What Pfeiffer's book describes regarding world food production is as sobering as the darkest side of global warming. It warrants this kind of grim concern.
Eating Fossil Fuels begins and ends with a very basic assessment, something that too few people completely understand or think about, and yet is absolutely critical to our well-being on planet Earth: our food supply is highly dependent on hydrocarbons, whether as fossil fuel or petrochemical additives. In the 1950s and 1960s when population growth threatened to outrun food stores, an international agricultural program, now referred to as the Green Revolution, was initiated to increase farm production all around the world through the intensified use of petrochemical fertilizers and irrigation. The results were impressive. Production nearly tripled. In the years since, low cost fossil fuels have increasingly become a critical part of all facets of industrial agriculture from the growing to the packaging to the transportation to the preparation of the product, to the extent, as Mr. Pfeiffer would say, we are all but eating fossil fuel.
Unfortunately, this kind of petrochemical farming has proven unsustainable as a long term strategy. It depletes the natural life of the topsoil, compromises the water supply, and with peak oil on the horizon, will soon be too expensive to maintain. Pfeiffer makes it very clear that if we don't change the way we grow food, peak oil will do more than increase the price of gasoline. It will take food off the table of significant portions of the world. Clearly his own deep concerns for the situation are at least part of the reason for the pessimism we should all be glad he overcame. His book is an important one.
Pfeiffer is a geologist and a scientist as well a writer. In the process of making his argument, he lays a lot of numbers on the reader. Statistics can make slow reading, but in this case they are critical to the material. Any real analysis of our environment must include numbers. Stewarding the planet is an engineering task. Maximize this, minimize that. How to best make use of the resources at hand is a numbers game. Eating Fossil Fuels is not a novel; it's a technical book. You have to stop and think when you read it.
Pfeiffer has long written on the subject of Peak Oil. To be sure, his work awakened quite a few of us to the realities of petroleum depletion. The idea that an economic recession would accompany the back end of the bell curve of petroleum production is widely held. A related agricultural crisis and population die-off are also part of the scenario. This is what Pfeifer is trying to prepare us for. To elucidate what we will have to know and do, he uses the nations of North Korea and Cuba as examples of countries that have already had to face severe cuts in their fuel supply. This analysis is some of the most unique and provocative material in the book.
For Pfeiffer, Cuba is a real life model for what the entire world must learn to do. That is, steadily change over from industrial farming to a relocalized and sustainable husbandry. This is a refrain repeated by nearly all alternative farming commentators: minimize the use of fossil fuels in agriculture by using manure and other natural methods to eliminate the petrochemical additives and relocalize markets and the community to cut down on the long distances food must travel from field to table.
The problem Pfeiffer foresees is that without the hydrocarbons we will be hard pressed to produce as much food as we do today. In the third paragraph of the book's sixth chapter, entitled The Collapse of Agriculture, Pfeiffer asks the following question: The abundance of cheap food given to us by the Green Revolution has resulted in an exponential population boom. So we must now address a very serious question. Without the cheap, abundant supply of fossil fuels that has made possible the industrialization of agriculture, and that has allowed an explosion in food production at an energy net deficit of ten to one, has the human population exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet?
This may be the most difficult question of our times: How many of us best fit the planet?
Pfeiffer suggests this painful period of population recession, whether sooner or later than the United Nations projects, could be ameliorated by forward thinking. If we could relocalize, if we could gather ourselves together at the grass roots level and practice sustainable agricultural as part of our community, we might gradually reduce population simply by the way we live. In other words, he offers a way to consciously work toward a population that would be optimum for the biosphere, instead of blindly stumbling toward some untenable maximum of human lives and dealing with the related problems later.
If we really want to be stewards of the planet and manage its resources, Eating Fossil Fuels reveals some of the difficult questions that must soon be asked. What would a thirty percent increase in our number mean to clean air, clean water, energy needs, and food reserves? Is six billion people already too many? How many is just right?
Pfeiffer puts the number at two billion. This is a radical assessment to some. But if no preparation is made for climate changes and rapidly rising petroleum costs, the population question is likely to be answered in the most uncomfortable of ways. Changing the way we farm in a manner that also changes the way we live could lessen the pain while also healing an already stressed planet.
Can humans actually attain such awareness for themselves and the planet? Can humans really muster the will to change the status quo? Before external pressures do it for them? Pfeiffer has his doubts and a contained pessimism. But wouldn t an attempt at mindful management of the planet be better than allowing wars or famine to determine who lives and who dies or how resources are divided? Eating Fossil Fuels takes a courageous swing at answering this question.
- Mud City Press