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Crude Awakening, Agrarian Apocalypse

Oil on the water of the Gulf of Mexico

A photo of Steven McFaddenThe dystopian drama in the Gulf of Mexico, where a river of crude oil now bleeds wholesale, underscores a wider, ruder reality: our planetary eco-systems are beginning to collapse. In no way will our daily bread be insulated from this devastation.

If the industrial debacle of the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf – about a million gallons a day of rank, tar-black petroleum – were not sufficiently toxic confirmation, the UN made it bureaucratically official on May 10. That’s the day they published the third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) a comprehensive report warning – as so many other science-based reports have – that our planet’s vital signs are failing,

As GBO-3 puts it, “the five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss (habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change) are either constant or increasing in intensity.”

In this half-dead world we must dwell,  and continue to find food. This is the very point that journalist Bill McKibben explores in his new book, Eaarth – Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Eaarth by Bill McKibben

“Eaarth” is the name McKibben gives to the planet formerly known as Earth. According to Mc­Kibben, Earth with one “a” no longer exists. We have exploited and abused it beyond the point of health. A new, poorer planet, Eaarth, is what we have left. On Eaarth we are well down the road to tipping points that will, among many other travesties, catastrophically collapse the capacity of nature to provide food.

While the BP oil disaster is a signal event, the Gulf of Mexico already had massive dead zones – zones created over the last several decades by the runoff of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides applied to industrial-scale farm fields all across the American Heartland, noxious substances that streamed into the Platte, the Missouri, the Mississippi and other rivers, and then into the Gulf where they spawned death.

These oily realities are leading inevitably to an agrarian apocalypse. By that I mean the literal thrust of the Greek word, apocalypse, which is a “lifting of the veil,” a “revelation.” Apocalypse is disclosure of something hidden in plain sight through misconception and falsehood. To wit, we are now in the violent twilight of the oil era, a reality which will have a direct and devastating impact on industrial agriculture and consequently on our food supply.

In a literal sense, when we eat food produced by the industrial system, we eat petroleum. We already know that the burning of fossil fuels harms the atmosphere. We need to also realize that every calorie of food we consume is backed by at least a calorie of oil as it is directly manifest in fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel for tractors, combines and trucks.

Oil-based agriculture will be abandoned when the economics are further skewed: when it costs farmers more money to buy petrochemical based inputs and fuel, then organic, sustainable systems will finally make sense to them. That day draws nigh.

Wall Street’s money men see it plainly. with their credo, Early in May, in just one event among many, 400 bankers and some of the world’s largest farmers gathered in New York City to discuss the latest hot prospect in institutional investment: farmland.

According to a report in The Progressive Farmer financiers are exceedingly keen to channel billions of dollars into buying up cropland. The land grab is well underway. Underlying their  frenzy is their certain knowledge that global food demand will double by 2050, while scarcer, costlier oil will escalate the cost of food.

Field planted with crops

Profiteers believe agriculture is headed for a super cycle, a prolonged trend rise in real land and commodity prices that will continue for a decade or more. A soon-to-be-released study by the World Bank reports that institutional investors already have announced plans to acquire up to 125 million acres in global farmland. “This is just the beginning,” said the bank’s John Lamb. “It’s like the California gold rush.”

Meanwhile, in general, we are also in a super cycle in commodities –basic resources and agricultural  products such as salt, sugar, coffee, soybeans, rice, wheat, and so forth. Speculators will also drive those prices higher.

In Eaarth, McKibben includes a disturbing chapter on the inevitable decline of our oil-based, industrial agricultural system.  He reckons that it will result in a series of desperate food-driven wars – human beings battling to the death for basic sustenance. But he offers a note of hope, the thought that people can willfully scale back and  build the kind of societies and economies that will hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the types of communities (in the neighborhood, but also on the Internet) that will allow us to weather our unprecedented eco-failure.

The Millennial Agrarians profiled in The Call of the Land are leading the way to this kind of change. They represent dozens upon dozens of models that can – and need to be – emulated widely and swiftly, because they can make the difference.

steven mcfadden_2
6/8/2010 7:23:17 AM

You are welcome, Shannon. In researching and writing the book I was deeply impressed and encouraged by the great number and variety of sustainable initiatives underway not just in the USA and Canada, but around our world.


s.m.r. saia
6/8/2010 5:53:40 AM

Wow, to hear that financiers are buying up all available land with (I assume) the intention of cornering the market when things get worse means things are definitely going to get worse. The quality of food available in your average grocery store will probably get even worse. I'm about halfway through your book. It's not only informative and inspirational, but it points towards some other books that sound like just what I need. Thanks.


steven mcfadden_2
6/3/2010 1:39:36 PM

Hi MW - Yes, I share your view. And in a legal-real estate sense, when one buys land, what you are actually purchasing, if you look closely, is a bundle of rights to use the land rather than the land itself. I wrote at some length on these matters in Chapter 2 (Agrarian Ethos) of The Call of the Land -- which you can check out at http://www.thecalloftheland.info/ -- and also in two earlier books, Farms of Tomorrow, and then Farms of Tomorrow Revisited. Thank you for your interest.


mountain woman
6/3/2010 12:54:26 PM

Interesting Steve. I don't think we "own" the land although we might possess legal documents to the contrary and I'd love to hear your thoughts. Land is in our trust to our care for the future generations and we must live lightly on it as well. We personally own 300 acres in Vermont which doesn't sound like much compared to other parts of the country but it is for here and we are determined to see it left to a trust where it can be cared and nurtured as we have done and not plundered for the profit of our timber value. Profit at the expense of the environment is a sorry profit indeed. I'm off to search for your book. I really enjoy reading works by people who are trying to make a difference in the way we live.


steven mcfadden_2
6/3/2010 10:21:46 AM

Hello Mountain Woman - Yes, the land grab has been going on for a year or two, and it's not just in the USA, but globally with lots of multinational entities involved. Anyone paying attention has to find this profoundly distressing, since the pursuit of profit in this case -- and and commodities -- is set directly against the absolute need of every human being to be sustained by the land and the food that comes from the land. One solution explored in my book, The Call of the Land, is wider employment of Land Trusts. Once the land has been purchased for a final time, and protected in a land trust, it can be managed for the benefit of life, rather than the exclusive benefit of profit for just a few. Land ownership is a deep and complex question, and in time I may explore further in the space some of those questions and some healthy, life-sustaining responses.


mountain woman
6/3/2010 10:03:39 AM

Such an interesting article. Really distressing to learn that Wall Street is now gobbling up crop land only to reduce it to a matter of profit and loss. I wonder if they ever stop and think about the true meaning of life and why we are here on this planet? I hope it's not too late.


steven mcfadden_2
6/3/2010 9:36:28 AM

Hi Dave - Thanks for your comments. I am in Nebraska, too. As you and I agree, the signs are plain. Those who do not see them are, in my view, choosing not to see them.


nebraska dave
6/3/2010 8:58:40 AM

Steven, it’s interesting that you pointed out about the land being a commodity of the future. I’m from the Midwest and am well aware of the killing of the land from nitrates. I know that I will not eat fish caught from the farm ponds or rivers here. Even the public water system for city recommends that the water isn’t used for home aquariums because it will kill the fish. Yet, it’s safe to drink? Sadly, folks will not change their ways of consuming until it becomes too expensive to consume. By then it will be a long road back. As for the oil spill, I find it quite interesting the gasoline prices have been going down all during this debacle. A little personal relation to the public to calm their fears about the whole situation, I suspect. When it’s all over and things come back to the normal, people have a tendency to return to what they know best …. consume. Steven, I don’t know what it will take to wake up people other than the end of affordable food and clean water. I’m not one for going back to medieval survival living, but our appetites as a nation need to be cut back a little. Don’t you think?