From energy transition to energy reduction

With the wholesale price for US crude oil famously, if briefly, turning negative recently, and – slightly less famously – with commenters in a thread under my last post suggesting that it’s technically straightforward to transition the existing energy system largely to renewables, it feels the time is right to address some post-lockdown and post-carbon energy realities. Let me state my three-part thesis upfront:

  1. It is not going to be easy technically or in any other way to transition the existing energy system to a low carbon one
  2. This means there will be profound changes in human societies over the coming decades
  3. It serves no sound purpose to dismiss the implications of (1) and (2) as ‘apocalyptic’

A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change and reported here seems corroboratory of my thesis in concluding that “merely adding new technologies is unlikely to bring the climate challenge under control, unless we also deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations” and that “technological promises allow those benefitting from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and the comfortable lifestyles it enables to justify those practices to themselves”.

But let’s get going with a few facts and figures. Cautious estimates like those of the IPCC suggest that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half within a decade and to net zero by 2050 if we’re to avoid global average temperature increases in excess of 2oC over preindustrial levels at century’s end, at which point the consequences of global heating are likely to be severely detrimental to human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of many other organisms).

GHG emissions are mostly caused by the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), so a key necessity for climate change mitigation is to transition the global energy economy out of fossil fuels. And the fact is, this hasn’t yet begun to happen. Globally in 1965, we consumed energy to the tune of 3,485 million tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) from fossil fuels. By 2018 that figure had leapt to over 11,700 million TOE. And we can’t blame all this on population increase. In 1965, global fossil fuel use was 1.05 TOE per capita, whereas in 2018 it was 1.55.

These figures show that, far from a transition out of fossil fuels, our use of them has been amplifying. True, our use of lower carbon energy sources has increased at a faster rate than fossil fuels, to the extent that in 2018 the proportion of global energy consumption contributed by fossil fuels was ‘only’ 85%, whereas in 1965 it was 94%. But since we need to be sharply reducing fossil fuel use rather than increasing it, as at present, this is cold comfort. And most of the low carbon energy sources we’ve added since 1965 have been high-cost nuclear and hydroelectric projects with questionable environmental implications and limited potential for roll-out beyond a handful of countries. Only 4% of current global energy consumption comes from sources other than nuclear, hydro or fossil fuels.

This picture is set to change dramatically in the short-term with the Covid-19 crisis. Plummeting energy demand has hit the fossil energy sector disproportionately, which I’d suggest is partly because fossil fuels disproportionately service the non-electricity sector, and partly because once renewable capacity is installed the sun, wind and water that powers it cost nothing. But it would be misleading to conclude that the Covid-19 crisis is fostering an energy transition. If and when normal activity returns, so will fossil fuel use. Some people are saying that the fossil energy downturn we’re currently seeing due to Covid-19 could become the new normal. To me, that seems fanciful unless the new normal also encompasses the end of economic growth, the end of urbanization and the end of intensifying global economic linkage – and even then it may not be enough to reduce GHG emissions adequately. I’ll touch on those issues some more below, and in my next post, I hope. In the meantime, I’d suggest the present short-run decline in fossil energy use does not a renewable energy transition make.

Maybe not, the argument sometimes goes, but why look downheartedly backwards at how the energy economy has unfolded up to now when, Covid-19 or not, there are reasons to look optimistically forwards towards an impending energy transition? I guess I’d find it easier to endorse this view if there was actually any evidence that one is underway – though bearing in mind that we probably need to cut emissions in half within ten years, it’s quite possible that an energy transition that starts today is still going to be too late. I’m also mindful of Professor McLaren’s view in the Nature Climate Change article I mentioned: all this heralding of game-changing technologies that are just around the corner may amount to little more than greenwashing of current high energy lifestyles.

But let’s try to get a bit more of a handle on the energy transition that’s needed. Take a look at this table:


Year – 2018 GDP/capita (US$) Fossil energy consumption (TOE per capita) % Energy consumption from fossil fuels
USA 62,790 5.94 84
Australia 57,400 5.33 92
Canada 46,230 6.04 65
UK 42,940 2.29 79
Malaysia 11,370 2.97 94
China 9,770 2.00 85
South Africa 6,370 2.01 96
Indonesia 3,890 0.67 96
Vietnam 2,570 0.71 79
India 2,010 0.55 92
Bangladesh 1,700 0.22 99
World 11,310 1.55 85

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 and World Development Indicators

Most of the heralding for an energy transition I encounter comes in the form of small-to-medium scale investment in new electricity capacity in rich countries, where for a whole host of reasons the smart investment money undoubtedly is in renewables. And don’t get me wrong – I largely welcome such moves. I’ve even moved there myself, with my farm’s electricity, space, water-heating and (shortly) some of its transport running off renewables. But to make a convincing argument that we’re on the brink of a sustainable energy transition, small-scale electricity investment in rich countries is irrelevant. Instead, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the government in South Africa, or Bangladesh, or Indonesia, or various other global powerhouses of economic growth and industrialization shown in the table above, and then explain how they’re going to junk most of their energy sectors over the next decade or two and substitute the same level of energy capacity from low carbon sources. You need to explain how they’ll prematurely decommission their fossil energy infrastructures and create new ones affordably with per capita GDPs somewhere between about a sixth and a fortieth of US levels. And you need to explain why they’d be willing to sign up to this transition, when much richer countries are using proportionately far more fossil energy while failing to transition themselves.

There are levels and levels here that make the prospects for such a transition profoundly slim. Close connections between governments and the fossil energy industry varying from institutional inertia through to outright graft rightly gain attention from environmentalists, but are only the most superficial problem – though, even so, we seem to keep electing governments like the Trump administration or the Conservatives in the UK with absurdly pro-fossil fuel policies. The global inequities I mentioned that make it unlikely poorer countries will transition is another major problem. But even with the will, the sheer difficulty of transitioning an entire national and international economy and its infrastructure is formidable. If you’re looking to install a few megawatts of new electricity capacity, renewables may well be the cheapest route. It doesn’t follow that junking our global 11.7 billion TOE fossil energy capacity in favour of renewables is likewise cheaper.

We easily fall into the trap of saying that the obstacles to transition are ‘only’ political, and not technical. We might just as well say that the feasibility of transitioning is ‘only’ technical, but not practical – because not political. But I’m not even sure that a transition is technically feasible. Take solar electricity generation, which is widely touted as the best renewable option. To cut fossil fuel use by half globally in the next decade in favour of solar electricity, we’d have to increase global consumption of the latter from present levels forty-four fold in those ten years. To be persuaded that such a transition is even technically possible, I’d need to see some kind of plausibly costed manufacturing, siting and implementation plan, not generalities about how we’re on the brink of an energy revolution, or about how the marginal cost of installing small new renewable capacity is lower than for fossil fuels.

Likewise, to make a plausible case that a business-as-usual global economy can be sustained by renewables, it’s necessary to show not that it’s possible to smelt iron or manufacture fertilizer with renewable energy (it is) but that it’s possible to produce the 1.3 billion tonnes of steel or 120 million tonnes of N fertilizer manufactured annually at something like present prices, along with the numerous other products that currently make the (human) world go round as it does.

Of course, there’s a logical flaw in my statement above that to cut fossil fuels by half we’d need to install an equivalent amount of solar capacity. Instead, we could cut fossil fuels by half and not replace them with anything. Once we start thinking in terms of decreasing energy use, a new world of possibilities opens up. This, far more than any low carbon energy source du jour, is surely the real game changer.

So, looking again at the table above, let’s forget the 6.0 TOE of fossil energy used by each Canadian resident, or the 2.3 used by each UK one, or the 2.0 by each Chinese one or the 1.55 used by the ‘average’ citizen of the world. Let’s aim for something lower – very much lower, in the case of some countries. Can we achieve it just through efficiency savings? If so, please show me how. Because really I think the debate we need to be having, which is badly overdue, is what kind of different world a low energy world would look like. What kind of farming would we have? What kind of industry? What kind of health and social care? What kind of settlement patterns?

I’m not going to get into that here. I’ve written about it before, I’ve written about it in my forthcoming book, and hopefully I’ll write about it again. My view is that if we play a skillful hand, that kind of world could be more congenial for more people than the present one. And of course, the technical difficulties of using less energy are slighter than those of replacing fossil energy with renewables. The political difficulties remain profound. So that’s where we need to concentrate most of our efforts, not in dreaming up implausible scenarios for how to replace 11.7 billion TOE fossil fuel consumption with low carbon alternatives. The political difficulties of energy descent are much lessened globally if the small number of rich and powerful countries that use way above their share of fossil fuels become demonstrably committed to rapid energy descent. Which puts considerable onus politically on those of us who live in such countries.

Regrettably, I’m doubtful that we’ll actually see such an energy descent. I daresay there’ll be some fiddling around the edges, which might put us a bit lower than the 3.7-4.8oC heating over preindustrial temperatures by century’s end that we’re currently headed towards, but I’m not convinced it’ll be by enough to avoid apocalyptic outcomes. And I’d suggest that anyone who scorns the word ‘apocalyptic’ to describe 3.7-4.8oC heating probably isn’t paying attention.

