Archive | February 2014


Thus far we have covered Energy in general, which is one major input to industrial agriculture.  This post will cover another major input, water.  Plants need water to grow.  Humans and livestock need water to drink.  Whole ecosystems need adequate water for their purposes.  What happens if drought forces a scarcity of fresh water?  We are in the beginning stages of finding out the answer to this question, as climate change threatens increases in severe weather, desertification, and pro-longed drought.

California right now is in a state of severe drought, potentially the worst drought in 500 years, according to at least one professor.   California grows 25% of the country’s food, including more than half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables in the United States.  Agriculture uses 80% of water in the state.  Livestock farmers are among the hardest hit by the drought.  Not only do they need water for the livestock to drink, but they need water to grow the fields the livestock feed on.  According to the USGS waster contents calculator, a pound of ground beef requires between 4,000-12,000 gallons of water to produce.

The drought in the West, coupled with bitter cold in much of the rest of the country, has helped shrink the nation’s cattle population to a 61-year low. Wholesale prices for choice-graded beef hit an all-time high of $240.05 per hundredweight Jan. 22, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (source)

With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days.

You can see from this image at Folsom Lake near Sacramento taken by the California Department of Water Resources how bad things are.


According to NASA, the lake has gone from 97 percent capacity down to 17 percent.

California is not the only state having water problems.  California uses approximately 5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River every year.  The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land  It provides water for 7 different states. named the Colorado River the most endangered river of 2013. 

Lake Mead is the largest water reservoir in the United States, formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.  It set a record low water level of 1081.94 feet in 2010.  Today the lake is at 1108 feet.  It is expected to drop 20 feet this year.  Hoover Dam will not be able to produce electricity if Lake Mead drops to 1050 feet.  Hoover Dam supplies electricity to 29 million people.

Lake Mead:


The United States is also not alone when it comes to drought.  Sao Paolo Brazil is facing the biggest drought on record.  Their biggest water supply may run dry within 45 days.

Drought causes farmers and municipalities to increasingly use ground water and aquifers.  For example, during the last few years of drought in Oklahoma and Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer experienced its largest decline in 25 years in the Texas panhandle.

Between 1900 and 2008, the US lost 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of groundwater. That’s twice the volume of the water in Lake Erie….It gets worse.  The rate of groundwater depletion is accelerating, according to the study of 40 major US aquifers. Between 1900 and 2008, the US lost an average of 9.2 cubic kilometers of groundwater annually as the growth of cities and industrial agriculture tapped underground reserves. But between 2000 and 2008, groundwater depletion jumped 171% to an average of 25 cubic kilometers a year. In just those nine years, the amount of water pumped from the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies a large swath of the US, was equivalent to 32% of the water that was depleted from the Ogallala during the entire 20th century. (source)

The Ogallala Aquifer was created by glaciers millions of years ago, and refills at a much slower rate than we are depleting it.  30% of the Kansas portion of the aquifer has already been pumped dry. 

Shrinking groundwater raises likelihood of food crises.

Beyond this, groundwater depletion is having unintended consequences.  The pumped groundwater from aquifers and other underground reservoirs ends up as runoff, making it into streams, rivers, lakes, and eventually the oceans.  In fact, in a newly discovered feedback loop of climate change, groundwater pumping is causing sea-levels to rise faster than glacier melt.

Other hidden costs of droughts include limiting energy production from power plants, as nuclear, coal, and natural gas plants are cooled by water.  Drought also increases prices for biofuels, such as corn based ethanol, which requires water in order to grow.  Low water levels on rivers such as the Mississippi mean limited capacity for shipping.  The Mississippi carries 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 22 percent of the oil and gas and 20 percent of the coal.  Higher shipping costs translate to higher prices for these commodities, exacerbating the effects of drought on food and energy.

The water crisis we are undergoing prompted the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, to come out last year and issue a warning to the world about fresh water scarcity.

I just recently watched a documentary about water on Netflix called Last Call at the Oasis.  I encourage you all to watch it if you are concerned about this issue.  Here is the trailer:

Today I’m posting two videos because they go together.  I present to you The Story of Stuff and The Story of Solutions:


Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. -Edward Abbey

We have this problem where every year we consume and produce more and more energy.  This need for perpetual growth in production has led to the problem of Peak Oil(which might spell the peaking of everything, including food).  Historically, since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, energy consumption in the United States has grown at a rate of 2.9%.  To a layperson not familiar with exponential growth, this might appear to be a manageable figure; 2.9% might not sound that bad.  Unfortunately, even at this seemingly modest growth rate, this means energy consumption will double in a short 24 years.  That is, if the trend since around 1650 or so continues, we will need to double our energy production in the next 24 years in order to keep pace with expectations from historical data.  As hard as it is for us to produce the energy we produce now, drilling, fracking, importing, tar sands production, war, etc…we will have to find a way to produce twice as much over the next 24 years just to continue the precedent.

