The challenge we face as a country in the face of peak oil and climate change is getting back to a more human-sized society. A large part of the issue of getting things back to a manageable size is twofold: 1) we have a very poor concept of wealth in this country, and 2) convenience has eclipsed resilience in a big way.
In regards to our unhealthy view of wealth in this country, to start with, wealth is not money in a bank account. It is an abundance of things of value. Money is not value, but a measurement of value agreed upon as a representation of work. Work is of value; money is given value to represent the value of goods, services, products, and labor rather than someone having to directly trade as in a barter system. A good way to look at this is the Rune Fehu.
Fehu means ‘money, cattle, wealth’. Cattle require land, and so, land is also a form of wealth, and the maintenance of a good herd of cattle is a means of sustaining wealth in the forms of cattle and land. Likewise, the means to feed the herd, and so, the health of the land itself, is a form of wealth. Resilience is bound up in wealth in many ways. The first way is that resilience requires more investment and maintenance up front than convenience requires. Another is that resilience provides a way for wealth itself to be maintained and grow in ways that sustain the production and maintenance of these sources of wealth. Resilience in cattle-based land is making sure the herd does not overgraze, but eats its fill, and that it has enough nutrients in the soil and vegetation to provide for many generations of cattle, not just one. Resilience in cattle-based land may require rotation of the animals, crops and foods sources. Certain forms of resilient cattle-raising dispense with rotation, and cultivate the manure as a form of fertilizer, while working with the herd to maintain the integrity of the land. Resilience may also require a culling every now and again to keep the herd manageable. By contrast, convenience would require as many cattle as possible to be raised then slaughtered in a given timetable to maximize production and profit regardless of the destruction to the land, the pain to the cows, or the overproduction of the meat itself.
Resilient cattle-raising is not as convenient as on-site feedlot operations, but then, convenient ways of cattle raising come with deep drawbacks that have to be accounted for. Convenience brings a great deal of challenges with it that resilient methods do not. Among them are logistical challenges, sourcing, and securing the various production pipelines that assure that convenience remains so. In CAFO operations the maximization of profit is extended at the risk of increase of infection in the animals. To counteract this, animals are given antibiotics, both to increase resistance to disease, and increase muscle mass so there is more meat to sell come the slaughter. This has a knock-on effect in two ways, since 70% of the recipients of antibiotics are farm animals. One, it increases the rates of mutation and development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and two, each layer of complexity provides an extra kink in the system that can develop deep problems. Enough cattle get fed an antibiotic at a low dose, and it can make the whole damned herd develop an antibiotic resistant bacteria that overcomes the treatment. That bacteria could then kill parts of or the entire herd, and should that spread, could overcome other herds. If it passes transmission to humans, it can than affect the local, and then State, and possibly national population. There are people dying now because there are bacteria that have become resistant to last-effort antibiotics.
Resilient methods of cattle raising do not have this issue of breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria. While antibiotic free cattle may succumb to disease, they do not have a constant low-level dose of exposure to antibiotics in their food or through regular injections that a given bacteria can become resistant to. Would or will bacteria develop that will kill cattle? Sure, but not at the rates we see with antibiotic resistant strains, pushed forward by the cattle and other meat industries use of antibiotics in everything from feed to direct injections. While resilient methods sacrifice money upfront for this, in the long run they provide a safeguard to herd and human alike. Other points of failure in this system is the supply of antibiotics themselves and all the infrastructure and support systems that go into manufacturing them. Another point of failure is the feed itself, with the fossil fuels that are used in growing, spraying, and transporting it to the cattle. Other points of failure can be found in all of the infrastructure and support systems that go into producing and delivering the feed upon which CAFO and other industrial meat operators depend upon to be profitable.
Convenience is more a method of exploiting wealth than it is of ensuring its survival or growth. Methods such as on-demand services rely on entire networks of services to support them in the first place. Look to any on-demand service whether it is Uber, Createspace or Lulu, Amazon.com or online food delivery services like Grubhub, OrderUp, or fisheries like this one. All of these require massive amounts of fossil fuels. All of these services rely on built up infrastructure from the electrical grid, the roads, bridges, and other aspects of the highway system, the vehicles themselves, and the cheap labor that allow these things to be affordable. All of these factors in turn require inputs of energy, whether oil, coal, or natural gas for initial construction, maintenance, and use. Even the means to make renewable energy sources such as windmills, solar panels, and the like, require great inputs of oil and rare earth metals, like neodymium and gold, all of which in turn requires inputs of energy to mine, extract from the rock/silt, and refine. By their nature, these systems are brittle. They become more so the more complex they are.
Let’s say, for instance, that gas goes back up to $4 per gallon for the average consumer. Uber would either get more expensive or fold. Createspace, Lulu, and Amazon.com, and the other online delivery services make their business with direct delivery. Gas prices cut directly into the delivery services’ bottom line, requiring a price increase. If any segment in the supply line fails, whether paper manufacturers continuously failing to meet a quota for Createspace or Lulu, the delivery servicers unable to maintain their fleet as well as they need to meet demand, or the fishery unable to make a profit via online sales, entire industries oriented around the on-demand service will go down. While it may take a while for the supply chain problems to come home to roost, sooner or later they will, as increasingly larger pieces of the economic pie are devoted to handle the rising costs associated with their business.
Let us go back to the example of cattle-raising. If a rancher relies upon online on-demand meat sales to keep their business going in such a scenario, they will find themselves paying for a hell of a premium with such a drastic rise in gas prices. This is true not only for the delivery of the meat, but is also felt by little nips and bites from the monthly bills for services, like their electricity and internet, that allow them to make their money in the first place. They have a choice after a certain point: they can increase costs to their on-demand consumers, and/or try to pivot and seek out a new customer base that is more local, or voluntarily go out of business. One would hope the rancher would have local reciprocal relationships already active and established. However, for those who rely on these internet sales to drive their business, convenience bypasses a lot of the resilient methods of developing relationships with customer and the land in favor of upfront profit driven by demand. When that demand goes down so too does the business. In the end, convenience for the producer and consumer alike costs a lot more than developing and maintaining a resilient system and reciprocal relationship with the consumer. It may not produce money as quickly, but it maintains wealth, value and money flow with a great deal more care and certainty.
Coming up is Part 3, which explores why convenience is preferred over resilience, and how it makes systems that rely upon it weak. It will also explore the avenues I and others are taking in addressing peak oil and climate change where we are.
Part 1 of this series is here.
For other explorations of this topic, look here: