Saturday, January 26, 2008

On The Fallacy of Reversibility

A recent article by Stuart Staniford on The Oil Drum makes two arguments: first, that industrial societies cannot evolve toward a pre-industrial state, and second, that peak oil will be good for agribusiness. Therefore, he concludes, efforts to re-localize food production are misguided. Sharon Astyk then published this rejoinder in which she critiques Staniford's coning of the term "reversalism" to describe what he sees as a fallacy perpetuated by those who speak in favor of relocalizing agricultural production. Stuart's article has pretty pictures, while Sharon's has a pleasant prose style. They are both quite long, while this post (you should be happy to learn) is quite short.

Now, we should concede Stuart's point about reversibility: complex societies have demonstrated minimal ability to evolve toward a lower level of complexity at a lower level of resource expenditure. Instead, they collapse. Jarred Diamond's book, Collapse, is full of examples of that. So, it will be a different society (or, more accurately, different societies) than this one that will be growing most of its food locally. Activists who advocate relocalization should feel free to gloss over this difference, of course, when speaking to groups of people who wish to survive social and economic collapse, or, for that matter, who just want to eat tasty food that they've grown themselves. The results of their efforts within the scope of this society are likely to be quite circumscribed, because most behaviors that will be adaptive after the collapse (such as growing your own food) would often be maladaptive under current economic conditions. I argue a similar point in this article on the feasibility of promoting sail-based transportation.

And this takes us to Stuart's second point. He argues that Peak Oil will cause high energy prices, which will cause high food prices, which will mean huge profits for agribusinesses, so forget about relocalization. He is assuming implicitly that there will be enough energy to keep the system going, but it will just be a bit more expensive. He writes:

Clearly, farmers making money like that will not be selling out to hordes of the urban poor trying to go back to the land, nor will they need to employ them. Instead, the farmers will simply outbid the urban poor for the energy required to operate the farms...

I agree completely, but why focus just on the urban poor? Why not throw in the suburban poor as well - all of those hapless suburbanites currently being foreclosed out of their suddenly worthless "little cabins in the woods"? Then again, why not throw in everyone else? These ever-higher food and energy prices, coupled with rising unemployment and stagnant wages, is inflation, and it will make most Americans poor. Supposing them to be politically powerless, they would be relatively easy to "simply outbid." But, in their distress, they will probably pose an ever larger security problem, requiring an ever more invasive police state and an ever-larger prison-industrial complex to keep them down.

Now, let's look at it from the point of view of the rich farmers, who will be about the only ones left with the wherewithal to pay the high taxes needed to support the police state and the prisons. Wouldn't it be cheaper for them to just dole out bits of land and let people grow their own food, should they be so inclined?


Anonymous said...

This is all assuming that the state, in whatever form it survives in, does not simply seize large farms or large tracts of abandoned rural acreage and parcel it out to those it deems worthy. I'm thinking that the idea of individually owned real estate will change vastly, and relatively soon, once:
A) people are no longer able to drive miles and miles out to their vacation homes out in the Poconos whenever they feel like it
B) people are no longer able to commute huge distances from their suburban houses into the city for work
C) the banks either reposess a huge percentage of people's homes or collapse under the weight of so many failed mortgages, or a combination of both

It's hard for me to get excited about relocalization when I can easily imagine it being a more or less forced re-peasantification, with big communal farms being established with an iron fist to answer the (very pressing and very real) food needs of the populace. I'm not sure anyone would like how that would play out.

In that scenario, I guess I'm mainly worried about encouraging people to try to relocalize all on their own, one family, a cabin, a well, that kind of scenario. Which is not necessarily what the relocalization people are advocating, of course.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Sylvia -

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I have some thoughts on the topics you touch too - or are they opinions? I am not sure.

Land reform seems unlikely. A Zimbabwe-style land redistribution program probably won't produce much food. It certainly didn't in Zimbabwe!

A Pol Pot-style forced march out of the cities and into communal farms out on the land requires an ideology (one generally regarded a a failed one) and a big box of iron fists. Again, call me a starry-eyed optimist, but this seems unlikely to me.

But I bet we will see city and suburban dwellers rattling around the countryside in the summer, looking to pick up seasonal farm employment, and learning a thing or two about farming in the process. This has happened during the Great Depression, so there is a precedent.

I don't see family farms and villages taking off that much either, because there is a lifestyle issue: as you point out, re-peasantification is unlikely to happen voluntarily. People generally try to escape village life, unless the village is very posh, and survives by means other than agriculture.

What I do hope to see come together is seasonal migrations to the land - to a community farm, most likely. A family might spend an entire summer farming a large plot, or just the week-ends farming a smaller one. Call it the "Russian model" if you like: an apartment in the city and a day job, plus a dacha for raising food. The effectiveness of this approach has been demonstrated endlessly, and it requires a minimal commitment of both time and resources. Moreover, it is a lifestyle change that is temporary and reversible, and people don't have to wait until the economy collapses to try it.

