F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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The Technical Responses Are Easy

I am currently finishing up The Long Descent (2008) by John Michael Greer. The basic premise of this book is that there are two responses to peak oil that are both wrong in their extremism. One of these is progressive and is premised on humans coming up with some miraculous solution to fossil fuel dependency that will allow us to continue our present lifestyles. The other is apocalyptic and is based on a precipitous decline once we reach a tipping point in our fossil fuel depletion. Greer's idea is that both of these represent two ends of the spectrum and both are false. His likely outcome is somewhere in the middle where we will just have to get used to a long degradation in our lifestyles. This will be like falling down a mountain rather than falling off a cliff.

This particular book is closer to my vision of the future than many others, but what I like most about Greer's writing is that he comes out of nowhere, has no "mainstream" credibility, and is obviously a post-baby boomer. Even so, he seems to start from an anthropological perspective and makes cogent analyses of peak oil problems, correctly parses other problems in terms of narrative, and still comes up with realistic scenarios which are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Indeed, some of his quasi-optimistic scenarios may actually be ironic and exist specifically to cast doubt on any sort of optimism. Irony is often thought of as the province of the young, but there are some of us old farts who seem to get it once in awhile.

One of the more interesting points in Greer's book is that the technical fixes for our current state of fossil fuel extravagance are relatively easy, but the social and cultural problems will be hard. I share this view. For example, I see it as technically feasible and doable to grow all the food we need by sustainable agriculture. It just takes 20% of the population growing food. Likewise, we can also get around quite easily by bicycle and foot for most of our local journeys. Trains and semi-trucks can still transport goods if we just reduce the nonsense journeys by 80%. Buses and informal taxi transport in cities is certainly doable on existing roads and us fat, lazy Americans could easily exist on one-third the electricity, natural gas and petroleum we now use. The problem is the political will to advocate for unpopular changes in consumption patterns. Since government has encouraged excessive consumption for so long, it is unlikely government can solve the problem. Once again it is up to us. This is where both the social and cultural context will determine if we can turn the crises to our advantage.

Society is different from culture. Society is just a set of cooperating individuals. Ants and bees have societies and their cooperation is genetic. Wolves have societies and their cooperation is both genetic and behavioral. That is, wolf pups not only are hard-wired to act in a pack, but their hard-wiring is reinforced by the pack's behavior - they learn. This is a higher order of complexity and also represents a higher order of flexibility than ants display. What makes human society even more flexible is culture. Humans not only have sets of behavior transmitted between generations, but they also have a holistic sense of the behavior that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. One aspect of culture is that it effectively "stores" knowledge and patterns in the culture itself so it doesn't have to be limited by the size of the brain. One of the problems of anthropology that has been around for over a hundred years is this idea of culture as "superorganic," to use Kroeber's term. This is Culture, with a capital C, instead of culture. I don't buy it, but many anthropologists do. To be blunt and simplistic, if the last member of a tribe dies in the forest, does the culture exist? I say no - it needs carriers.

So the problem is that the rate of decline in our overheated fossil fuel-based economy will be exacerbated by social and cultural turmoil. As I said, the technical fixes are relatively easy, but the social and cultural fixes may be difficult. If we have overextended our cultural interactions into a hyper-individualistic psychology that has replaced culture with consumption, it is possible we will decline precipitously. In other words, post-peak oil, we will not be able to rely on accepted notions of supermarket and mall shopping, nor centralized workspaces accessible only by automobile. Will we then hasten our descent because we will not have a cultural organizing principle available - only a societal organizing principle? I think this is likely.

One of my anthropology textbooks emphasizes that one can have a society (but not a human society) without a culture, but not a culture without a society. In humans the two are inextricably linked. BUT . . . what if that changes in the brave new world of the future? We have been cultural animals for 2 million years. Does our projected future contain a change of such magnitude? Will our descent to a post-peak oil world be a long descent? I think so, but not only in the speed of descent (faster than Greer's model but not as fast as the apocalyptic model), but in how far we will fall. I see a return to tribalism.

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