Feeding the rest of Wessex (with a brief digression on World War III)

Let us beat a retreat from the troubling politics of the real world and pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, where all is sweet accord. Though in the light of recent events in the UK and the US, it’s tempting to begin with a little story that just might conceivably link the ghost of Wessex present with the ghost of Wessex future. It goes something like this:

With hindsight, Britain’s exit from the EU turned out to herald its final decline as a major global economic force. Though it had a freer hand to make its own trade deals as an independent country it discovered that (a) outside the privileged bubble of the EU single market and the wider access to global circuits of capital this made available, it didn’t actually have all that much to trade, (b) its most obvious trading partners belonged to large trading blocs with membership benefits it could no longer access, and (c) years of public sector underinvestment and private sector asset stripping left it ill-prepared to compete in the global marketplace. In fact, a similar fate befell other western powers in Europe and North America, albeit for slightly different reasons. But after the brief, transformative Third World War came to an end with the Peace of Beijing brokered through the forceful diplomacy of Russia’s new Tsar, most of the western nations shored up their fragile economies by reinventing themselves essentially as client states to the rising industrial powers of Asia*. Thus, few of them fell quite as far or fast as Britain. Or England to be more precise, in light of the secession of the other UK countries and their integration into the EU. Those secessions created a devolutionary impetus in England that saw the emergence of regional assemblies – initially entirely subservient to Westminster, but with the dwindling willingness and ability of the Westminster government to fund or provide services outside the southeast, the regional assemblies increasingly assumed a de facto local sovereignty. Some of them courted multinational corporations, turning themselves into maquiladora economies that used the income thus generated to contain, barely, the resulting social tensions. For its part, London lost a large proportion of its migrant workers, who sought richer pickings elsewhere – probably just as well, given the increasingly constrained base available for the city to feed itself. It retained something of its lustre as a once-great global city, with a still active, if declining, financial and service sector, giving it a kind of seedy grandiloquence reminiscent of, say, Istanbul, only colder and wetter. In the southwest, the conditions for either the industrial self-abasement of the maquiladora regions or the stately decline of the southeast were lacking – it had little going for it except its rich farmland and the pleasant landscapes visited by an ever-declining number of tourists. But its regional government, building on the example of early-millennium independent Frome, pursued a course of regional agricultural and industrial self-reliance. Not by any means an easy course, and one requiring an enormous mobilisation of its people that necessarily rested on a substantial egalitarianism in access to wealth and resources. But though a few old men would still get drunk in its bars and sing patriotic songs about the greatness of the country’s illustrious history, much as a few old men now still do in, say, Mongolia, few people had time for such conceits and felt more engaged in the intricate business of forging a livelihood in the challenging times of the present. In the context of the post-United Nations fraying of the Westphalian nation-state – what scholars had been calling ‘the new medievalism’ of overlapping sovereignties and autarkic regionalism from as early as the late 20th century – the Wessexers found that if they kept their heads down, avoided meddling in larger national and international power politics, paid a largely symbolic obeisance to London, and complained bitterly to any foreigner they met (especially Londoners) about how desperately poor they were, they were pretty much left alone to get on with the challenging but not unrewarding business of making a living from the land. When, in the late 21st century, the world was hit with the long-anticipated triple crisis of accelerating climate change, spiralling energy prices and capitalist economic stagnation, Wessex was better placed than most parts of the world (including the other UK regions) to try to ride out the storm.

* We’ll dwell more in another post on the North American side of this story. But in brief, as everyone knows, the USA ignored the warnings about the limits of its military power signalled by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and – under pressure from a bellicose Congress – President Kardashian launched a war in three separate theatres that soon backfired spectacularly. By way of reparations, at the Peace of Beijing China imposed on the US the migration of millions of Chinese peasant farmers, political troublemakers and other ne’er-do-wells, referred to collectively as ‘non-capitalist roaders’, each to be allocated up to 160 acres of US farmland as determined by the Homestead (Legal Immigrants) Act, 2062. The Chinese incomers were received with rank hostility by the local population at first, but their love of American political freedoms, their endearing taste for Hollywood movies and American fashions, and their superb farming skills soon helped to thaw relations once Americans had resigned themselves to their diminished place in world affairs. Thus, some 250 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a wholesome US smallholder republic was finally realised, albeit with a greater emphasis on fermented soy products than he’d imagined – an industry with its epicentre in Ohio.

