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Why it’s important to continue to work toward locally-created resilient food systems: these systems may be by nature emergent and self-organizing but require seeded interest (perturbations) into the existing global system of food growth and distribution to create and reinforce attractors of self-similar local food system components. We need to choose local, not just with what we buy at the local farm stand or farmers market, but “to get out there and organize for policy reform.”

It's the policy, stupid

From GRIST by Tom Philpott 29 Jun 2010

Why eaters alone can’t transform the food system


Farmers market

Farmer Morse Pitts’ stall at the Greenmarket.(Windfall Farm blog)

In the cover piece of the newest American Prospect, Heather Rogers skillfully makes a point I've been flogging for years: that public policy, not consumer choice, is the villain propping up the industrial food system and constraining the growth of organic farming.

Rogers, author of the new book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, opens with the example of a New York State farmer named Morse Pitts. He sells the bounty of his 15-acre Windfall Farm in the Hudson Valley at Manhattan's famed Union Square market, where his eggs command a steep $14 per dozen and "some of his greens go for more than $40 per pound." Yet even though his weekly market stand teems with consumers eager to "vote with their forks" (to speak nothing of their checking accounts), he nets just $7 per hour for his labor and plans to shut down his operation soon.

The problem, Rogers makes clear, is a widespread lack of infrastructure for supporting small-scale, ecologically minded farmers. The public resources that might do just that are siphoned off by the industrial food system, in the form of commodity subsidies and largesse to the corn ethanol industry. Farmers like Pitts have to pass on the costs of their ecological stewardship directly to their customers in the form of eye-popping prices, which still don't add up to a decent salary, while industrial-scale farms can generally trash the environment with impunity, letting society as a whole, or distant communities, pick up the bill. See, for example, the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

At this point, farmers like Pitts -- whose experience aligns with my own efforts to farm in North Carolina -- have plenty of conscientious consumers willing to pay the full cost of their food. What they need now are conscientious policymakers willing to take on the agribusiness and food-processing interests that profit most from the current situation.

President Obama is not passing muster on this front, Rogers argues. Sure, he placed organic-friendly Kathleen Merrigan in a high post at USDA, and the First Lady has energetically promoted the consumption of local fruits and vegetables over industrially produced, highly processed garbage. But the president remains committed to mass-scale, chemical-intensive farming as the dominant thrust of U.S. agriculture. Anyone who doubts that will have to explain Obama's stated goal, flagged by Rogers, of doubling exports of commodity crops like corn and soy over the next five years. The man clearly wants to ramp up, not dismantle, industrial agriculture. (See also his tapping of high-profile reps from the pesticide and GMO industries for key ag-policy jobs.)

I agree with Rogers' assessment, with a caveat. Even if Obama were serious about transforming the food system (which I don't think he is), he would have to contend with a set of highly profitable incumbent industries, from agrichemical makers to cheeseburger purveyors, that will defend their interests by fang and claw on Capitol Hill. And their immense lobbying power leaves any would-be reformer in the White House with little room to impose change.

Of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rogers writes "he commands a $134 billion annual budget that includes agriculture subsidies, the National Organic Program, and food-stamp and nutrition programs." True, but Vilsack has very little discretion over how that cash hoard is spent. The USDA chief mostly executes farm policy made in the House and Senate ag committees, and those entities are notoriously captured by the Big Ag and Big Food lobbies.

Just as healthcare reform could not move through Congress without making stark concessions to the insurance industry, just as even highly compromised climate legislation has been throttled by dirty-energy interests; and just as efforts to impose financial reform languish under the boot of Wall Street and its kept politicians, any serious presidential effort to reform the food system will crash into a brick wall constructed by the likes of Monsanto and Tyson Food.

Which brings us back to the role of consumers. Voting with your fork, it turns out, is not enough. We can't just "be the change we want to see" in the food system; we also have to get out there and organize for policy reform: to become, in short, a countervailing force that challenges the power of the food lobby.

Easier said than done, of course, and a tall order at a time of 10 percent unemployment and falling wages. My own mother once confronted me with this: "Not only do I have to pay more for my food, but now I have to attend food-policy council meetings in my highly limited free time?" she complained.

The answer is yes, for those who have resources to invest in those or other things. If you want to see real change, for farmers like Pitts not to have to charge $14 for eggs and still be in the red, for the average American to be able to afford food grown by values such as his -- that's the only way it's going to happen.

End of World as We Know It

From the blog Energy Economy Online, a sobering refresher in the dynamics of systems change. What we do not prepare for will confront us whether we are or are not prepared. The choice is ours to make. Make it a conscious choice. And feel fine about it…

It's the End of the World (As We Know It)

Oil Production Peak Much Sooner Than Expected

May 14, 2010
by Craig Severance

A storm is quickly approaching, and the world is not ready for it.

The permanent end of the era of cheap oil is coming as soon as next year, according to a raft of official reports that have made their way into energy media over the last few months.  Governments are now beginning to acknowledge the looming crisis. Yet, perhaps because they waited too long to prevent it, leaders are not yet alerting the public.

The entire world economy is built on cheap oil,  A permanent oil production shortage will thus lead to The End of The World (As We Know It).  What will come on the other side of this -- will it be good or bad? 

