Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Facing up to "the mother of all challenges"

"...climate destabilisation wrought by centuries of fossil-fuel addiction...threatens the viability of our very species."

The lessons of climate history: implications for post-carbon agriculture

by Dan Allen
Published in the Post-Carbon Institute's Energy Bulletin
17 May 2010

“The facts stare us in the face, yet we do not display sufficient humility…In a new climatic era, we would be wise to learn from the climatic lessons of history.”
- Brian Fagan

“All our lives utterly depend on just six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”
- Anonymous wise person

SUMMARY: Populous civilizations require agriculture. Agriculture requires climatic stability. Industrial civilization is rapidly eroding climatic stability. This can’t end well. But…there’s some stuff we can do, and we have to try. So shut off your damn computer, get outside, and start building some agricultural resiliency!


Every so often, one of my suburban New Jersey high-school students asks me what I think will be the biggest problem associated with climate change. Knowing they’re asking the question from a human-centered perspective, I respond simply, “Agriculture might not work if we change the climate.”

They usually just sort of stare blankly back at me and say, “Hmmmm.”

In other words, they don’t get it. “Agriculture? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? Like farms and stuff? Cows and tractors? But aren’t we in the Information Age now? Isn’t it all about technology these days? Isn’t agriculture so…ummm…last century?”

I think that these kids – like the majority of Americans, really – just don’t understand what is at stake with this whole climate-change thing. I don’t think they understand that we are – that EVERY populous civilization necessarily is – fundamentally an AGRICULTURAL civilization. Agriculture is still now, as it has been for millennia, THE foundation of our species. A population of our density obviously cannot get by on hunting and gathering. So agriculture it is. (Well…for now, at least.)

And despite our fossil-energy-fueled bravado, agriculture is still, as it has always been, a very tenuous endeavor. Even though we’ve ‘progressed’ to having fossil-fuel-powered machines tending the fields instead of humans, we are STILL dependent for our very existence on six inches of topsoil and the somewhat-predictable, relatively-benign climatic regime we’ve enjoyed for the past 10,000 years.
The fact that agriculture in the US has become so thoroughly removed from the everyday thoughts of most of our industrial population does not make its future prospects of any less concern. In fact, quite the contrary. Despite our currently-overflowing supermarket shelves, packed refrigerators, and prodigious waistlines, an honest and thorough look at our coming agricultural challenges is enough to make one literally shake in their boots.
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