That, clearly, is what is going to happen. But the question is will this future Wessex be able to feed itself? When we were last there we learned that the enlightened rulers of the satellite republic had determined that 40% of its lowland agricultural holdings should be given over to peasant self-provision for a 20% portion of the population who were thus able to feed themselves comfortably using low impact organic methods. That leaves the remaining 60% of the farmland available to feed the other 80% of the population, numbering some 4.9 million souls in 2039. Let’s see how this 80% might fare.

Presently, 68% of lowland farmland in Wessex is permanent pasture, while 31% is arable land – leaving the princely total of 1% for horticulture. At those proportions, I’m worried that my wan Wessex urbanites might suffer from a touch of scurvy, so I’m going to adjust the grass/arable/horticulture proportions to 61/32/6%. In other words, a bit of the permanent pasture becomes cropland. Not all permanent pasture is suitable for cropping, but my guess is that enough of it would be for this adjustment to be feasible.

On the arable lands of the PROW about 3% is devoted to hemp and flax for keeping the urbanites in the latest fashions. On the rest of it, I propose to establish a fairly standard mixed organic rotation comprising 50% grass/clover ley, the remaining 50% being split evenly between winter wheat, winter oats, potatoes, field beans and spring wheat. The grass/clover ley is used for grazing dairy cows.

The horticulture land is split 75/25 between vegetables and fruit/nuts. The vegetables are grown organically, with 30% down to a ley (also used for livestock) and the rest growing a mixture of vegetables in rotation.

In terms of livestock, I’d propose to keep dairy cows on the arable leys and the permanent pasture. Some of them would be fed oats (1,100kg/cow/year) and beans (550kg), yielding an assumed 6,200 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow/ha (I’ve lifted these figures from the Organic Farm Management Handbook). With about 116,000 tonnes of oats produced on about 33,000ha at 3.5 t/ha, and about 83,000 tonnes of beans produced on the same area at 2.5 t/ha, that’ll give us enough feed for about 106,000 cows, with about 25,000 tonnes of beans left over to feed some pigs and laying hens. But, after subtracting the 106,000ha of intensive-organic dairying, there’s still just under 700,000ha of permanent pasture, so let’s raise more dairy cows extensively in the same manner as the neo-peasants, getting 3,300 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow plus calf per 1.2ha. We’ll get some beef from the dairy calves at the same rates as the neo-peasants too.

We’ll also keep pigs and laying hens, mostly on the peri-urban market garden/truck farm sites. We’ll split the remaining beans between the pigs and hens 50/50, and also feed them food waste (we’ll assume that 3% of Wessex’s food production is discarded as waste, which is available for the pigs and hens). That should give us about 12,000 tonnes of pig meat and 227 million eggs.

We’ve also got about 83,000ha of rough grazing where we’ll keep sheep, producing around 80kg of sheep meat per hectare per year, if that doesn’t sound too much? And we’ll have the same amount of sea fish as for the neo-peasants – about 20kg per person per year.

And there you have it – the full nutritional spread for our Wessex non-peasants. Let’s take a look at whether it meets the nutritional needs of the population. This is shown in Table 1, which parallels the corresponding table in my analysis for the neo-peasants.

Table 1: Nutrient Productivity for Wessex’s Non-Neo-Peasant Population

 

x1011

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

Produced 181 1.93 32.4 3.53 11.5 0.22
Required 168 0.89 14.3 1.43 7.14 0.21
Ratio 1.07 2.16 2.27 2.47 1.61 1.05

Holy cow, we’ve pulled it off again! Maybe it’s a bit tight on the energy, so there’d be a case for trimming back the permanent pasture for cropland a little more – or else suggesting those city slickers get their hands dirty on an allotment and grow a few of their own potatoes. But let’s just take another moment to admire our handiwork. With only a minor bit of jiggery-pokery around permanent pasture and cropland, we’ve met the entire nutritional needs of a future Wessex population comprising an extra million people over the present using entirely organic farming methods at modest yield assumptions and without expanding beyond the existing agricultural land take. Cue another round of applause.

