Thoughts on Nostalgia in the Face of Peak Oil/Global Climate Change

Over at the Oil Drum, Stuart Staniford has an excellent, data-driven argument for “Why Peak Oil Actually Helps Industrial Agriculture.” I really appreciate the research that Staniford has put into this piece, as it provides a nice tonic against the alarmism and doomist approach of people like James Howard Kunstler. Yes, Peak Oil is a problem. Yes, things are going to get quite, quite ugly over both energy and water. In all likelihood, there will be no avoiding this. We will be facing a number of major problems all at once: Peak Oil, Water Crisis, Global Climate Change, Global Financial Crisis. However, it doesn’t mean we should all stop what we’re doing and run around with clapboard signs reading “REPENT – The End is Nigh!”. Quite the opposite – we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on fixing these problems collectively, with an intensity we haven’t yet managed to summon. I have little patience anymore for this idea that the collapse of civilization is imminent and we’ll all have to move back to the land and sit around strumming the guitar and telling folktales by firelight.

I call bullshit on that.

As Staniford concludes :

[T]he reversalist future of local food production on smaller farms with higher labor input will not come to pass as a result of peak oil. The industrial agricultural sector owns most of the land, and will be in an excellent position to increase their land holdings as remaining subsistence farmers fail or consolidate in the face of high food prices. Industrial farmers will have no reason to sell out to impoverished urban dwellers. Thus the industrialization of the land is not a reversible process any time soon – it is a fallacy to think so. The reversalists are expressing wishful thinking and nostalgia for the past, not a reasoned analysis of how the future is likely to play out. And urbanites worried about their future should not be looking to buy or rent a smallholding as a solution to their problems – industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and there is no way to compete with them except by becoming one.

Translation: This back-to-the-land-oh-noes-its-the-end-of-the-world reeks of nostalgia (think hippie patchouli-stink, just a bit milder and laced with a pheromonal whiff of panic). A nostalgia for a particular type of agrarian past, often coming from people who didn’t grow up on a farm or have farmers in the family. If you think closely on the issue, as Staniford does, you see that there is no going back, no return to an idyllic past that really only existed in your head and a memory clouded by nostalgia erupting in the presence of fear. There is only going forward: What are the trend lines? How do we live more sustainably given the realities of where we are now? What technologies do we need? What changes in how we relate to one another can we bring about without it being imposed by some arbitrary authority?

For example, I don’t find it ridiculous at all to begin talking about the need for urban farming. I also think that most all of what Kunstler and others have to say about returning to light rail, walkable communities, etc. makes a hell of a lot of sense, and is, in fact, unavoidable to some extent. This is a helpful aspect about learning to build a sustainable, livable future.

But please: as we progress into a sustainable future, let’s do so with our eyes wide open, with an eye to promoting a sustainable culture of abundance and promise, rather than the doomist future of reduced resources, massive sacrifice and lower standards of living that so many so-called environmentalists seem to be trying to sell. People like their cars, their iPods, watching films, plaing Second Life and World of Warcraft. People in Kentucky enjoy drinking coffee from Guatemala and eating bananas and having Tomatoes in the winter. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get up for drinking chickory and never enjoying banana ice cream again. So how do we build a sustainable, equitable future of abundance and high standards of living for everyone? What energy future do we need to build (see the Apollo Project for a great vision of this)? Can we build cars which help wean us off of oil? Could virtual worlds like Second Life help us to lower our carbon footprint by reducing travel? Can we grow our own gardens and feed ourselves largely through intensive local urban farming while still utilizing a large, energy-forward agricultural production system which uses less energy and water while preserving topsoil? Nordhaus and Shellenberger do an interesting job of discussing this discourse of hope and abundance in their important “Break Through.” I highly recommend it.

So, my 2¢. I’ll stop the rambling now. I’m more interested in hearing what YOU think about this. Leave a comment or send an email, I’d love to hear from you.

h/t: Jamais Cascio (OTF)

EDITED (1/22/08 1:45pm) TO ADD:  I do NOT mean to offend any farmers out there. That was NOT what I was trying to do. What I was trying to say is that (1) farming is hard work, often glamorized by people who have never done it, or think they’d be great at it because they managed to raise a few tomatoes and cucumbers without killing them; and, (2) I oppose the idea that we have to give up in the face of these monstrous challenges and that there is only one “correct” way out of the crisis. I have no problem with people who are (a) hippies, (b) like patchouli, and (c) have an honest desire to escape modernity by pursuing an authentic agrarian lifestyle. I have the utmost respect and love for Wendell Berry. However, I have no desire to pursue such a lifestyle and reject the discourse of lowered expectations and diminished dreams. I enjoy shopping at the local Farmers’ Market and I plan on returning to large gardening this summer because I miss the fresh produce and the discipline of gardening. But I also enjoy Second Life, Gmail, digital photography and my iPod. The key is how to do all of these things in an environmentally neutral or, preferably, environmentally positive/regenerative way.

I hope this clarifies things a bit.