As the world passes peak oil production we will again be “subject to the net-energy principle: it takes energy to get energy from the environment, and costs have to be subtracted from gross yields.” Richard Heinberg, in his 2006 Schumacher Center lecture, says “we’ve been living on virtually free energy for the past two hundred years.” He invites us to “imagine pushing our car twenty or thirty miles,” the distance that car could travel on one gallon of gasoline. “That,” he says, “[is] the energy equivalent of roughly six to eight weeks of hard human labor.” What the abundant energy of fossil fuels has facilitated is the mechanization of every imaginable process, including farming.
With peak oil—according to some analysts–in sight, the industrial agricultural model is looking increasingly unsustainable. As Heinberg states, ours is a “food system profoundly vulnerable at every level, to fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices. Both are inevitable.”
“Is it possible,” he asks, “that a solution lies…in deliberately de-industrializing production but doing so intelligently, using information we have gained from the science of ecology as well as from traditional and indigenous farming methods?” He believes that it is possible, and in fact, imperative that we apply such an approach.
With the Special Period in Cuba as reference, Heinberg estimates that to maintain national food production up to fifty million farmers will need to join the three to four million current farmers. However a return to the land would require more than just willing farmers. Heinberg believes that these farmers must be aided by affordable access to land, university training in small-scale ecological farming methods, direct financial aid through start up phase, and long-term low-cost loans.
“It is not a simple or easy strategy, and it will require a coordinated and sustained national effort. But in addition to averting famine this strategy may also permit us to solve a host of other seemingly unrelated social and environmental problems.” Heinberg tells us that “if we do this well, it could mean the revitalization not only of democracy but of the family and of authentic, place-based culture.”
In his lecture Richard Heinberg has vividly outlined the reasons for returning to an agricultural system designed specifically to supply food to its own region. As an expert on the future of oil and natural gas he is well positioned to tell us that we must begin making changes. The production of food is of central concern not only because it is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, but also because continued production is vital to our survival.
Heinberg would have us “accept the current challenge—the next great energy transition—as an opportunity to re-imagine human culture from the ground up, using our intelligence and our passion for the welfare of coming generations and for the integrity of nature’s web as our primary guides.”
Heinberg’s 2006 lecture “Fifty Million Farmers” edited by Hildegarde Hannum, is available in pamphlet form from the Schumacher Center. Cost is five dollars each. Pay with BerkShares, cash, check, or credit card.
The complete text of most all of the lecture pamphlets may also be read online at no cost thanks to the support of Schumacher Center members. Enjoy the fine reading!