Deep Economy

I’ve just read Deep Economy by Bill McKibbin, and the book is gnawing at me in a variety of ways.  It’s eating at me seriously, and I’m trying to think about why it’s doing so.  Part of it is inaccurate information, which suggests that there’s a big-lie process going on; however, he errs on the side of caution in presenting inaccurate information, which suggests that things may be much, much worse than he believes — which is already pretty terrible.  

The essence of the Deep Economy is that the national and international economy within which we have worked for as long as we have, is unsustainable.  Yeah, yeah, we knew that.  But did we know how unsustainable?  It turns out that it takes about a half-gallon of oil for every bushel of Midwest corn we currently produce. We have replaced farmers in this country with fossil fuels.

McKibbin begins his book with an examination of the Industrial Revolution.  When Thomas Newcomen produced the steam engine, its function was to remove water from coal and tin mines by burning coal.  Prior to Newcomen (and Watt!), the only way to get energy was to accumulate biomass—   meaning agricultural products in the form of cotton, wheat, corn or wood.  Cotton or flax could be spun and woven to provide cloth for warmth. Wheat or rice or barley could be fed to humans or animals, who could then generate labor.  Wood could be burned to provide heat and power, or it could be shaped to build windmills or water mills.   That was it.  The steam engine changed the equation: Where previous energetic equations relied on specific human inputs to generate similar outputs, mining coal was significantly less difficult than growing wood in terms of the energetic payback (though obviously it’s difficult, dangerous and unhealthy work for the individual miners and their communities and the environment of the mines, etc, etc.).

Take ethanol.  Apparently the return on ethanol is ridiculous.  For every 100 BTUs put into making ethanol, you get back 134. So says McKibbin. (My dad, an energy-finances expert says the real equation is that for every 135 BTUs you put into making ethanol, you get back 100 BTUs.  Ethanol, he says, is merely a scam to buy Midwestern votes.)  Yet burning coal, oil or natural gas generates energetic returns of 2000-30,000 BTUs for every 100 BTUs invested in their acquisition.  Holy cow.  You can’t beat that with a corn-based ethanol-fueled spork, that’s for sure.  

And the Iraq War suddenly makes a tremendous amount of sense: you can’t fight for computer chips or milk, but by God you can (and should?) fight for an energy source that pulls your labor pool out of the fields and into the factories, out of the factories and into the colleges, out of the colleges and into the high-tech industries.  Three thousand of your soldiers’ lives, and hundreds of thousands of someone else’s civilians? Piffle.  This is energy, people! This is energy that is fungible into food, transportation, heat, electricity, domestic services, time management, force projection, military control, domestic tranquility, and prosperity.  Not to mention plastic containers of every size, shape and imaginable purpose, from milk bottles to DVDs for music and movies.  Mmmm-mmmm gotta get me some of that…

The problem, as McKibbin points out, is that we are transferring the carbon from below-ground storage areas to atmospheric storage areas. Every thirty miles or so that I travel, I release 5 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide — which warms the planet and so on.    Currently, my vegetables travel an average of 1,500 miles before I eat them.  My spaghetti squash casserole from the other night may have helped release 100 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere — probably more, since it traveled with at least my weight in spaghetti squash from one part of the country to another.  And let’s not even talk about my strawberry fixations, which rely on refrigerated airplanes even more than my squash casserole does.

So you’re not going to have mangoes on your table in a New England December from wind power or solar power.  

The idea of Local Food suddenly becomes really important.  You need farms, and farmland worked with a high degree of productivity, to counteract that kind of force in corporate agribusiness.   The current undersecretary of agriculture for rural development thinks that the average farm should have 200,000 acres, one farmer, and be saturated in oil and oil-byproducts. Clearly, that’s not going to work.  Vermont, for example, should have five farms, and Idaho should have no more than forty. Yet Vermont should be producing all our dairy (in conjunction with Wisconsin), and Idaho should grow all our potatoes.  End of story, from an oil-saturated world.  

Referencing Dad again, rather than Bill McKibben… have you noticed those Chevron or BP ads in the magazines or on TV, about how we need new partnerships to figure out energy?  Dad thinks that the so-called peak oil moment that everyone thinks is only five or six years in the future is actually FIVE OR SIX YEARS IN THE PAST.  Which means the price of oil — and by extension the price of gasoline, of heating oil, of transportation, of everything that depends upon petroleum — is going to start rising at a slow but constant and steady pace, for forever.  The gasoline that costs $3.13 today will cost $5 or $7 or $10 a gallon in a year or two, maybe three years if we’re really lucky and our Middle Eastern adventurism pays off in some vague and unclear way in the next year.

McKibben is long on diagnosis and short on remedy.  Most of the folks I read these days are short on remedy.  But the Coventry Farmers’ Market this weekend in Coventry, CT is hosting a talk on Sunday at 12:30 on keeping chickens.  And on July 8, the talk is about keeping dairy goats.  That seems somewhat more practical than questions about peak oil and when it will hit us.  Peak Oil is already here.

