Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Let Them Eat Oil

Today is 16 May 2006.

With the lion’s share of concern about $70-a-barrel oil focusing on automobile gasoline prices, an excellent article in The New Yorker by Steven Shapin about organic farming (“Paradise Sold,” May 15, 2006) leads me in another direction.

Consider: “… a Cornell scientist’s estimate that growing, processing, and shipping 1 calorie’s worth of arugula [from California] to the East Coast costs 57 calories of fossil fuel.” If this arugula is organic from Earthbound Farm, an organic giant, shipped to Whole Foods, “ … the whole supply chain from California to Manhattan is only 4 per cent less gluttonous a consumer of fossil fuel than that of a conventionally grown head of iceberg lettuce …”

In most of the First World, it is now taken for granted that virtually every fruit and vegetable is available year-round, at prices affordable by the middle class and much of the lower class, regardless if they are in season in the consumer’s country. (This was not the case a generation ago.)

I usually shop at a giant supermarket, part of a small chain, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Some gourmet items, but decidedly not gourmet chic. But, one commonly finds fruits and vegetables from Mexico, Canada, Chile, Argentina, and Israel. The seafood department regularly features fish from Lake Victoria in east central Africa. As at a Wal-Mart, most of the kitchen towels, gadgets, flip-flops, etc. are made in China.

At a local gourmet market I find sparkling and still waters from Germany, Poland, Wales, and Fiji. My kitchen counter features olive oils from Italy, Spain, and Morocco, plus vinegars from Germany, Austria, Italy, and the United Kingdom. My refrigerator hosts cheeses from Italy, France, the UK, Greece, Bulgaria, Switzerland, etc.

Mass global trade, globalization itself, depends on one thing: petroleum products. Without oil powering gigantic container ships, there would be neither flip-flops from China nor asparagus from Argentina. Without diesel locomotives, there wouldn’t even be strawberries from Mexico.

Consider: during the first 125 years of the Petrocene (a word I may just have coined, on analogy to the Holocene, the present geological epoch), humanity consumed a trillion barrels of oil. The next trillion will vanish in 25 to 30 years. After that, slim pickens.

Oil is also crucial to the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers. Again, Shapin: “At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a serious Malthusian crisis: the world’s rapidly expanding population was coming up against the limits of agricultural productivity. The Haber-Bosch process [which “synthesized ammonia from atomospheric nitrogen, [leading to] the commercial production of enormous qualities of nitrogenous fertilizers] averted disaster, and was largely responsible for a fourfold increase in the world’s food supply during the twentieth century. … According to a more recent estimate, if synthetic fertilizers suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, about two billion people would perish.”

As to the future, I'm put in mind of a passage in Foundation and Empire, the second volume of Isaac Asimov's great Foundation Trilogy. (The "Trantor" referred to is the former capital of the Galactic Empire, languishing in ruins after the Empire's collapse.)

"Artificial farming in chemicals, I think? No, not on Trantor. This hydroponics requires a world of industry --- for example, a great chemical industry. And in war or disaster, when industry breaks down, the people starve. Nor can all foods be grown artificiallly. Some lose their food value. The soil is cheaper, better --- always more reliable."

I fear the moment is too swiftly coming when, unprepared, humanity will face the conclusion of the Petrocene, the end of the age of synthetic fertilzers and cheap global transportation, and there will be no oil left to eat.


Anonymous Hari Seldon said...

But as for me, I am finished.

3:57 PM  

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