Sunday, April 8, 2012

Peak Oil Reversalist: The Latest Denialist Meme

I came across a blog entry at Hipcrime which takes Stuart Staniford's 2008 commentary and runs with it. Staniford asserts that peak oil will cause industrial farming to grow instead of the usual peak oil theory that high prices will force us back to our agrarian roots and out of the cities. Essentially, this Hipcrime writer is basically just another denier, much like a global warming denier. The premise put forth is that, according to basic peak oil thought, rising oil prices will drive up production costs and thus make food more costly, causing to people head out from the cities into the countryside to start a bucolic life as a farmer. Hipcrime and Staniford go on to say that we have since had higher oil prices (a point that must be examined in and of itself), yet we have not seen this phenomena of people heading out to farm for themselves, struggling industrial farms, and small farmers making more money. Instead, industrial farms have gotten larger. Thus, peak oil leads to more industrial farming.

Well, not to put too fine a point on this, I've rarely seen such a fractured case of reasoning. Essentially, they fail to understand the difference between small farms that do not use industrial tools and those which do. Plus, they misunderstand efficiency and the way it works in a society captured by the industrial system.

The small farmers that Hipcrime and Staniford refer to are those small farmers who are still indentured to the "traditional" farming methods developed since the thirties which places a farmer in thrall to the bank. The farmer borrows money to buy seed, property, chemicals, fuel, and equipment which then must be repaid in a market where everyone is fighting in a race to the bottom. The irony of more "efficient" farming (that should really be read as more reliant on cheap finite energy) is that it creates more product which drives prices down. Those shrinking prices then lead to a race for more "efficiency": GPS guided tractors, satellite analysis of fields, the use of drones to examine fields, arbitrage in the markets by farmers to control variance and so on. Each of these "advances" leads to another bout of crashing prices. When prices crash, small farmers must cash out. These farms are absorbed into megafarms.

However, if you look at farmers who walked away from their servitude to the banks, you see profitable farms with far better profit margins than the industrial farms. On top of this, they enrich the soil, improve the watershed, and produce as much or more higher quality food than any industrial concern could hope to create. Two quick examples are Polyface Farms and Green Pastures Farms. To get a good understanding of these two prime examples be sure to check out their videos: Mob Grazing with Greg Judy and Polyface Farms Pt. 1. And, remember that these two instances are competing against a brutal fossil fueled behemoth that uses all the advantages of monopoly to rig regulations, force small producers out of markets, and on and on, yet these small producers are making a profit. Imagine if they were not being hounded by the agricultural version of the Death Star. As you can see, if Staniford and Hipcrime were to select successful farms which opted out of the industrial indentured servant model, their theory would be shot down in two seconds, and they couldn't have that, right?

So, what you see is two "thinkers" setting up straw men and then mercilessly whacking them with a cudgel.

Another face of the efficient argument relates to inherent waste in an oversupplied system. Joining their straw man army is their statement that peak oil theorists believe that an agricultural system that has almost completely turned itself over to the industrial model will somehow roll over and die should fuel prices become too exorbitant. No peak oil theorist offers this. Look at simple efficiency--not that of industrial farming, which is only as efficient as the cheap energy allows it to be (no cheap energy, no industrial farming). What most people don't take into account is that cheap energy breeds inefficiency. When you have piles and piles of cheap energy laying about, there is no incentive towards efficient use of your industrial tools. But, once fuel prices go up, the vast mountain of potential fuel savings through efficiencies finally become economical--but only for a short while, because everything has its limits. We will reach or have already reached the limits to squeezing all of the efficiency we can out of the industrial farming system. For Staniford to say, look, the industrial farms didn't quit just after peak oil or even start trending towards more manual labor, is like expecting the Titanic to hit the iceberg and then ten seconds later be on the bottom of the ocean.

They cite high oil prices that should be driving industrial agriculture to its knees. They aren't that high, not for what you are buying--a vast force of energy slaves. You must also look at the price of oil adjusted for inflation. The average inflation adjusted price of a barrel over the past 12 years is $56.52 per barrel. That is not that bad. We are offshoring our woes to third world countries by pricing them out of the market thus forcing them to give up their oil to the market without firing a shot. At home, demand destruction forces people to choose between driving and eating thus keeping us in a recession. And, because of these two forces, we are seeing the markets adjust. The idea that prices have become so extraordinarily onerous as to force people to head to the bush to grow beans is ludicrous, and it is even more ludicrous to then point to that simple fact as evidence that we will not ever get to that point and that we will enjoy, as James Howard Kunstler so adroitly puts it, "happy motoring" and "cheese doodles" forever.

I can see why some people do what they do: Hipcrime seeks controversy to gain readers and notoriety and Stuart Staniford is the scientist looking at an elephant with a telescope. The problem with many scientists and engineers is their need to constrain variables, the reductionist mindset, which prevents complex thinking. But is this bizarre and irrational attack on peak oil really helpful? On a planet that was on the fast track to desertification from the moment man invented agriculture, the idea that we should be saving the souped up version of that destructive lifestyle seems a bit counterproductive. Why not just admit that we took a wrong turn? Why not use what's left of the cheap energy to de-engineer ourselves back to a truly sustainable point? Why won't they do this? Hubris, I suspect.

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