Guest blog by Tony McQuail
Our current problems stem from our failure to understand and accept that we are biological organisms on a finite planet. We have experienced a brief moment in history when we seemed able to step outside those constraints and that has coloured our assumptions of what is real and what is normal. In a century we have burned through millions of years’ worth of accumulated biomass in the form of fossil fuels. Our beliefs in economic growth and mechanical progress rest on this conflagration. It seems intuitively obvious to me that we cannot sustain these levels of energy use with annually renewable sources. But what seems obvious to me seems to be unthinkable in most of the discussion of how to address climate change, peak oil and environmental degradation. Our society has a passion for technofix fantasies which are held out as allowing us to continue on our present trajectory. Don’t believe them.
I’ve been a farmer for over 40 years. I’ve been interested in renewable energy for all of them. In the ‘70s we built a passive solar home. We put up the first modern interconnected wind generator on the Ontario Hydro grid in 1978. We were using photovoltaic panels to run electric fencers more than 20 years ago and currently use them to run our livestock water and garden irrigation in the summer. We have a microfit solar array that produces more electricity in a year than our home and farm consume. We formed a coop with some other farmers and tried to make an ethanol still but were unsuccessful. We bought a team of horses for farm power that could run on home grown renewable fuel. We helped form the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario and have been Organic Farmers since 1976.
Huge Decline in Agricultural Energy Efficiency
In the early ‘70s I was in the environmental studies program at the University of Waterloo while farming. I was interested in Agriculture and looked at the research on energy productivity of different systems. Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) or Net Energy Productivity is the ratio of energy that comes out of a system divided by the energy put into it. What was fascinating was comparing pre-industrial with industrial agriculture and food systems. Pre-industrial systems showed an EROEI of 5 to 50. That is to say that for every unit of energy put into the system between 5 and 50 units came out. In pre-industrial agriculture that energy was human labour, draft animals, tools and seeds saved from previous crops. The high end of the scale was intensively managed and layered systems like paddy rice. The low end was simple subsistence agriculture – but to me the interesting thing was that agriculture systems did not go lower than 5 units out per unit in. My guess is that an agricultural system that produced less than 5 units literally “starved out”. It didn’t yield enough surplus energy to have a reserve for bad harvests or to raise the next generation.
Industrial agriculture with its fertilizers, pesticides, diesel fuel, big machines, transport, processing and distribution networks has an EROEI of 0.1. In other words, 10 units of energy are used in the system to get one unit of energy to the table. Industrial agriculture is a system for converting petroleum into food in an extremely wasteful fashion. Unfortunately, what we have done with industrial agriculture has been echoed across our whole economy where we have redesigned our activities to use ever greater amounts of energy as we replace labour with fossil fuels. When we first started this substitution, the EROEI of petroleum was impressive. Early oil wells often produced over 100 units of energy for every unit spent in drilling. They were the easy oil to get to. Today’s light crude is returning between 6 to 8 units for every unit in. The Tar sands may be getting down to 1 out for 1 in if you count all the hidden subsidies. As EROEI decreases, environmental impact increases and the driver of our past 100 years of economic growth collapses. Without a high EROEI, the rate of growth that we assume denotes a healthy economy is impossible. Trying to achieve those rates of growth with low EROEI energy systems will be incredibly destructive and counterproductive.
The reason is the “compost conundrum”. We’ve all heard of the greenhouse effect but I’d like to offer an additional phrase to help us grapple with the challenges ahead. We actually have a green house on our farm. I understand that CO2 acts like glazing helping hold radiant heat inside the earth’s atmosphere. But I also think that if I took all the biomass that I grew in the green house over the course of the summer and torched it inside the greenhouse some night the green house would still experience a sudden rise in temperature – even if there was no sunlight. Our burning of the fossil fuels is taking the biomass accumulated by millions of years of photosynthesis and burning it in the geological equivalent of a night. So I’m concerned that we not get so focused on CO2 that we loose track of the CAUSE of the problem which is our intensity and scale of energy use. CO2 sequestration and carbon credits attack the symptom but not the root cause of our problems and delay our addressing the real issue.
As an organic farmer I make compost piles. These heat up, not because of sunlight, but because of the rapid increase of microbial populations within the compost pile and the heat build up from their metabolic activity. They are oxidizing carbohydrates within the compost pile and generating heat from the rapidity of their growth.
When 1 unit of input energy produced 5 to 50 units of food, our food really only contributed a fraction over one unit of waste heat to the biosphere for each unit of food we ate. Once we started eating food produced in the industrial system, each unit of food eaten contributes 11 units of waste heat – one for the food eaten and 10 for the energy used to grow it. If we look at human population, it is on a J curve similar to the increase in microbes in a compost pile. If we add in the additional energy, we humans now use over and above the energy value of our food, we see an incredible increase in our energy use and waste heat generation. A “modern” North American probably produces 100 times as much waste heat from their machines as from their body heat. We’ve figured out how to turbocharge our compost pile.
