Let's Talk About Agriculture


An agricultural barn of the 1800's located at Falls Mill, Belvidere, Tennessee




Agriculture is a technology (like fire and the wheel) and a system of extracting minerals and nutrients from the soil through photosynthesis. The industrial method of agriculture adds the use of fossil fuels through the Haber-Bosch process for fertilizer, many different chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and other toxic chemical treatments (including GMO seeds), and of course diesel-powered equipment such as tractors and all the equipment to plow, plant, spray, water, harvest, and transport crops today. The technology of agriculture is what allowed for today's cities to exist, and it became possible only with the stable climate of the Holocene, which is now disappearing rather quickly. The recent events over the past 6 months in British Columbia, Canada (first the wildfires [especially around Lytton] and now the floods), should be more than enough to convince anyone of this; although plenty of events throughout the rest of the world are also proof. 

The one thing which is rarely mentioned about agriculture or the Green Revolution is that it is all entirely unsustainable. Every civilization (which is based upon the bedrock technology of agriculture) which has existed has also collapsed and this current set of living conditions is in the process of collapsing as well, all due to the unsustainable practices upon which civilization is founded. These unsustainable practices eventually lead to overshoot and eventually the landbase surrounding said civilization is unable to support those living upon it. This causes collapse which results in those living there to scatter. Some people may remain in the general vicinity, but a large portion of the population must find new locations for habitat in order to continue to exist. 

This particular article came to me as a result of several factors. This article from The Seneca Effect provided most of the inspiration due to the explanation it provides demonstrating how agriculture destroys habitat, quote:

"This is the evidence for "technology as a systemic destroyer of habitat." When we go to the supermarket and see, for example, a milk carton package (which was packed in a high-speed filler under aseptic conditions from a reel of paper), we don't believe what we see, it's magic! We proudly call that R + D + i. We go crazy with the holy grail of today's society: "TECHNOLOGY." This wonder does not allow our minds to see what is behind it. Scientific progress and technological development hide reality to forget about the by-products (CO2, plastics, etc.) that it produces and the energy inefficiency with which it is processed. What happens when that machine starts filling at 7,000 containers per hour is hidden.

It is not only in the food sector, it is the trend in any industrial activity; we live among the songs of sirens. When we are shopping in the supermarket, where everything is digitized and mechanized, we are not informed that behind our simple diet, there are hidden about 3 kg of oil, which emitted more than 8 m3 of dirty CO2 into the atmosphere, in addition to nitrous oxide, methane, plastic, paints, glass containers, aluminum, and hundreds of toxic materials, some of which, like microplastics, are already in our bloodstream We use technology in a way that defeats its purpose, which should be to ensure a sustainable and comfortable environment to live in. On the other hand, it has helped to generate on our planet about 8,000 million individuals, an overload in the energy / environmental impact where three-quarters of them live under threat, in eco-social misery, walking towards the Seneca cliff."


Meanwhile, other sources of inspiration also provided a boost towards me realizing the need to write about this topic. Speaking of agriculture (and as a side note), the burning of stubble left over from crops in India has partially caused a dystopian scene that truly befuddles one's mind. As usual, finger pointing and the blame game are making people's lives in New Delhi miserable. Obviously, there is far more to the cause of this thick haze reminiscent of the wildfire-produced haze throughout a large portion of North America this last summer. 

However, even more inspiration has been derived from a particular source that has annoyed me for a considerably long time - the claims laid out by Allan Savory which have no real basis in actual science. A considerable number of articles such as this one point to his methods being laughable at best. When one looks deeper into his claims, one can clearly see a charlatan emerging. Snake-oil salesmen are nothing new, but this one has a path of destruction left behind him. Scientific evidence points to Savory's ideas and/or methods being unable to green deserts OR reverse climate change, making his claims essentially nothing more than baseless lies. Yet even more evidence against these nonsensical claims make it clear that greening the desert is not going to happen; at least not due to his methods.

As climate stability continues to disappear, so do the favorable conditions for agriculture. While I have compiled a huge list of issues regarding agriculture and food and water security, a new article about hydrologic stationarity explains the scenario in a much shorter timeframe than reading through thousands of articles and studies. What this means for the future of civilization should become obvious rather quickly once one realizes that we depend utterly upon agriculture for our very existence; no agriculture or not enough means we either starve or go back to being gatherer/hunters on a planet with far less to hunt and gather.

