaug who died this summer, ratcheted up our ability to feed the world, but it was built on cheap fertilizer, cheap energy and cheap water. Not only are those ingredients no longer cheap, but they are dwindling in availability.
A principal source of nitrogen fertilizer is natural gas, and while we still have substantial quantity available it is going to be in big demand as we run out of oil. As we pass peak oil production, the cost of energy will rise rapidly. Petroleum has provided incredibly cheap, easy to use fuel for a couple of centuries and how we live our lives has been enabled by that cheap fuel. I could digress into a dozen ways that our lifestyles will shift very quickly in the next two decades, but I’ll try to stick to agriculture and food.
Organic fertilizers are an obvious alternative to nitrogen from natural gas, but they aren’t free either, and unless we massively re-plumb our cities we will continue to eliminate human waste from the nutrient loop. Unfortunately we created our plumbing systems in an era of cheap water and cheap fertilizer and so we mix industrial waste and chemical waste with our human waste and render it unfit as fertilizer for food crops. Too bad we didn’t see that coming a long time ago.
So rising fuel costs and diminishing oil supplies will make food cost more. First because fertilizer will be more costly and second because pumping water, driving tractors, and delivering food to market will all cost more. Refrigeration will cost more as well.
But this leads us back to the first problem I mentioned. In order to pump water you need to have water to pump and fresh water supplies are dwindling everywhere. Water tables are dropping, wells are going dry, reservoirs are dwindling. Think back to last summer when Atlanta was down to a 70 supply and Charlotte and Raleigh were down to 90 days. And note that it isn’t just water for drinking and growing that is a problem. Nuclear power plants in the southeast were on the verge of shutting down last summer too, for lack of cooling water.
It is possible to desalinate ocean water, but it is extremely costly because it takes a tremendous amount of energy. And so, as energy costs rise, so does the price of desalinization. And because energy systems are so water intensive, some calculations suggest that it’s hard to produce more fresh water than is used in generating the energy required to desalinate the water (except in some locations where sunlight can be used directly for evaporation, and where extensive space is available for evaporative units).
There is an argument being made by the coal companies that we need to get more of our energy from coal because there is still a lot of that in the ground. The big problem there is global climate change. We need to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere rapidly if we hope to ameliorate the worst effects of warming. Coal will make it worse, and if we lean on what they are calling “clean coal” technology, with carbon sequestration, if it even works, the cost of that energy will be prohibitive and injection of carbon into the earth is problematic according to the best information I have seen.
So what do we do to prepare for a dry, hungry, low energy future?
At the personal level we need to learn to produce food where we are. That’s what the Organic Grower’s School is about, of course, and one of the reasons you are here today. That’s why I wanted to learn more about producing staple crops. The scenario I have offered doesn’t mean that every family needs to be self sufficient, but the coming hard times require that communities be as self-reliant as possible.
We need to plant fruit and nut trees instead of species that are solely ornamental, for example. If you plant an apple tree, even if you don’t do much to tend it, to prune it, and never even eat an apple from it, you have installed infrastructure for the future. Someone coming after you will be able to prune it back into productivity, to feed herself and her family. The same is true with berries and nuts.
We need to learn how to grow foods that grow well where we are and teach children to do the same. The Farm to School program is great, but it needs to reach more children in more schools. With less fuel for farm machinery we will need more people working on tomorrow’s farms, and people who know how to grow food will be in real demand. In a way, this will help address the problem we currently have with excess population – the reason we have so many permanently unemployed is largely attributable to the mechanization of farm work.
We need to learn to conserve water. to reuse grey water, to use mulch and other techniques to reduce demand for irrigation. [At this point in the talk I do a show and tell with this: toilet lid sink – which lets you use your hand wash water to fill a toilet tank for the next flush.]
We need to abandon the manicured suburban lawn too. Not that we need to let the briars and poison ivy grow right up to our doorsteps – keeping things beaten back does help prevent damage from wildfires – but we need to quit squandering fertilizer and water on keeping lawns that resemble astroturf or putting greens. Letting them go brown during dry times is okay. A group you may have heard about, Food Not Bombs – which provides meals for the hungry in many cities – has a new offshoot called Food Not Lawns that will hopefully gain in popularity.
We need to reduce our energy use at every turn. Remember, in WNC about 80 percent of the fresh water diverted for human use goes to energy generation. When we save power we save water too. Everyone can easily put a water heater blanket on their water heater and, of course, you’ve already switched out your frequently used light bulbs for compact florescent or LEDs, right?
We need to walk more, ride bikes more, use transit when we can, and reduce our carbon footprint. Adding insulation and reducing drafts and air leaks are easy ways to make a house more efficient. And here are great products made by HyTech that you add to paint. [Another show and tell here about this:reflective primer and a paint additive that increase heat retention or decrease solar heating in buildings.]
Now, when it comes to public policy, we need to encourage our governments to help us take all of these personal efforts to scale. That is, it can’t be just you few people and your families, it has to be millions of people who are all moving in the same direction.
We need water rate structures that encourage conservation instead of encouraging use. Big users need to pay more for water. [As part of my campaign for Asheville City Council I have offered a rate restructuring plan that would pay people to conserve water.]
We need to do the same thing with energy prices. California has been very successful in designing utility rates that let companies make more money when people use less power. The average Californian uses 40 percent less energy than the national average, and the change has been almost unnoticed by average consumers, simply through improvements in the efficiency of appliances, lights, autos and house and business design. [As part of my campaign for Council I have advocated this plan for “Keeping down with the Joneses.
We need for our cities to start planting fruit and nut trees as street trees, and create tree ordinances that encourage home and business owners to do the same.
We need to demand that our state legislature permit wind power development instead of prohibiting it as they did this year in North Carolina. We need to provide low cost loans to home and business owners for energy and insulation retrofits.
We need to be willing to fund transit systems that will be ready to pick up the slack as oil supplies dwindle and we need to recognize that tourism will suffer as travel becomes more expensive. So we need government policies that reward localism. We need to build in local self-reliance, local production of food and goods that will be increasingly expensive to import in the future.
And we need to take care of each other. The Reagan era age of greed came to it’s fruitless end in the Great Recession we are now enduring. I think there was a general lesson that buying lots of stupid stuff on credit was a terrible mistake for individuals and for the country and the world. It’s time to recall that we are all in this together, that we cannot as individuals achieve much of anything unless we live in communities that work.
We will be a long time recovering from this Great Recession and it will segue into a great depletion of resources as our population tops out in mid-century. We are all in this world together, and we can make the best of a difficult era if we’re willing to do the work and if we embrace hope.
As David Orr told me two years ago, “We can hope for heroes. We can hope that many of us can be heroes. It will take heroic work for our species to survive, to make the changes necessary, but people are capable of heroism.”