The Little Steps That Matter

Over the last few months, the uncomfortable phrase “peak oil” has started to appear more and more frequently in the mainstream media, and the usual denunciations by the usual suspects are starting to wear noticeably thin. It’s been more than half a century since M. King Hubbert first started trying to sound the alarm, granted, but better late than never.

Still, as I suggested in an earlier post, the process of coming to terms with peak oil has more than a little in common with the five stages of grief famously outlined some years back by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. We’ve already seen two of those stages displayed in living color in recent years, and of course both are still very much with us.

The poster child for denial just now is Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a petroleum industry-funded think tank that has nonchalantly churned out predictions of soaring oil production and declining oil prices for years now, while production and prices in the real world have been headed the other way. For anger, you can hardly do better than watching the current US administration, brandishing its gargantuan war machine and bellowing its rage at Arabs, Venezuelans, and anybody else arrogant enough to think that they have some sort of right to the oil underneath their own territories.

At this point, though, we’re beginning to see the next stage in the process, which is bargaining. The recent rush to pour our food supply into our gas tanks via ethanol and various flavors of biodiesel is one example; another is the belated attempt to launch a crash program of nuclear power plant construction. These and others partake of the basic logic of bargaining: we promise to mend our ways in some sufficiently large, loud, and colorful fashion that the wolf at the door will be satisfied with the puppy biscuit we throw its way, and let us go on with our lives.

It doesn’t work for the dying, and it won’t work for modern industrial society, either, but it’s not hard to see this logic in the two examples I’ve already cited, and many other grandiose proposals of the same sort. The results of this distorting factor have not been good. The rush to ethanol and biodiesel has already played a significant role in sending grain prices to record levels and, as Stuart Staniford pointed out in a recent post on The Oil Drum, will quite probably cause mass starvation in the Third World within a decade or so if it continues at its present pace.

Attempting to revive the nuclear industry on a large scale is, if anything, a more misguided proposition. Even aside from the highly dubious economics of nuclear power, the severe and ongoing depletion of fissionable uranium reserves, the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the far from minor point that nuclear reactors produce wastes so lethal that they have to be isolated from the environment for geologic time scales, the sheer cost of building enough nuclear plants to matter in the relatively narrow window of opportunity left to us could easily bankrupt any industrial society that attempted it.

What makes these and similar projects as destructive as they are futile is precisely that they are meant to allow us to continue living our lives in something like their present form. That fantasy, it seems to me, is the single largest obstacle in the path of a reasoned response to the predicament of peak oil. The hard reality we have to face is the fact that the extravagant, energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past cannot be sustained by any amount of bargaining or any number of grand projects. Accept that reality, on the other hand, and redefine the situation in terms of managing a controlled descent from the giddy heights of the late industrial age, and the range of technological options widens out dramatically.

I want to talk about one of those less dramatic options here, partly because it’s among the simplest and most accessible technologies in the toolkit of the ecotechnic age, partly because it could relatively easily become part of an effective response to one of the most pressing challenges the coming of peak oil poses us, and partly because it makes a good introduction to principles that will likely be central to many, perhaps most, of the key technologies of the future. The option I have in mind is the homely art of composting.

So far I’ve been unable to find an even remotely plausible figure for the total amount of compostable food, garden, and farm waste generated annually in the United States, or any other industrial country for that matter. It’s certainly a very large volume, and the amount of it that goes into landfills rather than being recycled into fertile soil through composting is not much smaller. Those of my readers who have compost bins know how much of their own kitchen, garden, and yard waste goes into it; my wife and I generate between two and four cubic feet of compostable waste in an average week.

All of it goes into a compost bin of black recycled plastic in the back yard. So does another cubic foot or so per week from a friend’s kitchen; his living situation doesn’t permit him to have his own compost bin, so he contributes to ours. All the peelings and scraps and moldy bits from the produce that passes through our kitchen and his go into the compost pile, along with garden weeds, plants that have passed their season, and other forms of yard and garden waste, leavened with double handfuls of dried leaves saved from last autumn. Those are the only inputs, other than a little labor with a shovel once a month or so to keep the pile turned and working. Once a year, the hatch at the bottom of the compost bin disgorges the output—black, damp, sweet-smelling compost, ready to be worked into our garden beds.

