"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, September 13, 2010

Peak Oil vs Climate Change: Food Security

I just watched a delicious Kunstler anti-suburban rant, and though I live not unhappily in a town that violates every principle that Kunstler advocates, I think he's absolutely right about urban design. (and am sadly bemused by Austin's feeble attempts to try some.)

But I don't buy his peak oil Long Emergency idea. I don't think we are running out of oil fast enough to matter.

So what does that mean for the futurist?

(I always wanted to be a "futurist", and I haven't got all that much future left. So call me a futurist, I won't mind. As far as I can tell, a futurist is someone who doesn't know anything much about the future but gets paid to give entertaining keynotes anyway, mostly because of thinking about the future pointlessly but obsessively.)

And I want to talk about the Future Salad.

I am really not worried about my 3000 mile salad, as I've explained a couple of times before. If there's any civilization at all, getting the energy to move food around will not be a problem. Food is light and valuable; energy costs per unit are not about shipping. The stuff that gets hard to ship is stuff like gravel, sand, ore. The heaviest industries will relocate closer to raw materials. Roadbuilding may get expensive, and not a minute too soon.

But it will still be cheap to ship a tomato form wherever it is to wherever the cheeseburger is that wants it. Or, perhaps, the grainburger, since the cheeseburger is a major greenhouse gas emitter among foods...

Now, I've seen nothing anywhere about year over year variability outside the ENSO question. So NOTE THAT THIS IS SPECULATION. But it seems to me that the faster things change, the more climate transients we will experience. This is sort of a natural extrapolation from a systems engineering perspective. There's no guarantee in nonlinear systems, but in a typical linear system, the more it is pushed out of equilibrium, the more ALL MODES are excited, including modes that may not matter much in natural conditions. That means all the real oscillations famous, obscure and unknown on any scale that has a "memory", i.e., components with state persistent over multiple years.

I am a bit surprised that I haven't come across anybody addressing this question. (I have half an idea why. Consider which subculture's turf this would naturally fall upon.) I'd appreciate any correction on this front, either about somebody already having looked at this, and/or whether it's a reasonable expectation. Suppose my hunch is right, though.

The problem is that it won't be all that cheap to grow a tomato. Why? Because nobody will know when and where to plant the thing. Frank Dobie quotes an old Texas saying that "Texas has no climate, only weather". And as the rest of the world becomes more like Texas, the whole concept of climate will get swamped by the concept of climate change. You won't know from one year to the next what to expect. You will plant the wrong stuff at the wrong time in the wrong place and the wrong stuff will fall out of the sky onto it.

The only defense is massive diversification. The winner will own farms in many places, and will plant stuff speculatively. (There will finally be private sector jobs for people who can make climate models behave sensibly, but failures will still be commonplace.)

Peak oil localizes. Climate change (at least with disruptive interannual variability) globalizes. The small holding cannot be safe against year over year variabilities and extreme events that can swamp productivity. The dispersed global operation can. Peak oil is good for back-to-the-land fantasies, but climate change concentrates food power and water power in the control of vast continental and global scale holdings.

That's because 1) I think climate change is a big deal and 2) peak oil isn't. And 3) I suspect year-over-year variation is going to be a very big deal in agriculture under full-blown climate change.

That is a risk I haven't seen addressed anywhere. Anyone out there know better?

If I'm right it means the best strategy is to hedge your bets, and only enormous holdings will be able to do that.

So I figure the future salad still will come from a dozen farms in a dozen countries. But they'll all be owned by Coca-Cola or Pepsico. And it will be expensive.

Another possibility is to grow food indoors.

Either way, the return of the small-farm pioneer homestead lifestyle imagined by Kunstler and so many others in the "transition movement" won't happen. Climate change is not the only reason that it doesn't seem like a good bet to me.


Alexander Ac said...

Hi Michael,

"I don't think we are running out of oil fast enough to matter." - not everone would possibly,

see e.g. OECD oil imports:

or the latest book of the Hirsch et al.? (Impeding world energy mess)


and what about the 60 billion of the external debt, which will not be paid in contracting economy?

davidp said...

"Another possibility is to grow food indoors"
There is quite a lot of salad being grown in greenhouses in South East Australia - it gives reliable tomatoes in winter and seems to be competitive with growing them in warmer areas and shipping them south.
Higher oil prices make heating the greenhouses more expensive at the same time the transport ocsts go up, but greater weather variability makes the 'reliable' growing areas less reliable, so large scale greenhouses may keep increasing.

Gareth said...

It may still be cheap to move stuff around, but it may no longer be fast. Intracontinental possibly, but intercontinental perhaps not... This has general implications for the global economy, beyond food.

The variability of climate/unreliability of seasons is something I've pondered because it impacts the things I grow. Some things are fairly tolerant (you'll get some ripe grapes every year, but how many, and how good?), others much less so. Anything that needs climatic or weather triggers becomes much less reliable (think fruits that need winter chilling).