I’ve got to admit that the non-peasants have a starchier diet than the peasants, as is shown in the pie chart below – a pie which, for my taste, goes a bit overboard on the pastry and skimps a little on the filling. This diet fails proposition Paul, with 17% of its calories coming from protein but only 33% from fat and the rest from carbohydrates, mostly of the simple rather than the complex variety. I still think it’s not such a bad diet compared with many, but the greater reliance on starchy staples surely sounds a warning note in terms of the capacities of the land. Parson Malthus isn’t quite yet out of his box, but it’s as well to be aware that his coffin lid is rattling. The last Malthusian crisis in the southwest was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – pretty much around the time when the much-derided Reverend (who died here in Somerset) was writing, curiously enough. The problem was solved on that occasion by mass migration to Australia and the USA – two great migrant nations that command the respect of the world for welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free to this very day…or so I’ve heard.

Figure 1: Calorific contribution to the Wessex non-peasant diet by food group

wessex-non-peasant-energy-pie-chart

But there’s an elephant in the room. And this time it’s not capitalism. Well, maybe it is in view of the difficulties Wessex will have in earning foreign exchange. But the real elephant is energy. If 80% of Wessex’s population are going to be fed from 60% of its farmland without working as producers themselves, then farming on this 60% is going to have to be heavily mechanised. At the moment, this is achieved through copious use of fossil fuels. But that may not be possible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex circa 2039 or thereafter. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved by…Gosh, the low battery alarm on my PV system has started to sound! Well, that’s quite enough for one blog post anyway. I’ll tell you the answer to the energy conundrum when the sun comes out again and my electricity supply isn’t likely to cut out at any mome

27 thoughts on “Feeding the rest of Wessex (with a brief digression on World War III)

  1. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved by…

    Just another example of the integrated nature of all economies and why we shouldn’t just pick and choose some aspects from a low-energy economy and others from a high-energy economy to create the PRoW of our dreams.

    • Joe, I’m not sure I understand the intent of your comment, but if it’s intended as a criticism of what I’m doing in these posts then I think you misunderstand my own intent. I’m not trying to create a PRoW of my dreams but to ask firstly whether it’s possible to create sufficient livelihood from relatively low impact, localised production, and if so secondly to ask whether it’s possible to create polities that might deliver it. I tend to agree with you that the integrated nature (of polities, more than economies) is a big stumbling block for the second question, though I don’t infer from that that the question isn’t worth asking. Assuming that the world experiences energy descent in the coming decades then it seems to me inevitable that the economy will indeed combine low and high-energy elements over that period. But I don’t think anything I’ve written implies that we’ll necessarily be able to pick and choose what those elements are – though presently we do have an element of choice, and to my mind are mostly making the wrong ones. I’m interested in what the path dependencies are, and the exercise is really a provocation to myself and hopefully to others who might care to contribute to think more closely about potentially realisable futures. The speculative history of the future outlined above is one possible path. The various different energy scenarios laid out in previous and future posts represent others.

      • Assuming that the world experiences energy descent in the coming decades then it seems to me inevitable that the economy will indeed combine low and high-energy elements over that period

        I guess I’m just impatient and more than a little fearful. The world will indeed experience “energy descent”. That process may very well cause severe disruption in market economy growth, thereby resulting in any number of possible financial crises, thereby causing our present energy supply to disappear very rapidly.

        So what’s the endgame? What can we do now to make sure that we don’t end up creating a peasant agriculture that has no more real staying power than industrial agriculture? If we assume that we can continue to use high-energy equipment in the PRoW, how do we prepare for the day that the energy for that equipment goes away?

        Those are some of the guilty questions I ask myself every time I use my diesel powered rototiller or my wood chipper. Can I get along without them? If so, how many more man-hours of work is involved? Where will those hours come from?

        I do like your work and your blog. I learn a great deal from it. But I keep looking around for people who are creating truly integrated models of sustainability that are capable of being independent of the modern market economy, even if they still keep a foot (a toe?) in the developed world.

        Those models are very hard to find. I keep looking for someone who’s got a rock-solid project being developed that will allow a relatively small group of people to live through the next 50 years. I keep looking mostly so I can compare their project with my own plans for my family.

        A small farm will be the heart of it because that’s where food comes from. Nothing else has much of a future, certainly nothing urban. But much of the rest of the project is uncertain. I’m just hoping you’ll consider trying to fill in those blanks, including discussions of the “path dependencies” to avoid.

        The food calculations for the PRoW are a good start, but I doubt that planning to keep the rest of Wessex alive is useful, cold-hearted as that sounds. Even so, keep up the good work.

  2. Realizing it wasn’t the core of your thesis… your speculations about North America (which appear to be more appropirately U.S. specifically) might do with a little tightening up.

    President Kardashian is a cute thought, and for a rhetorical flourish seems to fit present issues to some extent. Others might argue; I’m not going to. But that anyone might saddle our military industrial complex (which should be a mere shadow of its Vietnam etc self… given the 40 odd years between now and then to do the dismantling) such a brazen strategy would still appear to me to require other evolutions in governing which I haven’t noticed on display yet. But as I’m not a military guru by any stretch, I’ll pass over that to something I do pretend to know a bit about: fermented soy products – and their industrial epicentre in Ohio (and many thanks for the nod, btw).

    Of course not all the soyfood products need to be fermented – and this is a significant issue – but I’ll not rail at this one here. Given the mass migration of Chinese folk onto the North American bread basket that you’ve suggested, there should be no lack of cultural and technical expertise in using the humble soybean in the manner you propose. Rather than get overly specific with the incredible redemptive potential soyfoods would bring to the cause for human survival in the face of all the calamity proposed… I would widen my net a touch and propose that good old fashioned plant and animal breeding (and crop and livestock domestication efforts for other species) can contribute mightily to making Wessex and the rest of the Homo sapien habited surface something manageable. Technofix animosity aside, there are real opportunities to tweak production figures so that we might have better energy values in your table, and easier approaches to procure the nutritional profiles we want.

    • Clem, if you’re a soybean guru, I have a question for you. I haven’t threshed them yet, but I figure I grew and harvested a half peck or more of soybeans this year (besides what I harvested as edamame). I’d like to turn them into my own soy sauce. I also have wheat. Do you make your own? Can you point me to a good recipe? Without homemade soy sauce I’ve been doing without deer jerky, and that’s one thing I’m particularly looking forward to again. Thanks regardless.

      • Eric:
        Congrats on growing your own soy. Probably the easiest part of making soy sauce.
        Do I make my own? No. [so how would I know if growing the soy were the easiest part? I don’t – but growing soy is easy, the recipe looks intimidating]
        I can point you to a recipe: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Soy-Sauce
        which you may already have seen… nothing too hard to find. I have made Natto, another fermented soy product. Natto is much faster to make (fermentation time just a couple days).

        • Clem, thanks for that. It’s easy enough to find recipes on the internet, but I never know quite what to trust when dealing with recipes (or other how-to things) coming from people that may be overeager to play the part of teacher, and I’d much rather ask for advice if I can find someone with real personal experience. I’ll confess those kind of suspicions fall on the recipe you found: does the normal process of making soy sauce really begin with fresh/green soybeans/edamame? In any case, I either need to wait until next year or find a recipe for dry harvested soybeans. Thanks for mentioning Natto, too, by the way.

          • Eric – good catch… am fairly certain commercial soy sauce is NOT made from immature soybeans. I have some contacts that can help… but there will be more time involved than a simple online search… will get back to you on this.

  3. Chris, the post is cut off at the bottom. I just told Resilience, but I see it here. Also, may we have small paragraphs? It’s hard on my eyes.

    A fine attempt! And I love potatoes. Looking forward to the energy part. I keep being uneasy that solar, being not repairable in the home shop, is a dead end. Someone once claimed it can be done, easy as pie, but as far as I know, nothing came of it.

    Clem, I am told that unfermented soy is bad for digestion. And I did once try drinking soy milk. It got so toxic I emptied a room with one cut of cheese. May you share some of your experience?