Those familiar with my articles realize that I have a habit of providing science which is not very calming to one's nerves. I recently added a brand new article to one of my more popular articles, What is NTHE and How "near" is Near Term?, which goes into detail about why we are going extinct, quote:

"The most insidious threat to humankind is something called “extinction debt.” There comes a time in the progress of any species, even ones that seem to be thriving, when extinction will be inevitable, no matter what they might do to avert it. The cause of extinction is usually a delayed reaction to habitat loss. The species most at risk are those that dominate particular habitat patches at the expense of others, who tend to migrate elsewhere, and are therefore spread more thinly. Humans occupy more or less the whole planet, and with our sequestration of a large wedge of the productivity of this planetwide habitat patch, we are dominant within it. H. sapiens might therefore already be a dead species walking.

The signs are already there for those willing to see them. When the habitat becomes degraded such that there are fewer resources to go around; when fertility starts to decline; when the birth rate sinks below the death rate; and when genetic resources are limited—the only way is down. The question is “How fast?”
"


Now, if the very basic technology of agriculture which underpins our very way of living through civilization is unsustainable, it quickly becomes evident that technology is a way to increase the efficiency to use energy, thereby increasing overall energy use. This makes ALL technology unsustainable when used comprehensively by society. The correct way to reduce ecological overshoot is to reduce our reliance on technology, which reduces our reliance on energy use (which inevitably leads to pollution loading, energy and resource decline, emissions, climate change, and ecological overshoot [availability of food drives population growth which increases the ecological footprint of the world; much more about population can be found here]). This unfortunately goes against human nature. Nobody wants to be told that conveniences we have taken for granted, such as cars, electricity, computers, smartphones, grocery stores, big box stores, etc. must be slowly done away with. At the same time, there are still Indigenous Tribes who live without any of these conveniences who are actually happier (according to many different articles) with their lives than those of us living in developed countries! Just think what it would be like to live without the anxieties of so-called "modern" life. Sure, living in such a way would have its downsides, too. However, when one looks at the situation realistically, he or she can clearly see that we don't actually have a real choice. We can reduce ecological overshoot now or these conveniences will be taken away from us one by one anyway. I wrote about this and the likelihood of humans coming together and experiencing radical transformation a while back on a rather negative note. Yet, if one looks at the most recent slew of articles and news coming out, is there any real evidence of mass change in our behaviors? I am truly asking this question seriously. Some people will accuse me of being na├»ve and some people will applaud such a question. The real question will be this: can we all agree on the predicaments, their root causes, and the course of action to take as a result? I assert that agreement will not be reached by everyone on any of the three, no differently than where we are today. A recent recap of COP-26 pointed this sad reality out and many more articles and analyses have come out since then with the exact same general thesis. 

This article brings into clear focus the facts regarding agriculture, technology in general, and civilization, brought about by this combination of methods to make energy use more efficient. This sets the stage for my next article, which will discuss the fact that most of society appears to be in denial (or dead asleep) of the simple fact that civilization itself is unsustainable.

Comments

  1. “Yet, if one looks at the most recent slew of articles and news coming out, is there any real evidence of mass change in our behaviors? I am truly asking this question seriously.”

    I live in Cambodia. I do climate change adaptation work. I live on an organic/regenerative farm. I have lived in Asia for 16 years. Virtually everyone I have ever spoken with over the years in South/Southeast/East Asia (where roughly 60% of the world’s population live) wants , is willing to work hard for, and intends to someday (or their children/grandchildren) live a modern and affluent lifestyle. From my observations and experience, there is no “ecological civilization” rising in the world. Most people who have yet to attain a modern and affluent lifestyle, in my experience, have every intention of doing so.
    It was when I came to this understanding a decade and a half ago, that I realized how truly screwed we are.
    I appreciate your writing and the work you are putting out into the world. Thank You!

