Our obsession with money will be an issue for many as we transition from a wealth-oriented capitalist system. Many blogs focus on money—how to make more, how to keep what you’ve got, how to transition to something different and still be “ahead of the game.” Where will these voices be when the currency quits? Judging from the heavy emphasis on money in the blogosphere, many may feel dislocated when the casino chips disappear from the game. We need to look more broadly at the problem of money–those who focus on money without seeing the nature of the real system behind it are still grieving for the loss of an artifact of post industrial society. How do we deal personally with issues of debt and money in transition to economic contraction, while manipulated currencies bank on continued growth?
My thoughts converge after a flurry of recent thoughtful articles about money, including several from permaculture.org.au. These articles converge with multiple questions from friends about the future of money. What do I do with my savings if they are becoming less valuable? Should I spend money to buy a house? Will the stock market persist as a way of gaining wealth? Should I be saving at all if money is inflating away to become less valuable? Continue reading What is money?
Summer is rapidly coming to an end. Long summer nights are waning, and I notice that I need to turn on lights in the morning now. Berries are ripe for the picking, and there is a slight chill in the air. The Alaska State Fair is coming. It is time to take stock, examining our progress in making ourselves more self-sufficient. Continue reading Resilience in suburban Anchorage
Sometimes we are better defined by what we don’t talk about than the topics that our media, politics, and culture do focus on. Talking about radiation is taboo. Since radioecologists discovered energetic systems principles during the study of radioactive fallout, we can frame the discussion of nuclear waste hazards using systems principles, thus illustrating how the principles apply to our modern economies. This is a complex issue, so it is important to always start with topics by viewing the larger scale first to understand the big picture. We need to know why understanding this new hazard, radiation in the environment, is necessary, since our governing leaders are denying the dangers. We need to understand the linkages between the physics, chemistry, and ecology of nuclear waste. Continue reading Taboo topics–nuclear waste
This post is about how gender roles might change in descent. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article this month in The Atlantic instigated this post. Ms. Slaughter makes the point that women cannot keep up with the demands of work and home in the current American culture, even with the many adjuncts that the hierarchy created by fossil fuels provides, such as day care and fast food. Slaughter states, “Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men.” But Ms. Slaughter fails to recognize an even more pressing issue going forward. All of us will need to work cooperatively to become more self-sufficient as we restructure of our culture post fossil fuels, which requires more time at home, making the juggling all the harder if we refuse to give something up. And women are not good at giving things up, as evidenced by our current quandary of too many roles to play. As Ms. Slaughter found, I have finally found a way to live that is true to myself, rather than the expectations of others, expectations reflecting corporate values. Taking back control by working less was positive in many ways. This is my story, but you can find broader coverage of this topic and the header poster in a Fall 2011 issue of Yes Magazine. And I see that Sharon Astyk is on a similar wavelength about gender roles; maybe it is the dog days of summer that refocuses our thoughts on family. This post is a bit shorter, because I have lots of questions and no answers, and I’m interested in hearing what others think. Continue reading Gender roles and descent
Two prominent energetic systems principles that drive our complex economy are hierarchy and autocatalysis. Earlier posts highlighted the concepts of energy transformity and hierarchy. The concept of autocatalysis can be seen in many circular loops in our current society, such as current proposals for geoengineering technology to fix the problems that industrial and post-industrial technology have wrought. Autocatalysis is also known as the positive feedback loop, and it is the engine for our growth economy. Continue reading Our Rube Goldberg Economy
How do cities concentrate energy and materials spatially? What is the relative emergy basis for modern cities, agrarian towns, and rural spaces? Do city dwellers use more or fewer resources than suburban or rural dwellers? Are big cities more sustainable in descent, as some propose, and how do we maximize empower in the future for our cities? Continue reading Spatial emergy concentration and city living
So what do we do now? At what point does one realize that his or her paradigm isn’t working anymore, and give up and walk out on empire? How do we start walking, and where do we go? Here are some quotes from notable people who are choosing to turn at the crossroads and walk away from empire and then to talk about the transition. These quotes highlight some of their answers to the question of “what now?” Continue reading Walking out on empire
“Before you get too exercised over the multiple idiocies and injustices of the current American medical situation just reflect for a moment that the whole creaking system cannot possibly survive no matter what the Supreme Court might have ruled or whatever Obama sought to accomplish. The US economic system is about to blow up. The banking sector has been kept technically alive on the life-support of accounting fraud since 2008, but that artful racket is coming to an end because sooner or later the abstraction called “money” must make truthful representations of itself in relation to reality, or else people cease to accept its claims of value. Without a functioning banking system none of the rackets organized into US health care can continue” (JH Kunstler, July 2, 2012).
Kunstler has succinctly summed up the big picture for American healthcare. We are slapping bandaids on empire’s heart attack. I am revisiting healthcare reform for two reasons. First, healthcare’s complexity creates a good exercise in broadening our scale of view. Secondly, now that healthcare reform is law, the question is, what does this new law mean for individuals at the small scale, and for the country at the larger national scale? Continue reading Slapping bandaids on empire’s heart attack
“Bruegel’s paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman. . . . The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, both in classical and early Christian writings. . . . Virgil’s account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall.” Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities. In the golden age, even urban life was guided by the virtues of rural existence. Thus Pliny wrote of Republican Rome. “The agricultural class produces the bravest men, the most gallant soldiers, and the citizens least given to evil designs.” . . . The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God’s kingdom. With its elemental contrasts, the picture would have also suggested to its educated viewers one of the central questions of Renaissance humanism: what was human nature and how did it relate to nature’s wider orders.” (Baldwin, 1986, p. 101).
Thanks to Gail at Wit’s End for the Baldwin/Bruegel links above. The painting represents the tensions between agrarian and urban society that has occurred over and over in civilizations throughout history, as we pulse up into civilizations that later fail. Bruegel’s good plowman, sensible sailors, shepherd, and fishermen in the painting above are symbolic of a culture that harnesses earth, wind, and sun to live within the restraints of nature, in contrast to foolish, ambitious Icarus. Early scholars associated Icarus with urban technologies of “kingdoms doomed to fall.” What symbolic culture will represent us as empire wanes? Continue reading Symbolic culture clash at the end of empire
“A century of studies in ecology, and in many other fields from molecules to stars, shows that systems don’t level off for long. They pulse. Apparently the pattern that maximizes power on each scale in the long run is a pulsed consumption of mature structures that resets succession to repeat again. There are many mechanisms, such as epidemic insects eating a forest, regular fires in grasslands, locusts in the desert, volcanic eruptions in geologic succession, oscillating chemical reactions, and exploding stars in the cosmos. Systems that develop pulsing mechanisms prevail. The figure above includes the downturn for reset that follows ecological climax. In the long run there is no steady state” (Odum, 2007, p. 54).
“The aspect of resilience and panarchy that is most novel and significant concerns the “back-loop” phase when resisting structures and institutions start to break down or transform, releasing the chance for a renewed system to emerge. The many ecosystem examples are matched by many business examples where technology shapes products from sneakers, to automobiles, to electrical appliances. At that moment, novelty that had been simmering in the background can emerge and be stimulated. And new associations begin to develop among previously separate innovations. The big influence comes from discoveries that, at that time, emerge from people’s local experiments at small scales, discoveries that can emerge at times of big change, to trigger bigger changes at large scales. That process highlights the keys for the future” (Holling, 2009).
As a follow up to Dave Tilley’s article on renewable rhythms, and in celebration of summer solstice, I would like to discuss the idea that fossil fuels have allowed us to suppress or even ignore pulses of Nature and our own biorhythms. We have adopted artificial pulses of industrial production and consumption with attempts to create continuous growth. Fossil fuels allow us to create a seamlessly, climate-controlled, homogenous monoculture that blurs night into day, and summer into winter. It even homogenizes trends, with everything always improving and going up without a break in the action. This separates us from Nature and creates the impression of invincibility. How does this invincibility present in our dominant culture, and what does it mean as our culture transitions into descent? Continue reading Time and tides wait for no man
Doughnuts–alternative fuel for your next vacation?
By Todd & Mary Logan & Dawn Groth
“Don’t tell me you rode those bicycles all the way out here!” said the folks from Atlanta.
And so began an amusing lunchtime conversation with the vacationing couple from Atlanta. Mary, Dawn, and I were filling our stomachs, resting our legs, and enjoying a spectacular view of the Kuskulana River bridge at milepost 17 on the McCarthy road. We had each pedaled out of our driveways in Anchorage on bikes six days before and had ridden 280 miles since leaving home.
