Landscaping in 2013 and beyond: Why it will never be quite the same
What if I told you Climate Change was only one half of the problem we face today? What’s the other half, you say? Kim Kardashian? Maybe. But how about Peak Oil? It hasn’t been on the radar of the general public since bell bottoms were raging and pandemics of “disco fever” were breaking out all over. Unfortunately for us, Peak Oil hasn’t gone into the dusty vintage bins of the local thrift store.
Peak Oil is recognition that the world’s supply of oil is limited and that we have reached the zenith of production. In other words, it’s halfway gone. Or if you’re an optimist, there’s still half left!
Certainly, the “easy” oil is gone. That’s why we have deep-sea oil rig disasters. When we were drilling for easy oil, no one would dare go far out into the ocean and a mile deep just for plain old oil. That would be crazy.
So, let tar balls on the beaches be an omen. From now on, oil will become more scarce and difficult to obtain.
Easy Energy = ease of productivity and increased growth.
Difficult Energy = difficulties in productivity and lack of growth.
Dropping energy supply means the relentless upward pricing on energy and resulting downward pressure on growth. That’s crap news for the world economy.
What it implies for landscaping is just as momentous as what it implies for how we live our normal everyday lives. That is to say we will probably never landscape the same way again as Peak Oil progresses from background noise to a daily cacophony of new ills and teeth gnashing.
Some say we’ll just replace easy oil with alternatives. However, those alternatives are also peaked and/or require greater investment to extract the energy cleanly. Take your pick: shale gas, nuclear energy, coal, all the solar sources, etc. Nothing is as plentiful, cheap, and beautiful as the energy from the easy oil we’ve enjoyed for the past 100 years or so.
In other words, we just don’t get the bang for our buck with any alternative and we’re into big bangs and big bucks in this country. Energy will just continue to get more and more expensive and the returns less and less bountiful.
Many of these alternatives only feed the other half of the problem, Climate Change. These problems cannot be separated. They will not present themselves to us one at a time like nameless villains to a Hollywood Kung Fu hero. They’re not going to let us ready ourselves for the perfect roundhouse kick to the face, knocking them out dead so we can move on with our scripted plot. No, we have to battle both foes simultaneously and the reality, my dear Kung Fu disciples, is that our current skills are unworthy.
To illustrate, look at hurricane Sandy. Currently there is a relief bill in Congress asking for $60 billion to rebuild after the damage from Sandy. For the large expenditure of cash there will be the large expenditure of energy required to rebuild. There’s the heavy machinery of excavators, loaders, and trucks to remove the damage and debris. Then, the energy in the manufacture and delivery of new materials. And finally, the machinery and tools to re-construct the damaged buildings and infrastructure. This is a sort of downward spiral. The energy used to build our world of today has created a climate that will destroy our world of tomorrow. Perhaps it is poetic justice.
Peak Oil and Climate Change are intimately related. The burning of fossil fuel is releasing the legacy of carbon that was stored in the soil over millions of years. Nature did some hard work for us, over eons of time, for the biosphere’s benefit. The consensus among scientists is that the only way to fix Climate Change is to get all that atmospheric carbon sequestered back into the soil again. That is going to be hard work for us humans to do. Nature had millions of years to do it. How long do we have? And how are we going to do it without the productivity provided by cheap energy?
To illustrate this problem, look at the difficult energy we’re going after: Tar sand oil, shale gas, deep sea oil, etc. We’ve got to burn energy just to get to this hard energy then we got to burn even more just to make it clean and useable. This accelerated use of energy just to get energy makes Climate Change uglier and meaner all the more quickly.
We’ll also turn to more coal burning as one of the alternatives. It’s already happening. Coal is highly effective at green housing the earth and is poisonous to boot. Not a good decision, Earthlings.
Our future selves must face the reality that continued economic growth may be very slow, or flat, or maybe we’ll have the zombie apocalypse scenario for economists: de-growth. Think prolonged depression.
If energy will eventually be priced high enough for use only in critical systems like: national security, health care, U2 rock concerts, and Jay-Z’s yacht, what is that going to mean for our industrial style of food production?
Where Landscaping Comes In
Landscaping will become very important to us all in the not too distant future. Its focus will necessarily shift from ornamental appreciation, botanical curiosity, soulful reconnection, sexy plants and envy building to an agricultural purpose with an importance paramount to the locality. For example, the emergence of Urban Agriculture is a recent outgrowth of the effects we’re already feeling. Grow your own food. This will continue to spread and become the norm.
In a low-energy world, we’ll grow food not just in backyards and front yards but in all public spaces of the city. Local sources of food will be grown biologically, not industrially, because the lack of easy energy will demand it. Landscaping with edibles and tending small livestock will increasingly become a part of many more people’s lives.
The energy-intense industrial farms that are supposed to feed our growing, starving world forever into the future depend on cheap energy to operate. Today we’ve replaced pesky, slow, expensive, yet sustainable human and animal labor with technology that is productive but needs large amounts of energy to work.
Consider that Iindustrial farms of today operate approximately 10 to 1. That’s the amount of fossil fuel energy needed to grow, fertilize, and deliver a crop to the city vs. the amount of food energy it returns for human consumption.
10 to 1: Whether you measure it in calorie, joule, or Btu, it’s a lousy return on investment. Can you imagine the effects of removing the fossil energy from this system (the petroleum to run the machines, fertilize, pesticize, and deliver the food)? This system will starve to death.
10 to 1: If you invested 10 dollars in a stock that paid you 1 dollar back, you would soon be chasing your hat out the window. Hopefully you live in a single-story house. Cheap energy has made this 10-to-1 return on investment seemingly feasible, but only if you give it a short term look.
We have decided to utterly rely on petroleum to grow our food supply instead of using the proven methods of Nature that has sustained humanity for eons using renewable human and animal energy. This is setting us up for disaster.
Gardening in our hometowns in a biological way (in cooperation with the sustainable systems of Nature) to produce food using our hands, our hearts and our brains instead of energy-sucking machines and chemicals will be the foundation of the path forward. We may not need all of us to grow all our own food 100-percent of the time (no black-and-white answers here), but the local contribution by we, the small players of the world, will be major. The meek shall indeed inherit the earth, and we shall plant broccolini.
What About Technology?
Some say, if we really need to, we will just invent a new technology to save us from a changing climate and the disappearance of cheap energy. We’ve come a long way from our cave-dwelling past, cowering from thunder and bashing potential meals with blunt stones tied to sticks.
Today we’ve got digital cameras tied to sticks capable of performing internal surgeries thru minute incisions that heal without stitches. We’ve got Hellfire missiles on robotic drones to make killing our fellow man almost as easy as changing channels on a TV. We’ve got aircraft that took a historically large world and made it quite small. We’ve got pills that take small floppy things and make them large and erect again. We’ve got handheld devices that combine PC, TV, radio, GPS, maps, and more, with immediate access to LOL CATS 24/7/365, all easily portable, and in almost every hand in the world.
We’ve gone beyond Dick Tracy. Batman required an upgrade to keep up with us. We are oh so close to being James T. Kirk. Or Spock, save for the mind melds and all that logic. What other proof do we need? Science fiction has become scientific reality. Technology has solved a lot of problems and we can congratulate ourselves on that.
However, technology is really the science of using energy to increase our productivity. Technology replaces our weak bodily output by transforming easy energy into (sometimes) productive work with a side effect of pollution. Whether it be the automobile to get us places faster, the computer to handle tedious calculations with incomprehensible speed, down to the simple dishwasher. Dish pan hands are a centuries-old problem solved by technology, but only by using cheap energy and with the side effects of pollution.
The side effects. It’s like one of those sleeping pills that may cause painful wretched death.
You could even say that technology created Climate Change and Peak Oil as a simple side effect. Technology is the tool which allowed us to super-size wet-kiss all the easy oil goodbye in a geologically instantaneous moment of time. After all, it took all of 92 million years to make Earth’s fossil fuels and so far only 150 years to burn our way through half of it, releasing the carbon components into the atmosphere.
In addition, technology is great at wasting energy when the work is non-productive. Just think of some of our most notorious technological accomplishments: The atomic bomb, rockets to the moon, computers, and arguably the crowning evolutionary progression of Television: “The Jersey Shore.” These are all heavy expenditures of energy with dubious results for humanity.
Of course, you can argue about whether these are wastes of energy or not. For example: You might say we saved lives by blowing up entire Japanese cities (or technology just allows us to kill each other faster and in a more spectacular fashion rather than cooperate for common goals.) You can enumerate the ways a flaming rocket to the moon has inspired us (we did get some awesome grey rocks out of the trip, can I give you a couple bucks for gas money?). You can argue that Facebook has opened social accessibility to new levels (it’s like a strange experiment in mutually supportive narcissism. Click “like” if you agree with me.) You might possibly even wax poetic about how Snooki saves us from the aimless drudgery of modern existence (Nah!)
The point is that technology has always been employed to use the energy available to us and often in unproductive ways. But never has it created new energy. That is, technically speaking, not possible.
So we can create technology to use what energy we earthly receive as efficiently as possible but that is still using energy. Once fossil fuel is gone, it’s gone, and we’re essentially limited to making the most of our annual blessing of solar energy in its many forms: solar radiation, wind, hydro-electric, biofuels, etc. The small amounts of nuclear fission, tidal, and geothermal energy will also play a small role. Nuclear fusion is just a dream.
Technology gave us an ease of living that led to our proliferation and our current predicament. If Technology is the culprit, how is it going to turn around and be our savior? It’s like saying the devil is a tricky guy but this time, since we really need his skills, I think we can trust him.
Not to lose sight of the fact that we don’t know how technology will accomplish this miracle but we’re absolutely betting our lives on it. Perhaps we should call it a Tinker Bell mentality, our way of life will be resurrected if only we believe hard enough. We should start clapping our hands now.
Landscaping in the Age of Transition
This period of Peak Oil coupled with the effects of Climate Change has been named the Age of Transition by those with enough clarity to start the named activity. Yes, Transition has already started whether we like it or not, and will continue until humanity reaches the equilibrium of sustainable resource use in relation to population and lifestyle. The last 150 years or so of the Industrial Age’s rampant growth fueled by cheap but limited fossil energy is starting its relentless and permanent downward slide by all indications.
This is not a guilt trip or a blame game. I hope this is not a doomsday scenario. This is simply our reality. This is our time of reckoning. This is our generation’s chance at showing we’re up to the task of solving, like other great generations, a problem of our own making.
Jersey Shore Slam
Snooki orange tans,
fist-pumping night club band,
of Jersey guidos and hand grenades,
Jwoww’s jiggles and jerks, on parade.
Scrutinize vapid lives and
criticize the preoccupation.
While the kettle overspills,
we shrug and turn and imbibe,
a six-pack of sad Situation.
James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscaping in Edmonds.