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    1. Thank you so much, Bareebo, for taking the time to respond to this question. Because I have never lived overseas, I often feel that my perspectives are somewhat limited; based upon cultural values here in the US. It is somewhat depressing to learn that the values in Cambodia aren't much different than here. Outside of my environmental social circle, I hear no discussions of degrowth or limitations of any kind. I have a friend in Thailand who is doing great work to build resilience there and know of quite a few here in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Africa, and New Zealand and even one in Peru! However, I just don't (yet) see any evidence of a major shift in greater society, and considering the speed with which the symptom predicaments of ecological overshoot are gaining, I'm wondering if most of society will continue being dead asleep.

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  2. One has to wonder if any of humanity will make it out the other side of the bottleneck we have created for ourselves. Our tool-making abilities, that for the most part are held aloft as the most important tipping point for human sociocultural evolution, seem to be in actuality the progenitor of our impending downfall. Given technology's influence in our living arrangements, it's no wonder that they continue to be celebrated and leveraged to help craft comforting narratives that attempt to demonstrate we can 'solve' our existential predicaments. From 'clean' energy stories that will 'fuel' our lifestyles forever to space mining that will compensate for our overexploitation of planet Earth, we tell ourselves some pretty complex lies to reduce our cognitive dissonance. And then to top it all off, we vilify and ostracise for the most part those who challenge the mainstream narratives and upset our illusionary paradigms. We fight hard to remain in the Matrix rather than face an uncertain future that is increasingly looking to be far more dystopian than utopian. And not liking uncertainty, we choose instead to find 'certainty' in the false tales told by snake-oil salesmen who promise us we can grow to infinity and beyond...

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  3. I don't spend much time wondering anymore; the science makes it quite clear. It isn't very comforting; as it is very different from the fairy tales we would much rather believe, but that explains the constant denial of reality that pervades society: https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2021/02/what-is-nthe-and-how-near-is-near-term.html

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  4. Hi Erik, as you know we're on the same page. However, I think you should correct your claims about the lack of evidence supporting Allen Savory's claims. I even personally know someone who HAS greened some of Jordan's desert...

    Now I'm not saying this will save humanity from its destiny, but it does work, and could be our best chance of drawing down atmospheric carbon and returning it to where it belongs. The soil.

    https://www.ethicalomnivore.org/regenerative-agriculture-works-a-compilation-of-evidence/

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=xgF9BU4uYMU

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  5. Well, the claims are not really mine; they come from the studies which clearly showed no evidence for his claims. His claims also depended upon soil that had a deep rich mat of prairie grass roots. The soil and herbivores had evolved and grown up together. In other words, the area was not desert; as prairie grass grows on prairies not deserts. So his claims of greening the desert don't hold up under scrutiny. Greening ANY area also depends upon the availability of sufficient water, and this is increasingly difficult to provide in arid areas, let alone desert areas. One look at the Drought file [https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2020/12/drought.html] proves that many areas are becoming desertified, making many of these ideas temporary at best.

    Regenerative agriculture CAN indeed return nutrients to the soil and even sequester carbon. But increasing temperatures combined with cycles of drought and flooding will render many areas unsuitable for such efforts as these ideas depend utterly upon the stable climate conditions of yesteryear.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Erik, did you watch the video? You can't get drier than the Jordanian desert, yet my friend Geoff managed to harvest water using clever permaculture design....

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    2. Mike, yes, it's true, but the question remains this: how long will it last? When one truly understands the nature of the system, one realizes that the only constant is change itself. We definitely are a clever species, but we just aren't always wise.

      As for Jordan, it appears that multitudes of locations exist where plants grow, but at summer temperatures above 40C, most crops would probably not survive here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/7/2/1105470/-Farenheit-104-40-degrees-C-is-a-number-everyone-should-know

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  6. With regard to claims about regenerative agriculture - there is lots of anecdotal material and a growing number of scientific studies to show how useful its methods are - especially when practiced on a small scale - but these are not often accepted by mainstream science, especially that backed by the big fertiliser companies.
    Soil microbes are vital to all life and they can be encouraged and sustained or ignored or destroyed. When and if all else fails they will more than likely remain to bring life back to the planet.
    My own epiphany came about with the following video by well regarded Australian Dr Christine Jones - it is well worth the time spent watching it!
    https://youtu.be/K8_i1EzR5U8

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