But supposing we do achieve adequate energy descent. Doubtless there’ll be those who’ll consider the resulting world of labour-intensive horticulture, localized economies, ruralization and deindustrialization apocalyptic, or some variant of those other shopworn standbys – romantic, nostalgic or primitivist. But in all honesty I think it’s these folks who are living in the past. This is the world we now need to work towards, and to make as congenial as we can. It’s not a world with no industry or no machinery. Techno-utopians tend to pose dualities of the form if not a John Deere X9, then a stone sickle. This isn’t the choice we face. But we do face hard choices, and they won’t get easier if we waste time heralding the latest save-our-ass technology and deriding those working towards an adequately low energy future for their apocalypticism.

Earlier, I said that I largely welcome efforts to transition into renewables. I also said that we need to put most of our efforts into the politics of that transition, and to initiate an overdue debate about the kind of lower energy worlds we might create. Here’s why. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies pull in the same direction as those working politically to create more equitable, lower energy societies, then we gain strength from each other and make a fair and sustainable world more likely. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies prioritize replacing the existing fossil energy infrastructure with an equivalent low carbon one, then our efforts will probably be mutually undermining. My request to those working in the renewable energy industry is to ask themselves before undertaking any new project: “Will this help people to live a lower energy lifestyle than they previously did?” – which, regrettably, is not something we can say of the low carbon energy installed globally to date. If they can’t answer yes to the question, I’d request they dump the project and seek another one. It’s urgent.

71 thoughts on “From energy transition to energy reduction

  1. In my experience, the only forms of renewable energy that promote lower energy use are stand-alone solar/wind/hydro systems at the household level, perhaps up to small micro-grids. For equal cash investments, the energy available from off-grid renewable will be far less than that which can be purchased from grid based utilities. The levelized cost of energy from off-grid systems is still far higher than that from a grid. This is why it is rare to see any major electric appliances, such as ranges, dryers and water heaters in off-grid homes. High priced energy is a good incentive for energy conservation. Once a customer is connected to the grid, adding renewables to their energy mix is unlikely to reduce energy consumption.

    If feed in tariffs are available at prices higher than average grid costs per kWh, adding renewables may even promote higher energy consumption. This is the case for my mother, who was able to get a contract to sell solar electricity to the local utility for about four times the price at which she had to purchase it. Her consumption of electricity has slowly drifted up as a result of her getting a check from the utility every month rather than sending them one.

    The biggest bang for the buck is found in solar home lighting systems. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I worked for a non-profit that leased hundreds of small solar systems to small farmers in Fiji. They were able to dramatically lower their consumption of kerosene and dry cell batteries for lighting. I don’t have exact numbers, but I am pretty sure that the life cycle energy consumption of using solar for lights is far less than that of using kerosene for similar levels of light production. Those farmers in Fiji jumped at the chance to get a few solar powered light bulbs because they got far better light for lower cost. They weren’t concerned at all about their carbon emissions, but I am sure they went down too.

    To the more general point about substituting renewables for fossil fuels: I think every bit of substitution helps reduce CO2 production, and it would be great if we could wake up one morning and find that all energy production was carbon free. That would be a miracle. And it will take a miracle to make a transition to renewables in the time and carbon budget we have left. It would take an almost equally miraculous occurrence to transition to a world of much lower energy consumption, regardless of where it came from. Covid19 may not last long enough to reduce our carbon emissions over the long haul, but in the short term its the closest thing we’ll find to a energy-and-emissions-reducing guardian angel.

    • I see no reason why the adoption of nuclear power would promote Chris’ goal of a reduction in energy use, but even aside from the problem of waste disposal, nuclear has the same problem as all the renewables, high initial energy cost.

      The upfront embodied energy cost of any kind of new energy system will be very large, except perhaps for biomass, which is a more typical thermal energy source. Nuclear, solar, wind and hydro have most of their lifetime energy consumption during construction, with low or no fuel cost and modest maintenance energy cost. That energy would now have to come from our existing system and would decline to zero as the new energy system was constructed. This means that about half the energy cost of building a new system would come from fossil fuels.

      This also means that replacing all the world’s fossil power plants, plus the addition of vastly more plants to power electric vehicles, would require a big pulse of new carbon, this in addition to existing emissions needed to keep industrial civilization going.

      I have yet to see a realistic plan for simultaneously building out a whole new, much larger, energy system, keeping our modern rich-world way of life functional and reducing carbon emissions by half in the next decade. Those few plans that have been proposed mostly talk about whether renewables sources could theoretically power an industrial civilization, not whether we could afford the energy and other resources needed to build them. It’s easy to imagine that we could do very well with plenty of renewable electricity available, but the path of actually getting there with civilization intact has yet to be imagined.

  2. Ultimately though we need to re calibrate our expectations, travelling faster for ever longer distances.

    A trip to the local shows and comparing the Fordson Majors and Grey Fergusons of my childhood with todays three hundred horsepower minsters gives an idea of how we have become dependant on evermore powerful machinery rather than labour, animals or simply not doing it in the first place

    • I like that; “three hundred horsepower min(i)sters”, preaching the gospel of “evermore powerful” fossil powered machinery. Hallelujah for oil and hosannas for coal and gas to save us from our daily toil.

      • Clever Joe… I thought he meant “monsters” … which takes preaching off the table 🙁 .

        Those “monsters” are suffering from a rural pushback in that much of their control mechanisms are not repairable on the farm. Here’s a link to a Bloomberg piece from March discussing the “right-to-repair movement” …

        But resolving the right-to-repair conflict doesn’t actually solve the larger issue… (at least yet). This is more a fight over who get’s to work on what kit. Intellectual property rights are front and center here. Some of these monster machines can make a case for better energy deployment under current market conditions. For folks who want to turn to markets for solutions, there will need to be some sort of goal realignment(s). On these fronts we might talk about carbon taxes, rolling blackouts, wartime like resource rationing, and so forth. Nothing easy on the list. Monsters – they can be intimidating.

  3. Our innate bias toward short term thinking (while handy when we were hunter gatherers on the veldt) will be our downfall in dealing with this dead end we’ve entered.

    Whether PV panels, or other harvesters of diffuse, sun based sources can return the energy needed to make them is not the point. Can they return enough energy to make their replacement, as well as supply society with enough energy to do all the other things we currently enjoy? I think the answer is no.

    The term sustainable has been so abused and twisted, that it’s become an obstacle to clear thought. Can PV, or wind, or (chuckle) hydrogen be a technology we can use for the next thousand, ten thousand years? Not with the recycling and end of life fate of these artifacts as currently designed.

    While our home has an array, we are still grid tied, and (slowly) working toward off grid. It is NOT the technology holding us back, it is the needed changes to our lifestyle. ( as I sit here, clacking away on a computer).

    I view PV as not the long term solution, and no way will it replace fossil fuels. I view it as a set of training wheels at the individual level, a step toward retraining in a true low energy living. Yes, I recognize that I am fortunate, and many cannot afford this step. The pain of our transition will not be evenly spread.

    To think long term, but still set a path that can navigate the spendthrift world we are living in, is complicated. Each step that makes us more self reliant and in balance with our local carrying capacity is at least a guide for what to do.

    Small farms will be part of that future.

    One more thing- while a bit later than optimal, our involuntary transition off fossil fuels may be sooner than we think. I find this website good for rounding up info, and splashing cold water in my face. Several past articles cover similar ground.

    Everything shut down the money runs out , Newsome has allready threatened to fire first responders , ( police , firecrews ) with a GDP larger than the UK , CA cant fund basic services after the virus closedown ,
    Thats the problem with degrowth taxes fall and something has to give , raising taxes just compounds the issue and that is the dichotomy , no one is going to vote for pension cuts or a lower standard of living , the virus shutdown is the first big hit to everyones economies unemployment is bad and wil take years and perhaps never getting back to ” normal ” , the world has changed , as we have seen borders were / are closed with a stagnant buget and high unemployment immigration will be stopped all western countries are financail basket cases they will not want more people when they cant afford to look after their own . the green new deal is a dead duck , covid 19 ate all the cash .

    • covid 19 ate all the cash

      Ah yes, but the Fed can create all the cash it wants and distribute it to just about anyone, the “helicopter money” effect (it might need permission to distribute to some sectors, but that just takes a congressional vote). So the real question is not keeping everyone in cash, but managing things so that cash keeps its value.

      In a market economy, money is just a way of communicating requests for action in fulfilling wants and needs. I give the grocer some money to convey my desire for a loaf of bread. My employer gives me money to convey his desire that I sweep his factory floor.

      If most people can’t work because they have to stay home, yet they are still given money, they can still convey their requests to vendors for food, electricity and water, etc. This means that as long as the money flows to those who produce and transport fuel, food, water and all the other basic necessities of life, everyone stays alive while the majority of the economy goes into hibernation.

      If everything needed to keep people alive were produced within a country, governmental authorities could either keep giving people money and allow the market to function at a basic level or they could just direct the producers of necessities to keep doing so and command that those necessities be given to people in their homes. A command economy could do everything needed without any money at all.

