Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On the other hand...

I spoke yesterday of a surprising uptick in my outlook.  To be fair, perhaps I should highlight some of the waves of apocalyptic speculation pouring into the blogosphere.  Please realize, that simply reading this will change your attitude this morning.  There are just some curious themes coming out that tend to heighten my skepticism of many of these jeremiads.

For instance, this thoughtful picture of what a modern depression would look like:
By looking at what we know about how society and commerce would slow down, and how people respond, it's possible to envision what we might face. Unlike the 1930s, when food and clothing were far more expensive, today we spend much of our money on healthcare, child care, and education, and we'd see uncomfortable changes in those parts of our lives. The lines wouldn't be outside soup kitchens but at emergency rooms, and rather than itinerant farmers we could see waves of laid-off office workers leaving homes to foreclosure and heading for areas of the country where there's more work - or just a relative with a free room over the garage. Already hollowed-out manufacturing cities could be all but deserted, and suburban neighborhoods left checkerboarded, with abandoned houses next to overcrowded ones.
And above all, a depression circa 2009 might be a less visible and more isolating experience. With the diminishing price of televisions and the proliferation of channels, it's getting easier and easier to kill time alone, and free time is one thing a 21st-century depression would create in abundance. Instead of dusty farm families, the icon of a modern-day depression might be something as subtle as the flickering glow of millions of televisions glimpsed through living room windows, as the nation's unemployed sit at home filling their days with the cheapest form of distraction available. [More]
The grim economic news also helps those who are fearful (and I think fear is the primary motivator here) of the Obama presidency to hang on to their opposition.  In fact, many will be relieved when he is sworn in because the mess immediately becomes his and they can blame all manner of problems completely on someone they feel is too different from them to be trusted.

In fact, the economic crisis is based in part on a failure of simple trust between people of commerce.  By adding a new president who doesn't have many common characteristics with themselves, a significant minority of Americans have lost one more trustworthy icon. To be honest, I think many would acknowledge they didn't trust Bush's competence, but feel he at least shared their same outlook and dogma.

Finally, throw in the now-stunned Peak Oil watchmen, who have been predicting global catastrophe based on our energy consumption and you have a perfect storm pretty strong tempest of roiling doubt and blame.

And you get not-so-cheerful talk like this:
In my view -- and I know this is controversial -- a much larger proportion of the US population will have to be employed in growing the food we eat. There are many ways of arranging this, some more fair than others, and I hope the better angels of our nature steer us in the direction of fairness and justice. The prospects of a devalued dollar imply that we very shortly will not be able to get the all the oil-and-gas based "inputs" that have made petro-agriculture possible the past century. The consequences of this are so unthinkable that we have not been thinking about it. And, of course, the further implications of current land-use allocation, and the property ownership issues entailed, suggests formidable difficulties in re-arranging the farming sector. The sooner we face all this, the better.

As the fiesta of "globalism" (Tom Friedman-style) draws to a close -- another consequence of currency problems -- we'll have to figure out how to make things in this country again. We will not be manufacturing things at the scale, or in the manner, we were used to in, say, 1962. We'll have to do it far more modestly, using much more meager amounts of energy than we did in the past. My guess is that we will get the electricity for doing this mostly from water. It may actually be too late -- from a remaining capital resources point-of-view -- to ramp up a new phase of the nuclear power industry (and there are plenty of arguments from the practical and economic to the ethical against it). But we have to hold a public discussion about it, if only to clear the air and get on with other things, namely the new activites of alt.energy. But I would hasten to warn readers (again!) that we'll probably have to do these things more modestly too (don't count on giant wind "farms"), and that we are liable to be disappointed by what they can actually provide for us (don't expect to run WalMart on wind, solar, algae-fuels, etc). [More]
Much of this outlook arises, I believe, from the evolution of our economies over the last century from one that could be understood intuitively from local observation, and the sophisticated, complicated, and frankly bewildering structure of finance and production of today.  Poor economic education and the specialization of work means most of us struggle to imagine how today's world works, let alone how it should be fixed.

One result is an attraction to simplistic and righteously punitive ideas that would make the economy better and resolve old social, religious, and cultural grievances at the same time.  In short, many feel the economic situation is a chance to fundamentally change how we live together.

This is really, really bad news for industrial agriculture, as you read above. From almost all apocalyptic predictors comes a call for agrarianism in some form to return.  Whether the energy crowd, or the food movement, or the simpler-is-better adherents - all of them want me to grab a hoe and toss my Blackberry.  From schemes favoring more government  control to libertarian lassez faire, all have new pictures of agriculture.

Farmers and farm organizations need to be very careful which themes they embrace right now for opportunistic social changes. I haven't found one yet that doesn't lead to radically different commercial production for farmers like me.

We are the establishment, and before we think this is an opportuntity to rebuild the US (and the globe) in a new pattern, we need to make sure how our lives will be wrenched.  And we'd better hope our government gets this right.

[Thanks, Dave]

1 comment:

jules said...

Excellent Post John,
In many ways Bill Mollison and Masanobu Fukuoka have paved the way to agriculture that is not fossil fuel dependent.
For some easy to watch and very informative short films by Bill Mollison on how to grow our food with little/no fossil fuels see-
http://uk.youtube.com/results?search_query=bill+mollison+permaculture&search_type=&aq=0&oq=bill+mollison
or-
http://tinyurl.com/5hegu9
Keep well
Jules