Public Unaware.  Except for a few stories in financial pages such as London's Financial Times, this earth-shaking news has yet to reach the Mainstream Media.  While "Peak Oil" researchers have long warned of approaching oil shortages, the difference now is these dire warnings are being validated by the highest government and oil company officials.  Yet, no political leader has had the courage to make a major announcement to prepare the public for what lies ahead.

This public blindness is tantamount to the isolationism that gripped the U.S. in the years preceding WWII.  While the highest government leaders did their best to prepare for inevitable war, they were hamstrung by the resistance of a public unable to accept what really lay ahead.  Similar to today, some politicians advanced their own careers by feeding on the public's desire to believe no coming storm could ever reach them.  Yet, the storm came anyway. 

The Limits of Oil. The looming crisis we now face is often referred to as "Peak Oil" -- a status where global oil production will reach a plateau, then begin its irreversible decline.  

Source: Peak Oil Primer

Oil fields follow a production curve where output increases at first, then reaches a plateau or "peak", after which a steep decline occurs.   Because existing oil fields decline, oil companies must continually develop major new finds just to maintain existing production.  If these new projects do not exceed the decline of existing fields, it becomes impossible to maintain oil production, let alone grow oil output to fuel economic growth. 

The problem in recent years is that new oil finds have been smaller, deeper, and in more difficult to reach places.  Cheap oil prices simply won't support the investment needed to develop them, so oil companies have not invested heavily enough to keep up with demand.  Lester Brown of Worldwatch Institute notes that major oil companies, awash in cash, have instead spent billions buying up their own stock, aware their existing reserves will soon increase greatly in value.

Did Global Oil Production Permanently Peak in 2008?  Until 2008, world energy forecasters had always assumed global oil production would keep up with economic growth.  According to classic economic theory, as world economies grew they would demand more oil, and oil companies would respond by investing in more exploration and development.  "Peak Oil" was considered decades away.

Beginning around 2005, however, world oil production began to hit a brick wall, and by 2008 global oil demand actually exceeded supply.  With only a 2% shortfall of supply compared to demand, oil spiked to $147/barrel, and U.S. gasoline prices soared to over $4/gallon.

That same year, the International Energy Agency for the first time published a "bottom-up" oil analysis, evaluating each of the world's major oil fields to see if production actually could continue to increase.
After looking at the oil field data, the IEA revised its forecasts of future oil production downward, yet still took a very optimistic official view, by using rosy projections of as-yet-undiscovered oil fields.

Independent researchers, however, using IEA's same "bottom-up" data, have now stated the IEA was wildly optimistic.  The Global Energy Systems Group has concluded the world actually reached Peak Oil in 2008, and global oil production will now begin to decline.   Investment alone cannot fix the problem as the decline rates of existing fields are accelerating.

Significantly, though IEA's official forecasts remained rosy, IEA's Chief Economist Dr. Fatih Birol began urgently telling anyone who would listen the era of cheap oil is over, and "we have to leave oil before oil leaves us".  If we do not "leave oil" behind us fast enough, economic growth may be choked off as oil prices rise to unaffordable levels. 

From "Tin Hat" Theory to "Crikey!" In the last few months, there has been a sea change in attitudes about global oil supply among top officials.  The UK government, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Joint Forces Command, among others, have begun to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.

On March 25th, the French publication LeMonde reported on a semi-private U.S. Department of Energy Roundtable held in April 2009, where top U.S. DOE energy analyst Glen Sweetnam presented the graph below summarizing prospects for world liquid fuel production vs. demand:

Source: Sweetnam, DOE, April 2009

The chart includes all known sources of supply, including undeveloped projects and "unconventional" sources such as tar sands.  It politely labels the expected gap as "unidentified projects". The gap occurs very soon (beginning in 2011) and is very large -- roughly 10 million barrels/day by 2016.  To put this in perspective, 10 mbd is roughly equivalent to the entire output of Saudi Arabia, and is well over 10% of total world demand. (Recall $147/barrel in 2008 occurred with only a 2% shortfall.) 

DOE still avoids any use of the words "Peak Oil", instead talking of an "undulating plateau" of oil prices & production.  Shortages will lead to higher prices and more investment, spurring more production and lower prices.  However, oil price volatility discourages new investment, so production plateaus.  Richard Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute asks "What's the difference?"  in  "Quacks Like a Duck...".

Whatever you call it, there is now a growing official consensus the world faces serious oil supply shortages beginning in the 2011-2015 time frame and continuing.  Rick Monroe of the staff of Energy Bulletin has provided links to the growing list of official warnings here.  

Peak oil analyst Jeremy Leggett, who participated in a closed-door UK government summit on oil supply March 22, summarized the recent awakening of official realization: "Government has gone from the BP position – ‘40 years of supply left, the price mechanism works, no need to worry’ – to ‘crikey’."

The End of "As We Know It". The coming oil descent can be seen as both a crisis and an opportunity.    
The end of cheap oil will be the end of living life "As We Know It".  Those who try to continue doing things in the old ways that depend on cheap oil will experience severe hardships.   

Yet, there will be opportunities.  Those who prepare now will be better able to weather the storm, to see the rainbow on the other side.

The End of...Gas Guzzlers

To win WWII, Americans had to give up buying new cars, as auto factories were converted to weapons production.  The opposite will now be true -- we will need to buy different vehicles that use little or no gasoline or diesel.    