      The problem comes when goods have to be purchased from outside the country, where a command economy doesn’t work. How long will others accept money that the fed creates out of thin air? I think the answer is a long, long time. Most money has been created out of thin air by commercial banks. They have been doing this for centuries and money still works. What difference would it make to have the Fed do it?

      But it will be a delicate balancing act to create just the right amount of money during a time of extreme economic disruption. Get it wrong and the value of money could be affected by either inflation or deflation, both of which make it harder and harder for the market to manage the flow of necessities properly.

      If money stops working, I just hope there is a plan in place to implement a command economy with enough sophistication to keep calories flowing into people’s mouths. As long as we have fuel, farmland and the electric grid to keep everything functional, it shouldn’t be that hard to keep people fed.

      It’s lucky we live in a time when fossil fuel powered machines do almost all of the work. We can all become “retirees” for a few years and sit on our butts until it’s safe to resume a more active life. Boring, but possible.

      The only people who really need to worry about making sure that the economy produces a lot more than the bare necessities are the people who have lots of money. It’s no coincidence that the people shouting the loudest to “re-open” the economy (and force people back to work) are the rich. What good does all that money do if the only thing to buy is food and other basic necessities? And how will the rich keep their money if all their investments are at risk? Oh, I almost forgot, the Fed will give it to them.

  5. Regarding whether “the small number of rich and powerful countries that use way above their share of fossil fuels become demonstrably committed to rapid energy descent”, I come to the same conclusion as Chris:
    “Regrettably, I’m doubtful that we’ll actually see such an energy descent.”

    Looking at the table above, it’s glaringly obvious that the USA, Australia, and Canada are in a class of their own, with fossil energy consumption that’s 3-4 times the world average (per capita). A complete list would also include Saudi Arabia in that upper class.

    2017 rankings by per capita emissions
    Rank,    Country,    CO2 emissions (per capita)
    1    Saudi Arabia    16.1T
    2    Australia    15.6T
    3    Canada    14.9T
    4    United States    14.6T
    5    South Korea    11.7T
    6    Russian Federation    10.6T
    7    Japan    8.9T
    8    Germany    8.7T
    9    Poland    8.1T
    10    South Africa    7.4T
    11    Islamic Republic of Iran    7.0T
    12    China    6.5T
    13    United Kingdom    5.4T
    14    Italy    5.3T
    15    France    4.7T
    16    Turkey    4.7T
    17    Mexico    3.6T
    18    Brazil    2.1T
    19    Indonesia    1.9T
    20    India    1.6T
    All emissions from 2017. Fuel combustion only. T = Metric tons

    I estimate the global annual average to be around 4.7 tonnes per capita (36 billion tonnes CO2 divided by 7.7 billion people). Which means that France and Turkey are currently at this global average.

    If considerations of “fairness” would require each country to reduce its fossil fuel emissions to a per capita level that’s no more than 50% of the current global average, then Brazil, Indonesia, and India (among others) would already be below the limit. France and Turkey would need to cut their current emissions in half. The USA, Canada, and Australia would be allowed only 15-16% of their current emissions.

  6. Much of interest in these comments – thanks.

    Joe makes a good point about grid connectivity as the death knell of substitution. The grid is the servant of an expanding political economy, and is additive – hence the failure of all the low carbon energy sources to achieve any substitution out of fossil fuels to date. He’s right that every bit of substitution helps – but what we’ve learned is that grid-connected low carbon energy isn’t substitution.

    The problem of the high GHG cost of decarbonizing the energy economy is also prodigious. We’ve now surely entered the time when major climate change is inevitable and adaptation is the name of the game. So I agree with Steve C on the need for training wheels in this new reality. The problem is that, while it’s easy enough to live a fairly low energy life, for a variety of reasons that aren’t all within people’s control it’s not so easy to do it when most others don’t. Another tricky transition problem.

    Generally, I’d agree with Joe that moving to a lower energy society would be almost equally as miraculous as substituting existing energy with low carbon forms. I just have to hang as much hope as I can on that ‘almost’, and on the possibilities for adaptation.

    Clem’s points about better energy deployment and repair rights interest me. My Ford 3600 has no software for me to repair, but where to go from that point is intriguing. Big, fancy modern tractors do probably deploy energy more optimally than mine, but only assuming the parameters of a very high energy economy. Ultimately, my farming system could cope without a tractor … many others couldn’t. Perhaps I’ll try to scope out some of this terrain of the farm energy economy in another post if that would be of interest to others, because I find it quite a puzzler. Perhaps also some of you could help me with one fairly simple bit of farm energy economics on which I’ve not been able to find anything much useful – supposing you could choose between ploughing a 25 acre field with, say, a 100hp tractor and 3 furrow plough or a 200hp tractor and 6 furrow plough (or some other agriculturally plausible setup of this kind). All other things being equal, is there an energy economy of larger or smaller scale here?

    To Colin’s suggestion of nuclear energy, Joe has pretty much covered it – as indeed I did briefly above. Nuclear currently contributes about 4% to total global energy consumption. It’s also super-expensive and only within the compass of the wealthiest nations, both economically and also politically. There are various other issues with it. I don’t see it as a solution. Maybe here Steve L’s interesting figures underscore my point above about substitutability. France produces 75% of its electricity from nuclear, and the climate talks in 2015 were sited in Paris partly because France is a poster child of low carbon electricity, yet it’s still one of the highest carbon emitters through fuel combustion…

    • Chris, on transport, I’d be interested to hear how you intend to go solar-powered if you’re off the grid. I can only imagine something along the lines of an electric bike, although I recall Michel Daniek telling me of his solar-powered electric motorbike, though he lives in southern Spain.

    • To Chris’ query:
      – supposing you could choose between ploughing a 25 acre field with, say, a 100hp tractor and 3 furrow plough or a 200hp tractor and 6 furrow plough (or some other agriculturally plausible setup of this kind). All other things being equal, is there an energy economy of larger or smaller scale here?

      Well, all other things are seldom equal… but lets start there.

      The relationship between horse power and equipment width is not directly linear. This is not my specialty, so I’d welcome any correction… but a 60hp tractor can pull a 3 bottom plow (on the soils where I live), and a 100hp tractor can pull a 6 bottom plow. [I should also point out pulling a plow is very seldom done anymore… but the current kit to horsepower relationships apply]. The fuel economy is not directly related to horsepower either, so another metric might be acres of field worked per unit fuel.

      On a frontier where other concerns factor in… the weather matters to timeliness. If Chris and Clem each farm 20 hectares of pretty comparable farmland, side by side. Chris plows with a 3 bottom plow, Clem with 6. The weather forecast is not pretty… they’ll each be able to squeeze in just a couple hours plowing before a storm sets in. Hmmm. Now Chris could get a second tractor and 3 bottom plow and teach his son to use it so that the two of them could keep up. Problem solved… sort of. But wait – perhaps the larger tractor Clem needs is not as generally useful for all sorts of other farm activities (indeed, this IS an issue). And of course there is the notion that Chris and Clem might be friendly neighbors where once Clem finishes his field he could help Chris get done as well. My timeliness point though is that there are often issues to hand that make seemingly simple questions get complicated pretty quickly.

      • The problem is that, while it’s easy enough to live a fairly low energy life, for a variety of reasons that aren’t all within people’s control it’s not so easy to do it when most others don’t. Another tricky transition problem.


        To me this problem readily pushes its way to the front. Particularly with commodity products. If a wheat kernel is a wheat kernel is still just the same as the next wheat kernel – then the farmer who produces wheat kernels at the lowest price point will survive the longest. It matters less what size tractor and plow she uses… if she is physically closer to the market for wheat kernels, she’ll have lower transportation costs… the size of her tractor and plow might bite her over the course of many years, but probably not at the outset.

        Organic production probably does the most for this debate in terms of shedding a torch light on where markets for different forms of production could pull commodity products out into a clearer view. IF there were (and I believe there are attempts to do this) a sustainability metric that could be attached to a food product so that a more environmentally conscious producer could get a bit more for her trouble, then things might head in a better direction.

    • I’d be interested in some more discussion on on-farm energy use. I’m currently writing a report looking at options to de-carbonise upland hill farming and I’ll happily read others’ thoughts on the matter. For tractors the options I’m aware of seem to be:
      – biodiesel
      – other biofuels or woodgas
      – hydrogen tractors
      – less use of tractors
      – a combination of the above.

      Indeed, not all of these are “de-carbonisation”, as such, but definitely “de-fossil-fuel-isation”, which I think is more important, since it encourages us to live within our apportioned ration of energy, rather than borrowing fossil sunlight from underground.

      • Firewood (unless you file that with “other biofuels”)… so steam engine tractors were all the rage a hundred + years ago.

    • Chris asked, “Supposing you could choose between ploughing a 25 acre field with, say, a 100hp tractor and 3 furrow plough or a 200hp tractor and 6 furrow plough (or some other agriculturally plausible setup of this kind). All other things being equal, is there an energy economy of larger or smaller scale here?”

      All of the sources I’ve found (dating from 1915 to 2013) seem to agree that the fuel consumption, per acre, will be approximately the same for the smaller/slower tractor and the larger/faster tractor.