A week or so ago, I hung out with a bunch of poets after Got Poetry Live, and we discussed the state of the world. The majority of poets at the table thought the world was fucked already.  The recent article about missing birds in the US (Millions of Missing Birds, Vanishing in Plain Sight – New York Times) suggests that they may be right.  I think maybe it’s time to start injecting a new kind of hope into our politics, though.  Maybe the best way to fight the war in Iraq is to stay at home and plant a garden, and trade food with our neighbors.  I’ll say more about this in another entry, soon.

12 comments

  1. A week or so ago, I hung out with a bunch of poets after Got Poetry Live, and we discussed the state of the world. The majority of poets at the table thought the world was fucked already.

    Of course, it’s also true that the majority of poets have likely thought this since around 1850, and possibly since 1800.

  2. A week or so ago, I hung out with a bunch of poets after Got Poetry Live, and we discussed the state of the world. The majority of poets at the table thought the world was fucked already.

    Of course, it’s also true that the majority of poets have likely thought this since around 1850, and possibly since 1800.

  3. Energy numbers for Ethanol?

    Sure… because currently it takes coal or natural gas or oil heat to cook the corn to release the sugars and brew them into ethanol.

    The trouble is that a bio-based economy which serves machines rather than people may not grow enough food to feed the humans that live in this country… though it may grow enough corn to keep the war machine functioning.

  4. Bio-based economy…

    The real problem with this so-called bio-based economy is that it will produce fuel for machines, but not food for people. it’s really an anti-biotic agenda.

    Even once you find yourself able to convert cellulosic material to ethanol, you’re in the serious business of needing enough land to grow the grasses and other ground cover to grow the cellulose. And the best estimates I’ve read suggest that you need thirty-to-thirty-five Nebraskas to account for current US fuel usage, assuming you’re getting the energy from Ethanol instead of petroleum-based gasoline.

  5. If you take a stroll through the *.gov sites, you’ll find that USDA, DOE, DOT, and DOD are furiously exploring the biotechnology to engineer a microbe that can efficiently break down cellulosic materials into glucose and convert it to the chemical feedstocks (including ethanol) needed for the bio-based economy.

    • Energy numbers for Ethanol?

      Sure… because currently it takes coal or natural gas or oil heat to cook the corn to release the sugars and brew them into ethanol.

      The trouble is that a bio-based economy which serves machines rather than people may not grow enough food to feed the humans that live in this country… though it may grow enough corn to keep the war machine functioning.

  6. Ethanol would be a better deal if it didn’t require corn. The real problem with Ethanol is that it’s really easy to break down sugars into alcohol. But most plants don’t have readily accessible sugars (corn does). What plants do have in abundance is cellulose. Cellulose can also be turned into alcohol, but it’s a much more costly process.

    If we could bioengineer some bacteria or microbes to do the cellulose converstion, that energy equation would get a lot better — just let your fields grow whatever grass/weeds they want. Mow it up, toss it in a vat with the microbes and pull out alcohol when they’re done.

    I’d like to think there may be a technical solution to this problem — but I don’t think we’ll seriously investigate it until it’s too late. And I could be wrong.

    But I agree with your overall assessment of Deep Economy. Long on doom and gloom, short on remedies.

    The conversations we’ll have with our grandkids…
    Tom

  7. Ethanol would be a better deal if it didn’t require corn. The real problem with Ethanol is that it’s really easy to break down sugars into alcohol. But most plants don’t have readily accessible sugars (corn does). What plants do have in abundance is cellulose. Cellulose can also be turned into alcohol, but it’s a much more costly process.

    If we could bioengineer some bacteria or microbes to do the cellulose converstion, that energy equation would get a lot better — just let your fields grow whatever grass/weeds they want. Mow it up, toss it in a vat with the microbes and pull out alcohol when they’re done.

    I’d like to think there may be a technical solution to this problem — but I don’t think we’ll seriously investigate it until it’s too late. And I could be wrong.

    But I agree with your overall assessment of Deep Economy. Long on doom and gloom, short on remedies.

    The conversations we’ll have with our grandkids…
    Tom

    • If you take a stroll through the *.gov sites, you’ll find that USDA, DOE, DOT, and DOD are furiously exploring the biotechnology to engineer a microbe that can efficiently break down cellulosic materials into glucose and convert it to the chemical feedstocks (including ethanol) needed for the bio-based economy.

      • Bio-based economy…

        The real problem with this so-called bio-based economy is that it will produce fuel for machines, but not food for people. it’s really an anti-biotic agenda.

        Even once you find yourself able to convert cellulosic material to ethanol, you’re in the serious business of needing enough land to grow the grasses and other ground cover to grow the cellulose. And the best estimates I’ve read suggest that you need thirty-to-thirty-five Nebraskas to account for current US fuel usage, assuming you’re getting the energy from Ethanol instead of petroleum-based gasoline.

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