Think back to 2008.  When gas prices hit $4/gallon, families with gas guzzlers suddenly found they were paying $400/month for fuel.  Prices for very nice SUV's and heavy trucks plummeted -- you couldn't give them away.  Meanwhile, buyers lined up to buy hybrids.  The time to unload your gas guzzlers and buy something else is now. 

80 mpg motorcycle, 50+ mpg Prius

The End of...Cheap Food?

I love my big burgers, but this too may come to an end if corn-fed beef gets too pricey.  To replace a paltry 6% of U.S. gasoline, we already feed 1/3 of the entire U.S. corn crop to the corn ethanol industry, with impacts worldwide on crop prices, conversion of rain forest to cropland, and ocean dead zones from fertilizers. Ethanol corn use is projected to increase to 1/2 of the entire U.S. corn crop by 2015 under Congressional mandates. 

If you actually had to raid your refrigerator to fuel your car, you would see the obscenity of feeding food to machines. Yet this is exactly what we are doing.  One of the worst decisions ever made was to build the infrastructure to convert food crops to fuel, because we have now directly tied the price of food to the price of fuel.  As oil prices rise so will the price of food.

Even if we were not directly feeding our food supply to our machines, our very production of food is heavily dependent on petroleum. There may be hope -- a study just released by Iowa State University shows farmers could be just as productive using half their present fuel use. Yet, lower fuel use depends on crop-rotation away from fuel-intensive corn, a move unlikely to happen if corn prices are tied to skyrocketing oil prices. 

It is unlikely Congress will find the sanity to eliminate taxpayer subsidies of ethanol.  Therefore, a switch away from gasoline to electric vehicles may be the only way to keep food prices affordable.  

My big burger days may soon end -- but at least my waistline could be better for it.  Those whose waistlines are already too thin -- the billions of hungry people in the world -- will feel the impact of higher grain prices much more.  In 2008, food price riots broke out worldwide the last time oil prices skyrocketed.  We must stop feeding food to cars.

The End of...Globalization?

Higher oil prices mean the world is about to get a lot smaller, as the cost of transporting goods halfway around the world will no longer be cheap.  Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, argues "a lot of long-lost jobs are going to be coming home".  

Rubin has written a book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization.  He notes that already in 2008 high oil prices began to make U.S. steel and furniture producers competitive again.  Rubin expects China's economic growth to be fueled more by growth in their own consumption. 

Walmart may once again carry products labeled "Made in USA". 

The End of...Pristine Wilderness?

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (FWS)        Avatar promo clip

Millions of us are now viewing once again the movie Avatar  -- James Cameron's wonderously beautiful tale of a pristine world.  This time, however, we are not magically transported to Pandora in a theater by the magic of 3D.  Instead, we may notice ourselves driving a small DVD home from the store in a 3,000 lb. vehicle, to view it on our big-screen TV.  

If we truly look at ourselves, we will see that we are the voracious society in search of our own "unobtanium ". Our unobtanium is oil, and shouts of  "Drill, Baby, Drill!" have shown there are those among us who are willing to do anything, and destroy anything, to acquire it. 

As oil becomes scarce and prices skyrocket, these shouts will grow louder, coupled with skapegoating tactics to lay blame for the oil crisis at the feet of those who wish to preserve our most precious natural areas.   

There will once again be pressures to open to drilling Alaska's pristine wilderness, the Arctic National WIldlife Refuge.  If this is done, it will not solve the crisis, as EIA projected ANWR would likely reduce oil prices only 30-50 cents per barrel (about a penny per gallon of gasoline).  Yet, hunters take note, a wildlife area critical to scores of species of North American migratory birds would be violated. 

Despite the British Petroleum oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, expanded offshore oil development in all U.S. coastal waters will likely be approved.   Whether another Deepwater Horizon event occurs may be determined by whom we elect -- those most beholden to the oil companies, or those willing to strictly regulate them.

Canada has already begun the rape of its northern forests to exploit tar sands, the surface mining of which results in a landscape of complete devastation.  SImilarly, there will be calls to utterly devastate the forests and water resources of Western Colorado to exploit oil shales. 

Alberta Tar Sands Project

Only a move away from oil as quickly as possible can save these pristine areas from the destructive forces of a desperate society.  

Image: We Can Do It

We Can Do It.  Though Americans resisted the recognition that WWII was coming, once it came they rose valiantly to the call to action. A similar can-do spirit is needed now for the transition to a post-oil world. 

This crisis is coming soon.  It is too late to prevent it, so we simply need to get used to it.  Peak Oil is happening.
We will need to adapt -- but we can do that. 

We must repeat this to ourselves, as we face the challenging times ahead:
It's The End of the World (As We Know It) --  and I feel fine.

YouTube Video of R.E.M. Live Concert

On becoming Dark Green on a Dark Mountain

Dark Green | CommonDreams.org:
Dark Green

by Robert C. Koehler

This is what happens sometimes when you play God:

"Birds dropped from the air. The sky rained mud. And, as men from the rig struggled to save themselves from the aftermath of (the) explosion . . . the Gulf of Mexico itself caught on fire."

The Washington Post, covering a federal inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, summarized the scene, described by witnesses on a nearby supply ship, as "almost Biblical" - which is sort of a comic-book expression these days, but conjures up a moment of superstitious awe that, God knows, seems appropriate. This is love of nature stood on its head: nature as (wow!) spectacle. What a symbol for the profound alienation of our times.

