Grit Blogs > The Call of the Land

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.