Monday, December 29, 2008

predictions for the year 2009

One of the most wonderful and most frustrating characteristics of my friend Sharon Astyk is her seemingly inexhaustible ability to write good stuff. I have, on many occasions, been moved to write about a particular world event only to surf over to her website and see that she has already written about it as well or better than I would have been able to, and hours or sometimes days before I get the chance. I have a theory that there are actually three of her making the rest of us look bad.

I had planned to do a list of predictions for 2009 in large part because I think the year ahead will be so damn nutty it’ll be interesting to look back and see the difference between my thinking in December of 2008 and my thinking come December 2009. Then Sharon went and published her predictions for 2009 and after reading them writing mine was like trying to write music while listening to it; it was just so hard not to simply agree and add, “Yeah, what she said.” So definitely read her predictions but let me add a prediction post albeit very similar in vein. By the way I was planning to call this post, ‘no the world really is round’ as a way of poking a little fun at the Thomas Friedman book, _The World is Flat_ but it seems that James Kunstler beat me to that punch with some predictions of his own- also worth a read. Here goes.

1. 2009 will be the year when citizens of the United States begin to seriously question beliefs that until recently were widely held and never questioned. Perhaps one of these conventional beliefs to be challenged will be the idea that we aren’t simply consumers but are in fact citizens. But I think this challenge of the status quo will play out most evidently in the questioning of economic growth. The credit crisis is and will continue to play out with real consequences in the lives of ordinary Americans. We got drunk. We’re bound to be hung over for a while but as we begin to investigate how we got so drunk in the first place we’re bound to question the people who brought the punch to the party or at very least check the punchbowl for the smell of liquor and ask ourselves if we real do in fact need to spike the punch going forward. I’m not suggesting we’ll move seamlessly into a steady state economy but I think asking questions about recently unquestioned aspects of our society will be much more acceptable and widespread and growth economics will be seriously questioned.

2. We will see food-related violence next year. One of the ways I expect the credit crisis to play out is more farmers forced out of business and long food supply lines broken. I’m certainly not hoping this happens but it’s likely that 2009 will be the year we see if not full fledged food riots then at least a certain number of incidences in which hungry people get mad and break stuff and possibly hurt other people. The growing number of unemployed Americans will add to this trouble. Last June in Milwaukee fights broke out amongst people waiting for food aid and this past November more than 40,000 people showed up to glean food from a farm outside of Denver. The farm was expecting 5,000 to 10,000. It was quickly overwhelmed. Unfortunately I think we’re going to see more of this and when people show up to such events hungry, we’re likely to see violence take place.

3. Shortages of goods which were previously very accessible to you and your family will no longer be readily available. This is a tricky one and I’m definitely taking the easy way out by not suggesting which goods or when. The truth is my crystal ball is cracked but I do think we’ll all go to the store at least once next year only to find that Mal-Wart is out of toaster ovens and doesn’t know when they’ll have more or local grocery store can’t get baby formula for a while. I don’t think all or even most of these shortages will be permanent but it will be a shock to Americans used to buying whatever they want whenever they want it so long as they have the money. Of course commerce like that on ebay or craiglist with people selling used microwaves or stockpiles of baby formula might help to fill such needs. I believe people are already selling used stuff for money. I know wee’re about to sell a spare bicycle. With between 10 and 26% of all US retailers in danger of bankruptcy I’m just guessing will see less stuff available in retail stores.

4. President Barack Obama will not save us. I voted for Obama. And yes we need a change. But I think George W Bush is handing him such an extraordinarily bad situation that Obama would need real superpowers to “fix” things. I’m not talking about Xray vision or the ability to calm jittery squirrels, I’m talking *real* superpowers like the ability to fix the housing crisis in a single bound and I think that’s asking to much of him. Plus I’m not sure he understands what “fixing” things really means. Is he yet questioning growth economics? Based on what he said at his press conference to announce his pick for Sec. Of Agriculture he doesn’t seem to understand food. I keep hearing, “a new direction” but does he even have a map let alone a compass? I’m starting to hear people, arguably the more pessimistic among us, talk about him holding our hand and gently helping us to get used to living with less. Perhaps that’s all he’ll be able to do. Perhaps that’s all we can ask of him; to keep us out of a dictatorial response to the upheaval bound to be apart of his first four years. Maybe he’ll surprise me.

5. Things will get crazy, I mean bat shit crazy. Ok so you’re thinking, “What kinda prediction is that?” And this prediction kind of goes along with prediction number 1 that people will really question basic assumptions in the coming year. But I’m guessing that volatility will lead to some strange stuff in 2009. This is really just a prediction that next year will be a lot like the past few months. I’ve read things I like to categorize as “Cats and Dogs Living Together” which is my own personal category for things that make you go Hmmm? They might be good. Obama might rip up the White House lawn and put in a Victory Garden. Or they might be bad like Gulf Stream currents shutting down. I admit this one is more a gut feeling but I’m guessing aliens will land or something similar in the coming year.

6. The price of oil will spike. Demand destruction just cannot alone explain the huge drop in the price of oil. Once deleveraging works its way out of the market place we’ll see a quick spike in the price of oil. I’ll go out on a limb and say $80/barrel oil again by October of 2009. This dramatic rise in price might not happen until early 2010 but what the heck. I’ll call it for the fourth quarter of next year.

7. Which is about the time the stock market will reach a low of somewhere in DOWJ 5000 territory. I’m not suggesting this is the absolute bottom. And many people are predicting an Obama bump come January. We are, after all, likely to see a stimulus package as part of the early Obama presidency. If it’s like the last one though it won’t prove up to the task. Oh and as a sidenote I predict that people will be mad as hell when they realize that last year’s stimulus “rebate” was really a loan on this year’s tax return. Surprise!

8. I’d like to end this on a more optimistic note but it is with all sincerity that I suggest this last prediction. A growing sense to community will build in town and cities and neighborhoods all over this country. We won’t all be singing Kumbaya and holding hands and roasting marshmallows but I do think the citizens of the US will step up to the best of their abilities and try to take care of each other. One of the post-Katrina stories that struck me was that of several Duke University students who just got in a car and drove to New Orleans to help in the wake of that disaster. They even had to sneak in posing as journalist. They saw a need and met it and we are all capable of doing that too. Personally I lost my day job several weeks ago. I was the sole bread winner (and baker) for the family. It was amazing how people responded. All sorts of offerings from gift cards to baby sitting just poured in from friends and family. My wife and I saw this coming. I won’t say we’re ready to face an almost total switch to the informal economy but we’re in fine shape. I share this and the example of the Duke students to suggest that inside almost all of us is the want- the need to be useful and to help others. We will be a more impoverished nation next December but that doesn’t mean we can’t express our capacity for compassion, generosity and caring along with the other positive emotions that quite frankly I don’t think we’ve had much of an outlet for in recent years. Or at least we have much acted like it.

2009 will be a tough, exciting and intense year. I wish all of you the luck, joy and strength.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

change i can believe in?

Nope. President-Elect Obama has chosen Tom Vilsack to be the next US Secretary of Agriculture. I expected to be let down by Obama at some point but I didn't expect him to kick me squarely in the crotch a month before he's even installed as our next president. Perhaps Vilsack will use Monsanto's private jet to travel to the inauguration. Obama said he wants to ensure that,
the policies being shaped at the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence- peddlers, but family farmers and the American people.
He said this out of one side of his mouth while announcing a lawyer with close ties to big agrobizness as Secretary of Agriculture out of the other. Vilsack is apparently the man for the job in part because,
he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.
Which is a way of saying that Vilsack supports using genetically modified organisms in our food system and it means the President-Elect does not understand biofuels. But what angered me the most though was this little section.
When President Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture nearly a century and a half ago, he called it the people's department, for it meant -- it was meant to serve the interests of those who lived off the land.
This is the part where you imagine Lincoln cursing from his grave. Obama says he read Micheal Pollan's NYT open letter to the next Farmer in Chief that ran in October. He must have read it upside down or backward or perhaps he had it translated by the head of marketing for Monsanto.