Peter T said...


Couple of points:

Climate and transport are related - ports (and many airports) are vulnerable to sea level rise, roads and rail to extreme weather. Extreme heat closed the rail net in Victoria in Australia for some days last summer, and I imagine that it's a bit hard to drive around large parts of Pakistan at the moment. Also, the other impacts of climate change could divert resources away from maintenance or re-building. Transport yes, fast, reliable cheap transport maybe less so. And reliable really counts in shipping a lot of foodstuffs.

I imagine that one could cope with less predictable weather by moving away from large areas of monoculture - more variety on smaller patches.

manuel moe g said...

Grasses should grow well. Have a herd of grazing animals, and eat those animals.

I imagine we will eat as many salads as the Native Americans did. What Gareth said - "It may still be cheap to move [some] stuff around, but it may no longer be fast."

Peak (sweet crude) oil is the best thing that could happen to humanity. At least it is possible to have this conversation. If there was 10 times the easily accessed sweet crude in the ground, we would have boiled the world decades ago.

Anonymous said...


According to The Chicago Tribune, the authors of a forthcoming book tentatively titled In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet, Hiroku Shimizu and Pierre Desrochers, argue that locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food. Food security can suffer if "you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong," they are quoted as saying.

David B. Benson said...

The world civilization (if we dare call it that) depends upon inexpensive transportation (meaning liquid, mostly) fuels. Raising the price$ will certainly crimp material movements.

Aaron said...

Modern agriculture depends on cheap oil for cheap irrigation, cheap fertilizers, cheap pesticides and cheap fuel for field equipment. It takes a hundred calories of energy from cheap oil to put one calorie of food energy in the form a leaf lettuce from California on a restaurant plate in NYC. Most of the energy goes to irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide. Energy for transportation is not much more than the energy required to wash the plate.

byron smith said...

I've seen nothing anywhere about year over year variability outside the ENSO question.
After reading this yesterday, I came across this report this morning, where the executive summary says on page 8: "Water scarcity and the timing of water availability will increasingly constrain production. Climate change will require a new look at water storage to cope with the impacts of more and extreme precipitation, higher intra- and inter-seasonal variations, and increased rates of evapotranspiration in all types of ecosystems."

Not sure what their source is, but you could chase it up.

Pangolin said...

Living in California's Central Valley I've noticed that agriculture is dependent upon another form of cheap transportation. Migrant laborers move from field to field and from area to area in private cars and vans.

The more laborers cluster in vans, buses and trains the more opportunity there is to organize that labor and demand higher wages. If that labor has to be provided with year-round housing in a smaller region to work the harvest that will also raise costs.

So Peak Oil is raising the cost of farm labor for anything except grains and dry beans. Meanwhile the increased weather volatility is disrupting transportation networks and destroying marginal housing normally used for such laborers.

Economic effects on the overall economy reduce the supply of cheap used cars. Lack of tax revenues is forcing local governments to remove paving from roads due to the expense of asphalt.

All of this reduces the mobility of labor and increases the marginal transport cost of goods. It adds up.

I've noticed that while gas prices have remained stable the price of fresh fruits, potatoes and chard is rising. The marginal cost increase still haven't worked their way through the system and stabilized. To claim we will understand where these costs will shake out on local or global economic scales is folly.

Dol said...

I don't think anyone's analysing these questions properly. I'm having a go in my PhD, with one year to go, and it's a struggle to say the least. Given how important these questions are, I've been pretty surprised to discover that they appear to have fallen between disciplinary gaps in the floorboards.

The trick is coming up with a general framework: it'll be wrong, but hopefully wrong in useful and informative ways. At the minute, for example, I don't think anyone really knows what the geographical economic implications would be of cutting co2 by 80% by 2050 (as the UK claims they're going to do.) Presuming this is done by increasing energy costs in some way, what will be the geographical effects?

Err, so I'll get back to you in about nine month's time.

byron smith said...

Dan - sounds like some fascinating research and thanks for pursuing it. I'm quite interested in the possible ways that some of these issues could interact for my own research in ethics. What field is your PhD in?

Dol said...

Byron - location theory. There are a lot of good economic ideas, and economics has attempted to look at the big picture, but hardly any of them include space or even consider space important. Traditional location theory never looks at the big picture; it's always partial. And vast swathes of transition thinkers dismiss economics as part of a world they hold responsible for causing the problems in the first place, and so throw the baby out with the bathwater. The most prominent current approach to spatial economics (based on Krugman's work) makes what economists like to call "heroic" assumptions. I'm all for simplifying assumptions, and not mistaking models for reality. But if we want to know how the spatial economy could be affected by changes in energy costs - due either to supply/demand changes or a need to reduce carbon output - there doesn't seem to be much out there. Not that I've found anyway.