Oil Be Damned: Part three

Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture

By Dale Allen Pfeiffer
Published by New Society, 2006, £9.99 at Bookbuster

Review by Tim Barton

Every ton of NH3 fertiliser requires 1.6 tons of CO2 and emits to atmosphere 1.2 tons of CO2. This is a primary element of the Haber-Bosch process, developed in the 1930s and rolled out internationally in the 1950s so-called ‘green revolution’. Through use of natural gas, coal and oil as feedstocks, our artificial fertilisers are clearly unsustainable and ultimately non-renewable. It is more appropriate to call this agricultural revolution ‘black’ than ‘green’.

The use of artificial fertilisers, alongside modern industrial mega-farming, gave us the capacity to feed the world. Recent famines occurred through failure to properly redistribute harvested foods. Its use also, alongside the development of antibiotics and vaccines, led to the world population increasing from 2.5 billion to almost 8 billion by 2023. The former was our planetary carrying capacity for a sustainable human community and itself represented a huge increase from the mid-nineteenth century. The 1850s oil boom was a major instigating factor in that century’s population boom too.

Today, the use of artificial fertiliser in industrial farming has increased hugely, but the underlying soil is pretty much dead, leaving crop returns at pre-Haber-Bosch levels. Last year, in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, Smith, Hill and Torrente-Murciano produced a paper on shifting the feedstock to electricity-produced hydrogen, so potentially ‘carbon-free’. They see continued use of artificial fertilisers as necessary but this does not address the issue of soil-fertility depletion. If we stop using it, billions begin to go hungry, and feeding 8 billion would require expanding agricultural land into what little is left of the ‘natural’ world. Our biosphere has a complex ecology: if you imagine it as a spider’s web, we have already rendered it tattered and unstable. In the UK, where we almost certainly have a population three times our biomes’ sustainable ‘carrying capacity’, continued urbanisation, plus a few ‘rewilding’ schemes, seems at best ironic.

The feedstocks for our fertilisers are ‘past peak’. Oilfields are running dry and the relatively few and small new fields available to exploit are outstripped by humanity’s insane consumption. This is dominated by transport, especially food transport. Feeding ourselves is one of the biggest elements of rapid oil depletion. Although 15 years old, Pfeiffer’s book is very good at painting a picture of our predicament.

Pfeiffer spends considerable effort in describing how techniques such as permaculture can increase more ‘natural’ harvests, using Cuba’s transfer from traditional industrial agriculture to a sustainable organic system. Cuba’s main relevance to today is that they were, in effect, in a post-oil scenario, as the US embargo on imports, designed to suffocate socialism in its crib, denied them any significant volume of fossil fuels.

His take on things is not blindly optimistic but I assume he would be more pessimistic today, as that last 15 years between publication and today has seen far more steps backward than forward. Nonetheless, we are, in effect, ‘eating fossil fuels’, and must, perforce, stop. We cannot take everyone through the crisis ahead but are morally required to mitigate the disaster as much as is humanly possible. The economic and technocratic actors in today’s world economy can buy media space for their lies, and attempt to make a profit from any ‘solution’ they apply, without caring about moral imperatives. They will maximise fallout for ordinary people, home and abroad. Their ‘great reset’ is the wrong reset, OUR ‘great reset’ is not yet in the game, but must be, and urgently.

Thus, sane alternatives are absolutely necessary. The positive suggestions in this book are part of a jigsaw we need to complete as much of as possible, as swiftly as possible. Frustratingly, many of the pieces have been available on the table for decades. But, although, it is ‘too late’ for many, it may not be too late for all – if we act on it.

Read the other reviews in this series here

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