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Asking better questions

reversible (rĭ-vûr'sə-bəl)
Of or relating to a process, such as a chemical reaction or a phase change, in which the system undergoing the process can be returned to its original state.

Why did I present that definition? It is clearly a scientific term in this context and I include it here as a sort of preface to my thoughts about a recent discussion over at The Oil Drum website that I found particularly interesting. The discussion was initiated by an article called “The Fallacy of Reversibility” by Stuart Staniford, and its response entitled “Is Relocalization Doomed?” by Sharon Astyk.

This is not an attempt to further or refute either post, I present no data and try to prove nothing, but Staniford and Astyk address two topics that I’m sure lots of folks spend considerable time thinking about: food and Peak Oil. Beyond that, the discussion takes a more personal nature with me; much of my own history involves looking back toward a simpler time in agriculture. Perhaps there are folks that can relate to that as well. Both sides of the discussion make valid, relevant points and after reading them I felt strangely torn, maybe like a child asked to choose between two parents.

In order to keep it simple and avoid entanglement in semantics, I invite you to refer to the above definition when I describe some aspect of myself as Reversalist. For instance, I as a Reversalist would tend to believe (or really want to believe) that some process can be returned to its original state. In this case, that process might be the evolution of our food system from diversified small farms to the current centralized agribusiness and industrial food paradigm.

hysteresis (hĭs'tə-rē'sĭs)
The influence of the previous history or treatment of a body on its subsequent response to a given force or changed condition. For example, when a ferromagnetic material is magnetized in one direction, it will not relax back to zero magnetization. The lack of retraceability of the magnetic path is the property called hysteresis.

Yikes, another scientific term. But before your eyes glaze over, let me say that there is no quiz later and maybe, with regard to the above mentioned Oil Drum discussion, there is some value in attempting to tie these two scientific terms to questions about where we have been and what our options are going forward.

There’s a pile of bricks in the backyard of my brother-in-law’s house - the same house that I grew up in - cannibalized from the old bank building in the small Midwestern community where I was raised and where he is raising his family. The building was finally torn down a few years ago and he tells me there were lots of bricks to be had, in particular from the vault walls as they were built three thick. The bricks were fired locally from a quarry just a few miles north and assumed their position in the prominent repository over one hundred years ago in the middle of town which sits abreast the transition from prairie in the west to Mississippi River hills in the east.

The town itself is a youngster compared to other towns near the river, incorporated in 1874. The Chicago and Alton railroad laid its tracks through town which led to a sizable granary and business section relative to the small population. According to the 1919 minutes of the town’s board of trustees meeting, in that year there was a fine of five dollars imposed for hitching one's horse to a post with a "No Hitching" sign; a new hitch-rack had just been installed at the edge of the town park with 25 posts. Automobiles weren’t allowed around the town park during Chautauqua season when plays were being presented under a tent and the speed limit through town was posted at eight miles per hour.

In the 1950’s my grandpa, a local small farmer and truck driver, helped move several Amish families by truck from Indiana to farmland they had purchased just south of the town. That move set the stage for my childhood. Hay wagons piled high following Belgian draft horses down country roads, tens of farmers shocking corn on one farm and then moving to the next, a young Amish man showing up with horse-drawn plow to turn over the new garden when grandpa’s tractor was down; these were the scenes of my youth. As if that weren’t enough, I remember pestering one Amish elder until he gave in and let me ride along in his buggy while he delivered eggs around town.

Today, those same Amish seem to be the only community to have achieved a comfortable stasis both economically and culturally in the area and their presence is part of the attraction when I return to visit. But there is nothing extraordinary about this small town aside from the Amish population in the rural surround. As you follow the highway through town, you get the same feeling that one might get in so many decaying small communities in the Midwest; it is dying and no one particularly cares. I have heard it called the “trailer park transition”. One-by-one, steel-sided buildings and mobile homes appear as the bricks and the community’s history fall away to end up as landscaping projects in someone’s backyard.