We are not going to create a sustainable society by feeding our food to our machines. We are going to completely destabilize society if we plan to take the food out of the mouths of the poor to put into the tanks of SUV’s and jet planes. We will also continue to destabilize the ecological life support systems of this planet. But we are reaching the point of “peak oil” or as Richard Hindberg has written “peak everything”. What can we do?
Creating a Sustainable Society
Well, the answer seems to me to be right under our noses. We need to redesign our economies and societies to run on the energy that goes into our mouths. And we need to remember how to produce that energy (call it food for ease of comprehension) in a manner that yields an EROEI of 5 or more. As a society we need to develop an ecological agriculture around and within our urban centres where food is grown with a minimum of energy inputs and a maximum of ecological design. We need to redesign our cities to be walkable, bikeable, breathable and livable. Where most of the energy to make the city function comes from the food we eat. If we did that then we could likely use photovoltaics, wind generators, methane digesters and convert some biomass into liquid fuels to provide the energy to run public transit and communications technologies and even some tractors and combines in larger farm fields. And we could use our remaining petroleum far more carefully to bridge the gap between where we are today and where we need to be if we are to have a tomorrow.
We may love our machines – but they don’t love us. We need to remember that as we make choices. We need to love our children more than our machines.
As individuals we can set out to redesign our personal lives. Each time we have a choice to make we can ask “Is there a way I can accomplish this task with my own energy?” “Can I live close enough to my work so I can walk and bike there?” “Could I grow some of my own food with my own labour?” “Could I use a heat exchanger and seal and insulate the house so we could heat it with passive solar and our family’s body heat?” Each time we figure out ways to meet our basic needs with our own energy we are part of the solution and we buffer ourselves from the disruption to our lives from peak oil and the economic chaos associated with it.
If we don’t, there will be hell to pay. Most of the “new Technologies” have dismal EROEI’s. When Petroleum had a 100/1 EROEI it meant that for 100 units of CO2 released by burning that petroleum only 1 unit of CO2 was released in producing it. With a technology that yields only 4 units per unit of input energy it means that 25 units of CO2 are going to be released in producing 100 units of energy
What are the global warming implications of our high tech, low EROEI plans to keep fueling our Machine Culture? The whole global warming debate seems to ignore the law of thermodynamics that states that all energy eventually ends up as waste heat. The more energy we use, the more waste heat we dump into the Earth Ecosystem. The act of burning fossil fuels, the act of fissioning Uranium adds to the heat load of our planet. In the current “climate,” desperate strategies for turning tar into liquid fuel or beaming solar energy from space into our ecosystem to become waste heat hardly seem like wise plans.
I would be much happier if the bright minds seeking techno fixes and the stacks of dollars funding them were focused on learning to live within the “solar power from space” that we get on an annual basis. For virtually all our species existence on the planet we managed on the solar energy stored in our food. Stonehenge, the pyramids, and Tical were built with that energy. Redesigning our society to run on food that we grow ourselves may hold out far more hope for “Safe, Clean, Renewable Energy” than high tech fantasies. The rhetoric reminds me of the past enthusiasm for Nuclear Fission which bankrupted Ontario Hydro. We ratepayers are still paying for it with the “debt retirement charge” on every bill. We have yet to deal with fully decommissioning a plant or coming up with a permanent solution to high level radioactive fuel wastes. The environmental costs of that “energy too cheap to meter” fantasy have been swept into the future.
Let us be careful not to commit vast quantities of our limited resources to high tech adventures that are likely to make matters worse not better. We are more likely to survive and prosper if we return to being tool users and minimize our reliance and addiction to machines. We can set our personal and societal design criteria to rejoin the community of life on this planet. Rediscovering our own “metabolic energy” can be the key to our survival. It would address the causes of both the “compost conundrum” and the “greenhouse effect”.
Tony McQuail is from Lucknow, Ontario. He can be reached at: 519-528-2493 or [email protected]. Learn more about Meeting Place Organic Farm at: www.meetingplaceorganicfarm.ca. This article was written in 2009 and originally published in The Canadian Friend, 2010 #1, page 17-18.
Tony is a farmer, environmentalist, and politician. He is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Environmental Studies 1976. He has been active in farm organizations at the local and provincial level. He is a founding member of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario and has been farming organically since the mid ‘70s. He served as Executive Assistant to the Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in the early 1990s. He and Fran owned Meeting Place Organic Farm and operated it with assorted interns, apprentices and Belgian Work Horses. In 2016 they sold the farm to their daughter, Katrina. He is a Holistic Management® Certified Educator helping farmers learn how to have healthy people, land and profits.