Forward to the Past

By Santiago De Choch

“Back to the Future” is a 1985 film featuring Michael J. Fox as teenager Marty McFly, who travels 30 years back in time, to 1955. While there, he interferes with his young parents’ meeting, and has to amend his mistake by making sure they meet and marry, lest himself is never born and thus erased from history. The movie was a success and is still a pleasure to watch, but this article is not about it. It’s about energy, and agriculture.

In 1955, US oil extraction was about 2.5 billion barrels per year. In 1970, domestic production peaked at 3.5 billion. In Marty McFly’s 1985, it was back to roughly 2.5 bbls/yr, and in decline. By 2015, most easily recoverable oil was gone, but an infusion of cheap credit was financing another upward surge, this time fueled by more problematic, dangerous and difficult reserves: deep sea, previously protected natural areas, and especially, fracking. At 3 bbls/yr, the shale oil boom peaked in 2015, short of the 1970 all-time high, and has been in decline since. 

I think about all this as I till a new row to plant winter greens. I hear the staccato of a big pileated woodpecker looking for bugs under the bark of a tree. That’s my friend Woody. He lives somewhere in my farm. We have much in common. For example, neither one of us owns a TV. In my case, that means, among other things, that I’m not subject to propaganda telling me it’s possible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. 

Oil is only part of the story. Every natural resource is in decline, worldwide. Renewable resources like topsoils, fisheries and timber are being used at a much faster rate than they can replenish themselves. Non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, metal ores and minerals are also being used up fast, but there’s no replenishment. It took geological eras for the Earth to produce them, and us humans have burned through most of them in about 200 years.

Not watching TV doesn’t mean one doesn’t have access to information. I have a computer, and on good days, or at the library, an internet connection. Sure, you have to wade through a lot of pages to arrive at a conclusion about anything (mainstream and alternative media, universities, corporations, archives and so on). But everything I wrote so far, from “Back to the Future” to a brief history of resource depletion, is true. My worldview is also based on personal experience and information. I have traveled in most of America and the world, and seen every resource, from aquifers to biodiversity, diminish year after year, while pollution grew along with human populations. Finally, no TV time allows me to read a lot of books, and that’s better information than the 2-minute rants from talking heads on a screen.

That said, I’m not a gloomy guy. More of an “eat, drink and be merry,” Carpe Diem type. I just don’t like being lied to. I prefer to look at reality as is, not through rose-tinted glasses. I’m not out to convince anyone of anything, but if you tell me that solar panels and Teslas will allow us to continue consuming like maniacs, I’ll disagree. Renewable sources of energy are welcome, but they can’t replace our Gargantuan appetite for cheap energy. It takes more energy to build most solar and wind tech than it will produce in their lifetime. Rare Earth Elements (REE), necessary for electronics and batteries, are under as much stress as fossil fuels. No electric grid can keep millions of vehicles charged, in addition to cities and industry powered up and planes flying. More importantly, the time to make changes was decades ago, when highly concentrated fuels were still plentiful. Alas, that window is closed now. 

There’s changes ahead—not necessarily a bad thing. Consuming less can be healthy and rewarding. It’s important to be aware of realistic potential scenarios, especially when it comes to the food we eat. It’s easy to give up Disney trips and jet-skis, but eating is non-negotiable. To be blunt, the food shortages and inflation we’ve experienced recently are likely to get worse. That’s the bad news. The good news is that history teaches us that it’s entirely possible to feed large numbers of people using old farming techniques. Let’s take a look at the agriculture that once was, what we have now, and what we’re likely to have as resource depletion picks up speed. Spoiler: the agriculture of the future looks like that of the past, but nothing like the energy hungry agro-industry we have now.

Agriculture can be intensive, or extensive. Extensive agriculture means the cultivation of large tracts of land. Intensive is growing food on much smaller areas. Historically, America was able to produce impressive amounts of food on large fields without using fossil fuels or chemical fertilizers, which require large amounts of fossil fuels to produce. Primitive technologies, from plows pulled by oxen to the massive horse powered combines still in use a hundred years ago, combined with time-tested practices such as fallowing and cover-cropping to maintain soil fertility, made possible the production of enough grains and dry legumes to keep the US fed, along with enough surplus for export. Staples like wheat, dry beans and dry peas keep well without refrigeration, and could be transported by carriage to the nearest waterway or railroad station.

Intensive agriculture was required for produce, eggs, and many small livestock, as shipping fresh food long distance was not an option. Besides knowledge and work, a few garden tools were all that was required. Most homes had kitchen gardens. Large cities were surrounded by market gardens, so the stores would have food other than staples for sale. 

The “green revolution” of the 1960s eliminated this division. It became possible to grow almost any crop extensively, not just dry staples. Some of the tools that made this possible include genetically modified seeds, advances in shipping, cool storage, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, automation and economies of scale. Food production became more abundant all over the world. Populations exploded. Prices fell and smaller players could not compete. Hundreds of acres could be put into production with minimal human labor, as long as expensive equipment, cheap energy and lots of fertilizers and pesticides were available. Salads didn’t need to be grown locally: they could be trucked from one coast to the other of the continental US. Fresh grapes could be flown in from Chile when out of season, and so on: cheap, abundant fossil fuels made it possible.

This is the model that’s collapsing. For example, rock phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer, is rapidly depleting. Ask any farmer about the cost of fertilizer, or diesel, or cold storage come the spring planting season: it will be much higher than last spring. Translation? Food prices will be higher and shortages more acute. But I’m optimistic! Farmers are smart and always find a way. To be clear, Big Ag is not the problem. Many large growers increasingly incorporate sustainable practices, such as crop rotation and cover crops. We need all agriculture, big and small. This article is a “what if.” What if energy and chemicals become scarce? Do we have a plan B? Florida, and America, produced lots of food a hundred years ago, without the technology we now take for granted. Could we do it again?

We could if we go forward to the past and bring human and animal muscle, low tech and traditional methods back to the fields. The TV dream of robots and artificial intelligence growing all our food in high rises will not come to pass. Instead, we’ll see lots of people tilling fields, with help from the occasional biodiesel tractor. The jobs of the future are not Instagram influencer or Bitcoin trader; they are agricultural laborer, farrier, mule breeder. Old timers who remember how things used to be done in bygone days will be valuable resources.

Small Ag will be every bit as important as Big Ag to make sure nobody goes hungry. Millions of folks are attending backyard gardening seminars, raising chickens and rabbits, learning seed-saving, composting and the many other skills necessary for year-round small scale food production. Join them! Even if someone somewhere comes up with a new source of cheap energy (maybe unicorn dust), you have nothing to lose by ripping up the lawn and planting potatoes. You’ll exercise, be healthier, and be an asset to the community, adding to your area’s sustainability and food security. You’ll depend less on increasingly fragile supply lines.

Arriving in 1955, Marty and his mad scientist friend, “Doc” Brown, realize there’s no plutonium to  power the time-traveling DeLorean back to the future. Eventually they come up with a scheme to harvest a lightning bolt’s energy and come back to their own era: everybody loves a happy ending! But only children believe “happily ever after” is always the outcome in real life. Adults know happy endings are possible only through hard work, ingenuity, intelligence, teamwork, and a bit of luck. Hoping for the best is fine, but not planning for the worst is a mistake. It’s time to turn the TV off and mobilize every ounce of strength, every skill you’ve got, and every neighbor, friend and relative towards one goal: independence from long supply chains by growing as much food as possible in your own backyard, neighborhood and region. Godspeed!

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