      “The fuel consumption of a small tractor and implement in gal./hr. is less than that of a larger tractor and implement. But the fuel use on a per-acre basis will be approximately the same, because the smaller unit has to run more hours to cover a given acreage.”
      Estimating Fuel Requirements for Field Operations
      Samuel D. Parsons, Extension Agricultural Engineer, Purdue University (1980?)

      “Fuel Requirements for Crop Production — To disk a field, the gallons of fuel per acre for that field are nearly constant regardless of the size disk and tractor used. For the same operation, differences due to equipment are quite small. Therefore, the fuel used per acre for any specific operation can be assumed to be constant except for small variations due to soil types, moisture content and depth of operation.”
      Estimating Farm Fuel Requirements
      by H.W. Downs and R.W. Hansen
      Colorado State University Extension (1998)

      “The cost of operating a smaller tractor will be about the same per acre as for the large one, but the number of acres of plow land necessary to get the best economy may be much less.”
      Cost of Tractor Plowing
      by C.H. Spurway
      Farm Engineering, Vol. 3 (1915)

      “Fuel consumption was measured as gallons per acre (gal/acre). Although larger equipment consumes fuel at higher rates, fieldwork is also completed at a faster rate (acres/hr). Gallons per acre generally remains consistent and is a common, useful measure for farmers.”
      Diesel Fuel Consumption During Field Operations
      Hanna, H. Mark and Schweitzer, Dana D.
      Iowa State University (2013)

      “The most common measure of the energy efficiency of a tractor is referred to here as specific volumetric fuel consumption (SVFC), which is given in units of L/kWh (gal/hph). SVFC is generally not affected by the engine size and can be used to compare energy efficiencies of tractors having different sizes and under different operating conditions.”
      Predicting Tractor Fuel Consumption
      University of Nebraska
      R. D. Grisso, M. F. Kocher, D. H. Vaughan (2004)

  7. Simon – yes spot on. We’re taking delivery of an electric goods trike from the excellent Cycles Maximus: Who needs a pickup truck when you can have a pickup trike?? Though regarding Steve C’s point about training wheels, truth is I’m finding it hard learning to ride a trike after years of riding a bike. I think we’ll be able to charge it from our PV/wind setup from spring to autumn … it might get a bit dodgy in the winter.

    Clem/Steve L – ‘other things aren’t equal’ is also one of my favourite lines, and I acknowledge that the comparison doesn’t reflect a real decision-making process on the farm for the sorts of reasons Clem outlines. Nevertheless, I think it’s still a question worth asking, so my thanks to Steve for another piece of his now legendary sleuthing. Where this kind of information ultimately leads, I think, is that there are no biological economies of large scale (only human economies of fast throughput) to arable scale-up … and this is significant for wider agrarian politics. Of course, I agree with Clem that the human economies condition the possibilities … we urgently need to recondition those economies. I’m also interested in Clem’s comment that pulling a plough is seldom done any more. It’s still done a lot in these parts. But replaced with herbicide/fertilizer in Ohio? And in the rest of the US…?

    Joshua – nothing particularly insightful I’m afraid from this quarter regarding best options for tractor fuel substitution … except maybe to throw in on-farm biogas … and a shout out for less use, along the lines mentioned above. On which note, at the risk of sounding obtuse I’m wondering about the larger parameters of your study, since the use of tractors in upland farming is surely a tiny component of agricultural fuel use and emissions?

    Joe/Diogenese – thanks for that. I hope to come back to these economic points in my next post.

    • Trike looks great – you can never have too many cargo bikes on the road in my book. Solar AND wind – that sounds more like it. If you mean that the handling might get a bit dodgy in winter you could try fitting tungsten-studded tyres. I haven’t ridden an upright trike since I was about four, but I gather you need need to lean out when cornering to stop the offside wheel getting airborne and upsetting the applecart.

    • The thing I’ve struggled with indeed is the steering – summer or winter! When you’re used to leaning into corners, a trike takes some getting used to. At least the weight of the batteries and motor help to keep the wheels on the road.

    • I’m also interested in Clem’s comment that pulling a plough is seldom done any more. It’s still done a lot in these parts. But replaced with herbicide/fertilizer in Ohio? And in the rest of the US…?

      Plowing is still used in a few places. In NW Ohio on the old Lake Erie lakebed soils (primarily Hoytville Clays) you may see some plowing. Phytophthora root rot is easily controlled by plowing. These soils are incredibly flat – so there is virtually no risk of erosion. Even with the advantage of root rot control there is not much plowing in this area.

      Plowing is detrimental to soil organic matter and larger soil life such as worms. Bare soil is naked to the weather and at risk of movement. Reduced till methods where significant former crop residue is left on the surface is far more common today. This sort of tillage is also less energy intensive. Seed bed preparation is accomplished, weeds are slowed or nearly eliminated, and less organic matter is lost. This approach does typically go hand in hand with herbicide use. But even in organic production where herbicides are not employed there seems to be less plowing than when I was… well… younger.

      Fertilizer is a whole other matter. Plowing won’t replace the need for some replacement of soil fertility removed by todays very high yielding crops. Cover crop production between cash crops actually does more to reduce fertilizer demand than plowing. Cover crops work well with both conventional and organic systems.

      Within an hour’s drive of my little farm I’d suppose the majority of moldboard plows that still exist are stashed along old fence lines or sitting in bone yards rusting away. If I wanted to acquire a decent plow today I’d head up toward Hoytville and ask around.

    • Hi Chris,
      A late reply. Yes upland agriculture tractor use is a tiny proportion of agricultural emissions as a whole, but diesel for the tractor and other agricultural machinery is the biggest single source of emissions on our upland research farm, so it’s important in that regard. It’s the biggest factor in an overall small piece of the puzzle, if that makes sense.
      And we bring in a contractor to do some of the tractor work, so that’s not even counted in my current figures.
      Obviously, livestock methane emissions are the much bigger component in the farm’s greenhouse gas emissions. But that’s why I think it’s important to draw the distinction between greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use. I would much prefer to see a zero-fossil-fuel economy than a zero-carbon economy.

      • Thanks for that, Joshua. Makes sense.


        “I would much prefer to see a zero-fossil-fuel economy than a zero-carbon economy.”

        Amen to that!

        There’s the argument abroad nowadays that we’re over-emphasizing livestock methane in climate change mitigation approaches. I’d be interested in your views.

        • Hi Chris. I’m not an expert on methane and I’m wishing someone would explain it to me. Maybe I just need to read the articles again.

          There’s a post on carbon brief:

          This links to a 2018 paper:

          I haven’t quite understood all the arguments yet. My main question at the moment is what happens to methane once it’s in the atmosphere? How does it get drawn down? Or does it turn into something else – CO2 maybe?

          My intuitive understanding, as I’ve written elsewhere is that pulling carbon out from under the ground (burning fossil fuels) is surely much worse than changing the way carbon is distributed between biosphere, soils and atmosphere (agriculture) which must surely be self-limiting in some way. Obviously, fossil-fuelled agriculture just makes everything worse.

          Must dash, would love to share further thoughts on the topic.

  8. Another renewable energy advocate who refuses to state the EROEI of these devices.
    Ignorance or intentional, this serious omission is a constant in the renewable space.

    • I’m not sure who the ‘renewable energy advocate’ you’re referring to is. Me, maybe? If so, labelling me thus on the basis of what I’ve written above seems to me to miss the point of the essay rather spectacularly.

      I’m happy to have a discussion about EROEIs. But the extent of present fossil fuel dependence, the speed of the transition required in view of climate change and the global inequities obstructing energy transition which I discuss above are to my mind as much or more to the point than EROEI as obstacles to an easy energy transition.

  9. Chris wrote “…there are no biological economies of large scale (only human economies of fast throughput) to arable scale-up … the human economies condition the possibilities … we urgently need to recondition those economies.”

    It seems notable that in the 1915 article “Cost of Tractor Plowing”, the biggest expense (per acre) was human labor, costing more than the tractor itself (with interest, estimated repair costs, and depreciation spread over the expected working life of the tractor).

    The tractor was 45 horsepower, “drawing six to eight plows”, with the outfit costing $2,300 and financed at 6% interest, and used 100 days per year with a life of 10 years.

    “In this test labor is the greatest single item of expense, amounting to 60 cents per acre because all labor is hired. A farmer could reduce the money outlay for labor and also reduce the number of acres required for [justifying] tractor use by running the machine himself.”

    “…if plowing is to be done as cheaply with a forty-five horsepower tractor as with horses, there must be about 350 acres of plow land each year or the tractor must work at something else to make up for the difference…”

    Cost of Tractor Plowing
    by C.H. Spurway
    Farm Engineering, September 1915

    • Are you familiar with Deborah Fitzgerald’s book Every Farm a Factory, Steve? Her subject is the industrialization of American agriculture beginning at around 1920, and although she doesn’t quote Spurway, she could just as well have — the issues of labor, scale, and the adaptation of techniques and tasks in order to make early mechanization cost-effective (“…or the tractor must work at something else to make up the difference…”) that he raises figure prominently in her narrative. It’s a fascinating book that I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the subject. I found it by way of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, in which he drew on Fitzgerald’s (then unpublished) work for his chapter on agricultural modernization in the USSR.

    • Thanks for the book recommendation. A review by David Danbom says this book ‘concludes that the industrializers generally succeeded in transforming agriculture, with substantial “costs . . . in financial, environmental, or human terms”. This ties in with Chris’ essay “The three causes of global ecocide.”

      I didn’t expect that the early tractors (with a 1915 price of $2,300) would already cost less to the farmer, per acre, than the human labor to operate them. But at that price, it wasn’t surprising that horse teams would cost less than tractors unless at least 350 acres were plowed per year.

      Only two years later in 1917, when Ford began selling mass-produced tractors (for $750), the economic reckoning had changed and tractor sales began to rise dramatically.

      “The Fordson tractor went into mass production in 1917 and debuted for sale on October 8, 1917, for US$750… The Fordson succeeded in being cheaper to maintain than horses, as the Ford Model T had previously done. A government test concluded that farmers spent $.95 per acre plowing with a Fordson compared to feeding eight horses for a year and paying two drivers, which cost $1.46 per acre… Annual production reached 36,781 in 1921 and 99,101 in 1926. By 1925, Ford had built its 500,000th Fordson tractor.”

  10. Thanks for these interesting threads on tractors and tillage.

    350 acres for a 45hp tractor – phew! I have a 45hp tractor – a 1980 Ford that I bought 15 years ago for about £4,000. I don’t use it too often these days – I probably average less than 10 litres of diesel a year now that the site is set up – but it’s pretty damn useful when I do use it.

    It’s easy to harbour the notion that I’m inappropriately under-using it … kind of the hobby farming critique. But with this discussion I now feel I can hold my head up high. Our present political economy is such that the landscape gets fitted to the economic envelope demanded by machinery. Whereas what we need to do is fit our machinery to the ecological envelope demanded by the landscape. So I feel I’m doing my bit by tying up some fossil capital unproductively on my holding. Somebody at an ag conference once told me that it was people like me who were preventing economic development in Africa by hoarding old tractors. Thank God for people like me…

    William Cronon’s and Geoff Cunfer’s books, respectively ‘Nature’s Metropolis’ and ‘On the Great Plains’, are also good on the industrialisation of US agriculture. Cunfer describes farmers who resisted transitioning from horses to tractors because, presciently, they realized that tractors spelt the end of thriving rural communities.

    On tillage and fertility, it’s surely somewhat biome dependent – with a humid temperate climate and heavy soils, the erosive dangers are less, which is no doubt why people have been happily ploughing here in England for millennia. I’m not convinced that a herbicide/fertilizer no till regimen will prove an awful lot more sustainable in the long run, but that’s another story. On our patch, we’ve moved to a largely no till system because it minimizes weeding, which is otherwise a major cost, and this is one reason why our tractor use is low – but it does involve importing material from offsite. Although this comes in the benign form of woodchip from local tree surgeons (and excrement kindly donated by visitors to our campsite) this isn’t scalable at the whole society level. The holy grail must be a no till, no herbicide, no synthetic fertilizer, no import system … but I’m not sure anyone’s found it, yet…

    …except at the scale of the household garden, I should add…

    • The holy grail must be a no till, no herbicide, no synthetic fertilizer, no import system
      There are a few schools of thought that travel in this direction, Chris, as I’m sure you’re aware.
      Of course, Fukuoka in Japan and ‘Ghandi of Natural Farming’ Bhaskar Save in India trod this path.
      Closer to home, biodynamic farmers attempt to close the circle by composting their crop residues and farmyard manure, foregoing imports from outside the farm and making their own fertiliser concoctions, although they do advocate ploughing and tilling (if the Maria Thun calendar is anything to go by).
      The Shumei Natural Agriculture approach also has a similar ethos, composting only its own crop residue and even dispensing with crop rotation. Seed-saving is key here too, which I guess comes under ‘no imports’.

    • The holy grail is perpetuity. Whatever the technique and procedure, the production of food or fiber must be sustainable forever.

      In theory, there is no reason why a paradigm of importing resources, processing on farm, and exporting products can’t be sustainable. But once you participate in exporting to market, it is hard to know the sustainability of the resources you import and for others to know the sustainability of your exports. The value of a no-import policy is that one gets to observe the entirety of the production process and get rapid feedback on the sustainability of that process.

      Market based enterprises, even farms, tend to become factories. Import resources, hire labor, fire up the machines, export product. And everyone is but a small part of the larger market. The only way to know whether that larger market is sustainable is to check in many centuries later and see whether it is still functioning as well as it did in the beginning.

      That’s why I’m a big fan of subsistence agriculture, which is just the household garden writ large(r). The subsistence farmer gets immediate feedback on sustainability. A small community of subsistence farmers can barter (import and export) with each other and still observe the sustainability of everyone participating.

      Once a market is involved, an incentive, or at least the potential, for irreversible depletion is introduced. Add in exogenous energy supplies and the prospect of perpetual sustainability is practically nil. If the energy is from fossil fuels, it is impossible.

    • Thanks for those comments, and yep, I pretty much agree with Joe. Even with my strong predilection for self-reliant farming, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that every holding has to be closed loop – but indeed the further the farm system departs from it, the slimmer the chance of retaining a renewable ecological base.

      The holy grail debate is a bit similar to the regen ag one I’ve written about previously. If produce is going offsite without replenishing the nutrients (maybe other than N), then ultimately I’m unconvinced the system is renewable, whether biodynamic, Fukuokan or whatever (I have to apologise for obtusely arguing otherwise to a soil scientist some years ago). One thing about biodynamic farming in my experience is that it’s often oriented to furnishing onsite nutrition (schools, intentional communities etc.) and therefore more easily takes care of that problem.

  11. As one wag pointed out they have never yet managed to breed a tractor.

    I havent seen the full analasys but there was an interesting comment on the Norfolk & Western, the last Class 1 Railroad in the US to be run by steam, it went from a profitable line that built its own steam loco’s to an unprofitable one after it started buying diesels.

    I wonder if an Amish Horse Farmer who breeds his horses makes more money than a mechanised one who spends just short of $1 million on the latest John Deere offering?

  12. Lots of discussion of tractor optimizing and relative levels of Importing inputs, but I think more central to food systems in a reduced energy future is a large shift to perennials, that need much less in the way of tractors and the large amounts of fertilizer that farmers use to get the yields they are able to currently.

    Various versions have been discussed here several times in the past. Agroforestry, polyculture, permaculture, silvopasture, etc.., are still works in progress, but are heading in the right direction. Will they be a drop in replacement for annuals based schemes? No, but they will be much closer to sustainable forever. We will have to live with whatever that amount might be.

    Back when Chris reviewed Mark Shepard’s book, the issue of nutrition per acre, or calories per acre was raised. I don’t think there is any good data yet on the EROEI of a polyculture farm ( or maybe NutritionROEI ) but there needs to be. The land grant colleges in the U.S. ( being beholden to big industrial ag) are only just now doing research on this, but it will take time to get meaningful data.

    Reconnecting the plant animal cycle on each farm would also reduce energy inputs, and enable food production on land that is too sloped or marginal for annual grains, but fine for pasture.

    Even with low or no till methods, lots of energy and energy derived inputs are needed in annuals when done at scale. Sure, we would still have annuals in a localized, small farm future, but I’d guess that the percent of annual foods and perennial foods would shift radically from what we currently have.

    • Fair point re perennials. We experienced golfball-sized gargantuan hail last August (bear with me). The storm passed over four villages, lasted only minutes and left around 20 per cent of houses needing new rooves, so you can imagine what the many vegetable plots and fruit trees looked like. Silver lining on reflection: we still had walnuts. Anything with a tough shell should perhaps figure highly in future planting plans as such events seem to becoming a regular feature of hothouse earth, and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Our village polytunnel is now perforated, and when my neighbour ventured out to throw a blanket over a new car she received a broken nose for her troubles. It’s tragic, really, though among other things it makes one wonder whether a thatched roof (or a ‘living’ green roof) is the way to go as I had to find and fit around 200 tiles pretty sharpish, and we were luckier than most.

    • Perennial crops are a good idea, but they are very labor intensive since they are not usually able to be harvested by machines or even animal drawn equipment. I am sure that in a high-labor, low-energy world, perennial crops will be widespread. I try to have as many on my land as possible. The only really perennial calorie-dense carbs I can come up with though are bananas/plantains. A lot of perennials are tree crops like fruits and nuts. I have plenty, including avocados and mac nuts, which have a lot of calories, but it’s hard to eat them like potatoes.

      But Mark Shepard thinks that perennial crops, especially tree crops, are the way to make commercial farming far less environmentally damaging. He put his money behind his concepts on his New Forest Farm. Looking at the photos from his book, Restoration Agriculture, I can see the potential productivity. I just wonder how he will get everything out of the farm and on to people’s tables.

      Perennial polycultures are great, but I think they are more suited to small subsistence farms than large scale commercial operations. So I don’t think the ratio of annuals to perennials will shift much until lots of human hands are available for harvesting the perennials.

      • Yes, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Trying to shift to a low energy ag system while trying to survive in the current economic paradigm is difficult. Food trees and perennials take time to get productive. Cash flow delay and up front costs are punished in the short term mind set that capitalism encourages.

        Mark lives a short way from me, and last year was a bumper crop for his hazels, but most fell to the ground, as it was more than he could harvest alone, and no one wanted to hand harvest for a wage he could afford and still break even. Crops subsidized by cheap fossil energy set the market for food, but that won’t last.

        Perennials, or annuals, or really any food for that matter, will not lend themselves to easy commodifying, once mechanized harvest, storage and logistics become energy constrained.

        I agree that subsistent farms will likely be how perennials take hold and increase, but more needs to happen sooner to minimize the pain of transition.

    • Interesting discussion on perennials. I agree that a more renewable agriculture will be more perennial-focused … I just have a bit of a beef with those who claim that it’s lower (labour) input and higher (energy) output than annual cropping. It does get easier at lower latitudes, though even tropical agroforestry often includes annual crops. Talking of beef, here at 50+ degrees north, the best perennial agriculture involves growing perennial grasses and consuming them in the form of meat or milk from large ruminants. But it doesn’t stack up so well in terms of feeding millions upon millions of people.

      Nuts are another option here … a bit more plausible for feeding the multitudes, once you figure out how to avoid feeding multitudes of squirrels with them. And no doubt a good banker against hail. We’re a bit beyond the northern margin of major commercial nut orcharding here, but we produced a big crop of hazels along with a few sweet chestnuts and walnuts here last year. We’ve used a nut wizard, though tbh a tarpaulin under the tree often seems less fiddly.

      Still hard to beat a good loaf of bread though…

      I agree with Steve that EROEI is a good way to think about different agricultural systems. It doesn’t come easily to people these days, though, because EI has rarely been a limiting factor in recent times.

      • I wonder if the work involved in harvesting and storing hay for over winter is much less than for arable crops, especially without using machinery? I’ve bucked hay bales from the field, but have never had to manage loose hay at all. It sounds like a lot of work.

        Here in the tropics we don’t ever need to cut and dry hay. The animals just graze all year. We do have to “bank” grass in the fall by allowing stubble height to rise, even past Phase 2 growth, so that there is enough to last through the lower growth season, but I never have to cut hay, thank goodness.

        Once the hard work of fence construction is done, all that’s left is moving the animals around and the slaughtering/butchering. We get very high quality calories for very little work.

        • I’ve helped get in the winter feed out here a couple of times. Hay was pitchforked into haystacks from a tractor-hitched trailer. The farmer created beautiful round stacks by flicking the hay here and there, the rest of us – a four or five-strong team – moved many great forkfuls of hay onto the slowly rising stack. This was at the height of summer, so it was sweaty work and the dry grasses can irritate the skin, which is probably one of the reasons no-one wears short trousers. Before long the stack was as high as the fork could reach with a good lunge, with the farmer silhouetted on top of it wearing a summer hat of straw. He secured the new stack in place by tying a few very stout branches together and hanging them down over the sides. Some of the stacks resembled small houses once finished. The storks liked to perch on top. Like a grape harvest, or a grain harvest, to a lesser extent a pig-killing, it seemed to be one of those times in the smallholding/small village farming calendar when extra pairs of hands were nigh-on essential. I once helped with a similar task, stuffing a cut-and-dried trailer load of lucerne into a barn. The lucerne was not as nice to work with in such close quarters as forking hay on an open meadow. The dust gets into your lungs and also irritates the skin but I loved the work, even though at the time I was thinking, ‘nah, don’t think I’ll keep cows’. The following year the phone didn’t ring as someone in the area had got hold of a bailing machine (small brick-shaped bales) and now the huge cylindrical bales are all you see. I guess making haystacks while the sun shines could be harder work than harvesting annuals; you certainly need more land. But if energy returned on energy invested was a top priority my family would be eating Jerusalem artichokes till the cows come home. I often lavish attention on edible crops because, well, what else is there in life?

        • Another interesting discussion. Yes, haymaking is hard work, though I think the totality of work per calorie or gram of protein is less with ruminant husbandry – even in temperate climates – than with arable farming. I could probably furnish some historical data from premodern English agriculture on that, but any other quantifications or objections to my point would be gratefully received!

          Simon makes a good point about Jerusalem artichokes… EROEI is undoubtedly a useful metric, but ultimately people need to devise plausible local farming systems which can renewably provide acceptable human nutrition – and this often has to include intermediate products like grass, fodder legumes and manure that only indirectly contribute.

          Generally, my feeling is that in most parts of the world people spent a long time figuring out how best to provide for themselves with more or less renewable, low energy, and usually mixed farming systems in preindustrial times. I’ll take a lot of persuading that those traditional local agricultures won’t form the basis of any sustainable future agricultures, albeit maybe with a few modern twists.

          Still, on the matter of the hard toil of haymaking, I have a friend with Scandinavian farming ancestry (where haymaking was a very big deal for collective wellbeing) who tells the story of a relative from a couple of generations back: she spent the whole day prior to her wedding making hay and got sunstroke, so she had to be propped up by relatives at the altar, and ended up vomiting over the priest.

          Hard work indeed.

          • Yes, haymaking is hard work, though I think the totality of work per calorie or gram of protein is less with ruminant husbandry – even in temperate climates – than with arable farming.

            Just so I’m clear on the variables and definitions at play here…

            You want to compare the EROI of ruminant sourced foods against arable sourced foods?? All human inputs to be by hand or hand held tools? Further, the comparison is for climates with a six or seven month grazing season (so that five or six months of feeding is from hay or silage). [Sorry Joe – I would allow that you have the upper hand on this one… so close to the equator].

            Like Joe, I’ve bucked my share of square bales. On only a couple occasions handled any loose hay. Given the time and effort to do the same amount of “haying” (square bales vs loose), I’d rather be pruning tomatoes, picking sweetcorn, green beans, berries, etc. First off you have to scythe the hay, (hand tools only, right?). Pitch it in, pitch it out (feed it)… milk the cow, churn the butter (or make the cheese)… or for meat – kill and butcher the beast. You do get more calories per gram of food from the ruminants, but I still don’t see the trade off favoring hooves over veges and grains.

            If they didn’t taste so good, I could be a vegetarian. Looking forward to your notes on this one.

      • Hello Chris

        I agree, a sheet below a walnut tree and a long pole (5m) is the easier way to harvest walnuts. I wait until a good percentage of the husks have split then knock them out of the tree. To clear a tree it usually requires 2 or 3 knocking sessions, about a week apart. To keep the squirrels out of the trees I use thin aluminium sheets wrapped around the trunks, secured with brown parcel tape. Mine were donated to me by a friend in the printing trade, I believe they were formally printing plates? Obviously the squirrels get the nuts that fall naturally, and I check the ground daily for wind falls, but they still get a lot. For the guards to work the squirrels must be prevented from getting into the tree other than by the trunk. I keep the crowns 6ft of the ground and at least a 2m gap, preferably 3m, from other tree and shrub canopies. I crop 30 trees, which takes roughly three days labour spread across October, plus a daily wind fall check taking 20-30 minutes. Had a light frost this year in May, burned the lower leaves, yet to see what effect it will have on the crop.

        Regards Philip

  13. A response to Clem’s comment immediately above, in a new thread for wider paragraphs…

    Well, my point really was that EROEI *isn’t* the only relevant consideration in devising the farm system, though it’s certainly more important than present practices suggest. And I’m open to people making the case for many and varied kinds of system, according to particular circumstances. Nevertheless, I think it’d be easy to point out some ways in which farming with ruminants turns out well energetically in low input farming systems (especially in high latitudes) and I’ll attempt to do this briefly below in qualitative terms. If anyone wants to pitch in with further facts and figures, so much the better.

    Imagine two farmers, Jill and Jack – or, better, two villages, Jillville and Jackville.

    In Jillville, there are gardens, cornfields, pastures and woodlands. The bulk of human nutrition comes from the gardens and the cornfields, but people also keep cattle in the pastures and woodlands, which provide a little meat and dairy products – especially useful during the long, hard winter – and the major source of fat in the local diet, since no oilseed plants grow at these latitudes. The cattle also help keep the village supplied with leather, bone, horn, sinew and gut, with various uses. And, most importantly, manure – which can be used for fuel, construction and of course crop fertility.

    In the spring, the Jillvillers plough the fields and maybe the gardens with oxen that have derived a portion of their food calories from woodland and wayside grazing that the villagers otherwise couldn’t tap. They turn out the cattle onto the pastures and woodland, and pretty much leave them to get on with feeding themselves until the autumn. They muck out the manure and straw from the cowsheds and build compost heaps with it. They tote well-rotted old compost to the gardens and cornfields to keep up fertility. In the summer they make hay. In the autumn they can fruit and vegetables to see them through the winter. Later on they slaughter some cattle and other livestock for the same reasons, and work their way through the butter and cheese they’ve accumulated. Of course, they do spend a lot of time milking and making cheese and butter. All in all, it’s a lot of work.

