Thursday, May 29, 2008

Warming to peak oil and rising food costs

Many experts have figured that supplies of readily accessible oil will soon no longer be available. The cost of gasolene continues to rise without any relief in sight. There is a scramble to substitute bio-fuels, mostly ethanol derived from corn, which has diverted production away from food for human and animal consumption, thus driving up the price of grains. Along with global warming and its ensuing environmental effects, a crisis the magnitude of which the world has not known is imminent. Sure there have been natural disasters, drought, famine and the Black Death, but those have been localized. The inter-relatedness and pervasiveness of the current challenges have never before been encountered. All of modern life and technology is based on petroleum-derived energy. No one, from Dakar to Durham, will be untouched.

Slowly an environmental concern is beginning to seep into the awareness of the average consumer and we have seen responses ranging from driving less, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, demanding more green products, etc. The range of organic stuff available from mainstream outlets such as Walmart, Costco, Safeway and Giant has grown exponentially in the past few years. These are all steps in the right direction but represent what many critics have dubbed the greenwashing of commerce. The current and growing situation, whether tagged recession, market adjustment, global crisis or temporary hiccups, demands more immediate and drastic coordinated response than these tinkerings can provide.

One approach that suggests itself to my mind is permaculture, which i was pleasantly surprised to discover is being implemented on community-wide scales in Cuba and some British, Irish, Australian and US towns. These are being referred to as Transition Towns and a book about this movement will be released in the US in September.

The thinking behind permaculture is basically using what resources are at hand to design systems that are sustainable and site-appropriate, taking into consideration geography, climate, natural history and culture. Growing bananas in the most certifiably organic and sustainable way, then shipping them to a consumer 2000 miles away would not be permacultural. Growing bananas and other crops that would feed the local population and their immediate neighbors would.

This is not to promote a return to primitivism and pre-industrial subsistence, but would entail the application of leading edge green technology to tap into non-petroleum energy sources and feed populations sustainably. It will require a degree of voluntary simplicity on the part of residents of the developed world but this is the paradigmatic shift that is required if the future of humans is to be assured. It's not the earth that needs saving, it'll take care of itself; it's our own skins. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the world's peoples already live in involuntary simplicity, so the elite would only be reducing their exploitation of finite resources, their carbon footprint and toxic waste.

My garden at Mango Walk, Trelawny, Jamaica, circa 2000, after about 6 months work. Much of the yard is concrete as cement was mixed on the ground during construction; a patch of bare concrete can be seen in the mid-distance. Raised beds were built on top of this hard surface using newspaper and compost. Paths were determined by natural traffic flow and surfaced in left-over tile chips. Foreground left, rockery with bird bath made from top of oil drum, clothes lines and compost heap at right.

The first of the tomatoes from my garden, the sweetest i've ever tasted. The seedlings were left back from the previous tenant. I never had to buy tomatoes for the rest of the time i was there.

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