This output is potent stuff. The first garden my wife and I planted started out as a patch of bare dirt on the north side of an urban apartment building, so poor and barren that even the most rugged of the local weeds made only half-hearted forays into it. Two years of double-digging beds with homebrewed compost turned it into a lush cottage garden that yielded shade-tolerant vegetables and medicinal herbs three seasons of the year, and supported some of the biggest earthworms I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. Given a reasonably good mix of raw materials – which an ordinary kitchen and garden provide quite well – compost is a balanced soil amendment that works over the long term, improving fertility, tilth, and pH balance while providing a good mix of soil nutrients.

Properly handled, the composting process also takes out unwanted seeds and pathogens. Decomposition generates heat – 150° to 160°F is a fairly common temperature for the core of a good compost pile – and that sort of heat over weeks or months will kill anything in your compost you don’t want there. If you live in a warm climate, in fact, it’s usually wise to put your compost bin where the summer sun won’t shine on it, and you may have to wet it down on hot days; compost heaps have been known to burst into flames when the heat of decomposition rose past the ignition temperature of the pile’s more flammable ingredients. (The possibility that this heat could be used in other ways seems to have gotten little notice, even from the appropriate technology crowd; we’ll discuss it, and other uses for “waste” heat, in a later post.)

Is compost a replacement for fossil fuel-based fertilizers? In the straightforward sense of this question, of course not. It’s possible to make compost on an industrial scale—and there are businesses and public utilities that do this—but compost is not well suited to the industrial model of agriculture. It works best when applied in intensive small-scale truck gardening, where it can be combined with other low-energy but labor-intensive techniques for maximizing soil fertility and productivity. Composting is not, in other words, an effective way to maintain business as usual.

Instead, it’s a bridge – or part of a bridge – that reaches beyond the end of the industrial age. The industrial model of agriculture, for reasons rooted primarily in current economic and political arrangements, has established a stranglehold on food production in the developed world. Barring drastic political intervention – a new Homestead Act, say, meant to repopulate the abandoned farm country of the Great Plains – that situation is unlikely to change suddenly or soon.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the industrial model of agriculture will actually work well in a postpeak world. Far more likely is a situation in which soaring fossil fuel prices cascade down the food chain, turning industrial farms and their far-flung distribution networks into economic basket cases propped up by government subsidies, sky-high food prices, and trade barriers that keep other options out of the existing marketplace. In such a context, local microfarms and market gardens, and the cooperatives, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture schemes that give them a market outside the existing system, are guaranteed steady and dramatic growth.

In a decade or so, in fact, American agriculture may well resemble nothing so much as the agricultural system of the Soviet Union in its last years, with huge and dysfunctional corporate farms filling the role of the sprawling industrialized kolkhozii while a large proportion of the food people actually eat comes from backyard garden plots. It’s in that secondary economy of small gardens and microfarms that composting has its place – and just as the collapse of the Soviet Union would have been far more devastating in human terms without the underground economy that kept people fed, the downward arc of the industrial age can be made less traumatic if technologies such as composting, relevant to an underground food economy already being born, become widely distributed and practiced in the near future.

Thus the homely, humdrum, and vital art of composting offers a model for the kinds of adaptive, flexible, and scalable responses to the predicament of industrial society we need to locate and deploy. It’s not a total solution, and it makes a very poor bargaining chip in the sort of haggling with fate I discussed earlier in this post. Rather, if the twilight of the industrial age is going to be anything but an uncontrolled crash, it’s one of the little steps that could actually make a difference. In the months to come I plan on talking about more of these. In next week’s post, however, I want to talk a little more about composting, because it offers several crucial insights to the ground rules that will very likely define the successful technologies of the deindustrial age.