    In Jackville, there are gardens, cornfields and woodlands – but no pastures, because caring for cattle seems like too much work for the Jacks. They have no local sources of fat, leather, bone, sinew etc. but hey ho – maybe they can buy these things or analogues in from elsewhere using the hard-earned cash they’ve got from … somewhere.

    In the spring, the Jackvillers dig over the fields and gardens by hand, using up some of their own metabolic energy gained from high-grade food like wheat and beans. They have to get fertility into the fields and gardens but they have no manure. One option is to keep part of their land in permanent fallow, scythe and collect the grass and other fallow plants, compost it and add it to their crops – which is haymaking by another name, but probably less energetically efficient than haymaking proper all told. Or they could alternate between cropland and fallow, which would involve a lot of hard hand-digging. Even with this latter option, they’d probably need to scythe the fallow regularly – otherwise it would senesce, and get taken over by perennial weeds and, ultimately, woodland. The scything would feed no livestock. Probably it’d just feel like struggling to keep the forest at bay – something that livestock will do unasked.

    In the autumn, the Jackvillers can fruit and vegetables to see them through the winter – but they have no fat, no meat and no dairy products to help them along. They’ve saved a bit of time and energy by avoiding milking, herding and toting hay and manure, but they’ve made less efficient use of Jackville’s biotic energies, they’re short of several very useful products and at the end of the year, boy, they’re even more exhausted than the Jillvillers.

    I think it’s for reasons like this that most premodern agricultures globally have opted to make ruminants a part of their farming systems when they can. But I’m open to other interpretations.

    • I like where you’re going with this, kind of the art(s) of the commonplace(s). Would much change if the Jackvillers used humanure from the John? I’m an omnivore (my wife works on an organic meat farm, be a crying shame not to) but vegan arguments along the lines of ‘eco efficiency’ do seem persuasive in general.

    • Three things- first, the base of nutrition is calories, composed of a reasonable blend of carbs, fats, and proteins. Tough to do with typical garden veggie output. grains and pulses, meat, or nuts from trees are typically needed. Simply look at your current diet. Still need the vitamins, minerals from a diverse diet, but calories trump all else.

      second- much land will support grass and grazing, but not tilling. Too much risk of soil loss. The land can still be of use if done wisely and will increase the local carrying capacity.

      third- We have models that worked in the past. There are even Amish and others that still minimize fossil inputs and do haying with horses and sweat. If we replace fossil fuels with draft animals, we are kind of stuck with haying, especially in northern climes. Might as well grow meat also. Our better understanding of soil biology, and ecological awareness based on science rather than intuition can only improve on those past practices.

      If we leaven the past working models with a prudent use of low energy use technology, the energy input is lessened. Here is just one example. Others abound.

      To Simon’s question- Humanure should be a central practice for both Jack and Jillville, it’s one more loop to close. Jackville would still be missing the large quantities of organic matter being converted by ruminants, so I’m thinking it would not close the gap.

      bonus link- an interesting and poetic account of one farmer’s journey of learning and improving hay making. Subtleties abound.

      • much land will support grass and grazing, but not tilling.

        If you have seen the terracing on steep mountainsides all over Asia, you realize that tilling can be done just about anywhere, and will be if the population density is high enough to require maximizing arable land. The existence of those terraces is evidence that arable field crops produce more calories than pastured animals per unit area. It also is evidence that available calories for humans are maximized by doing without forage fed draft animals.

        It appears to me that the human workload to acquire calories varies with population density. Hunting and gathering is the easiest, pastoral animal tending is a little harder, agriculture with draft animals even harder, and most difficult of all is producing all food with hand held tools, which is very hard work but provides the opportunity for maximum population density.

        Infanticide is evidence that the population has reached absolute maximum density. I would also suggest that famine deaths per annum is another marker of the relationship between population density and food production capacity.

      • much land will support grass and grazing, but not tilling.

        If you have seen the terracing on steep mountainsides all over Asia, you realize that tilling can be done just about anywhere if population density is high enough to require maximizing arable land. I think the existence of those terraces is evidence that arable field crops produce more calories than pastured animals per unit area. It also is evidence that available calories for humans are maximized by doing without forage fed draft animals.

        It seems to me that the human workload to acquire calories varies with methods for getting food, methods which also vary with population density. Hunting and gathering is the easiest, pastoral animal tending is a little harder, agriculture with draft animals even harder, and most difficult of all is producing all food with hand held tools, which is very hard work but provides the opportunity for maximizing population density (or at least keeping dense populations alive).

    • An article from 1874 mentions the importance of “night soil” (humanure) for agriculture based on “Crops without cattle.”

      “No cattle, no crops,” has become a time-honored axiom in our farm literature. The lesson it inculcates is that cattle husbandry is indispensable to a paying tillage. In Japanese husbandry the saying is reversed, and “crops without cattle” is their theory and practice, which for centuries, with their cheap labor, cheaper subsistence and puddling with liquid night soil, has preserved an undiminished fertility. But, in the present light of our farm economy, and with a hard and uncompromising soil, “without cattle, without crops” is safe agricultural orthodoxy.
      — Samuel Wasson, Maine Department of Agriculture, 1874

      A sidetrack into Japan’s history with humanure, from a paper written by David L. Howell:

      “Excrement was a hot commodity in the cities of nineteenth-century Japan. The widespread use of night soil as an organic fertilizer meant that residents of big cities such as Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka could sell their waste rather than dispose of it themselves…”

      “Competition for night soil led to all sorts of conflict. Landlords might sell their tenants’ shit to individual peasants, villages, or night-soil brokers; in some cases, the income from the toilets might exceed the rent collected on a tenement’s apartments. As demand for night soil grew in the late eighteenth century, consumers eager to get their hands on raw shit got into bidding wars that drove up the price of night soil significantly. Peasants priced out of the poop market occasionally banded together in an effort to persuade the shogunal authorities to intervene and either force down the price of night soil by fiat or drive brokers— whom peasants blamed for ratcheting up prices—out of the market altogether. Major conflicts occurred at least four times between 1789 and 1867; the first instance embroiled more than a thousand villages in Musashi and Shimōsa provinces…”

      “The real turning point in the history of shit came after World War I. As Tokyo grew and its populace simply produced far more shit than the local agricultural economy could absorb, a teeming latrine became a liability and urbanites were forced to pay others to relieve them of their shit. In Hongō ward in the eastern section of Tokyo, the tipping point came in 1918, when in response to residents’ complaints of a “deluge of excrement,” the authorities were finally forced to hire night-soil men to haul away excess shit in some neighborhoods; emboldened carriers reneged on their contracts and refused to empty toilets under they received a fee. The toilets emptied for a fee still provided night soil to local farmers: in 1935, the ward supplied over 61,000 loads of night soil to agricultural associations in Chiba, Saitama, and Tokyo prefectures. In Yokohama the crisis occurred a bit later, in 1921, but the storyline is very similar—peasants, realizing that the supply of shit in the booming metropolis far outpaced demand, abruptly stopped paying for night soil and demanded a fee instead. The city, faced with the problem of disposing of 5,150 loads of night soil every day, had no choice but to capitulate to the farmers’ demands.”

      David L. Howell, Harvard University, 2012

    • No Fat?
      What about; Olives, Walnuts, Almonds, Hazel nuts, Pine nuts, Pecans, oil seed rape, linseed oil? A few temperate oil/fat crops I came up with in 60 seconds.

      I agree with your point Chris, not using ruminants foregoes using available resources which cannot be directly consumed by humans. Default MEAT production as defined by Simon Fairlie in the book of the same name is more efficient than not doing so, and provides products other than oil/fat as well.

      Regards Philip

  14. A wonderful post and a great comment section Chris.

    On tractors—Clem already brought up the labour to use them, but I wonder how important is the labour to pay for them. If it takes several more years to pay off that tool, it had better be worth it.

    Which adds cheap debt onto the list of depleting resources.

    And, you had a early paragraph about how technical capacity is not sufficient. I wrote a post about that.

  15. Thanks for these comments. Many points and sources of interest, along with a few points that prod my disputatious side. I’ll try to respond if I can but, appropriately enough, farm (and other) work is calling…

  16. OK, a brief time window for a few responses:

    – In most dry-crop agricultures in the absence of synthetic fertilizers, it’s necessary to maintain crop fertility through fallows. Including livestock in the fallows makes the overall system MORE, not less, energetically efficient in numerous ways – some of which I touched on in my comment above. It’s true that you get more calories per acre from the staple crops than the livestock, but this is basically irrelevant – you get more calories per farmed acre overall from a mixed farming system than from a stockless one, better overall nutrition, less human work input, better overall use of biotic resources and so on.

    – Paddy rice is slightly different because algal N fixation obviates fallowing, but my general point above about improved efficiency through livestock still holds. Water buffalo are widely used as draft animals in wet rice systems. The fact that a lot of people farm without them has less to do with maximizing calories and more to do with the fact they’re too poor to afford them.

    – It makes sense to return all human wastes to the soil in all farming systems, but I don’t see this as some preferable alternative to livestock manures. On a self-reliant single household holding, you’re likely to be short of bulk organic matter from humanure alone for your husbandry. The ability of ruminants to digest grass and other herbage is a key complement. The peasants competing for urban night soil in the extract quoted by Steve L suggests to me a situation of material poverty, not a superior farm system. This is hinted in the quote from Samuel Wasson on ‘cheap labor’ and ‘cheaper subsistence’. Crops without cattle? Only if you’re too poor for cattle.

    – What I’ve said above is compatible with the vegan critique of contemporary agriculture mentioned by Simon. Currently, much of the world’s farmland is devoted to maximizing meat production to meet the demands of the global wealthy – and this is extremely energy and land inefficient. But it’s not the same as low-input peasant farming systems, which always use livestock when they can.

    – Regarding Joe’s points about infanticide and famine. Well … unless humanity changes its ways soon, I wouldn’t bet against godawful famines in the future. But every historical famine I can think of has an avoidable social cause – invariably they result to a great extent from powerful people not caring enough about the fate of powerless people, not because it’s impossible to procure enough food. And when it comes to infanticide, I can’t help thinking about the wealthy castes in parts of premodern India who sometimes killed baby girls because there were unlikely to be any men of sufficiently high status available for them to marry. Which is to say – don’t neglect the social and cultural dimensions of human ecology.

    – And regarding Steve C and Joe on tillage, I’d have to go with Steve that much land will support grass but not tilling. There are numerous agricultural systems that create synergies between tillable farmscapes and untillable grass farmscapes (“chalk and cheese”). Still, I think Joe’s implicit point that people can coax a local livelihood out of almost any landscape given enough human labour input is correct. And it’ll probably be coming to a landscape near all of us soon … especially in light of Ruben’s apt comments on techno-salvationism.

    I discuss these points in somewhat more depth in my forthcoming book. And Simon Fairlie covers some of them even more thoroughly in his ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’.

    • Chris wrote, “Crops without cattle? Only if you’re too poor for cattle.”

      From the limited preview of a book which sheds some light on the Japanese example…

      “Livestock rearing presents another problem. Compared with European countries, this practice has had a very limited impact in Japan. Until the Meiji period [beginning in 1868], Japanese people did not eat the meat of livestock, did not drink milk, did not slaughter or even castrate animals and did not use ox leather. Nor did they use mills or other devices operated by animal traction, and animal manure was not widely used. Under these conditions, an animal was useful only for tillage, during the first three months of the year; but it had to be fed for twelve months. The Japanese countryside did not (and still does not) provide green pasture and the straw from rice fields did not provide sufficient food, so that people had to cut vegetation in order to feed an ox or draught horse throughout the year. They already spent several months over the summer cutting green manure to spread over the rice fields. With this kind of human investment, one may ask whether livestock rearing did not cost more than it was worth; but pack and draught animals were also used for transport…”

      Rice, Agriculture, and the Food Supply in Premodern Japan
      By Charlotte von Verschuer, Wendy Cobcroft, 2016

      • Yes, but Edo Period Japan was right at it’s maximum population density, with a relatively constant population of 30 million that lasted for 250 years. This is one of the few modern examples of an indefinitely sustainable culture. They did almost all the work by hand and recycled everything. Edo (Tokyo, population 1.25 million) was one of the cleanest cities in the world because all sewage was carefully collected and used in the fields.

        But, even though they experienced little war and famines were rare, their feudal society managed to maintain a stable population only by using some extreme (by today’s standards) methods. From an old NY Times article:

        (Infanticide) became prevalent during the feudal Edo era (1603‐1868) as a means of population control. Farmers killed their second or third sons upon birth in what was called “mabiki,” an agricultural term that originally meant “thinning out.

        That’s one way to provide population stability. I was stationed in the Marshall Islands in the Peace Corps. They also had a sustainable culture in the pre-European-contact period. Marshallese, like people from many Pacific Island societies, were sexually promiscuous and had lots of kids, all of whom were lovingly cared for. But with limited land area, there was no room for population expansion at all. Population stability was provided by constant warfare and regular famine. That’s another way to limit population increases.

        There are many things wrong with industrial civilization, but modern methods of birth control are one of its better attributes. They will be missed.

        • Since that NYT article was published in 1973, the supposed prevalence of infanticide during Edo period Japan has been studied and “downgraded” to something which was practiced only in the minority of households, having far less effect on population than the natural deaths of children. The moderate fertility has instead been attributed primarily to factors such as intensive breastfeeding (which suppresses ovulation) and spousal separation (with husbands leaving the village for a number of weeks to work elsewhere).

          “Infanticide in Early Modern Japan? Demography, Culture, and Population Growth”
          Laurel L. Cornell, The Journal of Asian Studies, 1996

    • Chris, do you have sources (said with a smile) for this?

      “you get more calories per farmed acre overall from a mixed farming system than from a stockless one, better overall nutrition, less human work input, better overall use of biotic resources and so on.”

      And do you have sources (said with a frown) for this?

      “Currently, much of the world’s farmland is devoted to maximizing meat production to meet the demands of the global wealthy”

      • For the former, of course it’s a complex set of arguments that will vary from place to place and agroecosystem to agroecosystem. The best single source I’d recommend is Simon Fairlie’s book ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’ which goes through many of these arguments with great gusto (and plenty of data) – it’s quite British-focused, but not entirely. Simon’s writings in The Land magazine are also worthy updates.

        Perhaps I’ll try to write a post or two at some point that lays out these arguments a bit more elaborately.

        On the latter, well … I discuss this a bit in my forthcoming book. But to address this issue you can play around with some data yourself to your heart’s content with these two data sets:

        If you don’t get around to it, maybe I’ll try to follow up some time. But not just yet…

  17. Bhaskar Save ( in The Vision of Natural Farming, by Bharat Mansata) relates how cattle were used by local farmers in India primarily for their valuable urine and dung, for transportation, water-lifting and light tillage, even if no milk is consumed, as among many Adivasi tribals, at least in the past. Furthermore, the cattle were often honoured and allowed to live out their life on the farm, rather than dispatched for slaughter. However, this is in an area where coconuts are grown, as well as many oilseeds.
    Similarly, the Japanese, even if farming cattle-lite on land, have found plentiful nutrition from the sea, from whales and dolphins on down. I guess, as Chris says, it comes down to finding acceptable human nutrition, dependent upon place, even though many good common practices exist to replenish life in Earth’s soils.

  18. As latitude decreases it becomes easier to get oil from plant sources (I’m not so sure about fat). So doubtless my predilection for livestock to some degree betrays my northern European grounding. Still, of the oil crops Philip lists above only hazels, rape and linseed seem currently plausible beyond a basically Mediterranean climate – and rape only very recently. I’m not convinced that hazels or linseed make quite such a plausible agricultural and culinary base as ruminants, but maybe…

    Regarding Japan, while I lack detailed knowledge, I’d say the warmer climate, the high-fertility volcanic soils and the maritime resources indeed tip the scales somewhat against livestock. And with paddy rice, it’s easier to intensify production through human labour (cf. Geertz’s ‘Agricultural Involution’). Perhaps I should row back slightly from my previous comment … I don’t think such intensification is necessarily always just a manifestation of poverty and social control, although it can be. This is actually quite an interesting point, which I’d like to research a bit more.

    I said above that “I’m open to people making the case for many and varied kinds of system” and some of you have – so thank you! My feeling is that livestock are key in many plausible systems, but not all of them – especially in lower latitudes, provided there’s enough water.

    • A quick note to mention Japan’s variety of crops: In 1900, almost half of Japan’s cultivated area was devoted to crops other than rice.

      “In premodern Japan, short-grained rice was never the only staple. The other carbohydrate staples included millets, barley, wheat, and buckwheat. Mixtures of these grains (in the poorest regions and during famine years with hardly any rice included) were served in various ways… Beginning in the seventeenth century, potatoes and sweet potatoes were added…”

      “In 1900, paddy rice accounted for nearly 55% of all cultivated area [in Japan]…”

      Japan’s Dietary Transition and Its Impacts
      By Vaclav Smil, Kazuhiko Kobayashi, 2012
      (limited preview of the book)

    • I see Phillip skipped over soy as a potential plant oil source, and if memory serves I think he has his reasons. And he is certainly entitled to them.

      For Chris’ assertion that only hazel and rape and linseed will matter at his lower latitude habitat… well – soy should make the list now as well. Soy germplasm has changed through breeding methods… and I’m not talking about GMO here either. Non-GM soy has crept northward for many decades and is even made landfall on Her Majesty’s Isle.

      And forgive me for banging on about it, but soy is a legume as well. Many modern soybean varieties have been bred for seed yield to the point where there is very little N from N-fixation left in the soil after crop production. But this needn’t be the only type of soybean variety on offer. Lower seed yielding materials can be employed to offer some residual soil N.

      The Janeville vs Jackville comparison seems overly snarky, but like Chris we are otherwise engaged right now. I hope to come back to that cultural dynamic in another comment once out of the field.

      • Thanks for that Clem. New plant breeding, new agricultural possibilities – I certainly don’t want to insist that there can be nothing new under the sun … though I would want to modify tried and tested systems with caution.

        Sorry if my comparison seemed snarky. Not my intention – rather, I wanted to suggest the energetic and economic efficiency of ruminants at the farm system level in low input systems. But I’ll await your comment with interest…

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