And we're all caught up in this crisis of faith, no matter where we position ourselves on the political spectrum. No matter how comfortable we are, no matter how securely gated our community, we live with profound insecurity, at the event horizon, you might say, of awareness: Civilization cannot go on this way. Our way of life is unsustainable. If we don't destroy ourselves with our own nuclear-armed self-hatred, "nature" (as though this were a force separate from us) will do the job for us.

Dark Mountain

All of which brings me to the Dark Mountain Project, a growing movement out of the U.K. that challenges mainstream environmentalism, which it sees as hopelessly compromised, collusive with global capitalism and the myth of material progress, and tied to technical (rather than spiritual) solutions for the profound structural contradictions of Western civilization.

"But there is no Plan B," reads the Dark Mountain manifesto, "and the bubble, it turns out, is where we have been living all the while. The bubble is that delusion of isolation under which we have laboured for so long. The bubble has cut us off from life on the only planet we have, or are ever likely to have. The bubble is civilisation."

Civilization is far more fragile, the manifesto continues, than humanity in its arrogance is capable of acknowledging. Its foundation is planted in the planet's finite supply of coal, oil and gas: "millions upon millions of years of ancient sunlight, dragged from the depths of the planet and burned with abandon." Upon this base we have built, over the millennia, "a jumble of supporting horrors: battery chicken sheds; industrial abattoirs; burning forests; beam-trawled ocean floors; dynamited reefs; hollowed-out mountains; wasted soil. . . .

"We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age - the age of ecocide."

The Dark Mountain Project's controversial conclusion is that the collapse of our global civilization is both inevitable and necessary. Attempts to "save" it with green technology - more wind farms! more solar panels! - are, therefore, wasted efforts that ultimately feed the forces of greed and exploitation and become, therefore, part of the problem, not the solution.

Step one, then, seems to be that we must surrender to the inevitability of the collapse of our unsustainable civilization. "And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it."

Step two, as far as I can tell, is pretty vague - and tangled in paradox. As critics of the Dark Mountain Project have pointed out, its "dark green" proponents are as much a part of the problem as the corporate greens, by virtue of the fact that they're Internet-based, computer-dependent, woven as thoroughly into this unsustainable culture as everyone else. For instance, they're holding a festival at the end of May in northern Wales; my guess is that most of the attendees will not be riding bicycles to get there.

I say this without sarcasm and in dark green solidarity with most, if not all, of the Dark Mountain Project's analysis of our situation. Paradox is woven through the human condition. There's no greater illusion, no tighter spiritual cul-de-sac, than the pursuit of ideological purity.

If we are indeed poised on the edge of massive and unprecedented change, and I believe we are, anyone pushing a comprehensive, detailed agenda of what to do next is probably a charlatan. I agree that the "solution" is not primarily technological. We have to give up the idea of being in control of the natural world; more to the point, we have to stop drawing the distinction between human beings and nature. We have to figure out how to reconnect with and befriend the rest of the planet and surrender, like an addict in a twelve-step program, to a higher power - to the universe itself.

And in the process of surrender, we will discover, I believe, not a dependence on but an interdependence with, all that we have consumed, exploited and taken for granted these last half-dozen millennia. We're part of the cosmos, but we have to learn to listen to it.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)
A report from Feasta, an Irish "organization launched in Dublin in October 1998 to explore the economic, cultural and environmental characteristics of a truly sustainable society - and to disseminate the results of this exploration to the widest relevant audience." This report is as profound in its implications as it is in its clarity, communicating the dynamics of the very complex systems that make up our modern civilization and the systemic risks inherent in it.

Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production - Summary:
Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production - An Outline Review

Download the report (56 pages, PDF format, 6.5MB)


March 2010

The credit crisis exemplifies society's difficulties in the timely management of risks outside our experience or immediate concerns, even when such risks are well signposted. We have passed or are close to passing the peak of global oil production. Our civilisation is structurally unstable to an energy withdrawal. There is a high probability that our integrated and globalised civilisation is on the cusp of a fast and near-term collapse.

As individuals, and as a social species we put up huge psychological defences to protect the status quo. We've heard this doom prophesied for decades, all is still well! What about technology? Rising energy prices will bring more oil! We need a Green New Deal! We still have time! We're busy with a financial crisis! This is depressing! If this were important, everybody would be talking about it! Yet the evidence for such a scenario is as close to cast iron as any upon which policy is built: Oil production must peak; there is a growing probability that it has or will soon peak; energy flows and a functioning economy are by necessity highly correlated; our basic local needs have become dependent upon a hyper-complex, integrated, tightly-coupled global fabric of exchange; our primary infrastructure is dependent upon the operation of this fabric and global economies of scale; credit is the integral part of the fabric of our monetary, economic and trade systems; a credit market must collapse in a contracting economy, and so on.

We are living within dynamic processes. It matters little what technologies are in the pipeline, the potential of wind power in some choice location, or that the European Commission has a target; if a severe economic and structural collapse occurs before their enactment, then they may never be enacted.

