In my last post, we looked at the hidden risks in one crucial system of human civilization – energy – and how those risks could undermine the entire house of cards within a decade or two. In this post, we’ll be looking at four of the other critical systems of our society – food, water, waste management, and shelter, and the risks they carry.
Food is the energy that keeps us all going; civilization depends on it.
Agriculture is not crop production as popular belief holds – it’s the production of food and fiber from the world’s land and waters. Without agriculture, it is not possible to have a city, stock market, banks, university, church or army. Agriculture is the foundation of civilization and any stable economy. ~ Allan Savory
Hyperspecialization has allowed farms to get bigger while the number of farmers has shrunk. This has come via larger machines, the commodification of agricultural products, shrinking profit margins, higher input costs and appreciating land prices. The results are fewer farmers, which leads to an ever-more-centralized food system with declining crop diversity (corn, wheat, soy, canola), most of which is owned from seed sale to harvest by large Ag-tech companies through GMO patents.
If this is not enough, several factors are worth noting that make the food system more fragile by the year. Here are a few.
According to Chris Arsenault’s article “Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues,” in Scientific American(1), phosphorus is one of the linchpins in industrial agriculture. Phosphorus is one of the most critical inputs for industrial agriculture and according to Nature.com, we are “Approaching peak phosphorus”(2) . Some scientists are estimating that it will come as early as 2030. This problem is quite easy to manage on small-scale regenerative farms but will have catastrophic effects on the global food supply chain. This is one of the main reasons why vegan and vegetarian diets will not work.
When a fruit or vegetable is grown on a farm (not your garden) all of the nutrients needed to grow it are permanently removed from that soil when it’s harvested. That farm then needs to replace the minerals that were mined out of the soil by that carrot in order to grow the next batch. One of the main minerals the farmer replaces is phosphorus. When this runs out, so will that farm’s ability to produce those crops.
The old farmer’s adage, “you should never sell anything off your land that can’t walk off your land,” rings true here. Said another way, the inefficiency of the cow represents the efficiency of the land; ninety percent of what a cow eats and drinks ends up back on the land in the form of manure and urine. The manure and urine is how nature cycles nutrients. When we move to monocrop farms growing only one crop and move livestock into CAFOs we need to replace their outputs with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This is how mixed farms kept their farms fertile 100 years ago.
Phosphorus is just one of the primary industrial agriculture inputs. Nitrogen fertilizer in the form of ammonia and potassium in the form of potash are the other two. This year we saw what happened to fertilizer supplied in Ukraine; once Russia shut off natural gas supplies, nitrogen fertilizers skyrocketed.
Food Production vs. Peak Oil
In Richard Heindberg’s book “Peak Everything” he states that grain output per capita peaked in the 1980s. While global grain production has continued to increase, it has not kept pace with the population. We get closer to a global famine every year as our food stocks dwindle.
According to Richard Manning in his article “The Oil We Eat”(3) every calorie of food grown using industrial methods takes 10-20 calories of hydrocarbons. If Nate Haggins is right and we have passed peak oil in 2018, the whole house of cards will unravel as we head down the other side of the carbon pulse. For more information on Nate’s ideas, see this video:
Needless to say, the global food system is teetering on the edge of collapse, and multiple fragilities are baked into the mix, making the system black-swan-prone. It is easy to read this only to find yourself in a Costco full of shiny products and think that nothing is wrong and that I am just a “Chicken Little” talking about the falling sky. Look into these things for yourself, and you will see how fragile the system is.
What will amaze you is how easy this one is to deal with, which we will address in the next blog.
Water Systems and Stocks
Humanity has become ever-dependent on centralized systems in towns and cities as well as fossil water extraction for large agriculture projects. These systems are dependent on large energy inputs to operate and in many cases dwindling water stocks.
Increasingly our municipal water systems have become more centralized and fragile over time. As cities have grown, water systems have become massive pipe networks emanating from central treatment systems. When these treatment systems cease to operate or make mistakes, then big problems emerge.
For example, the Walkerton Ontario Water Crisis4, where contaminated water was distributed to an extensive network of water users, killing seven people.
Flint Michigan’s water(5) was found to be highly contaminated with lead, amongst other contaminants causing skin rashes, hair loss and elevated lead levels in children.
Both of the examples illustrate the fragility and risks of centralized systems. When something goes wrong at the source, the risks multiply rapidly.
In addition, the stocks of fossil water that agriculture depends on are dwindling all over the earth. And as we have seen with shrinking food stores around the globe, losing any major region could tip the balance toward global famine quite rapidly. For more information on the idea of peak global water, this article is worth a read.
Water Supplies Dwindling
National Geographic talks about the state of the Ogallala Aquifer(6), which supplies the midwest US with most of its irrigation water. This aquifer is under extreme pressure and declining at alarming rates.
According to an ongoing series in The Guardian(7), the situation worsens yearly in the Southwest, Utah, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.
As water is central to human life and agriculture, power generation, manufacturing, and almost every human activity, the writing is on the wall, and we need to change.
Some of you might think that we can continue our ways and adopt desalination, but this process is still very energy-consuming, which, as described above, is likely to become ever more scarce. A report by Energy Recovery, Inc.(8) claims that the current energy demand for desalination is roughly 2.98 kWhrs/m3, which seems reasonable except when you scale this up to commercial and industrial water demand.
It also becomes a problem as energy becomes scarce, and society needs to decide how to spend its limited fossil energy budget.
Water is central to the permaculture system and is usually quite easy to solve if you are open to looking at the problem with a new set of lenses.
Peak phosphorus and nitrogen supply chain woes are just a symptom of a society that does not know how to put waste to productive use. Consider these permaculture aphorisms.
- Waste is not in nature; it’s only in human nature.
- There is no waste, only resources that can be put to productive use.