    • Vera – its complicated. I tried to leave a multi paragraphed reply here with some detail… but the software isn’t having it. Briefly, fermented soy is good; unfermented is fine for most (almost all) but can give rise to some issues. Allergy is likely the most serious potential issue. More if I can figure out how to post it here.

      • On the solar issue, I’ll be writing about that soon so I’d be interested in any further thoughts. But I guess my initial response would be that if repairability in the home shop is a criterion, then that would pretty much rule out every existing energy technology barring a wood-fired boiler, and maybe not even that?

        • From memory Tony Wrench’s water-heating arrangements seemed fairly basic, functional and fixable by the handy layperson, without actually resorting to heating buckets of water on a stove top, which can raise internal humidity if you’re not careful. In central Europe you often see black oil drums suspended over an outdoor shower arrangement, filled with well water via an electric pump – fine in summer, in fact I’ve been told painting the drums black often makes the water too hot in midsummer. Others just fill an old bathtub in a sunny, secluded part of the garden and have a dip in that after gardening in the summer heat, at least that’s what I think they do as I’ve never actually seen anyone taking a bath in their garden.

          • Yes, water heating is possible with low tech methods – one of my favourites indeed is our bath at the edge of the garden, heated by burning logs underneath (some issues about where the water comes from…but not too insurmountable here in Wessex). But heating water only requires low grade energy – providing higher grade energy to run machinery is trickier to manage as a domestic project.

          • Yes, I’m all in favour of repairability, local resilience and weaning ourselves off the energy slaves. But those slaves do a hell of a lot of work and few of us, I think, have much conception about what life would be like if they were totally absent – especially on a planet of 7 billion. Personally I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that we should aim to do without extra-human energy, but I’m interested in anyone’s views.

        • I did not mean to say you need to put in repairability at this time. Maybe that would just complicate things unnecessarily. It’s just that local repairability influences the whole sustainability equation, and I keep thinking about it. For electricity, concave mirrors with a mini turbine can be mostly made of scrap car parts. If there is enough sun to make it work. For heating, masonry/cob stoves built on the rocket stove model seem very wood sparing; permies have been experimenting with the design. Also the central European kachelofen. Also passive houses.

          • I think repairability is a desirable goal, without recourse to expert knowledge… the equivalent of the humble bicycle for human habitat ‘tech’. But in general terms surely we need to be weening ourselves off the fabled billions of energy slaves afforded us by oil, not seeking a somehow more benign replacement, forever trying to get a pint out of a quart-pot.

  4. Thanks for the comments – just coming out of a rare internet-free 48hrs so apologies for slow response.

    Vera – if the post you see ends with the word ‘mome’, then you’ve got the whole thing. The ending was supposed to be a joke. Not a very good one, I fear…

    Clem, I can’t claim to be a military, or any other type, of guru either. Maybe you’re right about the implausibility of a major US-launched war. Though I’d venture to say that, historically, declining powers can become more rather than less bellicose as their soft power opportunities fade. Under Bush jnr there was Afghanistan, Iraq and a lot of noise about Iran. But perhaps a war involving various alliances may be more likely. Anyway, probably more to the point is your view about future plant and animal breeding possibilities – I’d be interested to hear more.

    Joe, I’d say that speculating on socio-economic futures can be useful in order to dramatize the choices we now face, but as prediction it’s always going to be a disreputable business. I’m not sure if I can convince myself that the PROW economy I’m outlining is plausible – not very, I suppose. But I’ll get into those issues more in due course. I’m not convinced of the merits of constructing survivalist-type small community autarky scenarios – though once again they do dramatize our choices and, as you say, it’s worth thinking about the implications every time we turn on an internal combustion engine. Agrarian populism points towards local proprietorship and self-provision as a dominant, non-market economic mode. Not that that’s a solution in itself – but thinking about how local semi-autarkies might peaceably interact seems worthwhile.

    • Plant and animal breeding has impact at many levels. The ascent of soy over the last 50 odd years has been a truly global phenomena. Cover crops (many different species) are beginning to grab headlines and may well gain more than localized research attention as me move forward. Animal domesticates can be considered in similar fashion.

