It occurred to me the other day, watching the uber-high energy farm across the road operate in its usual uber-high energy way, that each of the million-ish dollars worth of green and yellow tractors busily humming around doing highly specialized tasks was taking the job of at least 100 humans. Each one of them was, and there were several of them. If a gallon of fuel burned in a car represents the energy of 2-3 weeks of hard human labor, what does it equal when it's coupled with a massive yet efficient high-torque device like a 65 horsepower tractor? Would that one gallon of fuel not translate reasonably (and I think very conservatively) into a job for at least two able-bodied people for two weeks? And when was the last time a big tractor only burned one gallon of fuel on a given day's task? Let's say the big tractor in question burned 5 gallons of fuel on this hypothetical day. That would translate roughly into a two week job for 10 men. Condensed down to the same time period of work that the tractor accomplished its tasks, we're talking about a full day's work for 100 men (10 working days for 10 men would be 100 man-days of work, if we don't count the weekends, and I'm not certain that's what the energy comparison actually means, so this is a conservative estimate).
The numbers I've used here are somewhat arbitrary too, and it's difficult to do a direct translation from tractor power to human power, because the system employing the 65 hp tractors (and that's what we're doing, supporting a system that is employing machines instead of humans) evolved alongside them to fit their particular strengths and minimize their weaknesses, but the idea is roughly accurate. I can't really envisage 100 men walking shoulder-to-shoulder hoeing a hundred acre field by hand. If humans were growing crops at a human scale, we would surely go about the task differently. So perhaps it's safe to say that cheap abundant energy, and the technology it has spawned, has created something of a design cul-de-sac that absolutely doesn't allow for a seamless transition from oil power to human power, even if we understood that this was what needed to happen. And of course barely any of us understand that. But while millions of industrial humans stand in the welfare lines, desperate and hopeless about the jobs outlook, the cold, soulless diesel-smoking lungs of high-energy agriculture churn away day after day, employing almost no one of any consequence.
What has to give? Would the disappearance of cheap, nearly slave, labor for harvesting vegetables do it? Would that get the people back to work in a job that will be a much larger part of our future reality? Not if the state of Georgia is any kind of example. Recently, we, er, that is, the congress of Georgia, decided to crack down on illegal immigrants. I, personally, was fine with a gang of hard-working Hispanic people picking all of "our" vegetables in the blazing sun and stifling humidity for minimum wage and no benefits, so I don't take any credit for this one. Not really my economy anyway, so not really my responsibility. Those aren't the vegetables I eat, but if that's the system you support with your buying habits then you damn well ought to try to keep it working the way it works, or be prepared to do something pretty different. Like pick the veggies yourself. Not that that's how voters in this country ever really behave. No one's going to go out there and pick tomatoes all day in 98 degree, 80% humidity weather! Now the laborers are running scared, to other states that aren't so disconnected with the way things work these days, and at the peak of veggie season in south Georgia, the booty is rotting in the fields. Serves us right, to be honest. One of the biggest vegetable growers in our area voted against my uncle in the last state house election, and not just voted against, stumped against. Went on TV and made a big deal out of his support for the guy who just voted all his cheap labor across the border, and now no one is around to cut his okra for five bucks an hour. Mr. Brim, you of all people ought to know that you reap what you sow. Or didn't they teach you that in your 2 hour horticulture survey?
Why is the big picture so hard to see?? It's not like it's called the nano-picture, or even the micro-picture. BIG is a word that seems like it was made for seeing! Yet it's so hidden from most people. Systems thinking is a skill that must be honed if we are to move into energy descent effectively. And when everything around us is changing so radically, so fundamentally, the answers at which we arrive from systems thinking can be pretty abrupt. But then, nothing works the same in contraction as it does in growth. Nothing. Even my drains spin the wrong way these days;)
Sheesh. Moving on. So are the long-since-unemployed going to seize this opportunity to go get a job that was "stolen" from them so many years ago by outsourcing? Hell...No. Not one white collar guy out there is going to go cut Mr. Brim's okra for five bucks an hour. Wouldn't even do it for ten! It's way beneath them to do such hard trivial labor, and why the hell can't I get a job in my field that pays what I'm worth, dammit! They ask. I have a degree for Chrissakes. I ain't cutting okra in the blazing sun for less than minimum wage.
Why not? I do. But then, I've gone to some serious lengths to keep my dignity about me in the process too. It takes time to work out a system in which you cut okra in the blazing sun AND have interesting people stop by to ask you how you got there. We certainly don't do that with common laborers in the fields. They don't matter to most of us, until they're gone. They are the end product of one trajectory, and what we're doing is the beginning of a new one. Altogether different, even if the work looks the same sometimes. We had our first customer stop by the farm today to buy a sack of produce. Squash, onions, garlic, and oyster mushrooms. Not a lot, but worth celebrating because it's the way we want to see things go around here. We want people to come to us because they know we have the best produce in Tift County, and we want them to leave here feeling a bit taken back by how different our philosophy and operation are. It's not just the next organic system; permaculture is a fundamentally different approach to life. It was a good day. Seems like it's always a good day when people get their first exposure to permaculture.
But now it seems like we've come to it as a society. Some time ago I told my father that, by the end of my days, we, as a culture, would be spending something closer to 90% than 9% of our income on food, and that more like 80% than 2% of us would be directly engaged in the production of food, fiber, and fuel. Those numbers are pretty far out, I know, it's not like I just throw figures like that around about anything. But here, right now, in mid-2011, real wages are declining steadily, the dollar's value eroding from the "print-and-pretend" countermeasures our government is taking to "address" the economic maladies of an empire entering its descent phase. The campaign to sustain growth at all costs, even when it is a physical impossibility, is very rapidly bringing the curtains down on the middle class. Mr. Obama is making overtures toward withdrawing expensive US military support for more than one theater of global conflict...as he should be. And as soon as OPEC reaches the (openly, outside of the US media circus) sought-after day when they'll trade oil in reserve currencies that, above all, aren't the US fed note, as is their absolute right, we will see what intrinsic worth our almighty dollars contain within them. My guess is they won't even make good lighting tinder.
And so we go about making other preparations for a most unusual future laid out before us. And by unusual I mean unusual for the short-ass blip on the radar that represents industrial culture. Extremely usual by all other measures. The people who are most prepared for that future will be the ones who understand that this reality, the one full of HVAC, IRAs, CFLs, and SUVs, in other words, the one that runs on so much energy that we don't even have time to spell out our words anymore, is just a fleeting apparition. That they represent that once-in-human-history kind of moment when we have access to enough energy that we can convert a significant amount of natural capital into spectacular material wealth for a few select people, and push back the real costs of that wealth for a little while. For as long as we can afford the maintenance anyway.
That's really the problem with industrial society. Like all instantly-wealthy people, we didn't invest our lottery winnings in the establishment of perennial systems that would've made us wealthy in perpetuity. We didn't have the discipline that a slow build-up to such heights would have given us (that all-important "use small and slow solutions" principle you'll find at the heart of permaculture). Viewed from the distance the graph of human population and material wealth during the fossil fuel age will appear to be a giant narrow tower rising from, and falling just as abruptly back to, a more-or-less flat field of human presence and impact on Earth. We figured out how to use coal and oil, energy sources that represent the collected solar wealth of vast stretches of geologic time, to our advantage, and we went straight to work dreaming up the myriad ways we could spend it all, like college students lying in bed imagining they have in their possession "the big ticket." Who will I buy the first sports car for? We had to spend every last calorie, every last btu, we could get our hands on. The pace at which we spent it seemed only to be limited by our ability to imagine new ways in which to burn it. The height of our petro-empire, its scope and complexity, represents the distances we rode that winning horse. But like any pauper-cum-prince, we have blown it all on coke and whores...and by coke and whores I mean high-energy structures and systems that require constant and expensive maintenance, unless you want them to disappear for good. Which they will do, whether we want them to or not.