I can only speculate that Obama selected this former governor of Iowa as a thank you for the result of that state's caucus. Or maybe he really thinks that, "
Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oilfields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home."

Here's a word of caution for the President-Elect. The citizens of the US have a much lower level of patience and less tolerance for bullshit after eight years of being blatantly lied to. You have a very short window in which to make some of the Change you've been promising. We're not going to tolerate the promise of Change followed by such obvious refusals to break with the kinds of decisions that got us into this mess. Get it in gear or you're likely to loose the support of those of us really ready to make change but mistrustful and cynical after 30 years of misinformation and inaction. Help us to make change. We are ready.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

food production or distribution...

...which are we talking about changing?

If you’re new to the hot topic of food and farming and how our agricultural system works and you're spending any time at all catching up you’re bound to run across lots of occasions of food industry giants talking about hunger and what it will take to end it. In fact if most of your information comes from such sources, including much of the mainstream press on the topic, you’re likely to end up thinking that what we really need in order to feed the nearly 1 billion people who don’t have enough food to eat is a change in the way we produce food. We need the seeds of genetically modified plants available to more farmers so they can increase yields. We need new pesticides to help harvest more food. We need to be able to clone animals for more meat. We need to make synthetic fertilizers available to those in the developing world with larger percentages of their populations going hungry. As far as the international agribusiness corporations think we just need another green revolution to help us grow more food and that only these types of changes in production will feed more people. By the way this is totally false.

If instead you’ve done your homework when it comes to hunger issues- maybe you’ve read World Hunger 12 Myths by Frances Moore Lappe’ et al- you know that here on Earth we already grow enough food to feed everyone more than twice what they need, we just don’t distribute it well. But because so many of us are in the former category- people who are largely divorced from food issues besides going to the grocery store and eating fast food- this probably comes as a shock to many of you reading this.

Don’t feel bad if your relationship with food doesn’t include an intimate knowledge of where or how it is grown, how far it travels on its way to meet you and how much energy, synthetic chemicals, underpaid labor and animal cruelty is involved in getting it to you. The system is set up to keep us in the dark. I didn’t grow up on a farm and it wasn’t until after university that I began to discover these issues for myself. And yes one of the biggest surprises for me was learning that we already produce more than enough food to feed everyone. Remember the Ethiopia famine that received so much attention here in the US in the mid 80s. Yup, they were exporting food from Ethiopia during that entire crisis. The people that died during that famine didn’t die because there wasn’t enough food available in that country, they died because they couldn’t afford to buy it and didn’t have access to what they needed to grow their own. The rich people to whom the food was exported continued to eat quite well thank you.

Sometimes when I suggest that growing more of our own, as we did during WWII in Victory Gardens, is an appropriate idea based on the rising cost of food and the damaging effects of industrial agriculture, someone suggests I’m in favor of food rationing as that policy was in part responsible for the Victory Garden movement (even though it was mostly about household food security). But the truth is we already ration food. We just ration it by price. We distribute food on a sliding scale based on how much money a person has. And there are lots of people waking up to this reality. Once you spend any time at all learning about our food system you will quickly find people suggesting that it’s not production that needs improvement, it’s distribution.

And of course on a certain level those people are exactly right. If we had a system where by every human being on Earth could go to their local market and get the exact same amount of food as everyone else we’d have enough to feed roughly twice as many people as are living on the planet today. Now listen closely because this is important. The planet can’t handle a doubling of the human population and I am not suggesting we should try that. Other resources- water jumps to mind- are already under extreme duress, to say nothing of the challenges we face regarding climate change. Overpopulation and overconsumption by certain segments of the population (think the Global North especially the US) is a big problem.

And it’s important to note the some of the agricultural processes of industrial agriculture are incredibly destructive and cannot be continued indefinitely. It’s likely that they can’t even be continued for very much longer. Soil for instance is being lost and degraded at an alarming rate. This issue alone threatens our ability to continue feeding even the current population of the planet at today’s rate of inhabitance. That is, we’re going to have to change the way we produce food anyway because industrial agriculture is too destructive to allow it to continue without risking our very survival. But it is true to point out that if we had a more just and fair system of distribution for the time being we could feed everyone including the predicted increase in human population over the next few decades using our current system of production. It is technically about distribution at this exact point in time.

Then again is it? At the turn of last century about a third of the US population was involved in agriculture. By 1950 that number was down to about 15%. Today it stands at less than 2%. So the current means of production includes a small number of people growing lots of food for almost everyone else.

The other 98% do something entirely different. So while it is true that we currently have more than enough food to feed the other 98% if we had a more equitable means of food distribution, we still must make changes because of how destructive our current system is. And maybe trying to figure out how to feed more people by changing either the means of production *or* changing the means of distribution is like not seeing a forest full of trees. Maybe hiding in this false dichotomy is the real answer to the problem of how to feed everyone. Perhaps the answer is that we have to change the means of production by changing the means of distribution or vice versa if you prefer. Maybe the answer is that more of us need to grow food.

The Chinese proverb goes, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and you have introduced another competitor into the overcrowded fishing industry. But teach a man to farm and, well, you’ve got a farmer." Alright that translation is a bit loose but I bet you get the point. Now there are some mental frameworks that have to be tweaked in order for this crazy scheme to work. Sharon and I (and others) are calling for many more people to become actively involved in agriculture again. In our book we call for 100 million new gardeners and farmers and 200 million new home cooks. That’s roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the US population respectively. That’s a huge increased compared to today’s standards. Historically speaking though, it’s not that high of a percentage.

But we also have all sorts of tools and techniques available to us now that we not available to us the last time such a percentage of Americans grew more of their own food. We’re talking about changing the means of production both by including more people but also by using the best methods of producing food from the past and from the present. I should probably save more on that for the book. It’s available for pre order on Amazon by the way which is less a shameless plug than a proud coauthor sharing his supreme pleasure in finally seeing up there.

OK it's both pride and a plug but back to the discussion about what an agricultural shift might look like. My point here is that this isn’t a suggestion that we simply abandon everything about where we are in space and time. We’re not suggesting that we all get into our time machines and travel back to the early 1900s and that we try to land them all in corn fields. This is 2008 and many more of us live in towns and cities and suburbs. That is reality. But so is the fact that despite the rise of industrial agriculture and all its destructiveness we still don’t feed almost a billion of the people on the planet. About 12% of the population here in the US is food insecure, meaning they don’t have enough to eat on a regular basis. This may be better than at other points in recent history (and worse than others going farther back) but better is not itself success.

Success means feeding everyone and success will not come until we make a change in the way we eat. If more people are growing more of their own food then by we have a better system of production. This we know. People like Peter Rosset have been telling us for quite a while that small scale agriculture is more productive per unit of land than larger scale operations. A recent study from the UN suggests something similar saying,
The research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it.

An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa. – The Independent
But more people are growing more of their own food also means a better system of distribution. Highly concentrated systems of anything are risky in that they can easily exclude people. De-concentrating our system of food distribution by actively including at least 1/3 of Americans in agriculture means more people are more likely to get fed. This isn’t just because it’s more productive per unit of land to do so but also because many more of us will have access to food right on our own property and because more gardeners and farmers means a higher likelihood that someone near everyone is growing food. We’re talking about the underpinnings of the relocalization of agriculture. This could lead to all sorts of sharing, gifting, bartering and buying economies of local farmers growing food for local people. And this network of- is it production or distribution?- means overlap. It means variety. It means fresher food, which means more and better cooking and healthier people. And ultimately a better fed world. We have a long way to go but the time to start is now.

opening image credit: Sustainable Everyday Project

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

organic farming 'could feed africa'

From The Independent,
New evidence suggests that organic practices – derided by some as a Western lifestyle fad – are delivering sharp increases in yields, improvements in the soil and a boost in the income of Africa's small farmers who remain among the poorest people on earth. The head of the UN's Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, said the report "indicates that the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the world maybe far higher than many had supposed".

