By Tara Lohan
Despite the warning signs — climate change, biodiversity loss, depleted soils and a shrinking supply of cheap energy — we continue to push along with an economy fueled by perpetual growth on a finite planet.
We'll need to reckon with this discrepancy.
Much has been written about when and how that should be done. One of the organizations looking for solutions is the nonprofit Post Carbon Institute, which for years has talked about better, instead of bigger growth, and what a transition to a less carbon-intensive energy system could look like.
Its latest effort is a report by board president Jason Bradford called The Future Is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification.
The report contains a premise that many may find surprising: New technologies and renewable energy will not be able to fully replace fossil fuels — or not as quickly as we will need them to. While some kinds of energy are more easily substituted by renewables, like solar and wind standing in for fossil-fueled electricity, others are not. Running heavy equipment, tractors and massive cargo ships that have relied on liquid fuels is a much more challenging task. As a result, the reasoning goes, we'll need to learn how to use less energy and use it differently.
If true this would have major impacts on every facet of our lives, including our food system —which today, in the U.S., relies on fossil fuels and long trade networks.
"We must face the prospect that many of us will need to be more responsible for food security," Bradford writes in the report. "People in highly urbanized and globally integrated countries like the U.S. will need to re-ruralize and re-localize human settlement and subsistence patterns over the coming decades to adapt to both the end of cheaply available fossil fuels and climate change."
We talked to Bradford, who has worked for years in sustainable agriculture, about what changes he thinks are ahead and what we can do to prepare for them.
You refer to the age you see coming up when there’s less cheap energy available as the “Great Simplification.” Where does that term come from and what does it mean?
The idea for this report first came from a series of guest lectures I did for a class at the University of Minnesota taught by [energy and systems expert] Nate Hagens [a Post Carbon Institute board member]. Great Simplification is the term he was using in his class, but it ties well to anthropological work looking at social complexity in relationship to energy.
Societies that have less energy available organize themselves differently, and so the Great Simplification is this idea that as energy becomes more dear we'll need to use less of it. And our highly complex and globally integrated societies will begin take on forms that are simpler over time. That means less complex trade networks, less specialization in jobs, less bureaucratic hierarchies.
When I try to envision what this Great Simplification would look like, I think of either preindustrial society or at least pre-World War II. What does it look like to you?
I remember traveling through Europe and seeing the contrast between a modern European city and someplace like a World Heritage site that is still a living city, but it was built centuries ago and there never was a suburban expansion around it. And so you basically see this countryside that you can walk to from the city center.
That's how people lived prior to the industrial revolution in most parts of the world. And if you go to somewhere such as rural Bolivia, that's what it still looks like. I think that's maybe what the long-term consequences of fossil fuel depletion will look like. But what happens in the messy middle is much harder to figure out.
To think about that, the report looks at places that have already started getting abandoned in the upper Midwest because they lost the industrial clout they used to have from the steel industry and the auto industry. So you can sort of see this process unfolding already. You may have a partial abandonment of some areas and then maybe also reclaiming of them partly for food production. Big suburban houses may instead have more people living together to share expenses and share work.
It seems like today in the United States very few people know much about farming or producing food in general. How do we start to close that knowledge gap?
I feel like we have two kinds of threads going right now. On the one hand, there are a lot of school gardens and farms taking off and there's more being done for horticulture programs, shop programs and home economics. There's a bit of a skills revival happening. But on the other hand, there's also a big focus on teaching every kid how to code, or kids being on their personal entertainment devices all the time instead of getting outside in nature.
Part of what I hope the report does is to make people aware of this skills gap and try to prioritize learning not just about self-sufficiency but how communities can work together.
I don't expect the people reading the report will suddenly perform voluntary simplicity and try to find a commune to live on somewhere. But what I do hope is to inspire people to become change agents — to be ready for when the energy system forces a transition and start setting up systems that are pre-adapted to an energy-scarce world.
What are some of the ways that people can support this kind of transition work and re-localization without being an actual farmer or food producer?
If you're a rural landowner there's a big opportunity. Farmers on average own only half the land they use. So, if you own that land, who do you choose to lease to? Are you actively trying to find a farmer who's oriented towards more regenerative, more organic, more local and regional systems?
If you have money there are also lending clubs that can help support local food systems and entrepreneurs. Then there might be people who are politically connected and know folks on the city council or in the planning department and can push for changes in codes or policies, like for instance, if there's a local law that doesn't allow you to capture rainwater or have a front yard garden.
Maybe you can support the local soil and water conservation district or the local conservation group that's trying put biodiversity back on farmlands. Farms are full of amazing habitats that can be great places to rebuild ecosystem services, protect watersheds, get insect, bat and bird populations back up — that will serve food production in the long run.
It seems like these kinds of changes that you’re talking about could seem scary to a lot of people. What are the parts that inspire you the most or you think will be most exciting about re-localization?
I think that these coming times of great challenge and stress will force people to work together in ways where they have a shared sense of purpose, [like the veterans] at the American Legion Hall who had some experience together 40 years ago when they were in their 20s that bonded them and they know deep down that this person sitting next to them is someone they can trust.
Even though it's going to be difficult, we will find tremendous meaning in our shared experience that could be wonderful. And that's something people are missing right now.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexander Freund
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab says he believes Tuesday's explosion in Beirut could have been caused by large quantities of ammonium nitrate stored in the port.
What Is Ammonium Nitrate?<p>Ammonium nitrate is a white crystalline salt that can be fairly cheaply produced from ammonia and nitric acid. It is soluble and often used as fertilizer, as nitrogen is needed for healthy plant development.</p><p>Ammonium nitrate in its pure form is not dangerous. It is, however, heat sensitive. At 32.2 degrees Celsius (89.96 degrees Fahrenheit), ammonium nitrate changes its atomic structure, which in turn changes its chemical properties.</p><p>When large quantities of ammonium nitrate are stored in one place, heat is generated. If the amount is sufficiently vast, it can cause the chemical to ignite. Once a temperature of 170 C is reached, ammonium nitrate starts breaking down, emitting nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. Any sudden ignition causes ammonium nitrate to decompose directly into water, nitrogen and oxygen, which explains the enormous explosive power of the salt.</p>
Deadly Disasters<p>As ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical, many countries strictly regulate its use. Over the past 100 years, there have been several disasters involving the chemical.</p><p>In 1921, for example, a massive blast occurred at a BASF chemical plant in Ludwigshafen in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. About 400 metric tons of a mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 559 people and injuring 1,977. The plant was largely destroyed in the blast, which could be heard as far away as Munich, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) distant.</p><p>In 2015, explosions caused by ammonium nitrate ripped through the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/china-convicts-dozens-for-last-years-giant-explosions-in-tianjin/a-36324321" target="_blank">Chinese port city of Tianjin</a>. Eight hundred metric tons of the chemical were said to have been stored along with other substances in a warehouse for hazardous materials. The blasts killed 173 people and destroyed an entire city district.</p><p>Two years earlier, in 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company site in Texas, killing 14 people. And in 2001, 31 people died in Toulouse, France, in an explosion caused by the chemical.</p>
Terrorist Favorite<p>In Germany, the purchase and use of ammonium nitrate is regulated by the explosives act. This is because the cheap, highly explosive and relatively easily obtainable material has in the past been used by terrorists to carry out attacks.</p><p>For example, in 1995, U.S. conspiracy theorist and gun enthusiast Timothy McVeigh used a mixture of ammonium nitrate and other substances to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik also used ammonium nitrate in a car bomb attack in Oslo in 2011.</p>
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Most Americans know about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans primarily through their colorful representations: the original food pyramid, which a few years ago morphed into MyPlate. The guidelines represent the government mothering us to choose the healthiest vegetables, grains, sources of protein, and desserts, and to eat them in the healthiest portions.
As innocuous as the food pyramid and MyPlate seem, they are actually a matter of life and death.
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Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
By Jake Johnson
Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.
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BP, the energy giant that grew from oil and gas production, is taking its business in a new direction, announcing Tuesday that it will slash its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase its annual investment in low-carbon technology to $5 billion, a ten-fold increase over its current level, according to CNN.
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By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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