The folks from Atlanta were enjoying their first visit to Alaska. They were at this remote place in their rental car only because they were traveling with friends who had been up to Alaska several times before who were looking for something different – a trip to McCarthy and the Kennicott mines. We each traded a few stories of neat things we had seen or done so far, and we shared some smoked salmon. But the couple kept returning to the idea that what we were doing was super-human and unbelievable. They were younger than us, and lamented that they should be doing more biking themselves and leading a more active lifestyle. They would arrive in McCarthy in a couple of hours, while it would take us another day to arrive. We encountered them two days later in McCarthy at the McCarthy Lodge. We were on the deck eating a celebratory dinner of curried rice with local duck eggs, and up they drove up in a shuttle. We yelled to them, “Don’t tell me you drove all of the way here in your car!” Later they offered us shots; we demurred, as “nothing good ever came from a night of shots!” The theme for our trip reflected the common refrain from Anchoragites regarding the long distance to McCarthy; “McCarthy–too far to drive, but we can bike there!” Continue reading Doughnuts–alternative fuel for your next vacation?
A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. –Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968
Spring has sprung. Everybody has babies; the humans, the moose, the chickens, and the robins. The starts and seeds are in the ground, the earthboxes are watered, the new chicks are in the coop, the woodsheds are full, and Toby, Darcy, and friends are minding the place. Now that the chores are done, it’s time to enjoy some slow travel as we take off to explore some of south-central Alaska. Three of us are headed to McCarthy on bikes, and then we’ll loop around to Valdez, hop the ferry across Prince William Sound and hitch a ride through the Whittier tunnel, and then head back to Anchorage again, 550 miles.
Previous bike tours around Alaska have included the “haul road” which connects Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, and a trip to Nome (the header picture is from Nome). Both of those trips were supported by jet or car travel to our starting point; this time we’ll start and end at the house on our bikes. We’re going light; luckily there’s an iPhone app for WordPress to support blogging needs, but we’ll have to see about the connections.
My first significant memory of big storms came as a 5 year old, as Hurricane Carla advanced on Port Aransas, Texas, where my father, HT Odum was administrator of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. That day, as we were due to evacuate, HT took me on his final rounds of the Institute before leaving. We walked out on the Port Aransas pier, and I remember that my father had to lift me over the gaps where missing planks had already disappeared from storm waves (my mother was later horrified at my proud retelling of the story). We stood there halfway out on the pier, and I received my first lesson in hurricane science and energy transport in waves. We counted wave troughs, heights, and wavelengths, and he explained the dynamics of wind energy, relating the sizes of the pulses to size and scale of storms. Local weather creates little wavelets, and large distant weather creates bigger, more powerful pulses that have higher impact on beaches. We talked about excess heat in the atmosphere, and how hurricanes act as Nature’s way of dispersing extra heat. It was my first lesson in storm/energy analogies, and I have never looked at storms the same way since.
Odum often drew an analogy between the way meteorological storms such as hurricanes disperse heat and the way that other systems do, including information systems. After Tom Abel’s excellent post last week on trends in education in a world in transition, it is a good time to share Odum’s analogy linking storms of information and weather storms. But to make that analogy, we first need a meteorology lesson, starting with the second law of thermodynamics. Continue reading Information Storms and the Limits to Information
Goodbye faculty, hello neoliberal MOOCs. I read a NY Times article last week and was clued into a recent ‘innovation’ in education which may soon be sweeping the globe. Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs are being produced and promoted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as a just announced MIT-Harvard ‘nonprofit’ partnership, and another with Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Michigan. MOOC courses include video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, and most so far have been produced in the areas of engineering, computers, software, etc, but courses in all fields are clearly coming. Most of the article is techy and upbeat, but they let this quote slip in. George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer ominously said, “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.” Get it? This is the end of universities as we know them. A few top universities produce coursework for the world and there’s no need for any of the rest of you out there. Still, the reporter tries to keep it positive and ends with this quote, “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.” That’s right, we’ll still need you to ‘customize’ the MOOC course for your classrooms.
So I started to search for articles on MOOCs. It’s all tech hype and whiz-bang. I could find nary a discouraging word. And I certainly could not find what I was really looking for, which is the corporate strategy behind all of this. Why are the big boys interested? I have some of my own ideas that I will try to relate and that refer particularly to issues of peak and descent. Continue reading Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?