Our primary question is what happens if there is a net decrease in energy flow through our civilisation? For it is absolutely dependent upon increasing flows of concentrated energy to evolve and grow, and to form and maintain its complex structures. The rules governing energy and its transformation, the laws of thermodynamics, are the inviolate framework through which all things happen- the evolution of the universe, the direction of time, life on earth, human development, the evolution of civilisation, and economic processes. This point is not rhetorical, access to increasing flows of concentrated energy, which can be transformed into work and dispersed energy, is the foundation upon which our civilisation stands. Yet we are at a point where these flows are, with high probability, about to begin decreasing. We should intuit that an energy withdrawal should have major systemic implications, for without energy flows nothing happens.

The key to understanding the implications of peak oil is to see it not just directly through its effect on transport, petrochemicals, or food say, but its systemic effects. A globalising, integrated and co-dependant economy has evolved with particular dynamics and embedded structures that have made our basic welfare dependent upon delocalised 'local' economies. It has locked us into hyper- complex economic and social processes that are increasing our vulnerability, but which we are unable to alter without risking a collapse in those same welfare supporting structures. And without increasing energy flows, those embedded structures, which include our expectations, institutions and infrastructure that evolved and adapted in the expectation of further economic growth cannot be maintained.

In order to address these questions, the following paper considers the nature and evolution of this complex integrated globalised civilisation from which energy is being withdrawn. Some broad issues in thermodynamics, the energy-economy relationship, peak oil, and the limits of mitigation are reviewed. It is argued that assumptions about future oil production as held by some peak oil aware commentators are misleading. We draw on some concepts in systems dynamics and critical transitions to frame our discussion.

The economics of peak oil are explicated using three indicative models: linear decline; oscillating decline; and systemic collapse. While these models are not to be considered as mutually exclusive, a case is made that our civilisation is close to a critical transition, or collapse. A series of integrated collapse mechanisms are described and are argued to be necessary. The principle driving mechanisms are re-enforcing (positive) feedbacks:
  • A decline in energy flows will reduce global economic production; reduced global production will undermine our ability to produce, trade, and use energy; which will further decrease economic production.
  • Credit forms the basis of our monetary system, and is the unifying embedded structure of the global economy. In a growing economy debt and interest can be repaid, in a declining economy not even the principal can be paid back. In other words, reduced energy flows cannot maintain the economic production to service debt. Real debt outstanding in the world is not repayable, new credit will almost vanish.
  • Our localized needs and welfare have become ever-more dependent upon hyper- integrated globalised supply-chains. One pillar of their system-wide functioning is monetary confidence and bank intermediation. Money in our economies is backed by debt and holds no intrinsic value; deflation and hyper-inflation risks will make monetary stability impossible to maintain. In addition, the banking system as a whole must become insolvent as their assets (loans) cannot be realised, they are also at risk from failing infrastructure.
  • A failure of this pillar will collapse world trade. Our 'local' globalised economies will fracture for there is virtually nothing produced in developed countries that can be considered truly indigenous. The more complex the systems and inputs we rely upon, the more globalised they are, and the more we are at risk from a complete systemic collapse.
  • Another pillar is the operation of critical infrastructure (IT-telecoms/ electricity generation/ financial system/ transport/ water & sewage) which has become increasingly co-dependent where a systemic failure in one may cause cascading failure in the others. This infrastructure depends upon continual re-supply; embodies short lifetime components; complex highly resource intensive and specialized supply-chains; and large economies of scale. They also depend upon the operation of the monetary and financial system. These dependencies are likely to induce rapid growth in the risk of systemic failure.
  • The high dependence of food on fossil fuel inputs, the delocalisation of food sourcing, and lean just-in-time inventories could lead to quickly evolving food insecurity risks even in the most developed countries. At issue is not just food production, but the ability to link surpluses to deficits, collapsed purchasing power, and the ability to monetize transactions.
  • Peak oil is likely to force peak energy in general. The ability to bring on new energy production and maintain existing energy infrastructure is likely to be severely compromised. We may see massive demand and supply collapses with limited ability to re-boot.
  • The above mechanisms are non-linear, mutually re-enforcing, and not exclusive.
  • We argue that one of the principle initial drivers of the collapse process will be growing visible action about peak oil. It is expected that investors will attempt to extract themselves from 'virtual assets' such as bond, equities, and cash and convert them into 'real' assets before the system collapses. But the nominal value of virtual assets vastly exceeds the real assets likely to be available. Confirmation of the peak oil idea (by official action), fear, and market decline will drive a positive feedback in financial markets.
  • We outline the implications for climate change. A major collapse in greenhouse gas is expected, though may be impossible to quantitatively model. This may reduce the risks of severe climate change impacts. However the relative inability to cope with the impacts of climate change will be much greater as we will be much poorer with much reduced resilience.
This will evolve as a systemic crisis; as the integrated infrastructure of our civilisation breaks down. It will give rise to a multi-front predicament that will swamp governments' ability to manage. It is likely to lead to widespread disorientation, anxiety, severe welfare risks, and possible social breakdown. The report argues that a managed 'de-growth' is impossible.

We are at the cusp of rapid and severely disruptive changes. From now on the risk of entering a collapse must be considered significant and rising. The challenge is not about how we introduce energy infrastructure to maintain the viability of the systems we depend upon, rather it is how we deal with the consequences of not having the energy and other resources to maintain those same systems. Appeals towards localism, transition initiatives, organic food and renewable energy production, however laudable and necessary, are totally out of scale to what is approaching.