Now we need to leave Afghanistan. Now we need to pull out of Israel. Now we need to end the expensive and un-winnable war on "drugs," and war on "terror." All of which are very acceptable, very feasible, in the long view. But the one thing we spent our wad on that won't be so easily withdrawn from is the industrial food production system. It's annual maintenance costs are out of sight (and rising!), and it will consume itself from the tail. It won't be long before local, organically-grown food is less expensive than long-range, oil-soaked food, but we will still attempt to keep the machines employed preferentially over the people. As long as we keep spending our money that way. You know, this is the one thing we actually have a whole lot of power over. You vote with your fork every time you lift it. We've voted the majority of our neighbors out of work by buying cheap disposable goods made in developing countries preferentially over their products that perhaps cost a bit more. That was actually completely normal; it was a direct product of our access to cheap, abundant, energy-dense fuel. But if we put our faith in the same cheap-oil-dependent long food chain as energy prices continue to creep upward, and real income continues to slide, we will seal our own fate here at the end of a what's already been a really bad stretch.
And I personally don't want to be outsmarted by a tractor. I find that pretty embarrassing actually. So I am actively taking steps to behave in a different way than yeast behave, as they convert their energy source into poison in their environment, sugar to alcohol, just as we convert valuable natural resources into worthless trash and toxicity, and I have no interest in keeping the machines employed at our own peril. We should withdraw our tacit approval for keeping them employed while so many humans go jobless. There is a lot of work out there for us - about 100 jobs for every tractor in use today. I have never once said that the future wouldn't require radical behavioral innovation from us. Not once. I just think most of us don't understand that the future we're talking about is already upon us. That the actions we engage in every day, right now, are actively designing the future outcome of this skirmish. If a straight conversion from tractor power to human power is impossible - and really, how many of us are going to leave culturally-exciting cities and towns for the hinterlands - what will the transition look like on the ground instead?
I offer that it will look something like permaculture. Something like millions of tiny site-specific cellular food production systems and local trading networks, instead of plush green lawns and big box shopping centers. It's not something that can happen overnight, and only the craziest among us think it can, but it will happen eventually. What we call it on the way from here to there is a secondary matter. Permaculture is what it is because it is modeled on Nature's patterns and solutions. That's why it has evolved from "permanent agriculture" in 1978 to "permanent culture" in 2011; it seems 30+ years of permaculture-in-practice have demonstrated that its principles are somewhat more universal than originally expected. Which only seems right in a system that derives its principles from natural law. Permaculture applies just as powerfully to politics and investing as it does to gardening. If we are a natural biological population then we will be engaged in something strongly resembling permaculture for the next few centuries most likely, until we reach some future, stable, much lower-energy culture.
Forget about the Mexicans. They are just filling a niche created by our high-energy, ethically-dubious petro-culture. But if we spend any longer on this trajectory we will eventually breed tomatoes that can be picked by a machine and used to fill an even less food-like role in our culture. The same thing we've done with all of our other food crops. And it would accomplish the same two tasks the other "efficiency gains" accomplished. Lower quality food, and fewer people employed by it. But, if you look around you will see that that is not where we are headed. If you're paying attention you'll see that more people are gardening every year, more people canning and freezing food for winter, more people sewing, more people brewing, smithing, knitting, chopping wood, keeping small livestock, keeping big livestock! I milked a cow this morning for christ sake. A cow! Four years ago I was waking up to an alarm, driving 22 miles both ways to work every day, staring at a computer in a cubicle. Now I'm milking a cow, and brushing chicken poo off of beautiful green eggs to go with my local sausage and fresh milk. And by fresh I mean just cooled down to fridge temperature. People all over the industrial world are falling in love with food again, because we are starting to regain access to food worth loving. In this case hedonism is also ecologically-appropriate, as good tasting, mineral-dense food is always the food grown in the most ethical way. Intact mineral cycles make good food, and our bodies recognize it, even after all these years in exile.
The thermometer on my PC says '100' in this ominous red font that has replaced the normal friendly green, and it's been mid-90s for weeks now, and brutally dry, but we haven't caved on using our AC unit. Instead we are saving our pennies to buy a solar attic fan. The fan won't make the house 76 degrees and dry like our house was when we drove 22 miles home from work to that comfy little cottage on the lake, but it will make it bearable, even in triple digit heat, with practice. The same practice that is required to give John Deere and his thugs their walking papers, and start producing food for ourselves, right around us, employing humans in rewarding tasks. Good food, with characteristics besides shelf life and uniformity. The kind of food we used to eat before our brains were replaced with sweet crude smoothies.
When the weather is hot you compensate by slowing down. The same strategy applies in a world of crappy food and lost jobs. Slow down and do it the right way, the only way that can be sustained into the future.