      Local adaptations of major domesticate classes have existed for millennia, but there is no use concluding that all available potential has been applied… new opportunities arise around every corner. Look no further than our own frequent correspondent from Tennessee – Brian mentions in his list of 10 things he’s thankful for on Thanksgiving (our side of the pond):
      http://www.wingedelmfarm.com/blog/2016/11/23/ten-reasons-im-thankful-this-thaksgiving/

      “Several years of culling to improve our flock of sheep has paid off.” Culling is a crucial aspect of both plant and animal breeding.

      Thus the benefits of breeding accrue to populations of current domesticates as well as for populations not fully under domesticated management. Rewilding efforts, habitat management, wildlife management scenarios, these all have impacts on population genetics. Population genetics serve as the raw material for breeding efforts. Just because one doesn’t deliberately cross two individuals with a preconceived goal in mind doesn’t imply there is no breeding going on. Husbanding of all sorts influences the future distribution of genes of both the managed and managers. Appreciating how it all fits together seems relevant to the current discussion.

      • Clem, I wouldn’t dispute your general point about the ongoing importance of plant & animal breeding. But this exercise (and other ones, like my analysis of perennial grain breeding) prompt me to think that humanity really is pushing at the envelope in growing ever more starchy staples on ever more farmland. Of course, staple yields have increased as a result of breeding (albeit generally also relying on more energy inputs), and no doubt there’s scope for more improvement – perhaps especially if such things as transgenic N-fixing cereal crops appear on the horizon. But I fear that there’s an underlying Jevons-paradox type problem here of consumption expanding to meet production possibilities. We’ve already pushed the productivity envelope pretty far – maybe it’s time to consider hunkering down?

        • Not exactly sure why you want to focus on starchy staples as the poster children for breeding improvements… veges, legumes, etc are also being improved/canged/domesticated by horticultural practice, breeding and agronomy. Animals too – the overall point above.

          One may flash the Jevons paradox problem in the face of these efforts. Fair enough. But how does a PRoW society avoid Jevons? Hunkering down as a strategy scares me. Whether one buys into the Red Queen hypothesis or not, there will be changes in the environment in the future [with or without our interference]. Disease organisms have not shown a propensity to hunker down. Perhaps we need to have a conference with them. Negotiate a sort of nonproliferation treaty. Until we have something of this sort I think I’ll keep my tweezers and germplasm handy.

          • The reason I raise the issue of starchy staples is that I think humanity is backing itself into a bit of a corner – it’s hard to see how to get enough protein and calories into the bodies of all the folks in the UK, or indeed the world without pushing at the starchy staple/arable/cropland margin – hence my references to Malthus above. Improvements in any crop are welcome, but I’m not sure how much improvements in the non-starchy staples would change that overall prognosis. Human labour is very good at wringing extra production out of a given area of land, though – so in addition to your crop improvement emphasis I’d pitch for getting more people working the land.

            And that is essentially what I mean by ‘hunkering down’. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t continue with improving crops and breeding better resilience to disease. I mean that we shouldn’t assume that we can always keep ahead of resource constraints with technical improvements and should therefore perhaps try to find other ways of adjusting demand with supply. So how does a PROW society avoid Jevons? That indeed is a key question, to which I don’t really have a satisfactory answer. But my working answer for the time being is that a society that depends substantially on small proprietors producing livelihoods from their own land in their own localities and with a limited capacity to impose their resource demands on people elsewhere would do a better job of it than we currently do – particularly if they were explicitly motivated by a ‘vaishya’ ideology of sufficiency. I’ll endeavour to expand on that in future posts.

    • Agrarian populism points towards local proprietorship and self-provision as a dominant, non-market economic mode.

      Yes indeed and we will need to go there ASAP. There is a very small step between agrarian populism and “small community autarky” once the boundary of agrarian life shrinks down to the small community distances necessary without our modern transportation system. When that shrinkage will happen is very important but still very unclear.

      Allow me to be a little more coherent about where I’m coming from. I am an engineer rather than a political scientist. When I look at what might happen to politics during and post collapse, I see a huge muddy gray blob. Some form of social organization will emerge out of it, but I have no idea what it will be. I therefore have a “just wait and see and roll with the punches” attitude, albeit with some trepidation. I do think that in the decades to come, small rural communities will be easier to keep organized than larger polities.

      But in order to be around to see what happens, some combination of techniques for providing one’s family with water, food and shelter will have to be successful over the next few decades. Those techniques will have accommodate the disappearance of big chunks of modernity, ending in a very low-energy (maybe only a photosynthetic-energy) future. That’s where my engineering interests come in.

      Successful techniques will clearly involve food producing smallholdings, but they may also involve some aspects of modernity (like solar electricity) that can be made to last a few decades without reliance on the economy that made them. But what to save and what to ignore are fiendishly difficult questions, especially when the panoply of choices is still vast. I am very curious as to what other knowledgeable people who ponder these questions (and read your blog) would advise. That’s why I would like to see the PRoW tackle the hierarchy of physical needs one by one (perhaps leaving air for last).

      • Thanks Joe – interesting. Being a social scientist rather than a natural scientist/engineer by training I’m not best placed to talk knowledgeably about meeting physical needs at a society-wide scale, though I’ll happily give it a go and hope that others might help me refine it.

        One of the tragedies of social science is that, however well trained in it you are, the future is still just the same muddy grey blob that everyone else perceives. Rather than predicting what’s likely to happen, my greater interest is in trying to formulate the possible politics of a moderately stable low impact society. I can’t say I’m hugely optimistic about realising such a thing, but I still think it’s worth trying so my later posts in this cycle will be looking mostly at that.

        Thanks for reading – do keep prompting me to try to address your concerns.

  5. Rant:

    Doesn’t every single one of those questions boil down to:
    How do we rehabilitate complexity?
    Today, we are in awe of complexity – if we confuse complex with complicated.
    That answer of ours to everything, ‘it depends’, should after all mean something. You can’t let go of it for the sake of a simplifying “leap forward” a la Green Revolution or what have you. It literally is everything we do.
    How do we feed everyone? By outsourcing (i.e. handing over) areas of grain production and ending up creating a grain oligarchy?
    How do we allow for representation of a rapidly changing flora and fauna due to the High Altithermal on our properties? By insisting that we as producers deserve to profit from a giant hierarchy of commercialized science breeding the optimal plant for each corner of each one of our fields?
    Why can’t humans of the modern age who are so in awe of everything that’s complicated be shown that what they may perceive as ‘hunkering down’ is in fact reaching the limits of a human brain’s capacity in terms of understanding complexity.
    And I’m not prepared to allow either present-day agroforestry or present-day permaculture to be the last word on this. The former is far too willing to embrace simplified approaches, while the latter is very busy monetizing the visitor’s awe to, yes, hunker down and get to work.

    • Yes I think I’d pretty much go along with all that – though I’m not quite sure what the questions were that you were referring to at the beginning. I like your idea of ‘hunkering down’ as a point about the limits of understanding complexity, though I also proposed it in the sense of accepting rather than scoffing at potentially hard resource limits, and finding ways to accommodate ourselves to them that don’t depend on future technical innovations to (temporarily) transcend them.

      • One issue I was referring to was that of either trying to bargain with pathogens or trying to escape their sphere of influence by accelerating lab breeding.
        Which we’ve done, ignoring complexity and seeking utter complication of results.

        Right now, another round of ‘Look at the EVIL dead duck in that pond!’ is afoot in the media channels of northern Europe, now that H5N8 has once again joined us.
        Not a thought is directed towards the fact that once again no smallholder will have any problem with it, yet tens of thousands of birds in “complicated confinement” have already been exterminated.

        I recently read another one of those abstracts summarizing research into what we should be forcing a billion Chinese to eat so we ourselves can maintain business as usual…

  6. Without the energy slaves I’d imagine most lives would be place-based, much like subsistence tribes and individuals (Will Bonsall) today, though even Bonsall values a leaf-shredder, and I think we’d all vote to keep the match factories in business somehow. Indeed, human lives might be almost totally given over to foraging and producing food from morning to night, save the odd Bacchanalian celebrations. We’d be much like the other animals, finally, in a good way.

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