There is no solution, though there are some paths that are better and wiser than others. This is a societal issue, there is no 'other' to blame, but the responsibility belongs to us all. What we require is rapid emergency planning coupled with a plan for longer-term adaptation.

Download the report (56 pages, PDF format, 1.2 MB)

Copyright © Feasta. All rights reserved.


Feb. 18, 2010

by Bob Mitchell

Consumers' growing appetite for locally produced food presents both an opportunity and a problem for local growers.

Demand is fast outpacing what roadside stands and farmers' markets can supply, but supermarkets and restaurants are geared to expect substantial volume, consistent quality and year-round delivery-all things that small-scale, seasonal operations struggle to provide.

Correcting this mismatch won't require bigger farms, but it will require larger-scale systems for getting the food to market, according to a new report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Extension.

"Part of the problem is that a lot of the mid-scale distributors, the logistics people who used to consolidate produce, have gone out of business," says Michelle Miller, an outreach specialist who studies local food issues at the UW-Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. "To really have potential for local food in a regional market requires thinking about how to build that back up."

The new report, "Scaling Up: Meeting the Demand for Local Food," takes a close look at 11 enterprises and organizations that are trying to fill that gap. These groups represent a variety of business models and geographic regions, but they report a similar set of problems in their efforts to aggregate and market the products of many small farms.

One common concern cited in the report is maintaining the story behind locally grown food. People who buy local food are often willing to pay a premium for knowing where and how it was grown, a big part of the appeal of farmers' markets. But when food from many small producers gets lumped into a big shipment, those stories are often lost.

Another issue is maintaining consistent quality, a concern from the standpoint of marketability, shelf life and food safety. Retailers want to know, for instance, that produce was properly cooled down immediately after harvest. If there's a problem, they want to be able to track it to the source. When a shipment comes from many farms, this is more difficult.

"Another big problem is seasonality of production," Miller says. "If a store needs a product year-round and you're only producing it for a couple of months a year, how do you manage that?"

One of the firms profiled, a Minnesota apple distributor, handles that by distributing local fruit during the apple season, then switching to apples grown in Washington state the rest of the year.

Identifying such obstacles and strategies for overcoming them is the point of the report, Miller says.

"These are stories of things that have worked and some that have not worked as well. We hope this will provide new business start-ups with a guide about how to proceed," Miller says.

The report is available online here.

Living from our local landscape and countryside – Wendell Berry « Ukiah Blog Live:
Living from our local landscape and countryside – Wendell Berry
In *Dave Smith Blog, -Monster Mall Ukiah on March 30, 2009 at 6:30 am

From Wendell Berry
Interview mashup

3/20/09 Ukiah, North California

People need to live from their local landscape and their local countryside as much as they possibly can, as much as they reasonably can… The idea that a city surrounded by fertile farmland that’s well-watered should be importing food 2,500 miles away is preposterous. It drives the cost up and it removes from the consumers all the powers of choice, of knowledge and of judgment. The consumers who import foods from long distances eat what they’re given to eat, what they’re sold. Many things would improve if they ate closer to home, including the local farm economy.

It would be wonderful because the quality of our food would go up. As the distance that it’s transported decreased, the quality would go up, and it would also go up as it came more and more under the influence of the consumers. Consumers don’t eat hard, tasteless, characterless tomatoes because they choose to. They eat those tomatoes because those are the only tomatoes they’re offered…

If you’re talking about a local food economy or any other kind of local economy, you’re talking about an economy that’s going to have to run a considerable extent on cooperation, not on competition between consumers and producers. You’re talking about an atmosphere of good feeling in which people try to find out what they can do well for one another. The local consumer is going to have to be concerned that the local producer have a livable income. The local consumers want the best products possible and the local producers are going to have to be interested in supplying the most desirable products possible to the local consumers. So if you’re going to succeed, it can’t be a situation in which everybody is in an economic war against everybody. That’s a description of the global economy.

The advantage of the local economy is you can secede from the global economy, which permits the exploitation of everybody and everything for the benefit of relatively few.

There’s a lot of scorn now toward people who say, “Not in my backyard,” but the “not-in-my-backyard” sentiment is one of the most valuable that we have. If enough people said, “Not in my backyard,” these bad innovations [big box malls] wouldn’t be in anybody’s backyard. It’s your own backyard you’re required to protect because in doing so you’re defending everybody’s backyard. It is an altogether healthy and salutary.

However, a community has to understand that if it refuses the proposal, then it has to come up with something better. And if a corporation comes in and says, “We want you to have this obnoxious installation because it will employ your people; it will bring jobs,” then the community has to have an answer to the question: “Where are we going to find jobs?” Sometimes it won’t be an easy question. Sometimes it will be a devastating question, but the community nevertheless has to begin to look to itself for the answers, not to the government—and not to these corporations that come in posing as saviors of the local community, because they don’t come in to save the local community.

So the community has to begin to ask what they need that can be produced locally, by local people and from the local landscape, and how it can be produced in a way that doesn’t damage the local landscape or the local community. You have to realize that people are working very hard to remove the choice between an economy of grace, based on generosity, and in an economy of scarcity based on acquisition. They can remove that choice simply by making it impossible for small economic enterprises to survive.

A community, for one thing, is an economy. And if you have a community but no local economy your community is seriously impaired. It becomes a thing of feeling only. And you can’t exclude any members from the community. If a community becomes false, it becomes artificial, and is in danger the way all false things are. A community can’t exclude the nonhuman creatures, for instance, if it hopes to last. It can’t exclude its climate. It can’t exclude the air. All these, in a real community, are members. So if you are careful enough in defining a community, you see that it’s a pattern of practical relationships. It’s also, of course, a pattern of loyalties and it’s an emotional pattern.
Wendell Berry’s 17 Rules For A Sustainable Economy – Mendo Island Transition « Ukiah Blog Live:
Wendell Berry’s 17 Rules For A Sustainable Economy – Mendo Island Transition

From Wendell Berry

[The concept of "Mendo Island" is not to be isolationist or provincial, but rather to focus our attention and efforts locally, transitioning to more self-sufficiency, and in that process we also help those in far away places who are being devastated by the so-called "global economy" and "green revolution". -DS]

A community economy is not an economy in which well-placed persons can make a ‘killing’. It is an economy whose aim is generosity and a well-distributed and safeguarded abundance.

Wendell Berry is a strong defender of family, rural communities, and traditional family farms. These underlying principles could be described as ‘the preservation of ecological diversity and integrity, and the renewal, on sound cultural and ecological principles, of local economies and local communities:

1. Always ask of any proposed change or innovation: What will this do to our community? How will this affect our common wealth.

2. Always include local nature – the land, the water, the air, the native creatures – within the membership of the community.

3. Always ask how local needs might be supplied from local sources, including the mutual help of neighbors.

4. Always supply local needs first (and only then think of exporting products – first to nearby cities, then to others).

5. Understand the ultimate unsoundness of the industrial doctrine of ‘labor saving’ if that implies poor work, unemployment, or any kind of pollution or contamination.

6. Develop properly scaled value-adding industries for local products to ensure that the community does not become merely a colony of national or global economy.

7. Develop small-scale industries and businesses to support the local farm and/or forest economy.

8. Strive to supply as much of the community’s own energy as possible.

9. Strive to increase earnings (in whatever form) within the community for as long as possible before they are paid out.

10. Make sure that money paid into the local economy circulates within the community and decrease expenditures outside the community.

11. Make the community able to invest in itself by maintaining its properties, keeping itself clean (without dirtying some other place), caring for its old people, and teaching its children.

12. See that the old and young take care of one another. The young must learn from the old, not necessarily, and not always in school. There must be no institutionalised childcare and no homes for the aged. The community knows and remembers itself by the association of old and young.

13. Account for costs now conventionally hidden or externalised. Whenever possible, these must be debited against monetary income.

14. Look into the possible uses of local currency, community-funded loan programs, systems of barter, and the like.

15. Always be aware of the economic value of neighborly acts. In our time, the costs of living are greatly increased by the loss of neighborhood, which leaves people to face their calamities alone.

16. A rural community should always be acquainted and interconnected with community-minded people in nearby towns and cities.

17. A sustainable rural economy will depend on urban consumers loyal to local products. Therefore, we are talking about an economy that will always be more cooperative than competitive.

See also Wendell Berry’s The Idea of a Local Economy

The Corporate Takeover of U.S. Democracy

As usual, a succinct, direct and biting commentary on the degradation of the American Politic and what the latest move of the Supreme Court by handing over the reigns of democracy to corporate power will mean for our future.

The Corporate Takeover of U.S. Democracy

Noam Chomsky

chomsky.info, January 24, 2010

(abridged version published in In These Times, February 2, 2010)

January 21, 2010 will go down as a dark day in the history of American democracy, and its decline. The editors of the New York Times did not exaggerate when they wrote that the Supreme Court decision that day "strikes at the heart of democracy" by having "paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding" -- more explicitly, for permitting corporate managers to do so, since current laws permit them to spend shareholder money without consent.

Nor does Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. School of Law, exaggerate when he writes that this exercise of the radical judicial activism that the rightwing claims to deplore "matches or exceeds Bush v. Gore in ideological or partisan overreaching by the court. In that case, the court reached into the political process to hand the election to one candidate. Today it reached into the political process to hand unprecedented power to corporations."

The Court was split, with the four reactionary judges (misleadingly called "conservative") joined by Justice Kennedy in a 5-4 decision. Chief Justice Roberts selected a case that could easily have been settled on narrow grounds, and maneuvered the Court into using it for a far-reaching decision that overturned precedents going back a century that restrict corporate contributions to federal campaigns.

In effect, the decision permits corporate managers to buy elections directly, instead of using more complex indirect means, though it is likely that to avoid negative publicity they will choose to do so through trade organizations. It is well-known that corporate campaign contributions, sometimes packaged in complex ways, are a major factor determining the outcome of elections. This alone is a significant factor in policy decisions, reinforced by the enormous power of corporate lobbies, greatly enhanced by the Court's decision, and other conditions imposed by the very small sector of the population that dominates the economy.

A very successful predictor of government policy over a long period is political economist Thomas Ferguson's "investment theory of politics," which interprets elections as occasions on which segments of private sector power coalesce to invest to control the state. The means for undermining democracy are sure to be enhanced by the Court's dagger blow at the heart of functioning democracy.

