3 votes

A climate love story

1 comment

  1. scissortail
    I want to say up front that I take Tom Murphy with a grain of salt. His Hockey Sticks post contains some irresponsible extrapolation from limited data, and that makes me a bit leery of his work....

    I want to say up front that I take Tom Murphy with a grain of salt. His Hockey Sticks post contains some irresponsible extrapolation from limited data, and that makes me a bit leery of his work.

    In broad strokes, though, I can't find much to quibble about in this post. He could have cited things more directly rather than linking to his more topic-specific, in-depth posts. When it comes to the general shape of his blog's narrative, though, I think he's bang-on.

    Essay spoilers, I encourage reading it first.

    From the essay:

    If humans are to be successful on this planet for the long term (i.e., tens of thousands of years), we need a healthy ecosystem and we need to live off natural renewable flows rather than continue to spend our finite non-renewable inheritance.

    This seems absolutely critical to me. Much of the discourse of what is to be done regarding the climate crisis gets this when it comes to energy sources, but fails to reckon with non-renewable materials. We have depleted much of the easily available stores of the minerals that are required to build the guts of our renewable energy sources. As difficult-to-access stores become our only options, the energy requirement for extraction increases. This is to say nothing of the human exploitation that would likely be a prerequisite for the same: energy storage still relies heavily on conflict minerals, the extraction of which often involves child labor, slavery, and awful working conditions.

    With that in mind, I am of the opinion that the best use for current energy systems is to establish alternative systems that need no non-renewable energy sources (and as little non-renewable materials as possible) to function. As someone who recently pivoted to agriculture, applying this to farming is in the forefront of my thoughts.

    I think much of my life will be spent solving this question: How can we use present systems to establish productive farms which require no fossil fuels, metals, or industrial products for their maintenance?

    Some elaboration on the above. Rambly.

    Those who have looked into alternative agriculture may know that Permaculture seeks to address similar theoretical problems. I have heard Mollison and others criticized for the substantial amount of energy/labor needed to implement their proposed designs. I think this is no accident on Mollison's part; small landscapes that are highly productive, useful to humans, and that approximate a closed resource loop are very hard to find in nature.

    (The word small is doing a lot of heavy lifting here--obviously hunter-gatherers existed in just such systems, except that they were spread out over a great deal of space. I am interested in creating these systems in ten acres or less.)

    It seems to me, then, that implementing such designs requires a serious input of energy. Pre-industrial societies achieved such inputs by massing man- and animal-power. While we are in this extravagant energy glut, though, it seems imperative that we use that energy to create systems which make a pleasant life without it possible. For farming in most areas, this likely involves a good deal of terraforming, both to create earthworks and to remove/transform obstacles to effective farming/grazing (steep grades, large rock deposits, extremely compacted soils, etc.). It also means the more efficient establishment of fencing, structures, ponds, and the like.

    I have much research and practical work left to do, but a rough flow of how such a farm's life could play out might look like this (assuming one starts with marginal-to-barely-acceptable land):

    1. Comprehensive survey and observation.

    2. Site design.

    3. Site establishment. Non-renewable inputs are concentrated here. This would involve a great deal of tree planting in addition to the aforementioned terraforming and structure-building.

    4. Early stages of productivity: intensive market gardening (vegetables), honey production, egg/broiler production, goat dairying and/or pig pasturing. This stage likely still involves substantial off-farm inputs as soil is built and on-farm feed systems are established for livestock.

    5. As soil quality increases and economics stabilize, other systems can be established. Land cleared by pigs can be sown for sheep or other grazing livestock. Root vegetable staples or Fukuoka-style grain plots can be established. Fish or bivalves can be stocked in now-mature pond systems. Spare time and resources can be spent creating and evaluating experimental systems.

    6. Mature stage of productivity: more intensive fruits and vegetables are scaled back in favor of yields from mature tree crops. Experimental systems are pared down to what works reliably, and with minimal labor. Valuable timber can be worked or sold for extra income.

    I think frontloading the process in terms of both design and energy inputs will allow for maintenance using non-industrial technologies by stage 6. In my lifetime, that means not only getting good with hand tools (and the ability to make them from salvage), but also developing the skills to make tools from wood, rocks, bamboo, bone, clay, rope, etc. Those skills may not be needed for many decades, but designing the site in such a way that they are the only technological necessity means that such a farm could be productive and well-maintained seven generations hence.

    Similar questions must be asked in all walks of life, in my opinion. If we want to take the possibility of our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren having happy lives on this planet, we need to be the custodians of the transition between energy/material stocks and energy/material flows.

    I had never really stopped to consider this point made in the essay:

    I think of it this way: if every jackass on the planet has access to cheap and abundant energy, what do you think they’ll do with it? Will they use it to restore ecosystems, or hack more of it down for their own short-term gain?

    It may be the cynic in me talking, but I have a hard time believing that a miracle energy solution will lead to anything other than the extraction of every last drop of usable material for increasingly useless bullshit. Unless the materials crisis is somehow solved--and I have yet to read anything outside of the realm of fantasy that would indicate that a solution is even possible--I can't see fusion or the like as being all that useful (in the long term).

    I thought Murphy's parting principles were on point; if you didn't read the essay itself, at least take these away from it:

    1. Humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature.
    2. Non-renewable materials cannot be harvested indefinitely on a finite planet.
    3. The ability of Earth’s ecosystems to assimilate pollution without consequences is finite.
    4. Energy throughput is essential to all human activities, including the economy.
    5. Technology is a tool for deploying, not creating energy.
    6. Fossil fuel combustion is the primary cause of ongoing global climate change.
    7. Exponential growth, whether of physical or economic form, must eventually cease.
    8. Today’s choices can simultaneously create problems for and deprive resources from future generations.
    9. Human behavior is consciously and unconsciously shaped by mental models of culture that, while mutable, impose barriers to change.
    10. Apparent success for a few generations during a massive draw-down of finite resources says little about chances for long-term success.

    Technology is not going to save us, folks, and neither governments nor businesses are going to do a damn thing about it if we don't make them. We would do better to change how we live, and not give them a say in it.

    (Whew, ended up writing way more than I thought. I may clean this up and put it on my blog at some point.)

    1 vote