Friday, January 15, 2010


Peak oil is not just about running out of petrol for our
cars; far from it. This from The Omnivore’s Dilemma
by Michael Pollan:

Industrial agriculture has supplanted a complete
reliance on the sun for our calories with
something new under the sun: a food chain that
draws much of its energy from fossil fuels
instead… Petroleum is one of the most important
ingredients in the production of modern meat.

In his devastating analysis of the American beef
industry, Pollan stands in a Kansas feedlot—the kind
of place where they fatten cattle on corn, and corn
only—and concludes:

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow:
industrialize the miracle of nature that is a
ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-
powered organism and turning it into the last
thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.

An economist told Pollan that to raise a typical steer
to slaughterhouse weight takes about a barrel of oil—
and millions of steers are processed that way every
year. You have to factor in the diesel fuel involved in
transportation, the petrochemicals in pesticides and
fertilizers for the corn, the power for the feedlots etc.

We’re not at that level in New Zealand, but there are
feedlots here—from memory, there's a big one down
Ashburton way—and growing pressure for the
equivalent in dairying. At the very moment in history
when we should be de-industrializing the land and the
treatment of the animals on it, the insane capitalist
drive for MORE, BIGGER, FASTER is pushing us in the
other direction. This drive is so reliant on fossil-fuel
energy that it scarcely seems credible that the big
industrializers can’t perceive the folly of carrying on
this way. Even on their own terms, it's a recipe for
disaster. As with the major-party politicians, however,
they are utterly the creatures of the master-myth of
‘progress’—so shackled to it that, to them, it’s ‘freedom’
(hence their fantasies of the ‘free market’). All of us in
countries like New Zealand are prisoners of it too, this
writer as much as anyone. Anyone for an escape bid?
I believe we could yet build a glider in the attic.


Giovanni said...

I like Pollan, but Susan George wrote much the same things about the food industry - and in the context of a far more devastating critique - over thirty years ago in "How the Other Half Dies". It seems it didn't take.

Sanctuary said...

This a commonly enough told story. But the idea that there is a big, scary monster in the room and Gaia is about to punish us because of it is a total myth based on the usual sort of economies with the truth that undermines the credibility of the entire Green movement.

Inorganic fertilizers are manufactured using hydrogen via the Haber–Bosch process. The source of the hydrogen in immaterial; Coal, natural gas or even electrolysis from water do the job. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, making up about 75% of the observable mass of our universe. The only reason hydrocarbons such as petroleum are used is it is the cheapest source of hydrogen around just now. We will never run out of hydrogen with which to make artifical fertilizer.

I know that the idea that our food supply is pervertedly dependent on fossil fuels in ways other sections of our industrialised world are not is a central plank of the gloomy Green Malthusian millenialism that you seem to clearly cling to, but that is not the case. Food production is no more, or less, dependent on fossil fuels than any other part of the interconnected world we live in.

Anyway, without technology like the Haber–Bosch process billions would starve. Without the liquid fuels powered transport net all the organic crop surpluses in the world will be of no use, since famine in the modern world is always a function of distribution, not shortage. So liquid fuels are not going away anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Sanctuary said: "without technology .....billions would starve"

Precisely. And if we don't have the fossil fuels to (ahem) drive the technology that is what will happen.

Except, per the theme of recent blogs, it will be a long slow-ish descent/decline.

Not DOWN TO ZERO al la Joan Armitrading but from seven billion down to a more sustainable bill. or so.