- When the needs of a system are not met from within, we pay the price in energy and pollution.
Cities spend close to 30% of their energy pumping water and getting rid of sewage. This is the maintenance cost of running a city. This waste ends up in centralized sewage treatment plants that process the water, remove the biosolids and then truck them off to the rural areas.
The mantra for these systems is: “The solution to pollution is dilution.”
How to Manage Human Waste
According to an article by Tom Perkins in The Guardian(9),
By some estimates, Americans send about 300m pounds of feces daily from the nation’s toilets to wastewater treatment plants.
While the water is cleaned and discharged, the remaining toxic sewage sludge stays at the treatment plant, and it’s what Sierra Club environmentalist Nancy Raine calls “the most pollutant-rich man-made substance on Earth.
What’s important to understand in that quote is that human faeces is not the problem; the problem is that it is mixed with all of the toxic industrial and commercial waste from the city. This sludge is then collected and either landfilled or, more recently, spread on local agricultural land. Ironically, properly composted human waste should be cycled back onto the land, which would solve the nutrient crisis described above. It’s the mixing with other toxic waste and the sheer scale of managing the waste from millions of humans from cities in the peri-urban environment that creates the issue.
As stated above, farms from the past used animal labour and manure to enhance crop production and to keep their soils healthy. We should look at human outputs in the same way, we are just one of the animals within a circular farming system, and these outputs can contribute to long-term soil health and sustainability. I am not saying that our “outputs” should be used to grow carrots, but we can certainly use them to grow timber, fuel wood and animal forage.
Take a look at this nutrient table from the third edition of Joseph Jenkins Humanure Handbook.
Humanure is one of the richest sources of nitrogen and phosphorus and is relatively high in potassium.
Mega-cities are essentially human (Confined Animal Feeding OperationJoe) CAFOs that concentrate waste and rely on massive energy-intensive infrastructure to remove it. I suspect that there is an optimal scale of the city that is sustainable and that the scale will be dependent on careful energy analysis. My hunch is that this scale is one whose population density is such that it can feed, power, and effectively process its waste with the energy it receives on the footprint it occupies in close to real time. This city will be able to effectively use the annual solar energy it receives to meet its needs. This is a genuinely circular society.
Non-Recyclable Minerals Wasted
If you took the time to listen to the podcast on mineral blindness with Nate Haggins and Simon Micheaux, you would have heard them talk about the sheer volume of minerals ending up in landfills. What makes this problem even worse is that the minerals are in such a diffuse form when they get to the landfill that the amount of energy it will take to extract them is hard to comprehend.
Up until now, the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy is entirely dependent on the extraction and upgrade of rare materials into wind turbines, solar panels and batteries. Micheaux’s work is a triple knockout, as it illustrates:
1) the mining capacity does not exist to make this transition, and it takes too long to scale mining.
2) the volume of resources that we need likely does not exist in the crust, and if they do, the concentration is too diffuse to extract, meaning the amount of energy to extract them goes up exponentially.
3) recycling these materials is getting harder and harder as our tech gets smaller and smaller. Most of the devices that have these materials in them are not recyclable, at least not today.
Our civilization is coming up against hard limits and running out of time. The probability of getting to net zero and 100% renewable has a low probability due to the materials we require and the waste we create.
Hopefully, you will see that all of these supply chain domains that we depend on are interconnected; shelter is no different. Shelter, however, is one of the most pernicious as it takes a long time for the building stock to turn over due to the longevity of buildings. For this reason, retrofitting or rebuilding the entire building stock of civilization is a challenging task.
The graphic below shows what the energy consumed in Canada is for households.
Source: Our World in Data
Building For Profit Rather Than Resilience
Homes built in cold temperate climates are designed to the lowest common denominator, the building code. I really like the statement that one of my professors told me in university: “If architects, engineers and planners knew where south was, buildings could save 50% of their energy.” – Dr. Tang Lee
There is a lot to unpack in this statement.
Modern real-estate development optimizes the number of housing units on a single tract of land. This has several severe consequences:
1) A properly oriented house can reduce its heating and cooling energy by up to 50%. Ignoring this fact forces the designers (engineers and architects) to design buildings that will perpetually need energy-dense fuels like natural gas, heating oil, propane and electricity to stay warm in the winter.
2) Optimizing land for the maximum number of houses also forces designers to design sub-optimal building shapes to maximize the number of homes in a given area. When energy efficiency is the variable being optimized, choosing a shape that maximizes internal volume and external surface area can reduce energy by another 20%. Furthermore, an additional 30% can be shaved off when we add good windows and insulation. Buildings designed around the European PassivHaus standard use 90% less energy than a conventional home. Lastly, these homes are thermally resilient, meaning that they can operate at a lower temperature without heat for weeks at a lower temperature without the risk of dropping below freezing internally.
3) Maximizing building square footage per tract of land tends to optimize for smaller lots pushing the walls of the building to the edges of the lot. This increases stormwater issues and reduces land that these houses could put into food production.
Natural gas, propane, electricity and heating oil are essentially jet fuel. All of these fuels can be used to make steel as they burn well over 1000 C. Heating homes to 21 C with energy that burns at over 1000 C is like cutting butter with a chainsaw. We need to run our homes on these fuels because of how poorly they are designed.
In essence, these urban homes are akin to sick hospital patients. They are addicted to jet fuel for their heat and power, need “bed pans” to remove their waste, and require massive supply chains “IV food injection,” to keep the residents fed.
The modern home design is similar to the HP Printer business model. The printer is cheap, but the ink is expensive. Remove any of the inputs to these homes, and the house becomes worthless.
I leave you with one final consideration: the prime directive of permaculture.
1) The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.
2) To get your house and garden in order so that it shelters and feeds you.
Sources and other articles to consider: