Pieces of the Puzzle

One of the more interesting things highlighted by recent debates about the future of agriculture after peak oil is the pervasive modern tendency to seek single solutions for complex problems. We had an example here on The Archdruid Report a few weeks back, when a reader responded to a discussion of composting by putting up a comment saying, in effect, that composting was a waste of time and we ought to be talking about sheet mulching instead.

For those who don’t keep up with the state of the art in organic growing, sheet mulching means spreading a thin layer of uncomposted organic material – leaves, straw, or what have you – over the top of the soil. This keeps moisture in the soil, keeps weeds down, and cycles organic matter back into humus to improve soil tilth and fertility. In dryland bioregions, in particular, it’s a key technique for intensive organic food production.

On the other hand, it’s not a panacea, and there are other bioregions where it doesn’t work anything like so well. In the part of the Pacific Northwest where I live, for example, slugs are serious garden pests, and sheet mulch is a slug magnet; if you use mulch early in the growing season, in particular, you can expect to lose much of your crop to slugs. Like many local organic growers, therefore, I use sheet mulching to overwinter the garden, from harvest’s end to planting time, and then dig the mulch under when it’s time to prepare the beds for the new crops.

Like many local organic growers, too, I also compost, and so organic material enters the soil by both routes. Different materials follow their own trajectories: kitchen scraps go into the compost bin, for example, while autumn leaves get raked up into heaps for use as sheet mulching, then finish rotting into humus once they’re turned under in spring. The two methods don’t conflict with one another at all, and the same springtime digging that turns the mulch under also works in the year’s dose of compost from the bin.

Nor are these the only options for closing the loop and cycling organic matter back into the soil. You can use green manure – this, for the organically uneducated, means planting a cover crop of clover or some other nitrogen-fixing plant in the fall, letting it grow all winter, and then turning it under in the spring. You can feed your kitchen scraps to chickens, rabbits, or some other livestock and turn their manure into plant food. You can use a worm bin instead of the usual composting methods, using redworms to break down the organic matter in place of bacteria. You can even borrow a lick from the appropriate technology movement of the Seventies, set up an aquaculture system, feed some of your spare organic matter to tilapia or some other tasty fish, and use the waste water, with its load of fish feces, to irrigate your crops.

Which of these is the answer to the challenge of post-peak food production? Put that way, the answer is obvious: none of them is the answer. All of them, and all their various combinations, can be workable responses to some of the needs people will have as they try to keep themselves and their families fed as our society skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak. Put another way, they are pieces of a puzzle; each has its place, but no one piece completes the puzzle by itself.

This same logic can be applied more generally. One of the continuing disputes on the end of the peak oil community concerned with agriculture is whether farming will continue to use tractors and the like, or whether draft horses will prove to be more viable. Both sides have good arguments. On the one hand, a large farm running tractors on homegrown biodiesel can keep them fueled by devoting 10% or so of its acreage to oilseed crops, while it takes around 30% of acreage to produce fodder for draft horses to provide the same amount of power. On the other, you don’t need a factory or its substantial inputs of energy and resources to manufacture horses – they do it themselves, with noticeable enthusiasm and no tools other than the ones nature gave them – and a properly fed horse also produces large amounts of excellent organic fertilizer, a significant value that tractors don’t provide.

Which is the best option? That depends on a galaxy of factors, few of which can be predicted on the basis of abstract arguments. If enough of today’s industrial economy survives long enough into the post-peak era that factories are still around to produce tractors and transport networks can still get them to farmers, that makes tractors more viable; if the industrial economy goes to pieces, chalk one up for draft horses. Issues of scale, crop, and climate are also crucial; the option that would work best for a 16,000-acre wheat farm on the Great Plains might prove disastrous for a 25-acre truck farm growing vegetables on the outskirts of a West Coast city.

For that matter, neither horses nor tractors have any place in the sort of backyard mixed gardens that had so crucial a role in helping people in the old Soviet Union survive its collapse, and may well play the same role in getting Americans through a similar experience in the not too distant future. The form of intensive organic gardening that, as David Duhon documented some years back in One Circle (Ecology Action, 1985), can produce a spare but adequate diet for one person on 1000 square feet of soil, requires only hand tools and human labor. Intensive gardening and extensive field agriculture are not the same thing, but both will likely have important roles to play in feeding people in the post-peak era.

I suggest that this same logic can be extended much further. Consider the ongoing debates about potential replacements for petroleum and other fossil fuels. To some extent, of course, this sort of talk is whistling past the graveyard. None of the proposed alternatives seem at all likely to provide the same combination of vast abundance, low extraction and processing cost, and protean flexibility as fossil fuels – nor is there any good reason to think they could.

The earth’s supply of fossil fuels, after all, represent hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy. Only sheer human egotism justifies the presumption that, after burning through that huge and thermodynamically improbable stockpile in a few extravagant centuries, we can expect the universe to hand us an equivalent in some other form. Much more likely, as I have argued here and elsewhere, is a centuries-long period of contraction and decline, in which we as a species must struggle to get by on much less energy than recent history has taught us to expect.

Whether or not this turns out to be the case, though, the mismatch between a civilization built on abundant, concentrated fossil fuels and the relatively sparse and diffuse energy sources available to replace them makes today’s bickering about which energy source is “the answer” an exercise in futility. Even today, coal, oil, natural gas, and other energy sources fill different roles in the overall energy economy; the future promises much more diversity of the same kind. Far more likely than not, the future of energy lies in a crazy-quilt patchwork in which each of the available energy sources is matched with its most appropriate uses by a process of trial and error.

The point that has to be recognized, it seems to me, is that nobody alive today has the least idea how an ecotechnic civilization – a society that can maintain relatively advanced technology on the basis of sustainable resources – might best be constructed. All the experience of the last three centuries has focused on the opposite end of the possible spectrum of technic societies, where you’ll find the civilizations that burn through nonrenewable resources at the fastest pace they can manage. We’ve followed that road just about as far as it can go, far enough that the dead end at its terminus should be visible to anyone who is willing to notice it.

Nor can we turn to the past for conclusive answers. The societies that existed before the industrial revolution offer hints about how sustainability can be woven into the fabric of human life, and warnings about the results when this fails to happen, but it’s only the most simpleminded or polemical analyses that define the task of our future as a return to the past. The resources available to us and the limits imposed on us by history and environment are different enough from those of past cultures that we don’t have that option. Rather, the challenge imposed on us by the predicament of our time is that of moving into uncharted territory.

In energy, just as in agriculture and in many other fields, all we have are pieces of the puzzle. It will likely take ruthless sorting and a great deal of trial and error to make those pieces fit together in any sort of meaningful way. This makes the habit of fixating on a single response more than usually useless just now, and makes it imperative that any option in harmony with the wider project of building a sustainable civilization in harmony with the biosphere needs to be taken into account.