The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought. And the research highlighted the role that learning organic practices could have in improving local education. Backers of GM foods insist that a technological fix is needed to feed the world. But this form of agriculture requires cash to buy the patented seeds and herbicides – both at record high prices currently – needed to grow GM crops.
Read More

Thursday, October 09, 2008


Daddy, Why did Congress pass an $850 billion bailout bill that I'll have to pay for when I grow up? Because honey, President Bush threatened martial law.

But Daddy will get $240 a year for riding his bike to work.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Gasoline Shortage in Charlotte NC

Stories and pictures about the gas shortage in Charlotte NC. Updates will appear at the top.

10.9.08 6:00 pm
In the Charlotte area, most fueling stations have gasoline now. I'd say 3 out 4. THe proce for regular is about $3.85. Premium grade gas is still harder to come by. At some point I might revisit this thread and try to summarize this experience, but for now I'm going to close this thread.


9.29.08 9:26 pm
Now *this* is a gas line. Glad I left GA.


9.26.08 8:26 pm Video.


9.26.08 8:22 am People are calling me to tell me about sitting in gas lines or getting trapped in traffic because of cars waiting to turn into gas stations. People, I need pictures. Remember that little cell phone you keep strapped to your belt like a colt revolver from the wild west? It's probably got a camera in it. Draw and fire off some photos. Send them to:


9.26.08 8:18 am
They're sleeping in their cars!
...a number of people in the Charlotte region slept in their cars in line over night waiting for gas to arrive, not even knowing when or if gas would arrive at their station. Read more.
Did you catch that? These people are sleeping at gas stations even without the promise of gas in reward for a bad night's sleep under a steering wheel! That is surely a sign of addiction.


9.25.08 12:58 pm Tempers Flare!
NewsChannel 36 reporters saw a fight break out at one station after someone cut in line.
It's getting testy here. One other note, my web traffic has increased substantially, mostly from google searches of "gas stations in Charlotte that still have gas" or something similar.


9.24.08 10:19 pm You should all be disappointed. This is the only picture I have of gas lines in my area.

That's because it's game over almost instantly. Last night most stations, I'd say nine out of ten, had gasoline. Tonight almost no stations have gas. It happened fast, so fast that I didn't get a chance to take pictures of the gas lines. This is the only one I could find. Oddly this station wasn't swamped like reports I've heard from others in my area- stories of traffic backed up and hour-long lines. Now it's just eerily quiet out on the roads. I'll take my cameras with me to work tomorrow and see if any other fueling stations have fuel.

One other item to report. Diesel is still widely available. A shortage of diesel would mean many more problems because diesel fuels delivery trucks and school buses. I think what we're experiencing here in the Southeast will shake things up a bit but not as much as if the grocery stores suddenly ran out of milk or the schools had to stop shipping kids all over the county.

My wife has 16 gallons in the Volvo wagon. I have 5 gallons in the Camry. We'll see how long it lasts. ;-)


9.24.08 6:04 pm - Alright now we're cooking with, um, gas.


9.24.08 4:23 pm - Perhaps gasoline shortages in Charlotte were delayed and are just now arriving. I recently talked on the phone to a coworker who stopped at 7 fueling stations before she found one with gas. Then she waited in line for an hour to get some. Here's newz coverage from last night.
Drivers backed up at gas stations including in east Charlotte and Myers Park. Police threatened to ticket people blocking traffic.Some customers waited more than 30 minutes for gas. One driver, Sherrie Harvin, said, "I was talking with a lady in Wal-Mart. She said that she was an hour late because she was trying to get gas here and she said that fights were breaking out. I mean, look, this is crazy."No one seemed able to explain the lines. Read more.
And this isn't going to help.
Sept. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP said a fire late yesterday shut its Pasadena oil terminal in Texas, which connects refineries from along the Gulf Coast to pipelines serving the eastern and Midwest U.S. Read More.


9.24.08 2:48 pm - From a friend in Asheville, an example of social organization happening around the current fuel shortage.

If you know of stations that have gasoline today (or ones listed on our website that are out), please call 232-5964 or e-mail the name and location of the station and when you last noted that the shop was selling gasoline to [email addresses deleted]

The Citizen-Times will periodically update its coverage of the gasoline shortage with a reader-generated list of stations that still have inventory.

Read the whole story here. (Thanks Peter)


9.23.08 - 9:33 am It's been a week and the availability of gasoline has remained much the same here in the Charlotte NC region- most fueling stations have it and the price is down just a bit to just over $4/gallon.

It's worth pointing out that this is still an historically high price. Here's the 5 year chart for the Charlotte area.

Ahhh, remember the good old days(5 years ago) when gas was $1.30/gallon. ;-) I haven't updated this post because locally there hasn't been much change. I'm going to leave this thread up though and expand it to include more problematic areas of the Southeast. From Atlanta,
Across metro Atlanta, drivers in one of the nation's largest commuter cities are running into the same thing: a lack of gas and no clear idea when the situation will get better. State and industry officials say they're working as fast as they can and are urging people not to panic. Here's the whole article from CNN.
However AAA says,
Atlanta and Tallahassee, Fla. are also seeing shortages, but nothing like in Nashville, where long lines and empty pumps have been a common site since Friday morning. Read more.
Officials in TN blame both a real fuel shortage and panicked drivers stopping to top off when ever they see a station open. As always it's a coupling of real supply issues and the distortion of demand practices in times of crisis.

Places like Asheville NC and Spartanburg SC seem to be short on gasoline because they are further from terminals along the Colonial Pipeline with supplies much of the Southeast with fuel coming from the Gulf Region. Places like Charlotte which are closer to pipeline terminals are having less trouble getting gasoline. This is important because it shows how ceratin aspects of fuel delivery can and will continue to affect certain cities and counties- even those in relatively close proximity- with the result of varying levels of fuel availablity.

I'll end this update with a chart from Gail the Actuary at TOD. The emphasis added is mine. Check out her post here which explains why we aren't out of the woods yet concerning fallout from Ike.


9.16.08 - 9:29 pm
Average price per gallon of gasoline in my area has settled back down to about $4.19/gallon. Most gas stations still have fuel but some, especially those not associated with a specific oil company like Exxon or Shell, are out of fuel. See images below.


9.15.08 - 10:53am
Last Friday I noticed a $0.30 increase in the price of gasoline between 8am and 1pm. Also gas lines formed at a nearby filling station. I had not received any news- radio, newspaper, or Internet - all morning so it came as a surprise to me to see such a sight. Reports from friends are that most gas stations have fuel but a few do not. The average price I've seen is $4.29 per gallon. I'll post a GasBuddy chart.

A must read. Implications of a Ten Day Refinery Outage

Thursday, September 04, 2008

more offshore oil drilling is a stupid idea

I won't go so far as to say I'm against lifting the ban on drilling for oil off the east coast of the United States of America. I say that because the only reason the idea is being bandied about is that the last two Republican presidents were oil tycoons and that party is desperate to reframe the rise in the price of gasoline as the fault of the Democrats. Perhaps Democrats should agree to lift the ban and when the price of gas doesn't go down, Republicans will be left without that political punch to throw.

Having said that, I am not in favor of lifting the offshore drilling ban because drilling for oil off the east coast of the U.S. is stupid. Here's why.

The USGS says there are 17.8 billion barrels of undiscovered recoverable resources(read Not Proven Reserves) in waters currently off limits to exploration. The EIA says production couldn't really get started until 2017 and wouldn't be fully ramped up for another 15 years until about 2030. Remember the U.S. uses more than 7 billion barrels a year. Great, there might be two and a half more years worth of oil. Even if we could start pumping at full capacity today when my daughter is 2 ½, she'll be 5 when all that oil is used up.

