In The Dark With Both Hands

Composting, the theme of the last two Archdruid Report posts, has turned out to be unusually timely as the current winter draws toward its end. The prospects for this year’s wheat crop, a topic of discussion until recently relegated to Grange halls and local newspapers in small western towns, have recently become the focus of news stories and punditry in business media worldwide.

There’s good reason for this unexpected shift of attention. A sequence of jarring upward leaps in the commodity markets have brought wheat prices up to levels never before seen in modern times, with no visible end in sight. Other grains and, for that matter, a wide range of other agricultural commodities, have posted vertiginous price hikes of their own. Unlike so many of the booms and busts that have enlivened recent economic history, the current surge in grain prices isn’t insulated from the real economy of goods and services, and has already begun to play out in rising food costs worldwide.

The boom in grain prices is the product of many factors. At the top of the list belongs the simple if awkward fact that the world’s capacity to produce grain in recent years has failed to keep up with increasing demand. Despite all the handwaving of cornucopian economists, it turns out, the world really is finite, and rising demand for grain-fed livestock in newly prosperous India and China turned out to be the proverbial one straw too many for the world’s agricultural system. Add to that the impact of climate instability on grain harvests, the activities of speculators, and the bizarre spectacle of the current biofuel boom, in which large portions of the industrial world are attempting to cope with rising petroleum prices by pouring their food supply into their gas tanks, and you have a fine recipe for chaos in the grain market.

Still, there’s another factor at work, one that will likely play a major role in the agricultural history of the next century or so. The fertilizers that make modern industrial agriculture work derive almost entirely from nonrenewable sources. Nitrate and ammonia fertilizers are manufactured from natural gas; phosphates come from rock phosphate, and potassium from mineral potash deposits – and global supplies of the first two of these, at least, are beginning to run short.

It’s been argued that this isn’t a problem, because improvements in technology make it possible to extract economically useful amounts of minerals from ever more dilute source materials. In theory, this is quite true. In practice, though, a crucial ingredient usually gets left out of the mix: the more dilute the source material, the more energy needs to be invested per unit of refined product. During the last two decades of the 20th century, when energy prices reached their lowest levels in human history, nobody needed to pay attention to the energy side of the equation, and this fostered a climate of thought in which futurists could picture future industrial societies that met all their material needs by extracting dissolved minerals from seawater.

As the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end, though, this sort of thinking makes bad science fiction and worse propaganda. As energy supplies dwindle, using ever increasing among energy to extract ever smaller fractions of minerals from the ground quickly becomes a losing bet. At the same time, without significant inputs of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals, it becomes impossible to maintain soil fertility at levels high enough to matter. Unless the world can find some other abundant, concentrated source of plant nutrients in time to matter, it may not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that large parts of the world may face a Hobson’s choice between starving to death and freezing in the dark.

This is where the perspectives of the last few Archdruid Report posts become relevant, because such an abundant, concentrated source of plant nutrients already exists. The methods needed to obtain the raw material and process it into high-grade fertilizer are mature technologies, readily available and thoroughly tested. The only reason the source in question is not already being exploited on a large scale in the industrial world is that most people nowadays don’t seem to be able to distinguish it from a hole in the ground.

We are talking, of course, about human feces – or, as one book on the subject has usefully labeled it, “humanure.” The average human being in the industrial world produces between 2.5 and 3 pounds of fecal matter a day, along with about a third of a gallon of urine. Over one year, that works out to approximately half a ton of feces and a hundred gallons of urine per person; multiply this by the 300 million residents of the United States, and then factor in the equally massive waste streams generated by domestic animals and livestock, and you may get some sense of the scale of the resource that we are, quite literally, flushing down the toilet.

The technology that converts this resource into fertilizer happens to be the one we’ve been examining in the last few posts. Composting uses natural biological processes to break down fecal material and other wastes, converting them into a concentrated, odorless source of plant nutrients. In the process, composting kills pathogenic bacteria by sheer biological competition – a compost pile is a fiercely Darwinian environment in which organisms bred in the sheltered setting of a human body’s insides don’t last long. Study after study has shown that fecal matter, after it has been competently composted, contains no more human pathogens than ordinary soil.

So why haven’t we been able to get our fertilizer together on this issue? What keeps composted humanure from being an obvious resource to help replace dwindling inorganic sources of plant nutrients? Part of the reason reaches deep into the crawlspaces of the industrial world’s collective imagination. People who object to composting humanure quite often cite concerns about pathogens or odors, but it rarely takes more than a short discussion to get down to the level of a five-year-old clenching his eyes shut and squealing “Ewww, ick!”

This invites satire, but beneath it lies a set of very widespread attitudes far less appealing than simple human waste. C.S. Lewis pointed out quite a while ago in The Abolition of Man, and with far more power in his fantasy novel That Hideous Strength, that a great many modern attitudes have their source in what might as well be called biophobia – a pathological fear and hatred of the realities of biological life, coupled with an obsessive fascination with the sterile, the mechanical and the lifeless.

Biophobia guides the creation of human environments so biologically sterile that, according to recent research, many currently widespread illnesses may be caused by understimulated immune systems; it also inspires the absurd fantasies of so-called “transhumanists” who look forward to the day when they can put their personalities into robots and do away with biological existence altogether. (Back in the Sixties, Ira Levin crafted a smart horror novel, The Stepford Wives, about the replacement of human beings by robots programmed with imitations of their personalities, but not even he seems to have imagined that people might set out to do that to themselves.) The same attitude, I’m convinced, drives the horror many people feel when faced with the prospect of eating food fertilized with composted humanure.

The same aversion to biological realities, it may be, has shaped another factor that makes the commonsense use of human waste as plant food difficult for many people to contemplate. The economic thinking that guides the industrial world has long been stuck in a linear rut, imposing patterns of one-way flow on a universe that consistently moves in circles. Our economists sort out the tangled exchanges, multiple roles, and mixed motives of real market economies into neat flowcharts that move matter from suppliers to producers, to distributors, and then to consumers, before vanishing into thin air.

Food systems built on the same pattern take nutrients from natural deposits, put them into soil, haul the resulting crops into a baroque system of manufacturing and distribution before they get to people, and then dump the resulting waste into the world’s fresh water supply. That sort of straight-line pattern is the way most people in the industrial world think; it’s a measure of how pervasive such thinking is that following nature’s patterns, and cycling “waste” back around to become a resource, seems so unthinkable to most people.

Now it deserves to be said that there are valid reasons why composting, with or without humanure, would be difficult to apply to the kind of industrial farming that produces most bulk agricultural commodities in the western world these days. The infrastructure necessary to collect 150 million tons of humanure a year, plus an amount of compostable animal manure that may well be larger still, and convert it en masse into fertilizer for Iowa corn and North Dakota winter wheat simply doesn’t exist; it would be extremely expensive to construct, and resources put into that project would have to be diverted from many other pressing needs.

Still, the kind of industrial farming we have nowadays is a creation of the age of cheap abundant energy. As fossil fuels deplete, that kind of farming will become less and less economically viable, until it finally ceases altogether. It’s quite true, as some writers on peak oil have argued recently, that the current agricultural economy won’t simply revert to the agriculture of an earlier time; that’s not how change happens in the real world of economics – or ecology. What will happen instead, of course, is that new patterns will evolve in the interstices of the old.

In ecological terms, these new patterns will fill available niches the old system no longer occupies; in economic terms, they will use resources and fill marketable needs outside the scope of existing economic activity. Arguably, these patterns have already started taking shape, in the form of the thriving economy of small organic farms and truck gardens that sprang up around most cities in the western half of North America beginning in the 1970s. As I hope to show in next week’s post, this new farming economy offers a glimpse at the agriculture of the future – if, that is, we can get our heads out of our fertilizer supply long enough to notice.