Anonymous said...

Stuart Staniford's article was, I thought, based on false assumptions and straw-man arguments. He begins by positing that high-energy industrial agriculture cannot devolve itself into small scale, low energy agriculture. He is right up to this point. Big farms will not break up into smaller farms and scrap their tractors. Intuitively this makes sense. If energy becomes marginally more expensive, the farm must be more efficient and the bigger farm will be more efficient.

Yet, somewhere on the way to $100 per gallon diesel fuel, the whole big-ag system breaks down. The irrigation costs a fortune, petro-fertilizer becomes unavailable, and trucking becomes too expensive. Even if a farm starts making its own bio-fuels and has it's own power generation plant, the overall efficiency drops and the market cost of the finished product makes it unsalable. Who will pay fifty dollars for a head of wilted lettuce? Long before this happens, people would be growing their own food in backyards, abandoned suburban tracts, community gardens and reclaimed parking lots.

This is not true “reversibility”. We would be heading back to square one, but we would not be tracing our steps the way we came. This is a complete restart, with much of the current heavily-irrigated, nutrient poor, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere farmland abandoned.

In his article, Dr. Staniford lists five reversibility trends that we should be seeing if we are coming into the peak oil phase. These are five strawmen. Yes, we have seen price increases from time to time over the past thirty years. But our real troubles are just now beginning. We have not seen increases where prices double or triple overnight, nor cases (at least since the 1970's) where fuel becomes unavailable. Nor have we yet seen prolonged power outages. His analysis assumes that energy will be available at some price, yet is this realistic?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Petronicus -

You are right about the five straw men, but that, you must understand, is to be expected given Stuart Staniford's educational background. He is assuming that there will be continuity in the data.

This is an ad hominem argument, but Stuart is a physicist, and physicists are trained to see the world through a veil of math. They like linear systems and continuous functions, because otherwise the math becomes intractable. When they see huge anomalies in the data, they cry "bad data!" and demand that another experiment be performed. I am more of a seat-of-the-pants engineer, and I have a hunch that Peak Oil will show up as a huge anomaly in the data.

So... how easy is it to run an ag-business when people keep siphoning off your diesel, and when you have to hire a night watchman for each irrigation pump? Is it still worth it, or just too demoralizing?

I feel that we should respect people who can do competent analysis, understand the limits of their scientific imagination, accept it for what it is, and either use it or discard it as we see fit.

Given enough economic dislocation and social distress, this sort of analysis will no longer apply. The assumption that "the market will always clear" will not hold once large portions of it go black and gray. This will make a price-based analysis (such as Stuart's) a "garbage in - garbage out" sort of exercise.

How would Stuart ever find out how much of our food I and my numerous friends manage to grow, gather, catch and hunt? He'd have no idea, now, would he?

Anonymous said...

Aha. I like that idea, actually. Having a seasonal farming gig, that is. That's probably just cause I'm a starry-eyed environmentalist who loves the idea of growing my own food but not the idea of being stuck in the dark on the farm all winter.

And hey, if I can stomach the idea, probably a bunch of other people could too. Maybe WWOOFing will take off big-time, come collapse time...

Hadashi said...

Dmitry, I would like to read these comments and your replies to them in the blog itself. They are a little hidden here - though I myself did find them. Don't hide your light under a bushel! Look forward to your book - and will recommend that our library gets it.

Anonymous said...

I think Dr. Staniford’s article has more to do with social engineering than solar engineering. The jist of his article seems to be, 'If everybody just does what I say, everything will be fine.' I have seen other articles where someone says something to the effect, 'If people were made to understand X, then they would do Y.' People are notoriously reticent to change their opinions, let alone their behavior, when someone tells them how to behave. Jimmy Carter couldn’t even get the conversation going thirty years ago, and that was when the memory of gas lines was still fresh in our minds.


Rice Farmer said...

When I read Staniford's article, I immediately saw the flaw in his thinking: Who will be buying the high-priced food grown by these industrial farmers? Instead of selling their harvests for huge profits, farmers will be busy just trying to keep starving people from raiding their fields. The assumptions underpinning his argument are mistaken.

sv koho said...

Dmitry: enjoyed your clear reasoning and some of the comments. I have a tiny request: could you consider dropping the black background to your blog? It is hard to read and printing it uses prodigious quantities of ink! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Using the American model, provide e.g. cheap(er) higher education via high speed interactive internet to young or willing people enticed to work on farms. Shortages of all industrial components - "Peak Everything" - will make human labour at least as productive as domesticated beasts of burden.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the pictures from Thailand where the farmers now carry arms and sit out the night waiting to fight off any rice thiefs?

It is a good point, that maybe a lot of smaller farmers will invariably be forced to surrender their land to the bigger predator.

Austrian Banker