Even when production is pumping at full capacity, additional offshore drilling facilities would amount to about 200,000 barrels per day (bpd). The US currently uses 21 million bpd. This does not take into account the increase in oil consumption necessary to continue to grow our economy. The bottom line is that additional offshore drilling will provide 1.2% of the oil we use every day if we don't increase consumption and we're willing to wait 20 years.

Oh and if the oil companies don't sell that oil to other countries. Remember, we currently export about 1.5 million barrels of oil from the US every day. There is no guarantee that big oil will even keep this measly 200,000 bpd in the US.

And don't forget the hurricanes.

Notice I didn't even mention the possible environmental catastrophes or the hit tourism might take if lounging at the beach starts to include a beautiful view of the flare from a drilling rig. Well, I didn't mention them until now.

Offshore oil is politicians playing the blame game and that's all it is. The sad part is that a majority of Americans are falling for it while their leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, continue to refuse to act appropriately.

If you want a quick test of whether or not a politican understands energy issues ask her if she'd like to see the cost of gasoline go down. If she says yes, she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about.

Monday, September 01, 2008

an interview with Bob Waldrop

This spring I had the pleasure of talking with Bob Waldrop as part of a series of interviews done for the forthcoming book A Nation of Farmers. Bob Waldrop is a native, 4th generation Oklahoman, who was born and raised in Tillman County in southwest Oklahoma. His great-grandparents came to Oklahoma Territory before statehood. He is the founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House (which delivers food to people in need who don’t have transportation), the president of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, and works as director of music at Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church. He served on the founding board of directors of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, and previously served on the Migrants and Refugees Advisory Committee of Catholic Charities. He is the editor of Better Times: An Almanac of Useful Information, which is distributed free. The 5th edition may be viewed at He is a member of the Oklahoma Food Policy Council. Although not presently active in the program, he has served as an Oklahoma County Master Gardener.

Aaron Newton: Bob, could you describe the Oscar Romera Catholic Worker House, and the operations that you're a part of there in Oklahoma City?

Bob Waldrop: The Catholic Worker movement was founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York, and we're kind of where the anarchists hang out in Catholic church. Every time I say this, people laugh and say that's an oxymoron -- you can't be an anarchist and be a Catholic at the same time. Well, we've managed for 75 years, and each Catholic Worker community is autonomous, we don't have a central hierarchy, and we believe in living in solidarity with the poor, in voluntary poverty, and in doing what the Catholics call the works of mercy, justice, and peace. we concentrate on food security -- and so we not only hand out food or give homeless people housing or whatever like that, we also ask questions about why these people are hungry, why are they homeless, why there are these inequities of wealth and access to resources, and then we work to build a better society where those inequities no longer exist. Dorothy Day said that part of our job was to make a world where it is easier for people to be good. And so that governs a lot of things that we do.

AN: What do the operations actually look like?

BW: We do about, oh, 3600-4000 deliveries every year to over 8 or 9 thousand people who live in those houses. And we get food for that from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and also people donate food. Members of the food co-op donate money that I use to buy food from the farmers to give to the poor.

AN: Is it correct to characterize your work with local food as social justice work?

BW: Well, that's true. During a lot of my life I've just been really poor, and so there was a time in my life where the only reason that I had bread was that I had wheat and I had a grinder and I was able to grind my own flour to make bread. And the only reason that I had tomatoes is because I had tomato plants in my yard. And the only way that I had a meal at all was that I was willing to cook meals from basic ingredients. So I actually come at this not from a position of affluence, but from a place of experience with scarcity and having to figure out how to feed eight people with a quarter pound of sausage and a cup of milk.

AN: As the cost of food is rising in this country we're hearing that people making poor nutritional choices. The idea being that if they can't afford to buy better food, fresh food, or organic food and that they're forced to buy processed foods- that they're basically eating ramen noodles every evening for dinner. Are you saying that they can have nutritionally adequate diets?

BW: Well, you can take ramen noodles and you can make something better, more healthy out of them also. I've eaten a lot of ramen noodles in my day and ramen noodles are actually kind of an interesting substrate for many different kinds of stirfries. People aren't changing their food choices so that they're buying, say, pork neckbones and whole wheat flour- or even white flour for that matter- they're just buying the cheaper processed foods, the corn dogs and the cheap pizzas and hot dogs and mystery meats like that.

There's been an almost complete loss of cultural information from generation to generation in a lot of poverty communities. A lot of strategies of their parents and grandparents, the younger generation simply isn't aware of. Just one example is lamb's quarters. It grows pretty prolifically in every poor neighborhood on the street and very few people pick them and eat them. And they're very tasty -- I call them Oklahoma spinach. They're very tasty and a good source of vitamin C and other things that you get in green vegetables, but people just don't recognize that as food, they think of it as a weed, and so they don't take advantage of the fact that they can get it for free, basically, just by picking it.

AN: How does the lack of transportation affect people's access to food?

BW: Well, that's a very significant thing. Someone asked me one time why all these little convenience stores all over the place, besides the typical convenience store things that you think of like cigarettes and beer and candy and soda pop also sold the basic selection of basic groceries, canned foods, things like that. I said, the reason for that is that some people don't have transportation and they just can't get to a supermarket and that's where they do their grocery shopping. And they were just horrified by that thought because it's very expensive and the selection isn't very much. And part of the reason is that Oklahoma City has very poor public transportation, so people without cars aren't able to access larger stores. One thing that I have noticed happening however in the lower income neighborhoods that are mostly African-American is that there is a whole group of vegetable tenders that buy from rural farmers and then bring produce to street corners in low-income neighborhoods.

AN: And that's happening now?

BW: That's happening now. And that's really kind of just under the radar. I only found out about it because we're over there delivering food a lot and one summer I noticed the same guy in different places with a six-by-twelve flatbed trailer, and he would one day have watermelons, and one day have cantaloupes, and one day have pumpkins, and one day he had it all loaded down with corn, and since I was looking for people who grow food to sell, and I talked to him and said "Where do you get this?" And he said, "Well, I know a few farmers here and there around town, around the outskirts..." And it was around a sixty-mile radius.

And the other interesting thing about it is that what he's doing is illegal in Oklahoma City because he doesn't have a license. And a license is kind of expensive, I think 50 dollars a month or something like that, which is a lot for a small marginal business like that.

In many areas it is illegal to grow vegetables in the city for sale at all. And I know people who were supplementing their retirement income by growing tomatoes in their backyard and selling them out of their front yard, and they were closed down. Because it is ok to have a vegetable garden, but it's not ok to grow it and then sell.

Another thing that they need to do is that right now it's basically illegal to prepare any food that you're going to sell to the public in your home kitchen, even if your home kitchen meets government commercial kitchen standards. And that's something that should be changed. Maybe not for everything, but for many things: jams and jellies, pickles and things like that that are loaded with vinegar, sauerkraut, things like that.

AN: Are you aware of any community kitchen efforts that try to address the problem of not having an approved kitchen in which to create some of these down-home recipes and sell them?

BW: Well, there's some of that going on- starting to pop up down there. And that's one thing that governments could do to help, -- call it an incubator kitchen or something like that -- and they could build those kind of facilities with community block grant money, and make it available to food entrepreneurs. They give giant corporations millions of dollars t0 come here and open up a place that would hire 300 people. For $100,000 they could build a nice commercial kitchen incubator facility.

AN: How much of what you're doing do you think is replicable throughout the United States and how much contact do you have with other people working on similar projects?

BW: I think it's totally replicable. We've helped start- we call ourselves the Oklahoma Plan Cooperative- and there's Oklahoma Plan Cooperatives operating now in Nebraska, Idaho, Michigan, Texas, Kansas, and I just got back yesterday from Ontario. I gave a presentation at a state community college in Ohio, close to Toledo, to a group of about 100 people who are thinking of doing this. And we're having a group coming from Ontario this week to our delivery day, They want to start the Niagara Food Cooperative up there in Canada. So these are all kind of just the beginning. We help them, all of them send at least one person to one of our delivery days to see how we do things, we give them our software that we developed for our co-op free of charge. There's organizing campaigns going on in Colorado, in Iowa, and then two different ones going on in Ontario.

AN: I understand you cook outdoors in the summer.

BW: Yes, In the summer we cook all meals outside. The moment it starts getting hot in late May, early June I set up an outdoor kitchen on my front porch where it's shady. I see these adds and look in stores where they're talking about this 25,000 dollar outdoor kitchen and mine is a propane grill and an electric frying pan, we have a two-burner propane camp stove, and I have a little roller table. I do all my food prep inside, load up the roller table, roll it out on the front porch and cook everything. All that heat and humidity in the summer ends up outside instead of in the house. I got that idea from my grandmother. I asked her -- I said, "What did you guys do before you had air conditioning in the summers?" She said that they cooked outside and they nearly always slept outside also. We haven't slept outside yet but I keep thinking about putting screen around my front porch and do some of that sleeping outside someday.

AN: What sort of plants do you have growing at your house?

BW: Well, we grow over 100 different types of plants in our former lawn and two thirds of those are perennials. We have peach trees and apple trees and elderberries. Boysenberries, blackberries, dewberries, raspberries, blueberries, mulberries. We have plums, we have apricots, we have a persimmon tree that hasn't grown anything yet. We have bush cherries, we have clove currants and sand cherries, we have a Siberian pea shrub, we have Nanking cherries, we have chokecherries, and we usually have several varieties of each of these. We have roses, which we grow for the rose hips, and also the rose petals are edible. We have comfrey which is medicinal and we have prickly pear cactus which is edible. For annuals, we tend to concentrate on things that we can't get easily from other local sources or organic sources, or where we want a lot of something, more than we want to spend money on. So we grow a lot of paste tomatoes because I like to make my own tomato sauce. we grow a lot of alliums, we grow multiplying onions and shallots and various kinds of chives and garlic and we grow cooking greens like chard and collards. Actually, this year we aren't growing any collard greens, we're growing mostly chard. And then I grow a few a few carrots and potatoes, but we don't have enough room to grow a lot of those. This year I'm going to experiment with some container growing. I've tried growing potatoes in a bucket. we grow hot peppers. We grow a lot of haberneros, sachwanas, cayennes, and jalepenos.

AN: From a big picture perspective, Bob, what concerns you most going forward about the future of food or in a more general sense the future of human existence going into the 21st century? Is there a particular problem that most concerns you?

BW: Well, I just think we're coming to a perfect storm with the whole peak oil, the climate change, and general ecological devastation. And I think we're more dependent than we've ever been on highly centralized systems of distribution, just-in-time inventory systems. That's all just a lot weaker than most people think, and it puts us truly at risk. I think we also have lost a lot of cultural information. My grandfather used to be known throughout his county for the ability to cure hams and make sausage. But those recipes -- he didn't teach his father how to do that, and my father didn't teach me, and so those are all lost. And my dad remembers that it was very good, he said it was the best tasting sausage that he'd ever had. But the recipe was never written down it was just in his head, and so it was just lost.

Friday, August 15, 2008

everything's fine. keep eating.

Two very interesting developments to report concerning food. The first has gotten reasonable coverage in the newz. Apparently the multinational corporations selling us our dessert are offering us less for the same price.

There's a reason why the tub of ice cream you bought last week looks a tad smaller than ones you bought last summer. It is. Many major ice cream makers, hit by higher dairy costs, have shrunk their standard containers to 1.5 quarts from 1.75 quarts, about 1 cup less.

Check your freezer. I did and found what this article suggests, that what I thought were half gallon containers of ice cream were really 48oz of chocolate and 54oz of vanilla, neither of them 64oz which would equal one half gallon. And it’s not just ice cream.

General Mills began downsizing cereals last June. Some boxes of Cheerios and Wheaties shrank as much as 1.5 ounces. "Prior to the change, our package sizes were larger, in many cases, than competitors'," spokeswoman Heidi Geller says.

Apparently they think you should pay the same amount for less because their competitors sell you less. I love the logic. And companies are being sneaky about it. Here’s another example.

Two packages of soap with the same wrapper, pulled right off the same grocery store shelf and selling for the same price didn't look different at first glance. After a closer look, the older package is three bars of four to five ounces of soap and the new package is three bars of four ounces of soap. more…

There’s a list of articles at the bottom of this post if you’d like more examples, but I do want to share one more.

The Agriculture Department proposed today to reduce the amount of food served to children receiving federally subsidized lunches in schools throughout the country.

The proposal would abandon a goal set at the program's inception 35 years ago: to serve lunches that give children one-third of the recommended dietary allowances for a variety of nutrients. The new rules do not set firm or precise overall nutritional goals.

Lynn Parker, a nutritionist with the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, said that the proposed changes were significant because many children from low income families depended on school lunches for one-third to one-half of the nutrients they consumed in a day.

Nutrition specialists said that even children from more affluent families did not always receive nutritionally sound, well-balanced meals at home.

As schools reopen this month, ''people will be paying more for school lunches and getting less,'' said Mr. Matz, who represents the American School Food Service Association. He said that the Federal Government was ''balancing the school lunch budget by taking food away from children.'' more…

That folks, is evil at work. We’re fighting a war we entered into based on false premises that is costing US tax payers more than 10 billion dollars a month. But we need a balanced budget so let’s take food away from children. Wow.

The other item of interest is the wink and nod game going on over the economics of food. According to the U.S. Census Bureau U.S. retail and food services sales for the May through July 2008 period were up 2.7 percent from the same period in 2007. So yea! for the growth economy, food sales are up! But wait a minute. They aren’t talking about units of food, they’re talking about dollars of food. And we all know food has gotten more expensive. So if food is more expensive are we really buying more or just paying more? George Ure has already explained it very well so I’ll share a bit from his website.

Say you are set about the task of analyzing milk sales. If you look strictly in a dollarized way, you will be able to report "Milk sales are up 5% compared with last year." Milk was $5.00 a gallon last year, in this example, and is $5.25 this year. "No biggie, just normal price inflation..." you'd be thinking. But, this is dead wrong.

The truth could just as easily involve two variables, not just the one. The unit volume of milks could have dropped 10% an double digit inflation could be at work. Say last year you had 1,000 gallons of milk sold at $5 for $5,000 in sales. But, what happens this year is unit volume was only 950 gallons of milk? You'd still look at $5,250 in receipts for milk, but the price per gallon could have been $5.52 for 950 units, yet as an economist, you could report with a straight face that milk says were up 5% while the unit price was up 10.4%! Ain't life grand?

So companies are packaging small amounts of food to look like the sizes we’re used to buying and charging us the same amount. In the meantime the rising cost of food is making it look like food sales are up and everything is rosy. The truth is tricks and games in the distribution of food are masking the food crisis in America as is arrives.

Let’s be clear. Hunger is never about scarcity. Hunger is about distribution. While talking to someone about food just the other day he said, “You sound like you’re an advocate of food rationing.” To which I replied, “You don’t understand, we already do that. We ration food by price.” If you do one of the jobs in this country that we don’t value, like making clothes or teaching children it’s likely that you’re finding it increasingly difficult to feed your family. 12% of the population of America is food insecure, meaning they don’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. And as a society we tolerate this because we’re told stories about how poor people don’t work hard enough or that if we just tinker around a bit more with the genetic makeup of our crops then we’ll finally be able to grow enough food for everybody. It’s all lies. The American people are willing to work hard to meet their needs. If any of you don’t know hardworking poor people who have trouble feeding their families just let me know and I’ll introduce you to a few. Even easier would be to volunteer at your local food pantry and meet a few of them who live close to you.

And so I get very angry when I read stories about the reaction of food companies to higher commodity prices. They aren’t interested in addressing the issues of resource depletion and energy descent. They are unwilling to make real changes to a broken agricultural system- just as unwilling as our political leaders. The food industry wants to make money on the way down by tricking people into spending the same amount on less. Our leaders in Washington want to take food away from children. And the bankers shout, “Hooray, food sales are up!”

The question is, are there others of you who are angry? I know there are so maybe I should ask are there enough of us? Are there enough people angry at the way we ration food in this country- to say nothing of the quality of the processed stuff we’re eating- are there enough of us to do something about it?

I think there are. When I go to my local farmers market and see the surge in attendance I think yes, we can do something about it. When I see local meat available at my farmers market for the first time in my memory- meat without pesticide residues, hormones, genetic modification, antibiotics, and carcinogenic preservatives- I think to myself that our numbers are growing. When friends show more than just expected interest in my conversations about how our relationship with food must change- when they want rain barrels and raised beds and they want to trade bread for vegetables and eggs- I have a way to balance my anger and frustration with hope in the future. I have hope that we might make a change in the way we eat sooner rather than later.

This spring I helped write a book on the changes we need to make in the way we eat. I also welcomed my daughter into the world. The two are related in more ways than one might first think. The future of feeding looked different when I held the spoon to her lips as she tasted solid food for the first time three nights ago. (She much less messy than our older daughter, so there’s hope there too;-) And as I did so I realized that there is so much work to do. The work we each must do to help our families, our neighborhoods and our greater communities become more food secure is the work of a revolution in eating. Come at it from a place of anger or compassion or with a desire for a healthy, tastier alternative to industrial agriculture. Come at it any way you like but please join the growing group of us who want to make a difference in this world and who think changing the way we eat is a great way to start.

Companies shrink packages, not prices
Packets shrink, but cost doesn't
Some food companies shrink packages, but not their prices

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

My Commuter Cycle

This is the second in a series of posts I'm writing about the easiest way to cut back on the amount of money you spend on gasoline- don't buy it. Riding a bike has many benefits not the least of which is the low cost of getting around. Recently I wrote about hauling big stuff on a specialized bicycle. In this post I'd like to share my commuter cycle with readers- the bicycle I ride to work and back.

I started bike commuting about a year ago and I love it. Yes I burn less carbon, yes I use less oil and yes I'm in better shape. But the reason I've stuck with it is that riding to work is just so much fun. I started at my local bike shop. The owner helped me put together a great setup tailored to my commute. I ride a Trek 7.6 hybrid. As you can see in the picture above it has:

1) A Straight Bar. This means I ride in an upright position. I see cars and they see me.

2) A Headlight. Inevitably a bike commuter will be out after dark. This light helps me ride safely after the sun goes down or before it comes up.

3) A Rear Blinky Light. Apparently the space program led to great advancements in LED technology. Thanks to John Glenn and gang I have a red light on the back of my bike that blinks and can be seen up to 1 mile from my rear.

4) A Helmet. Safety first.

5) 700c Road Tires. These ain't stubby mountain bike tires. They're designed to help the bike move faster over pavement so I won't be late for dinner.

6) A Rack on the Back. This is key because if you're riding to work, you're going to need to carry stuff. My rack is compatible with my two year old daughter's bike carrier and also with the pair of saddle bags (called panniers) shown in the picture. In them I carry my lunch, a change of clothes and anything else I need for work. On the way home I can stop at the store to pick up anything we need at home.

7) A Bike Lock. It stays in the panniers. It keeps my bike safe when I'm not riding it.

8 ) A Tube Replacement Kit. This also stays in the panniers. With precautions, tube punctures can be minimized but every once in a while I have a flat. A spare tube, the tools to install it and a way to inflate the tube have me up and running again in no time.

9) Toe Clips or Clipless pedals. Using these will helps me better leverage the full power of my legs. It helps me get to work and back faster..

10) A Water Bottle Cage. This will helps me stay hydrated.

11) A Computer. OK this isn't necessary but it is nice to see how fast I'm going, how far I've ridden and to track my progress as a cyclist.

12) Bar Ends with Built-In Rear View Mirrors. These help by giving me another position for my hands and also by helping me to see what's coming up behind me.

Depending on what your particular commute looks like your needs will vary. That's why I recommend visiting your local bike shop to help get you started. If your commute is less than 40 miles round trip commuting on a bicycle is really possible. Give it a try.

"i used to fantasize about living in a healthier place, one where i could ride my bike, for example. then, one day, i started riding my bike. now, without having fled or escaped to anywhere, i live in a place where i can ride my bike." – heretic fig

Saturday, May 31, 2008

through, finished, complete!

but the book is!

A great big thank you to everyone who helped. Happy Happy, Joy Joy! What a wonderful feeling.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

peak energy and what that means for food

Imagine my shock this morning to open up the headlines and find that a barrel of oil now sells for more than $130 US. It seems that everywhere I turn the concept of peak oil is entering into the American mainstream. I turned on the radio only to hear Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum as a guest on my local NPR radio program talking frankly about oil and energy issues and just how bad the problem really is. Just a few days ago a good friend, long involved in reducing his families carbon footprint and becoming more self-sufficient, emailed me to say he was deeply trouble to have recently discovered the depths of our energy problems and was frightened by what peak oil might mean for his family and our nation. I told him he should be careful about lengthy readings of Heinberg, Kunstler and Savinar all in one week. ;-)

And after years of organizing my own local screenings of the documentary 'The End of Suburbia' I was asked last week to come and speak after another such screening was organized by political types in my town. This time my thoughts were met not with denial or even much anger but with an odd acceptance. Surly a threshold moment is fast approaching. Shock is what many more will experience as the rising cost of oil and gasoline generates awareness. To be sure those of us involved for any length of time with the issues of peak oil are enjoying an ascension to normalcy as the rest of our country wakes up.

So this morning I'm going to post a peak energy introduction written with Sharon Astyk. This will be a review for those who follow her site and mine but might serve as a place to point those who are interested in learning more. It's very important however that those of us more comfortable with this topic help to shape the emerging conversation as one of opportunity not tragedy. No doubt this will mean doing things differently now and in our future but all is not gloom and doom. This could be an opportunity to address big problems- a catalyst for positive change. With that in mind we must frame this not as 'the end of the world' as my wife joking refers to all discussions peak oil in our home, but as the beginning of something better.


To alcohol- the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.”

- Homer Simpson

Brewing beer takes about thirty days. There’s the malting and mashing and lautering and boiling, not to mention the hopping and the separation, the cooling and fermentation. Then most beer is filtered before being bottled. And let’s not forget the drinking. Beer has been brewed since the 7th century BC, or perhaps even before, and will probably be brewed until humans no longer walk the face of this planet. As a Whistran Brewery sign describes it, “Beer: So much more than just a breakfast drink.”

The above description makes it sound like an awfully complicated process, but really it’s not. But the procedure does requires adding specific ingredients, including heat, in just the right sequence so as to produce one of mankind’s most beloved beverages. In this way brewing beer is not unlike the process of making oil. A long time ago, a tremendous amount of oceanic plant material lived and died and floated to the bottom of the sea. There it built up into an enormous layer of biological material. Like brewing beer, this process required the combination of specific ingredients in the presence of heat. At lower temperatures it produced oil and at relatively higher temperatures it produced natural gas. In certain locations the oil and natural gas became trapped in porous rock formations conducive to the containment of such materials. You can think of these formations as kegs of energy.

During previous millennia, before we discovered how to make use of these intense energy sources the human population was relatively stable, never exceeding several hundred million. During our most recent experimentation with fossil fuels however, we’ve seen that number increase to just over 6.5 billion people. . Even more important than the growth in population, oil has enabled lavish, consumptive lifestyles in the Global North, so that inequity between rich and poor has grown. The average American consumes 30 times the resources of the average Kenyan.[i]

During the middle part of the 20th century, the United States was awash in oil. Germany, on the other hand, was so desperate for similar fuel that they were forced to take coal and press it into gasoline. Many historians point out that our victory in the World War II was made possible, in part by our easy access to great quantities of oil and it’s abundant energy. Winston Churchill famously said , “”Above all, petrol governed every movement.”[ii] Following World War II, the United States began to utilize this incredible resource at home. James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Long Emergency”, describes America’s domestic use of fossil fuels this way.

“It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life — not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense — you name it.”

Most of us are familiar with regular gasoline fill-ups and the need to drive back and forth from work to home, from the shopping mall to the elementary school. Cheap fuel made easy motoring typical of American life. And although that has begun to change with rising energy prices, we’ve barely begun a great shift. Imagine for a minute how hard most Americans find livingwithout a car. But aside from this most obvious of petroleum uses, there plenty of other ways we use oil in our everyday lives.

It is inevitable when you fill up a mug with beer and begin to drink it that eventually you will reach a point at which your glass is half empty. If you go out with friends to a bar, you are more likely to order a pitcher of beer for all of you to share. Now imagine that around the time that you have drunk half of it, someone announces that it is the last pitcher of beer in the whole world - that we’re all very sorry, we thought we had more, but everyone in the universe has looked in their fridges, and the beer is all gone forever. So now you have half a pitcher of beer and that’s it - no more. Now, what do you do? Do you drink it fast, and have one incredible party, and never drink again? Do you sell what is left to people who will pay you a lot for it? Do you horde it, holding on to it at all costs? Do you ration it out so that everyone gets a fair share? Fight over the rest of it?

There’s likely to be a lot of people who want that beer, and regardless of whether you share it out evenly or unevenly, people’s desire for beer is going to be met with smaller and smaller supplies of beer. Now it is possible that we could reduce desire - that if it gets inconvenient enough, that some of the beer drinkers will decide they like lemonade better anyhow. But no matter how many advertising campaigns praise the wonders of lemonade, quite a few of us are going to notice that it really isn’t quite the same thing as beer, the wonder liquid.
Now the nice thing about beer is that it is not required for human existence (ok, we know some people who will argue with us about this). And in a purely technical sense, neither are oil and gas. But just about every part of our life here in America is dependent upon oil and gas, both of which are most likely near the halfway point of availability. As we mentioned above, oil doesn’t just fuel our cars and heat our homes. Virtually everything we buy, from food, to medicine to clothing to tools has petroleum in it as an ingredient. And everything we do has an energy cost. Much of that energy is supplied by oil and natural gas. And there are a lot of people who want what’s left - even as it gets more expensive, and harder to get out of the ground, and there starts not being enough to go around evenly.

And no one really disputes that someday, the pitcher will be half empty. When one examines the life of an oil well it inevitably follows a pattern that looks a lot like a bell curve. In the beginning, as an oil well starts to operate, it easily extracts oil and production rises steadily. At a certain point in the life of the oil well, typically at about the halfway point of its life, the production of the well peaks. All the easily extractable oil has been pumped out and the well is now working harder to extract oil that is tougher to get out of the ground. From this point on, the oil is harder and harder to extract so production slowly declines each subsequent year.

As individual regions and nations peak in oil production, the world as a whole gets closer and closer to the day when the global oil keg will reach halfway and then enter into an era of declining availability. Currently, 54 of the largest 65 oil producing nations are in decline.[iii] Russia’s production just declined for the first time, and Saudi Arabia, while strenuously denying it, seems unable to meet demand. Large numbers of oil company executives have begun to admit we are at or near an oil peak.

As we peak, oil producing nations begin to hold back more of their limited supplies for their own use. Saudi Arabia, for example, recently announced that it planned to reserve energy for future generations. Again, this is perfectly natural - the US, for example, long past its peak exports virtually no oil - but this means that the declines in availability are greater than the declines in production - if production falls by 2%, exports may fall by 4%. If this happens, as is likely, while demand is still growing, the total shortfall in availability may be quite dramatic. This is called the Export Land Model, pioneered by geologist Jeffrey Brown.

Poor industry transparency makes it difficult to say for sure, but there is little doubt that for those of us not currently receiving senior citizen discounts, peak oil will happen during our lifetimes, probably quite soon. It is not unlikely that the peak in oil (as opposed to “liquids” which include unconventional sources) is already past. This fact might turn out to be an event of even greater magnitude than the discovery of oil itself. In America we have built an entire way of life on ever increasing amounts of energy, especially oil, the liquid fossil fuel that powers 95 percent of transportation in this country.[iv] It’s not hard to see that peak oil will have an enormous impact on us as the global keg party winds down.

Natural gas is the other essential fossil fuel response for how we live our lives in America these days. We use huge quantities of natural gas each year to heat our homes, cook our food and take hot showers. Six out of every ten homes in America used natural gas as a heat source.[v] A natural gas production well experiences a different sort of life cycle. Because it is a gas, it flows out at a constant rate. Unlike an oil well, when natural gas production peaks, it then drops off dramatically (think chugging the pitcher). And in much the same way as with oil regions, natural gas regions reach a peak when the majority of the wells in that region reach their individual peaks. Right now the North American natural gas production appears to be approaching peak. Exxon’s chief executive Lee Raymond was quoted in 2005 saying, “Gas production has peaked in North America.”[vi]

When will our global natural gas supply peak? That is one of the most urgent questions of our time and one to which the answer is not known. It’s unlikely however that the global peak of natural gas production worldwide is very far off. Many analysts expect natural gas to peak about a decade after petroleum. It is important to understand that natural gas is much more difficult than oil to transport over long distances, so what matters most to Americans is the North American gas supply. US natural gas supplies peaked in 1973,[vii] but the US has a NAFTA agreement that requires Canada to sell us much of their gas. All North American gas peaked in 2002, and soon that agreement may leave Canadians short of heating and cooking fuel[viii]

But aren’t we making huge new discoveries every day? You hear about them in the news all the time! In fact, most of the discoveries we’re making are very small in relationship to world oil demand, and many of them will take a decade or more to develop. At this point, we’re using 6 barrels of oil for every new one we discover[ix], and oil discoveries have been declining for forty years. As Julian Darley told us in regards to the much hyped “Jack” discovery (which is under 5 miles of ocean) “we’re digging around in the couch cushions for loose change now.”[x]

So it seems very likely that both our global pitchers of oil and natural gas are about half empty. What will that mean for us? A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy headed by Dr. Robert Hirsch states that,

“Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It fuels the vast majority of the world’s mechanized transportation equipment - Automobiles, trucks, airplanes, trains, ships, farm equipment, the military, etc. Oil is also the primary feedstock for many of the chemicals that are essential to modern life.”

So it is not surprising that Dr. Hirsch reports that,” the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society.”

Richard Heinberg, author of “The Party’s Over” writing in May of 2006 said,

“Global oil production is peaking-for all practical purposes, now. In the past weeks, the New York Times, Bill Clinton, and the executive vice president of Ford Motor Company (among many others) have stated that world oil flow is at peak. We have even seen one of the major oil companies (Chevron) place ads in multiple magazines and newspapers in order-gently, perhaps, but insistently and conspicuously-to break the news to the American people that the era of cheap oil, and cheap energy in general, is finished, over, done, dead, and gone. And that era just happens to be the only one that Americans alive today have ever known.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers[EAW1] put out a report in September of 2005 that stated, “World oil production is at or near its peak and current world demand exceeds the supply.”[xi] The above-mentioned US Department of Energy-sponsored Hirsch Report says that to deal with the coming peak in global oil production we would need 20 years of devoting virtually all of our national wealth and energies to developing alternative energies and building new infrastructure. The report stated that to do it in 20 years, we’d have to be devoting more of our time and energy than we did to fighting World War II - that is, most of our money, and our time and our industry would all have to be working together to make this giant change in 20 years. Otherwise, there could be major problems - a depression, huge changes in the economy, energy shortages, rationing, rolling blackouts and gas lines, poverty, even hunger. Especially hunger.