Suppose we played around and projected this into the future to see how ridiculous it can become.  Well we are in luck, because Tom Murphy on his blog Do the Math has done just that.  He used a 2.3% rate for simplicity.  He concludes:

No matter what the technology, a sustained 2.3% energy growth rate would require us to produce as much energy as the entire sun within 1400 years… In 2450 years, we use as much as all hundred-billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

As you can see, one thing is certain.  Growth in energy consumption will end eventually.  So why do we continually grow energy production?  Why not just use the same constant amount of energy year in year out?  The answer comes down mostly to two issues: economic growth and population growth.

Most economic activity requires energy.  There are several different metrics economists use for economic activity.  One of the main measurements used, especially in the United States, is Gross Domestic Product(GDP).  Wikipedia defines GDP as- “the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year, or other given period of time.”  A “negative growth” in GDP, as an economist would describe it, is one indicator of a contracting economy.  A contracting economy is, by definition, an economy in Recession.  In our economic system, a growing GDP is considered good, and a decreasing GDP is considered bad.  Recession is considered bad, rightfully so due to the hardship it creates.  Nevertheless, economic activity requires energy, and because economic activity must always increase to avoid recession, we have created an economic system inherently coupled to energy growth.  To put it into perspective:

Even at only 3 percent, that means finding more than $2tn worth of new investments every year. Consider the sheer scale of the production and consumption that this requires. Each year we have to add the equivalent of the size of the entire global economy of 1970 just to be able to say that we’re “progressing”. (source)

As we discovered earlier, perpetual growth in energy consumption will eventually end.  Because physical economic activity requires energy, this means growth of the physical economy will also eventually end.

Another issue that drives growth in energy consumption is population growth.  Here is a graph of human population growth over time:


As you look at that graph, you should be asking “is this sustainable?”  You’ll notice most of this population explosion has occurred within the last few hundred years, during the Industrial Revolution, first beginning with the extraction of Coal as fuel, which paved the way for the discovery/production of oil 125 years ago.  The discovery of oil led to the Green Revolution, which has made this recent tremendous growth possible.  A cycle has developed:  we use energy to create food and then we use food to create people.  Because we then have more people, we need more energy and more food.  Now if there is a big enough drop in food production, it translates to famine, riots, and a food crisis.  There are other factors that contribute to rising population other than food of course, such as medicine raising life expectancy, but modern medicine is also very highly energy intensive.

Humans discovered a glut of energy which they have used to fuel a population explosion.  This leads me to ask: will energy depletion lead to a Malthusian Catastrophy in which the surplus of human population created by the exploitation of hydrocarbon energy suffers a population collapse?  For example, in wine production, yeast is added to grape juice to trigger fermentation.  The yeast cells “eat” the sugar in the grape juice and turn it into ethanol.  Because of the newfound food source, the yeast population explodes, growing and growing until most of the sugar is turned into alcohol.  Eventually the yeast population grows so much they run out of sugar to eat and their population collapses.  There is a die-off of yeast.  In the same way, humans will eventually face a situation where energy production can no longer continue to grow.  This will mean population will no longer continue to grow, and perhaps even decline in parallel with energy production as it grew in parallel with energy production.  The population graph posted above might very well have an impeding mirror image on the right-hand side materializing in the future, as exponential population growth begets decline.

M. King Hubbert, the father of Peak Oil theory:

It’s an aberration. For most of human history, the population doubled once every 32,000 years. Now it’s down to 35 years. That is dangerous. No biologic population can double more than a few times without getting seriously out of bounds. I think the world is seriously overpopulated right now. There can be no solutions to the world’s problems that do not include the stabilization of the world’s population.

When I first began to understand the problem of growth, there was one video that blew my mind in particular.  It was a lecture presentation by Dr. Al Bartlett titled Arithmetic, Population, and Energy.  It is 74 minutes long, but I’m not asking you to watch the entire thing unless you are really interested.  However, the first 25 minutes are, in my opinion, adequate to get you a rudimentary understanding of this problem.  Here is the video:

Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth, wrote an article in 2012 called Fun With Trends.  Here are a few of his projections:

If current trends continue…

  • The population of the United States will increase to over 600 million by 2080, and in 2150 it will equal China’s present size.
  • World population will achieve 14 billion by the year 2075 and 30 billion by 2150.
  • By 2015 China will be importing more oil than the United States does that year.
  • In just 8 years China will be burning as much coal as the entire world uses today.
  • Officially assessed US natural gas reserves will be exhausted by 2025.
  • China’s economy will be 8 times as big as it is today by 2040.
  • China’s economy will surpass the size of the present global economy before 2050.

