Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Still Alive and Kicking

I'm in Kooskia, ID today taking yet another day off to write. I feel rather guilty considering I spent about 4 days in Missoula. The ride from there to here was one of the best of the trip. The Lochsa River Valley, a wild and scenic river on the other side of Lolo Pass was true wilderness and seriously spectacular. The evening before I hiked one mile up to my very first undeveloped hot spring where I had the unusual company of a Pagan Priest. I wrote a whole little story about him that I'll have to publish later.

Here's a rather different article I just submitted to the Northeast Georgian. Welcome to Peak Oil Conversation. It's gonna become a popular topic.

All my love,


Look who's talking about Oil?

Behind my bicycle I pull a small steel trailer, and attached to that trailer are two metal signs on both sides that display my website address www.farmlandconservation.org, in green lettering on a white background. I got the idea to attach these signs way back in Newton, KS, and ever since then they have stimulated conversations with curious passerby nearly everywhere that I travel. The conversations start simple enough, usually along the lines of “So what is that farmland conservation about?” Something about the two words seen together must cause folks to wonder. I explain to them my journey and attempt to make sense of why I am so interested in the future of farming.

I've noticed that inevitably these conversations end up turning towards a few predictable themes; the dilemma of escalating land values and the rising cost of oil. It has made an impression on me that these two themes, land values and oil, come up so frequently. Oil, in particular, is something that virtually everyone is talking about, and in terms that I have never before heard expressed.

Of all the reasons discussed about why oil has become so expensive, and what the long-term outlook is for this dilemma, one of the most plausible explanations but also the most poorly understood, is the concept of “Peak Oil.” I had never even heard the term “peak oil” prior to this bicycle journey. A fellow named Alexis Ziegler in Charlottesville, Virginia introduced me to the history, and I've been studying it ever since.

In 1956 a scientist by the name of M. King Hubbert, one of the world's most famous and respected geophysicists, and an employee of Shell Oil, and later the U.S. Geological Survey, predicted that United States oil production would peak in the 1970's. Now widely referred to as Hubbert's Peak, 1970 was indeed the height of oil production in America, a level we have never surpassed even with the largest domestic oil discovery occurring a few years later at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. Hubbert's prediction was based on an analysis of annual versus cummulative production, and his method has since been used to predict peak production of world oil supplies. Hubbert own prediction for the world oil peak (certainly a more difficult task), set it for occurring around the year 2000 and gave an estimate of how much oil would be produced at that peak. Today, Hubbert's peers such as Ken Deffeye's at Princeton University have adjusted that prediction only slightly to the year 2005, with Hubbert's original estimates of the volume of oil produced at the global peak falling within 5% of current estimates. Not bad for a prediction made nearly forty years ago.

So the great big question is, how will we ever know for sure if we have truly squeezed the greatest amount of oil from the earth that mankind ever will; at least in terms of annual production? Hubbert's original domestic prediction was scoffed at and ridiculed for nearly a decade, until mounting evidence of declining production finally convinced us of its accuracy. Unfortunately, it will probably take years for us to believe that our oil abundance has come to an end. Who would even want to believe such a thing?

However, it may very well be farmers who are forced to make the judgement call first, because agriculture will be the first place that expensive oil will be felt. Many farms are already feeling it this year, and are adjusting their operations accordingly, out of sheer necessity.

From harvest time in late June, until planting time in late September or early October, wheat farmers in the Heartland till the soil to kill weeds and retain moisture retention. The soil lays barren and clean for nearly four months, but in order to keep it this way, the farmer must pass over their entire field in their tractors, burning diesel at an astonishing rate. This year, farmers are cutting corners, not cultivating the fields as often as they used to in an attempt to reduce fuel costs. The cost of anhydrous fertilizer has also gone up. Anhydrous fertilizer is a form of nitrogen where natural gas or another fossil fuel is reacted with atmospheric nitrogen (the most common element in the air) producing a form of nitrogen easily taken up by plants. As the demand for limited fuel supplies has increased, so has the price of this fertilizer, so high in fact that many farmers can't pay their fertilizer bill.

Agriculture, just like the rest of our industrialized society, has become totally dependent upon cheap fossil fuel over the last sixty years. Whereas farms used to utilize human and animal labor to perform work, now petroleum powered machinery is used almost exclusively. Whereas the fertility of the soil used to be managed and built by rotating crops, leaving fields fallow, growing cover crops, and mixing animals and their manure with croplands; now these processes have been simplified by simply purchasing this fertility from an outside source. When these outside sources of energy were cheap, we naturally gravitated towards them. As they become less affordable, and less practical, a paradigm built upon being less dependent upon outside inputs will begin to evolve.

It is here that I have begun to see the links between the small progressive farms dotted across the country, and the large scale monolithic farms that are part of our industrial food system. Large scale farms are not only more dependent upon outside inputs such as fuel, machinery, fertilizer and pesticides; they are also more dependent upon transporting their commodities 1,000 of miles, whereupon further energy is required to process these commodities into something resembling food, and then these food products are transported another 1,000 miles to the mouths of consumers. All in all, an extremely inefficient process. If large scale farms begin to feel the fuel pinch and adapt out of necessity for survival, they most likely will begin to act and behave more and more like small local farms.

As I stood around the Laundromat in Kooskia, Idaho chatting with a fellow about my age who had moved here from Buffalo, NY to lead Elk hunts and other outdoor adventures he mentioned a friend of his that had an interesting theory. The theory was simply this; that history will one day look back in astonishment at the boon and bounty of the petroleum years. It will be amazed that millions of us flew around in airplanes every year, that we were able to produce so much food that the world population literally exploded, that in general, the prosperity we enjoyed defied imagination. And then it was over. A few agonizing decades of famine, and chaos, and then we would go back to relying on a more moderate use and access to energy resources. It seems impossible, this theory. But there are some natural laws, especially those of thermodynamics that clearly define the relationship between matter and energy. My own prediction is that each year, our conversations with each other will turn more and more towards such topics.


  • 10/4/2006 2:59 PM April Ingle wrote:
    I've been checking your website regularly to keep up to date on your travels, and read your latest entry this morning. This afternoon, I was reviewing the daily Grist when I came across this article and thought it relevant to your trip and your latest entry: Heat and Serve
    Can industrial agriculture withstand climate change?http://www.grist.org/comments/food/2006/10/04/globalwarming/index.html?source=daily

  • 10/5/2006 1:38 PM Adeline Galm wrote:
    Hi Justin, We really enjoyed your visit. We will keep in touch more often now that we know you better. We realize that you probably didn't have time to read Marshall Smith's articles on "Black Gold" while you were here, but be sure and find the time someday soon to read all of that particular article on http://www.brojon.com , especially if you want to continue writing about the "Faux Peak Oil" scam controlled by the energy cartels. As you have seen first hand, our advice is free, so you can take it or pass over it.
    We hope you beat the rain to Riggins and 'enjoyed' the few little hills between there and here...Love and Gratitude for your visit....Tommy and Adeline.....clear up the creek from Kooskia, Idaho

  • 3/13/2007 7:38 PM michelle wrote:
    Did you go to the Weir Creek Hot Springs? What a beautiful place! I went there last summer as well after floating the river all day, although I had the company of a lovely young raft guide, rather than a pagan priest. It was a moonlight night, though, so the hike in was pretty easy despite the tree roots overtaking the winding paths. Glad you had the chance to warm up and rest those weary muscles in the prettiest corner of the world.

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