So enough with the geology and beer analogies you say. What about food? One of the most troubling ramifications associated with the coming peak in fossil fuels is the roles they play in how we get our food. The model of industrial agriculture used currently to produce much of our food is especially vulnerable to the coming decrease in both natural gas and petroleum availability because it is utterly reliant on cheap energy and fossil fuel derivatives.

Petroleum has made possible the mechanization of much of the labor involved in agriculture. In 1900 roughly 38 % of the population of the United States was actively involved in growing food. By 1950 that number had been reduce to just more than 12 %.[xii] Today less than 2% of the American population does that work. This shift in labor was made possible largely by the harnessing of fossil fuels. Tractors and combines, among other machinery, replaced the human hand in the field. Pumps for irrigation rely on diesel fuel as does the vast network of intercontinental trucking that hauls, on average, each item of food over 1500 miles from where it is grown to where it is eaten.

Petroleum is also the feedstock for the pesticides used to support industrial agriculture and its vast fields of monoculture crops. Seemingly endless landscapes of corn, wheat and soybeans cover Midwestern America and are protected with a combination of chemicals that kill the pests. When you grow a thousand acres of just one type of plant, the bugs that like to eat that plant are drawn to those fields in swarms. Without the ability to fight off enormous numbers of such pests, this system of monoculture probably wouldn’t be possible.

Next there’s the matter of all the nutrients needed to grow our food. We eat an incredible amount corn in our country. A recent Corn Refiners Association study suggests corn is used as an ingredient in almost 4,000 products. This does not include the meat, dairy and eggs that are a derivative of corn used as feed or lots of paper products that include corn.

Author Michael Pollan put it this way in a Mother Jones interview in February 2005.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel - it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn.” To grow the corn on which our current diet is largely based requires providing it with an awful lot of one specific nutrient, nitrogen. The large amount of nitrogen fertilize required to grow corn, is currently created using the Haber-Bosch process of taking atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and putting into a solid state. And this process uses an inordinate amount of natural gas. But as we have already discussed, both natural gas and petroleum are finite resources beginning to enter into a stage of decreasing availability. The short-term effect is likely to be a rise in the cost of our food, especially processed food made from corn. The long-term effect will likely be failure of industrial agriculture to continue to feed the United States and the world.

Taken in isolation, the idea that we’ll prioritize energy for agriculture, or for any one thing or another does make a lot of intuitive sense - as long as we are talking about some discrete, neatly isolated thing. It is easy to think that the reprioritization of resources will be both logical and inevitable - but the problem is that intuitive responses aren’t always right. In actual working systems, there are a host of first priorities, all of them extremely difficult to triage.

The problem is that there are so many highest priorities in any society - do you cut back on police protection? Medicines? Ambulances? Heat for the freezing? Public transport? The transport of relief supplies? Military engagements? In times of radical shortage, prioritizing becomes the struggle of competing priorities, political interests, black markets and a host of other factors, none of which ever quite get what they need

What about renewable energies? Biofuels? Hydrogen fuel cells? The truth is that none of these can replace the energy density of fossil fuels at all. Biofuels, for example, produce, at best, only 1.34 barrels of oil equivalent for every barrel of oil used to produce them.[xiii] That’s not very impressive - oil gives you 30-100 barrels of oil for every barrel used to extract it. And it is possible that the energy return of biofuels is actually much less - that it is negative. David Pimmetal and Ted Paczek have analyzed ethanol, including cellulosic ethanol production and found that they consume more fossil fuels than they produce in equivalent energy[xiv]. And biofuels produce more greenhouse gasses, raise food prices, and essentially put cars in competition with people for basic foodstuffs. If we were to put every single acre of arable land in the US into ethanol production we could run cars for less than half a year. Biofuels have been a disaster for the environment, for the world’s poor, and for the pocketbooks of ordinary Americans who suffer from high food prices.

Hydrogen is a technology that has been “just around the corner” for the last 3 decades, and which shows no signs of getting any closer. It is not, in fact, an energy source at all, but a medium for storing energy, and an inefficient one as well - it is four times less efficient to use electricity to generate hydrogen than it is to just use the electricity directly[xv]

While we support growth in Solar PV panels and Wind production, the difficulty with both of these is the large quantities of reserve capacity, fueled by fossil fuels required to deal with the fact that both are intermittent sources - solar cells only produce energy when the sun shines, wind turbines only when the wind blows. Thus, they both require large quantities of fossil fueled backup capacity - up to 60%.[xvi] Add to this that both remain substantially more expensive than fossil fuels despite rising fossil energy prices, because the comparatively small technological improvements are overridden by the rising costs of the fossil fuels and metals used to make them. [xvii]

While we will almost certainly build out some renewable energy sources, the reality is that our future involves using much less energy than we do now. We have no choice but to cut back radically - and a reasoned, careful, wise reduction will be more just and positive than a haphazard one done by necessity.

All of this makes it much makes it that much more urgent that we get to work now. If we are going to continue to feed ourselves and all the other human being already on this planet without the help of fossil fuels we must begin to make a change now. Yes folks, the house lights are coming up as the partying is winding down. It seems like we might want to sober up before trying to tackle the difficult question of just how best to deal with the problems of peak oil, chief among them fossil fuel based industrial agriculture.

A return to small-scale, sustainable agriculture with a focus on producing our culinary needs and wants locally would reduce our dependency on oil and natural gas in advance of their inevitable decline in availability. One obvious benefit will be the enormous amount of fuel saved by reducing the amount of food shipped all over the country. Fewer refrigerated tractor trailers crisscrossing the country means less oil needed as a nation.

Changes like removing some of the mechanization from our agriculture and reducing or eliminating the use of inorganic pesticides and fertilizers will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and the foreign countries in possession of the majority of what remains of these fuels. Two thirds of the world’s remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East.[xviii] Much of the remaining natural gas is there too. If we needed a great deal less of their oil and NG to grow our own food, we would be less likely to get caught up in deadly conflicts that require huge amounts of money, energy and worse yet, the lives of our men and women in military service. Imagine if we refocused the amount of money and man power spent intervening in Iraq on learning how to again grow our own food without Middle Eastern oil. We could disengage from a region that obviously isn’t interested in our meddling.

Less oil involved in growing our food will also mean more oil available as feedstock for precious commodities like medical equipment and necessary pharmaceuticals. Rather than a drastic decline in the availability of really important petroleum derivatives, removing the fossil fuels from our food could help us more gradually adjust to decreasing stocks of these fuels. Even more important, the health benefits of a more localized, nutritious diet might reduce our need for medical equipment and drugs.

Making this change now rather than waiting until the peaking of fossil fuels creates more severe social disruptions is important because it will take time to learn how to grow our own food without fossil fuel inputs. And it will take time to learn how to cook with whole ingredients and to adjust to a more seasonal diet. These changes will be much easier if we do them now while we have time to adjust rather than more abruptly in a time of crisis.


[ii] Michael Antonucci, Blood for Oil: The Quest for Fuel in World War II, Command:

January-February 1993





[vii] The Story Of Natural Gas:Supply, Demand And A Brick Wall

Enskilda Securities

Institutional Investor Meeting

Kitzb├╝hel, Austria

March 12, 2004

Matthew R. Simmons

[viii] Darley, 183

[ix] Murphy, 8

[x] Darley, Personal Communication, September 25 2006

[xi] Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations

Eileen T. Westervelt and Donald F. Fournier ERDC/CERL TN-05-1 September 2005


[xiii] A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service Report number 814 titled “Estimating The Net Energy Balance Of Corn Ethanol: An Update” was published in July of 2002.


[xv] Murphy, 66

[xvi] Murphy 84

[xvii] Ibid, 85

[xviii] The New Petroleum by U. S. Senator Richard G. Lugar and R. James Woolsey

Published by Council on Foreign Relations Jan/Feb 1999