Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Agriculture and the ‘Fallacy of Reversibility’

Over at The Oil Drum (an excellent site), one of their contributors has posted a piece called “The Fallacy of Reversibility,” in which he counsels against believing that mechanized agriculture will give way to a slide back to pre-modern labor-intensive agriculture. He argues that mechanized farmers will make out like bandits because of their efficiency and because they’ll charge high prices and cover the costs of their expensive inputs.

On paper, it looks good at first glance. But in my view, he is making a fatal mistake: He is assuming that people will keep paying the ever-rising prices for agricultural products. In reality, the world’s poor are already being priced out of the food market. What’s making big profits for farmers are farm subsidies and now the high prices for biofuel feedstock, not people of limited means buying their output. But of course the well-heeled are still eating well, as the middle class begins to struggle.

I guess you can see where this is leading. Mechanized farmers must at some point pass on the rising costs of fuel and fertilizer, or go out of business. But when too many people get priced out of the food market, which has got to happen eventually, they’ll just start helping themselves to whatever they can find, and that will include raiding farmers’ fields. So as Dmitry Orlov points out, the whole system will collapse. So no, there won’t be a neat process by which we retrace our steps back to premodern agriculture. It will be extremely messy, with people grabbing land and food. But modern agriculture will be reversed.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Energy Reality Check

Energy gurus and the people who desperately want to continue our extravagant way of life are pandering to the public by telling us how we’re going to free ourselves from fossil fuels with nuclear, renewables, and whatnot. Sorry to say, freeing ourselves from fossil fuels and continuing this extravagant way of life is nothing but a chimera.

Here’s the deal: Nuclear power would not exist were it not for the underpinning of fossil fuels. People who imagine a glorious nuclear future never stop to think about how nuclear fuel comes to be, how a nuclear power plant is constructed, operated, maintained, and dismantled, or what’s done with the deadly nuclear waste.

Same with renewables. Energy gurus paint a picture of a pollution-free and energy-rich future with wind farms, acres of PV panel arrays, and other hardware, but they don’t appear to bother themselves with the thought that fossil fuels are needed to manufacture, deploy, and maintain that infrastructure. They don’t see the huge amount of fossil fuel energy embodied in a hydroelectric dam.

And the car culture? Energy gurus in their infinite wisdom fail to focus on anything but the energy needed to power vehicles. We never hear talk about the energy needed to manufacture motor vehicles, build and tool manufacturing and assembly plants, or build and maintain roads and bridges. Or do they think this can be done with ethanol and electricity?

Oh yea, and speaking of ethanol, where does everybody think biofuels come from? Take away the fossil fuels that make the fertilizer, power the farm machinery, fuel trucks, and run biofuel facilities, and what have you got? Nothing, that’s what. Power your biofuel operations on biofuels and see how far you get. Your operation will be on the skids so fast your head will spin.

So as you can see, all the ideas for “freeing ourselves from fossil fuels” are totally unrealistic. What we need to do is power down and husband fossil fuel resources because they provide the underpinning for renewables.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Fuel Taxes and Road Maintenance

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t — that’s the Catch-22 situation surrounding fuel taxes and road maintenance/construction. I believe I first pointed out the relationship in this post.

In a few days the new session of Japan’s Diet (parliament) will begin, and a major topic of debate has already been decided: What to do about the gasoline tax. One side in the debate claims that the tax is needed to finance road construction and maintenance (true), while the other insists that the tax must be lowered or eliminated to reduce the cost of fuel and keep vehicles on the road (also true).

What’s more, because the materials and energy for road construction and maintenance are fossil fuel-based, it makes the problem even more serious for modern economies, as illustrated here. How this will play out is pretty easy to predict, to an extent. Many roads and bridges will simply fall into disrepair, and movement will be much more restricted in the future. Instead of counting on having the same degree of mobility in the future, now is the time to redesign societies and economies on a much more localized scale.

People think that if we figure out other ways to propel our vehicles — biofuels, electricity, air, or what have you — our transportation problems are solved. Sorry to say, it just isn’t so. You also need to factor in the energy needed to obtain the raw materials for making vehicles, manufacture them, and transport them to dealers; the energy to build, maintain, and tool automobile assembly plants; and the energy and materials needed to build and maintain roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, the transportation energy debate is focusing almost exclusively on the energy source to propel vehicles. There seems to be no realization that without well-maintained infrastructure for vehicle manufacturing and transportation, having fuel for your car means nothing.

Addendum: Winter and snow remind me that another significant road-maintenance expense is plowing and salting. It’s easy to find news stories about local governments wheezing under the heavy financial burden imposed by these tasks.

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