As you can see, with regards to the Peak Oil phenomenon and our industrialized food system, I might be considered a prime candidate for the Reversalist camp that Staniford describes. Admittedly, I am quite guilty of romanticizing the past especially in rural places and became adept at painting bucolic pictures in my mind complete with details gleaned from local genealogy, museums, libraries, and historical markers. I might even subject the occasional old-timer to interrogation about the “good old days” (they generally didn’t seem to mind), whatever it took to reconstruct a time and place when small farmers thrived, or at least survived.

Nevertheless, I hold no nostalgia-generated delusions concerning the trajectory of our current food system. Many years of exposure to science, engineering and the reality of a social and economic system with less energy will not let me make the leap from objective analysis of our situation to the realm of wishful thinking. We are not going to return to 18th or 19th century agricultural models en masse no matter how hard we wish. That statement comes from a person that has spent significant time hanging out in the wisher’s camp, under both the agriculture and technology tents.


Hysteresis is a term that originated in magnetic theory and the field of electronics and has gone on to see application in economics. I find it useful when thinking about where we came from as individuals, communities, and as a society versus what our options are going forward with the Peak Oil phenomenon as a backdrop. It describes a system where the starting point is no longer available because of what the system did to reach its current state. In other words, walking the path has changed the travelers, but it has also changed the path. The travelers cannot return the way they came.

Examining our path and looking closely at our assumptions, as done in “The Fallacy of Reversibility” and Astyk’s response, serves a vital role if we are to ask better questions. When we envision the path forward, are we realistic or reminiscent? To continually examine the path forward at both the micro and macro levels is a matter of efficiency if nothing else. None of us has ever been here before; we are all doing this on-the-fly. Our time and energy are finite and we can’t afford going too far down a particular path before we question our direction. I don’t pretend to have the answers; my only intention here is to encourage constant questioning as we travel the path forward.

Here we sit on top of a peak. We look back down the mountain and find that the trail that led us up has crumbled away. How do we get down? In the course of being around those that tend to dwell in that “better questions” mode of thinking, one idea repeatedly pops up on the radar screen. That idea is community.

I will leave the word community vaguely defined. We as a culture tend to define, label, and categorize, and therefore limit virtually everything we can sense. I have yet to experience a truly limited community. Community is not a system, or state, it is a process, and therefore eludes descriptive terms like reversible and hysteresis which are properties generally used to quantify unchanging conditions. Just by narrowly defining those two terms previously, I have potentially limited your experience of them. If you accept and move forward with the limited magnetic example of hysteresis that I originally gave you, you might never question whether that idea is applicable in the social sciences, or education, or art, or gardening. Finally, it is my place to define my community; it is your place to define yours.

With regards to the food system, the idea of community may yet serve as an opportunity for potential farmers to return to the land (as opposed to their land). In the future, we will likely have to get more creative about land ownership and land tenure if we as a global community really care about feeding people. That may mean a new wave of community farms where the land is not “owned”, but held in trust or some other arrangement. That will likely be a high hurdle to clear for most as our current land ownership paradigm falls in line with our social psychology of entitlement. Two farms that are working with a different paradigm are Sandhill Farm in northeast Missouri and Live Power Community Farm in northern California. Again, I don’t have the answers to these issues, but maybe we can ask better questions.

As far as those burgeoning Peak Oil-aware community leaders who have the passion but don’t know where to start and don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I recommend The Community Solution website for starters. I got the chance to visit those folks and their community of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a while back and the bar has been set high in my mind. Many things stood out but one in particular; I met two farmers running CSA’s, and both were in their late twenties or early thirties. That is a first for me as I am conditioned to small farmers being decades older. I got the sense that it was a place very aware and involved and that cared, not only about the members in its own community, but the global community. I smell a template for what will likely be needed in the future. And yes, the Yellow Springs bank still has all its bricks.

Editorial Notes: Brandon Marshall has written several articles for Energy Bulletin. In 2006 he described himself as a "recovering energy engineer." Brandon wrote a short bio in response to requests from readers: I grew up in rural Missouri, joined the Navy and later received a BSEE. I have worked for several energy companies including an electric utility and three PV businesses. Intermixed with engineering and graduate research have been stints as a landscaper, wilderness guide, stable hand, janitor and horse farmer. I have been living without a car for nearly a year; perhaps it is a little ironic then that a recent motor vehicle accident has given me plenty of time to read, write and reflect. -BA

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