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The World’s Expected Carrying Capacity in a Post Industrial Agrarian Society
WisdomfromPakistan, The Oil Drum
As peak oil approaches, shortly followed by peak gas and eventually peak energy, we have to retreat to agriculture as the prime energy producer in society. Post-peak agriculture will be radically different to modern agriculture. Today’s agriculture is more an energy consumer than an energy producer. In developed countries it takes ten calories worth of energy from fossil fuels put into a farm in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and transportation fuel, to get one calorie back in the form of food (see also here and here).
Some of this input can be reduced by localization, which cuts considerable expenses in the form of transportation fuel, but other expenses like fertilizers and pesticides can’t be reduced without having a considerable reduction in food production. A detailed look on the situation, how we got here and an account of agricultural productivity before industralization is therefore necessary.
Up untill 1950 the World’s agriculture was mostly run on organic lines with no artificial chemicals put into the soil. After the Second World War efforts were made to dump the large amount of chemicals made for military purposes into farm chemicals. In the 1960s, with the advent of the green revolution world agriculture slowly transitioned to an artificial fertilizer base. As a result, food production increased 2.5 times on average. This increase in productivity comes from higher nitrogen absorption, selective cropping and high grain-mass to plant-mass ratio.
In the detailed discussion above we found out that long-term, average-diet, pre-industrial, per capita arable land requirement is 1 acre. We also found that using 40% of all food produced in the world (currently consumed by 4 million species of plants and animals) that 6 billion people can be supported on Earth. Since human population is not distributed on basis of availability of arable land, in reality only 2 billion to 4 billion people can be supported. An educated guess is 3 billion, the population of humanity after the Second World War and before the green revolution.
What will happen to the surplus population is a matter of mere speculation. Since fossil fuels will not decline in one day one can expect a gradual decline in population either right after peak energy or over a period of time.
How the population declines is also a matter of mere speculation. In a poorer world higher birth rates may be expected, as is observed in developing countries vs developed countries. So, the decline is more likely to come from reduction in health care with a reduction in life expectancy and an increase in infant mortality.
WisdomfromPakistan is a computer engineer living and working in Karachi, a cultured city of some 20 million people. He has been conducting his own research into human nutritional requirements and the Earth’s carrying capacity which he now wants to share with The Oil Drum readership.
(1 November 2007)
J. R. R. Tolkien:
Saving the Ecosystems of Middle Earth
Walt Contreras Sheasby, MRzine (Monthly Review)
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (1955-56) the ring is at the center of an epochal ecological struggle over the fate of Middle Earth. Received as fantasy, in its own way this tale nevertheless encapsulates nearly a century of geological, biological, and botanical lore that followed Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). In particular, Tolkien’s work reflected the emergence of a critical ecology that used life sciences as a shield to defend life on earth and to protect every ecosystem. Tolkien’s knowledge of nature was derived from the Victorian and Edwardian scientists who revolutionized what had earlier been called Natural History.
It seems that the ideas of Sir Arthur George Tansley (1871-1955), who popularized the term Ecology, had a substantial influence on Tolkien (1892-1973), who was his junior by 21 years.
…It is no coincidence that there are 64 species of wild plants in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as several invented varieties. In a June 1955 letter to his publisher, the author said, “There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. . . . I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.”3
In a BBC interview Tolkien spoke of his love of trees. Trees abound in his stories — The Old Forest, Fangorn and Lothlorien. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph of July 4, 1972, he wrote: “In all my work I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved.” As to the England of the 1970s, “The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.”4
…Clyde S. Kilby says, “No book published in recent times creates a more poignant feeling for the essential quality of many outdoor experiences of flowing streams and the feel and taste of water, of light in dark places, of the coming of dawn.”6 As Patrick Curry says, “What is most striking about Tolkien’s Middle-earth is the profound presence of the natural world: geography and geology, ecologies, flora and fauna, the seasons, weather, the sky, stars and moon. The experience of these phenomena as comprising a living and meaningful cosmos saturates his entire story.”7
Tolkien once confessed, “I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place. . . . The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”8
…Looking beneath the fun, the action, and the mysticism of Tolkien’s fantastic creation, landscape architects need only observe the ways in which the forces of good and evil treat Mother Earth to discover that Tolkien wove a conservationist morality tale within its pages (evident in the films as well) that resonates strongly in the society in which we practice.”11
Walt Contreras Sheasby, an outstanding Red/Green activist and theorist, died on 20 August 2004. His life was tragically cut short by the West Nile virus, the spread of which has been associated with climate change exacerbated by capitalism.
(30 October 2007)
The Politics of Transition
John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report
One of the things most lacking in the political and social thought of the industrial world in the last century, it seems to me, is a sense of process. Pick an ideology, any ideology, as close to the mainstream or far out on the fringe as you like, and you’re much more likely than not to find its proponents fixated on the form of society they want to see, rather than paying attention to how society will get there, or for that matter what it will do next.
The sense of society unfolding through time in an organic process, central to the thought of such social philosophers as Edmund Burke and enshrined in the elegant balances of the American constitution, finds few supporters these days. Even the time-release Utopia of Karl Marx, which envisioned communism rising out of socialism by the continued workings of the dialectical process, has gone out of fashion. Nowadays we’re not willing to wait for organic process or the withering away of the state, nor do we want to think about what comes after we get what we want. We want our perfect society handed over pronto in nice disposable bags by the clerk at the drive-up window, hold the pickles and away we go.
This rejection of process has probably done more than anything else to keep the social change movements of the last few decades from achieving most of their goals. In the same way and for the same reasons, trying to force an ecotechnic society into existence in the next twenty years, say, is a recipe for failure. As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the form of economy and society that succeeds best under any given set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with the resources and technology available at the time, than on deliberate choices by human beings. Ecotechnic societies will emerge and prosper only when the interactions between humanity and environment favor them above other options.
(31 October 2007)
Beyond the next five years, the political implications of peak oil seem very murky. John Michael Greer here makes a valiant effort to look beyond. -BA