No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them. Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels? (Odum, 1971, p. 135).
by Mary Logan
I am broaching this topic in support of the Japanese people, in order to add my voice to the many who are challenging assumptions regarding the clean green nature of nuclear power. Choosing a nuclear future means that we choose profit over the future of humanity. The nuclear lobby is connected to climate change campaigns and the defense industry. The lobby deals in deception and omission; thus the title for this post that is part of a series of posts about laying siege to empire. Continue reading The Unclear Lobby
Do you want to live more efficiently and reap the benefits of a closer community? Cooperative living is a great strategy for getting and staying out of debt while building community, resilience and security in a tenuous economy. But it requires a change in attitudes, and a return to more communal ways of living. You don’t necessarily need to relocate into a brand new cohousing situation; there are a range of options. While we live in a close-but-separate multi-family dwelling, by design and by chance, we’ve achieved some important cohousing benefits – shared space and sense of community. So here’s our cooperative living story, as told from the perspective of both top floor and bottom floor residents–I’m going to refer to the people who live with us as our nearest neighbors, as we don’t really think of them as tenants, but as friends. Living together with extended family is nothing new, but here in Anchorage, we are often far from family, and friends are the family we choose for ourselves (Edna Buchanan). Continue reading Cooperative Living
A wide variety of blogposts roll across my Google Reader on a daily basis. There have been some great articles on Environmentalism lately, most notably one by Paul Kingsnorth in Orion magazine. The goal here is to add to that discussion by exposing the assumptions that underlie our beliefs about growth and to locate various groups on a continuum of growth beliefs. Continue reading Questioning Growth Assumptions
The Rhythm of Power Availability in the Post-Prosperous Way Down World
by David Tilley, University of Maryland
Dr. H.T. Odum and his wife Betty spent much of their careers developing thoughts on what became the book, A Prosperous Way Down (PWD). Others, like Richard Heinberg, have been successful at bringing the seriousness and reality of a PWD to a larger audience. There is a small and growing amount of thinking and talking about doomsday or armageddon scenarios that many think will prevail as fossil fuels become scarce.
National Geographic has given us the TV reality program Doomsday Preppers. Its presence and popularity reflects the public’s perception that change is on its way. I think the success and impetus for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games is a response to the reality of a PWD. Rather than cover what the way down will be like in this post, I wanted to share my thoughts on what one important aspect of life might be like once we reach “down”. That is, the time after decline is finished, when the fossil fuels are gone and society is running almost completely on renewably sourced energies. I explore how peoples’ behaviors may change once they are driven by flow-limited energy sources rather than storage-driven sources in the post carbon world? Flow-limited sources cannot be controlled and stored easily so society will be more effective if it adapts to the rhythm and availability of energy. Continue reading Renewable Power Rhythm
We put away many kinds of violence that we would act out in the natural world beyond the city; in order to inhabit cities we put away actions…Inside these cities we need writers, we need artists, like myself…Nietzsche said, ‘we have art so that we do not die of reality.’–Ray Bradbury
Ever since the beginning of man’s oral history, our cultures have taught lessons, stored memories, and guided group values through stories. Stories are a safety valve, and the linchpin of civilization, according to Bradbury. Whether it is transmitting the virtues of hard work through Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the good fortune tale of Cinderella (as told by Vonnegut) or the Inuit legend about Raven the trickster, allegories, fables, and campfire stories have been passed on from generation to generation, using elements of truth, disbelief, myths, allegories, and wisdom to pass on important cultural knowledge. I’ve recently encountered stories with an Alaskan theme of opposing sides–environmentalist vs. resource extractor–told at three different scales of global, national, and local scales. These stories serve as excellent reflections on how we relate as people within nature and what we need to relocate in terms of connecting with nature and with our community. I will share them below in my own crude attempts at storytelling. Continue reading Connecting with Community through Storytelling
Before we leave the subject of health policy, I would be remiss if I didn’t take an equal opportunity swipe at the big pharmaceutical companies in the United States as some of the biggest profit-makers in healthcare. To quote a commenter from last week’s post on Healthcare for All in the US, our healthcare system is a nightmare. This companion piece exposes our mental models regarding the subsystem of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States as a component of the most expensive healthcare system in the world. Big Pharma has managed to capture feedback loops in order to control the drug-making, approval, and marketing process so thoroughly that the physicians, the regulators, and the insurance industry all appear to be dancing to the rhythm that Big Pharma sets as a primary producer who generates much of the supply for the wellness factory in the United States. Continue reading Laying Siege to Empire; Big Pharma Edition
The discussions in the US this week surrounding the constitutionality of health insurance payment mandates and the fact that my terminal degree is in health policy helped me to choose a topic for this week’s post. The US Supreme Court question that the Justices are examining this week has to do with the issue of insurance payment mandates for individuals—is it constitutional? The goal of Obama’s The Affordable Care Act is a goal of healthcare for all within the existing system. One primary argument of those supporting the plan is that, while not perfect, the plan is a good start in transitioning to a universal healthcare system. Yet the plan and the current discussions make a number of unstated assumptions about a healthcare system embedded within a capitalist, free market economic system of the wealthiest country on the planet. These assumptions need to be exposed in order to view the problem systemically. I would suggest that these assumptions are not even correct to begin with for the existing system, and that the assumptions will become even less true in a permanently declining economy associated with peak oil. Rousseau said, “Good laws lead to the making of better ones; bad laws bring about worse.” In my opinion, creating bad laws now that assume that the current system can grow infinitely only lead to further catastrophe. Continue reading Healthcare for All in the U.S?
Alaska has a long and interesting history of agriculture, including a government-sponsored relocation of 200 Midwest farm families in 1935 to establish the Matanuska Valley Colony near present-day Palmer. Today a modest number of commercial agricultural operations are successfully operating around the state. Nonetheless, commercial agriculture, even when combined with subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, supplies less than 5 percent of the food consumed by the 720,000 residents of the state.
In recent years home vegetable gardening has seen rapid growth in popularity nationwide. The local foods movement and a growing interest in sustainable and self-sufficient living have at least in part fueled this interest. In the Anchorage area, ornamental and vegetable gardening is popular. Our long summer days are a big plus. Our short growing season and naturally cool air and soil temperatures are our biggest challenges. Anchorage gardeners typically reserve Memorial Day weekend to plant most vegetables outdoors. We enjoy harvests from mid-summer until the hard frosts and first snows of mid-October bring the outdoor gardening season to a close.
At our Anchorage home we have had a successful vegetable garden for several years. Leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and Swiss chard do well here. Root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and turnips also thrive in our long days and cool soils at 61°North. However, if you lust for a good tomato, cucumber, or pepper, regardless of season, you must create more conducive growing conditions or accept the imported fare that spends weeks traveling from farm to market.
A previous post explored the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we fail to recognize the true energy basis for global problems such as climate change. This week’s post follows up with another example of cognitive dissonance in the sciences; the disconnect in relating the energy basis of ecosystems to that of economies. Soddy (1926) describes the essential nature of understanding the energy basis for society: Continue reading Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?
Professor Dave Tilley suggested a review of Richard Sennett’s new book, Together; The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. The book was thoughtfully written. Sennett traces the nature and evolution of cooperation in society, and examines the reasons for the lack of cooperation in current society, and how we can reclaim it. He examines the relationship of cooperation to solidarity, competition, and ritual. Sennett views cooperation realistically; he understands that cooperation is not innately benign, and has its own problems, as people who are bound together can then do harm to others. He discusses the need to rebuild cooperation using the metaphor of repair work embodied in a social workshop, as suggested by the book’s cover painting at right, Making a Staircase by Frances Johnston. He makes a number of fascinating points; for example, he describes the institutionalization of cooperation in the form of solidarity as the Left’s response to the evils of capitalism. Sennett ends the book with a quote from Jacob Burckhardt about modern times as an “age of brutal simplifiers”. Sennett suggests that: Continue reading Cooperative Culture–Energy Characteristics
H.T. Odum spent formative years interrupting his undergraduate study during World War II as a tropical meteorologist in the Panama Canal zone, which helped him to develop understanding of the energetic basis of global systems. He was generally less disturbed about the threat of climate change than he was about our coming bottleneck due to peak oil, proposing that the greatest and most impacting effect of climate change would would be greater extremes and wider swings in weather. On the subject of climate, he was
unsure about whether heating due to greenhouse gases would cause significant rises in sea level or not; one early hypothesis of his in the 1980s was that if heating caused more water vapor to go into the air, then more snow and ice could form in polar regions at high altitudes. Glaciers might melt at their toes at sea level, but might actually accumulate in ice fields, perhaps counteracting the relative rise in sea levels. While there is accumulating evidence that sea levels are rising, and the jury is still out on glaciers at high altitudes/latitudes, there are certainly greater extremes in weather. I ponder these questions as I write about the intersection of climate and peak oil this morning, looking out my window in Anchorage, a weather sample of n=1. We are victims of the polar jet and La Niña here in Alaska this winter, and I’m wondering when it’s all going to melt?!? Continue reading Thinking Like a System about Climate Science
[This article is reposted with permission from Kurt Cobb’s April 5th, 2009 post on his Resource Insights website. Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites.]