Further reading can be had here:

And today’s video:


Peak Oil

Humankind, at the end of “The Century of Oil,” teeters on the brink of the third millennium.  On one side of our perch stretches bountiful opportunity, and an abundant, fulfilling future based upon the principles of sustainable living.  If we look closely here, we see that the stage is set for a rapid conversion from a fossil fuel-based economy to a lifestyle based on renewable energy.  On the other side, looms the destruction of Homo sapiens’ natural habitat, obstructionist government policies, and big business threatening to engulf us in a deathly haze of greenhouse gases.  Our generation is the first in the history of our species to be offered the opportunity for a conscious choice: exploitation or stewardship; devastation or sustainability.  Will we have the foresight to take heed of our natural limits, or continue down the slippery slope of unfettered consumption until it is too late to correct our course?  Our fate is in our own hands.  –John Schaeffer

It took following the Peak Oil blogosphere for a few years before I had ever heard of Permaculture.  I didn’t start hearing “permaculture” until learning about gardening.  Even then I didn’t know it had anything to do with energy depletion.  Eventually, I hope to make this connection more clear in subsequent posts.  I first started making this connection for myself when I ran across David Holgrem’s Four Energy Futures:


I’ll go deeper into permaculture as a response to these issues later.  For now I’d like to lay out the energy predicament we are in.  As we discovered in the last post, growing, processing, and bringing food to market in an industrialized manner is very energy intensive.  So what does it mean for our food system to be faced with energy depletion?   What does it mean for our economic system, which is dependent on natural resource inputs?


It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We’ll use the next trillion in 30.   Half of all of the oil that has ever been consumed since the discovery of oil, has been consumed since 1985.  As you can see, this problem is exponential.  Production and consumption of oil have grown steadily for so long we as a society do not know what it will be like to experience a decline in rate of oil production.  With eventual depletion looming, the point where the world production rate of oil maximizes and enters permanent decline has come to be known as Peak Oil.

The critical factor in the oil markets and a global economy dependent on large, continuous supplies of oil is the rate of production. The rate is the key, not the size of the world’s reserves. It is the size of the tap, not the size of the tank that matters.

Let me offer another analogy to help explain. If you inherit a million dollars with the stipulation that you can only withdraw $500 a month, you may be a millionaire, but you will never live like one. That is increasingly the situation we face with oil.(source)

Growth in oil production will eventually peak, failing to keep pace with growing demand.  This alone will create huge oil market instability.  Worse yet, once peak happens the decline is permanent, and production values will continue declining, no longer meeting demand from previous years.  One thing we can say for certain is that prices will get higher.  This rapid increase in price can have severe consequences for the global economy.

Oil is a staple in the creation of thousands of products.  It is in plastics, synthetic fabrics, petrochemicals, ammonia, toothpaste, paints, glycerin, synthetic rubber, putty, adhesives, linoleum, candles, shaving cream, enamel, shampoo, and a myriad of other items and materials.  Take for example your average car; there is oil in the paints, the plastics, the fabrics, dashboard, fluids, lubricants, and the tires.  And let’s not forget the most major oil product, gasoline, which allows for transportation and is likely what allowed the other materials for those products to be transported, assembled, manufactured, and brought to market.

Think about the amount of work the energy in a gallon of gasoline performs.  A gallon of gas can push my Honda minivan an average of 25 miles at speed.  Imagine yourself pushing a minivan for 25 miles.  That is the amount of work you are purchasing for $3 or so when you buy gas.  This is very succinctly summed up by this picture:


It’s not hard to realize the economic implications of this cheap energy source and material undergoing a rapid increase in price due to oil depletion.

The United States Department of Energy created a report on Peak Oil known as the Hirsch Report.  The introduction stated:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented.”

This problem is compounded by the fossil fuel intensive nature of our industrialized food system.  Ever since the Green Revolution, we have heavily used oil powered machinery to grow food, as farming has become more mechanized and more monopolized.  We plow fields with oil powered machinery, plant fields with oil powered machinery, fertilize with fossil fuel derived fertilizers, spray pesticides with oil derived pesticides, harvest with oil powered machines, transport, store, and refrigerate en route to distribution centers, and then transport again to retail stores.  As we saw in my previous post, the average amount of food miles for a meal is approximately 4,200 miles.

“Over the course of this last century, the number of persons devoted to agriculture has fallen significantly, and agriculture itself has been reorganized on an unprecedented scale. We have gone from an age when the farmer knew all the tools and the smallest details of his business to a world in which the farmer is a manager, an engineer, a trader. The sophistication and technology are impressive. From that point of view, the system of industrial agriculture in the U.S. is a success story: a mechanization and industrialization of food production that is able to produces cereals, vegetables, and animals, all more or less genetically modified, in order to furnish the population with massive amounts of food with a high fat and protein content, massive quantities of salt, sugar, and mysterious chemical products —not to speak of aberrations such as giving cattle flour made from animal carcasses… . This industry, these food factories, are only possible thanks to oil (mainly in the form of diesel for agricultural machines and transportation) and natural gas (for producing fertilizer).” -Piero San Giorgio

A spike in the price of oil can create a spike in the price of food.  An energy crisis becomes a food crisis.  This happened in 2007-2008 and was the cause of riots around the world.  Peak Oil will likely mean Peak Food.  The local food movement, Transition movement, and Permaculture are all responding to this issue.

P.S.  The UN recently released a report on how small scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world.  You can read that report here. (click)

For today’s video, a documentary titled BlindSpot: