Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ecotechnic economy and relocalisation

The Freezing Point of Industrial Society

The Ecotechnic Economy

Fuel <> 270 years' grain

No such economies yet exist. This would require either extreme taxation or a global fuel shortage, combined with high technology renewable energy, local organic polyculture farming and the like. These are high-technology economies which don't burn fossil fuels for power, and which have little or no waste. Whether such an economy is technically possible or not is the subject for another article; no-one has yet painted a comprehensive picture of what one might look like.

Is an Ecotechnic society possible? What might it look like?

The answer to the first question is “maybe”. But it can be difficult to get a realistic picture of what it might look like. When thinking about someone in a manual economy, we can imagine their day, what they do and wear, the tools they use. Likewise we can imagine a wasteful industrial economy, people getting up in the morning, putting on a suit while their coffee machine burbles water, sculling it down and jumping in their car and spending half an hour or so sitting behind other cars moving at only twice walking pace, going into work among bright lights and humming machines, bopping their heads to music from a tiny player. But what will the day of a person in an ecotechnic economy look like?

This requires thought and study, and so will be the subject of another article.

A localised future?

From Green with a gun:

As fossil fuel prices rise and/or availability declines, the price of food from industrialised agriculture will go up; market gardens will have a commercial advantage over them. So that people will be eating just as much food overall, but more fruit, vegetables and legumes, and less grains, meat, dairy and sugar. Relatively smaller farms closer to cities will have an economic advantage over large farms far from cities. If meat becomes too expensive, high-protein legumes are likely to become more popular and be grown more often in those market gardens.

This does not mean that these smaller farms will be fossil fuel free, still less that they'll all be organic polycultures. But they will probably be smaller, with less fossil fuel inputs, and closer to cities. And people will grow more of their own food. If tomatoes are $30/kg, having a pot or two on your balcony may seem worth the effort.

This trend may be altered by public subsidies for either kind of farm. If for example the government guarantees low prices for fossil fuel inputs for large farms, obviously their advantage will continue. If they leave it to the free market, those guys are toast. Farmers won't be able to win a competition for fossil fuel inputs with inner cities yuppies driving their SUVs.

But again, because of the great amount of slack in demand for grain and livestock, the decline of industrialised agriculture will be slow. Most likely it'd be the last part of our modern fossil-fuel based society to decline a lot.

And so my take on the issue is simply that given the decline of fossil fuels, the decline of industrialised agriculture and the localisation of agriculture is inevitable, though not as quick as you might think, as is a change to a diet with less grains, meat and sugar, and more fruit, vegetables and legumes; but it's not inevitable that these smaller and more local farms will be organic polycultures like the barefoot hippies dream.

How recolaisation may work?

The first question should be "what is relocalisation?". This will give us a basis that will allow us to consider the situation in the correct light.

To my mind relocalisation is about sourcing your goods and services in the local economy. An adjunct to that is that the local economy must step up to the plate and supply more goods and services to meet the demands of local consumers. That's it in a nutshell. Keep in mind that supplier and consumer are always intimately linked, one accepts feedback from the other and vice versa.

Nothing in that description implies the continuance or otherwise of industrial agriculture. There is also nothing in it that says industrialised agriculture cannot be used locally. We must insert a caveat, that obviously fuel and parts for the maintenance of machinery are generally not locally available commodities, but a profitable enterprise should be able to deal with those issues.

Relocalisation is more about the spatial relationship with sources of goods than the sources themselves. Sure other issues can be brought into it, such as of ethical production, but these are sideline issues to the central issue of distance. I'm not sure whether it fits the purist relocalisation philosophy, but I believe trade over distance will continue to a degree even in a relocalised area, but that trade wont be in the goods required for our day-to-day survival.

Whilst relocalisation covers things other than food, the focus here is on food, due to the critical part it plays in our continued existence. I believe the ideas expressed for food can be applied to other things with some consideration.

Relocalisation is currently a voluntary exercise. It is an activity undertaken by people and communities as a form of insurance. Why insurance? By patronising local suppliers, demand will increase supply, according to economic theory. With an abundance of local suppliers a community or region becomes insulated against shocks to the industrialised mechanisms of goods supply.

I feel this is one of the core paradigms of the relocalisation movement. Forseeing disruptions to stretched supply chains (often global in extent) localities hope to minimise the impact of such disruptions on their daily lives, and therefore upon their chances of continued existence.

The push for relocalisation is not going to come from the bottom line of the grower, but from the consumer. Whilst we have abundant transport fuels to run the current networks everything is okay. As soon as supply declines to any great extent then trouble begins. It does not matter whether a farm in the U.S. is economically viable post-peak oil if the people reliant on it's produce are half a world away in Australia and the goods never arrive because the transport company is unable to purchase fuel.

This highlights the fact that one of the primary motivators is going to be the cost and availability of transport. The cost of getting the goods to market, where this remains possible. Farm gate prices will have an influence on the final price, but these are compounded along with the cost of transport, and the overheads and operating profit of the end marketers, to give a final price. As this goes up, so the affordability of the food decreases.

This leads us to the second factor that needs to be considered when trying to understand what may push people to relocalisation, spending power. Let's consider a "case study" to illustrate some points.

A consumer earns $800 per week working. Of that $800, $200 goes to driving 40km into the nearest town to work on a daily basis. A further $300 is spent on food for the family and the rest goes on mortgage/rent, and sundry other expenses.

As the price of food increases due to the increasing input costs (fundamentally, fuel), we will have inflation (if I understand economic theory correctly!) and the standard approach to combatting inflation is to raise interest rates. So as food costs increase and mortgage/rent payments increase.

Our hypothetical consumer does not want to give up her job, so cutting back on fuel use is not an option. Due to the troubled housing market, moving is not an immediate option. The non-essential sundry expenses go first, and then the budget of food needs to be trimmed. Over time this happens again and again. No more chocolate biscuits, then no more biscuits at all. No more pre-packaged meals. No more soft drink. Before too long the consumer is at a point where they are forced to buy raw foods (if they know of such things, perhaps they have starved for lack of 2 minute noodles by this time) and create their own meals.

The essential message (if sense prevails) is that the consumer gradually moves to a state of producing meals from raw foods. They are now caught between a rock and a hard place. Further increases in price cannot be dealt with by making the diet more raw, they can only be dealt with by reducing the amount of food available.

Now of course there are a multitude of humans, and every one will have a different response to such a situation. Perhaps they turn to charity, move in with relatives, etc. Some though, will have thought ahead and now be growing some proportion of their own food, likely to be mostly vegetables. So begins one aspect of forced relocalisation. Not forced in the sense that everyone will be required to do it by some authority, but forced in that there is an outside factor or influence driving people to it.

The final element of relocalisation to be considered (here at least) is that of the source of food. Currently the majority of people shop in big chain supermarkets. The buying power of these organisations means that food can be brought to the consumer at a price that is often lower than the input costs to the producer. I am personally acquainted with horticulturalists who have left the industry due to the fact that they were getting paid less for their produce than it cost them to grow it.

Toward An Ecotechnic Society


As it exists today, the industrial economy can best be described in ecological terms as a scheme for turning resources into pollution at the highest possible rate. Thus resource exhaustion and pollution problems aren’t accidental outcomes of industrialism, they’re hardwired into the industrial system: the faster resources turn into pollution, the more the industrial economy prospers, and vice versa. That forms the heart of our predicament. Peak oil is simply one symptom of a wider crisis – the radical unsustainability of a system that has evolved to maximize resource consumption on a finite planet – and trying to respond to it without dealing with the larger picture simply guarantees that other symptoms will surface elsewhere and take its place.

For most of a century now, people who have grasped this predicament have proposed that our civilization needs to make a transition toward sustainability. In the 1970s, in particular, quite a range of proposals for making the transition were floated, and even today a new one surfaces in print every year or so. Many of them are well conceived and would probably work tolerably well, and even the worst would probably turn out better than the present policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss. Not one of them, even in the midst of the 1970s energy crises, received more than a moment’s consideration, either from the power centers in government and business that make most of the routine decisions in modern societies, or from the mass of the population whose opinions form the court of last appeal.

There are plenty of ways to understand this failure, but the ecological perspectives covered in last week’s post offer a perspective that as far as I know has rarely been brought to bear on the problem. If the transition between different human social systems can be seen as a form of succession, with one society replacing another the way that one seral stage supplants another in nature, then it may be worth suggesting that social change might follow a timetable of its own making. In the succession process in an eastern woodland biome, for example, grasses replace weeds, shrubs replace grasses, and trees replace shrubs in a sequence whose order and time frame can to some extent be predicted in advance.

The reasons behind this predictability are not irrelevant to our present situation. The bare earth of a vacant lot in Ohio, say, is a suitable environment for weeds; it isn’t a suitable environment for the hardwood trees, understory plants, and other living things that make up the climax community of an eastern woodland. Pioneer weeds, which have evolved to thrive on disturbed soil, thus spring up fast and cover the ground in a few seasons. In the process, though, they change the environment and make it suitable, not for more pioneer weeds, but for grasses and other plants, and these proceed to outcompete the weeds and occupy the vacant lot in their place.

The same process then repeats itself, as the grasses and plants of the second sere change the environment of the vacant lot and make it better suited to a different sere than it is to their own descendants. The process continues, gradually slowing down, until it finally reaches a climax community – a sere that maintains an environment suitable for the offspring of its own member organisms. At this point sustainability has been achieved; the climax community still changes over time with shifts in climate and the arrival of new species from elsewhere, and it can also be knocked back down to bare earth by a fire or some other disaster, but it can retain the same recognizable form over thousands of years or more. The quest for a sustainable society, in other words, parallels the movement of ecosystems in the direction of a climax community, and neither process can be accomplished in a single transition.

This is supported by a clear example from human history. The invention of agriculture in the Old World took place following the end of the last ice age around 11,000 years ago, when drastic climate change disrupted stable ecosystems around the world and forced human cultures to find new ways to support themselves. In the Middle East, fertile grasslands turned into desert as winter rains that had fallen reliably for millennia stopped, and people turned to grain cultivation in river valleys and livestock raising on the surrounding hills as the only alternative to starvation. The same process took place somewhat later in Mexico, the heartland of New World agriculture, as a parallel set of climate shifts caused desertification there as well.

The new ecology of farming proved highly successful and spread rapidly, but it was still highly inefficient, relying on natural soil fertility. It took thousands of years and a series of catastrophic crashes to evolve into a truly sustainable system, and some of the final steps in that direction did not take place until the birth of organic agriculture in the 20th century. Still, it’s important to realize that it did become sustainable, and has been sustainable in some ecosystems for centuries. The immense sustainability of East Asian rice culture was documented long ago by F.H. King in Farmers of Forty Centuries; not many people realize, however, that Syria – where grain farming was probably invented, and has certainly been practiced as long as anywhere on earth – is still a major wheat exporter today.

The birth of industrialism a few hundred years ago, I suggest, represents the parallel emergence of another new human ecology. Like agriculture in the early part of its historical trajectory, this new ecology in its present form is hugely inefficient, wasting energy and resources at unsustainable rates. Like agriculture, in turn, its development will likely be punctuated by catastrophic crashes, of which the first promises to arrive on schedule in the next few decades. It’s possible that one of these crashes will spell the end of the entire project – not all new ecological ventures bear fruit, after all – but it’s also possible that less wasteful expressions of the same basic ecology may eventually find their way to sustainability in a new model of human community that relies on those elements of high technology that can be produced, powered, and maintained over the long term using renewable resources.

It seems worth proposing that from the standpoint of the far future, industrialism may prove to be only one early and inefficient form of what might be called the technic society. Like other modes of human ecology, the technic society might best be defined by the energy sources that power it. A hunter-gatherer society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from the natural ecosystem, and supplemented with very small amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and the like. An agricultural society relies primarily on energy in the form of food, harvested from an artificial ecosystem created and maintained by human effort, and supplemented with modest amounts of nonfood energy in the form of firewood and other fuels, along with small amounts of wind, hydropower, and sunlight.

A technic society, in turn, relies primarily on nonfood energy from renewable or nonrenewable sources, supplemented by food that is produced partly or wholly using nonfood energy. Modern industrial civilization is simply a technic society that relies on nonrenewable energy resources for its power, and maximizes production of goods and services at the cost of vast inefficiency. At the other end of the spectrum is a mode of technic society that might usefully be called an ecotechnic society, which relies on renewable energy resources, and maximizes the efficiency of its energy and resource use at the cost of far more restricted access to goods and services.

In the twilight of the industrial age, the concept of an ecotechnic society may seem appealing, and not just to those who recognize the depth of humanity’s dependence on the Earth’s biosphere. Still, we’re not there yet, and if the succession model is anything to go by, trying to leap directly from the rank weeds of industrial society to the verdant forest of an ecotechnic civilization simply won’t work. Even outside the succession model, we have only the vaguest idea of what a truly sustainable technic society would look like, and history suggests that a long process of evolution by trial and error will be needed to get the bugs out and develop a form of technic civilization that can actually sustain itself for the long term.

The approaching breakdown of modern industrial society impacts this process, of course, but not in the way so often proposed by the current crop of secular apocalyptic faiths. Those people who expect the end of the industrial age to usher in their preferred version of Utopia, I am convinced, are in for a massive disappointment. Radical social ventures tend to flourish in the expanding phase of a culture’s history, when abundant resources allow room for experimentation; in the harsher realities of an age of decline and contraction, that freedom simply doesn’t exist. In the decades and centuries ahead of us, when most people will have to struggle for survival and many will lose the fight, dreams of building an ideal society will have to take a back seat to more immediate needs.

In an important way, though, this is simply a restatement of points already made. If human societies replace one another by way of something akin to ecological succession, the societies that rise among the ruins of industrial civilization will be those best suited to the environment created by their predecessors. They may still be a fair distance from sustainability, but odds are that they will have moved significantly in that direction, if only because the opportunities for extravagant resource use will be sharply reduced by the exhaustion of so many resources.

From their comments:

Hayduke: "The only human society that can long endure is that human society that lives within natural biological and geophysical limitations of reuse use and waste production. Industrial society, by definition, does not respect these limitations, therefore, industrial society is dead and doesn't yet know it.

A "technic" society, whatever that is, can only be sustainable if it does not use resources faster than they are replenished naturally and does not produce waste faster than it can be dispersed naturally. There are no other criteria".

Mark: "I have to respond to the statement "the industrial economy can best be described in ecological terms as a scheme for turning resources into pollution at the highest possible rate" since information is also a product and this is discounted. Many physicist including John Wheeler and David Bohm believe that information is the most fundamental entity in the universe, not matter and energy. It is possible that what we see as consumptive is actually fulfilling a need that is attractive to the rest of the cosmos. I am a civ skeptic but find I can not ignore this factor that may be driving the entire experiment".