This decade was the one that was supposed to usher in the era when bits and bytes would replace tons and barrels as the measure of what an economy does. The information economy would eclipse the economy of blast furnaces and railcars.
The allure of such an economy is that it was said to be less resource intense, less driven by the high-amplitude economic cycles of the industrial economy, and more driven by the need for and efficient use of information, something that is always in demand. It turned out not to be so. The tech bust of the early part of this decade highlighted the vulnerability of the so-called information economy to cyclical forces and also the reliance of that economy on the more substantial physical economy. Continue reading The Unbearable Lightness of Information
Happy he who far from business, like the primitive are of mortals, cultivates with his own oxen the fields of his fathers, free from all anxieties of gain. –Horace
In Sweden, cows and oxen are part of our whole culture’s foundation. The first letter of our alphabet, A, is an upturned symbol of a yoked oxen’s head. In contrast to the limited number of draft horses in Sweden, we have close to 1.6 million cattle. Most are dairy breeds, but we have meat breeds that were once also developed as draft animals. The use of oxen as draft animals was originally necessary when the cows were too small and friskier; only those who could not afford the oxen had to make do with cows or with hand tillage without draft help. With only 300 million draft animals in the world, hand tillage is extensive. Agriculture on several continents is mostly unmechanized.
Two recent changes have caused expansion of mechanization to slow, even in our country. Right now, the greatest credit bubble ever is bursting, which affects investments, jobs and paying ability. We and the world should focus our attention on the idea that economic growth is a passing stage.
The author Gunnar Lindstedt has said that we must have a million farmers in Sweden in ten years, which would be a little more than 1 out of 9 of our population. He argues that waning oil extraction necessitates less mechanization and more farmers. In addition, the decline of world exports of fossil fuels is even faster than the decline of extraction. Already now the world exports less than a third of all extracted fossil fuels (Energy Export Databrowser). Also, in this system, our net energy is getting too low so that it becomes difficult to keep our complex society running. In addition, the ability to borrow money for further energy production and the necessary maintenance of necessary infrastructure in the fossil fuel system is largely disappearing. This transition may be almost complete in a few years and make it necessary to mobilize what we can in renewable resources.
Over the past century, the cattle and oxen of the western world have become larger. A hundred years ago an ox was considered to be big enough for ploughing if it weighed about 600 kg. Now, the standard weight of an ox is easily double that. My biggest cow, a Hereford, weighs about 1000 kg. I recently heard of a Holstein cow that weighed 1190 kg. before slaughtering. Thus, it is possible to get better efficiency by using our larger cows as draft animals rather than historically-sized oxen, and still get an acceptable tensile strength for ploughing.
Dairy Breeds and Herefords have a quiet temperament. Their large udders, however, can be injured in work. Using the cows during their dry period for ploughing work is advantageous. It trains the animals, reduces their fat cover and make them easier to breed. Combining dairy breeds with Herefords would yield smaller udders, and the most basic taming and training to drive could be done in one day. The book Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide (Drew Conroy, 1999) is a rather good handbook on the topic of training. But I use the scandinavian traditional way of steering each animal by an ear with the reins attached to the horns.
For me the point in using strong cows instead of oxen is that they can be multipurpose and thus outcompete the oxen in terms of efficiency. They are strong, can provide meat and also provide milk and calves, which oxen cannot do. Therefore they are cheaper to keep. Then we can replace the oxen in Horace’s poem above with cows.
Agricultural Ecologist & Laboratory
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What does A Prosperous Way Down add to the many current discussions of Peak Oil, Transition, and Collapse? What does it say that is different? What unique contributions does it make? And how does it jive with positions of others who are writing under the three topics listed above?
When I raised this question in our PWD workshop I did not honestly know the answer. I assumed it would take some careful reading and distilling. But I had forgotten that the Odums attempted to directly answer that question for us in Chapter 1. I will summarize their answer, but first a general comment.
The ideas in this book are not ‘peak oil’ ideas. It is not a book about fossil fuel extraction and diminishing returns, though those issues are there. What immediately sets A Prosperous Way Down apart from other books about peak, transition, or collapse is its big ideas about all systems of nature—about air, sea, and land, about life, about energy, about culture and people. The Odums’ recommendations for a prosperous descent are one outcome from a general theoretical understanding of all living and non-living systems and processes of the Earth in our Universe. As the Odums say, Continue reading What is Special about “A Prosperous Way Down”