Some legislative remedies are being proposed, for example requiring managers to consult with shareholders. At best, that would be a minor limit on the corporate takeover of the political system, given the very high concentration of ownership by extreme wealth and other corporate institutions. Furthermore any legislation would have been difficult to pass even without this new weapon provided by the Court to unaccountable private concentrations of power. The same holds, even more strongly, for a Constitutional amendment that Waldman and others think might be necessary to restore at least the limited democracy that prevailed before the decision.

In his dissent, Justice Stevens acknowledged that "we have long since held that corporations are covered by the First Amendment." That traces back to the time when the 1907 Tillman act banned corporate contributions, the precedent overturned by the Court. In the early 20th century, legal theorists and courts came to adopt and implement the Court's 1886 (Santa Clara) principle that these "collectivist legal entities" have the same rights as persons of flesh and blood, an attack on classical liberalism that was sharply condemned by the vanishing breed of conservatives as "a menace to the liberty of the individual, and to the stability of the American States as popular governments" (Christopher Tiedeman). In later years these rights were expanded far beyond those of persons, notably by the mislabeled "free trade agreements."

The conception of corporate personhood evolved alongside the shift of power from shareholders to managers, and finally to the doctrine that "the powers of the board of directors ... are identical with the powers of the corporation." Furthermore, the courts determined that these state-established "natural entities" must restrict themselves to pursuit of profit and market share, though the courts did advise corporations to support charitable and educational causes, or an "aroused public" might take away the privileges granted to them by state power.

As corporate personhood and managerial independence were becoming established in law, the control of corporations over the economy was so vast that Woodrow Wilson described "a very different America from the old, ... no longer a scene of individual enterprise ... individual opportunity and individual achievement," but an America in which "Comparatively small groups of men," corporate managers, "wield a power and control over the wealth and the business operations of the country," becoming "rivals of the government itself." In reality, becoming increasingly its masters, a process that has extended since, and is now given even greater scope by the Roberts Court.

Justice Kennedy's majority opinion held that there is no principled way to distinguish between media corporations and other corporations: that is, no principled way to distinguish between corporations that are bound by law to restrict themselves to gaining profit and market share from those that in principle have the role of providing news and opinion in an unbiased fashion. Media corporations have indeed been criticized for violating this trust, but never so severely as in Kennedy's analogy.

The Court decision followed immediately upon another victory for wealth and power, the election of Republican candidate Scott Brown to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the "liberal lion" of Massachusetts. This was depicted as a "populist upsurge" against the liberal elitists who run the government. The voting data reveal a rather different story. Very high voting in the wealthy suburbs carried Brown to victory, thanks to lower turnout in the urban areas that are largely Democratic. "55% of Republican voters said they were `very interested' in the election," the Wall St. Journal reported, "compared with 38% of Democrats. It was indeed an uprising against Obama's policies: for the wealthy, he was not doing enough to enrich them further, while for the poorer sectors, he was doing too much to achieve that end.

Doubtless there was some impact of the populist image crafted by the PR machine ("this is my truck," "army guy," etc.). But this appears to have had only a minor role. The popular anger is quite understandable, with the banks thriving thanks to bailouts while unemployment is above 10% and in manufacturing industry at the level of the Great Depression, one out of six unemployed, with few prospects for recovering the kinds of jobs that are lost, with the increasing financialization of the economy and concomitant hollowing out of productive industry.

Brown presented himself as the 41st vote against health care -- the vote that could undermine majority rule, by virtue of the current Republican tactic of regular resort to filibuster to enable a unanimous minority bloc to bar any legislation put forth by the administration, a novelty in American politics. It is true that Obama's health care program was a major factor in the election, and the headlines are correct when they report that the public is increasingly turning against it. The poll figures explain why: the bill did not go far enough.

A Wall St. Journal/NBC poll found that 64% of voters disapprove of the Republicans' handling of health care (55% disapprove of Obama's handling). Among Obama voters who voted for Brown, 60% felt that the health care program did not go far enough (85% among those who abstained). In both categories, about 85% favored a public option. These figures accord with other recent polls that show that nationwide, the public option was favored by 56%-38%, and the Medicare buy-in at age 55 by 64%-30%; both abandoned. 85% believe that the government should have the right to negotiate drug prices, as in other countries; Obama guaranteed big Pharma that he would not pursue that option. Large majorities favor cost-cutting, which makes good sense: US per capita costs for health care are about twice those of other industrial countries, and health outcomes are at the low end. But cost-cutting cannot be seriously undertaken with largesse showered on the drug companies, and health care in the hands of virtually unregulated private insurers, a very costly system unique to the US.

The Supreme Court decision raises significant new barriers to overcoming the serious crisis of health care, or to addressing seriously such critical issues as the looming environmental and energy crises. And the damage to American democracy can hardly be overestimated.


To be used as a model for the design and construction of The Great Ferment (more later).


Ecological Food Production

Our mission: To develop, enhance and promote ecologically and economically sustainable systems by converting underutilized biological resources to high quality foods and other value-added products. We implement our mission through comprehensive research, outreach and consulting programs.
From the introduction for one of the seven tracks that form the Whole Systems in Action Track at Building Energy 2010, and a very good question to contemplate.


Nature prospers by using meta-patterns: convergent systems that maximize functionality, from cells and organisms to cultural evolution. How do we apply these fundamental patterns as operational instructions for design?


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