Monday, April 22, 2013

Peak Oil: Toe the Line or Lose Your Job

"If the real figures were to come out there would be panic on the stock markets. . . ."

-- Dr. Colin Campbell, Association for the Study of Peak Oil

The fact that the world's oil supply would start to run out has been known for a long time: M. King Hubbert was spreading the word in the 1950s, and other engineers and scientists in those days had a good idea of what was going on, but they were afraid to speak because they would risk losing their jobs. I have a friend who, as a child, was taught about "peak oil" by his father in those days, although the father was in exactly that position of risk. But the 1950s were a long time ago. Why is there still such a remarkable silence?

How is it that so few people are talking about the world's decline in oil? Pathological denial might account for a few cases, but surely not for all. A state of denial could be found in people in the days leading up to the Second World War, but those who were convinced of the onset of war were still a fair-sized number.

The answer, in part, may be that the issue is too complicated for people to understand. Whenever there are articles written on the subject, they receive various comments from readers, showing that each of those people is lacking in a knowledge of one or more aspects of the problem. There are too many side-issues for people to grasp. They cannot grasp how large or small the oil reserves are, they cannot grasp the number of uses there are for oil, or how dependent our entire industrial society is on it, they cannot grasp the general foolishness of "alternative energy," and they cannot grasp the fact that the "authorities" don't have some Grand Plan to deal with it all.

Another reason for the low number of concerned people may be that there are so many other people trying to push the opposite belief: that there is no problem of oil depletion. Many such "peak-oil debunkers" are perhaps simply afraid of the facts, and they may feel that they need to shelter themselves by sharing their beliefs with others. The loudest of the "debunkers," however, are those who have connections with "money management" and are looking for fools to play a little three-card monte, like the flimflam men of the 1930s. The rest of the "debunkers" are politicians and business leaders who know -- consciously or otherwise -- that they would have nothing to gain by rocking the boat, and that in fact they might well risk their own jobs if they gained a reputation for spreading doom and gloom. Yet these "de-bunkers" are actually mass murderers: yes, many people will die anyway, but if silence is maintained then the numbers of those who might have had a chance to prepare will be seriously reduced.

Some people in positions of authority may have an even better grasp of the consequence. They may have realized that a public announcement of the end of oil could lead to a general panic, a collapse of the stock market and money market, a complete lack of faith in the hyper-capitalist dream-world, where ordinary citizens are duped into working for less and less, and at the same time encouraged to spend more and more. The entire illusion of the American Way of Life could be rapidly shattered if anyone in power were willing to speak a word of truth. Maybe Colin Campbell is right about the consequences of letting "the real figures" come out.

No doubt, also, humans have great intelligence but a poor grasp of time. Most young people cannot think ahead more than about a year, whatever issue may be involved. Middle-aged people think ahead about as far as retirement. Older people can only think ahead about as far as their own deaths. Elderly people often say they have great love for their grandchildren, yet when told about the oil problem they are likely to reply, "Oh, well, what do I care? I'll be dead by then"; that's not hypocrisy, it's just a poor understanding of the fact that the world can change significantly over a few decades.

Illiteracy doesn't help, of course. To the slight extent that anyone is willing to discuss world events, the opening line is likely to be, "Did you see x on TV last night?" rather than, "Have you ever read x?" Television, movies, and glossy magazines present a kaleidoscope of half-truths, fragments that are strong on shape and color, but weak on intellectual content or interconnection. Dinner-party conversation must likewise consist of paratactic bits and pieces if it is not to elicit an embarrassed smile. We live in an age in which it is heresy to suggest that schoolchildren be subjected to either placement or achievement tests, and the politically-respectable definition of "average" sinks ever lower. The publishing of a book with spelling errors in the 1950s would have been scandalous, whereas books published nowadays seem to have been proofread by drunkards.

It may not be entirely true that bad spelling is the end of civilization as we know it, but it is not entirely false either. No one is individually to blame for illiteracy, but it is a growing trend that only rarely arouses indignation, and the decision to resist being dazzled by "the media" often means choosing to stand alone. Fundamentally, illiteracy is a kind of mental cannibalism: we may be eating well enough, but only for as long as the food supply holds out. The sheer dumbness of the average "consumer" ensures that big companies can make a lot of money, but that same dumbness will not do much to enable that "consumer" to survive in the coming years.

Perhaps the silence will never entirely end until it is too late for talking to make a difference. Most people will never personally see the oil wells running dry, so they will never really know who or what to blame. Modern surveillance techniques will ensure that no protester gets more than half a mile down a street. The process of erosion will be so slow at first that people will wonder if they are imagining the whole thing: higher costs for food and fuel, lower quality of goods and services, a general third-world ambiance to what were supposed to be first-world cities. One day, however, there will be a realization that the Grand Plan is not forthcoming, and that staying alive will depend on the Small Plan, person by person, family by family.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Growing Field Corn

The word "corn" is somewhat confusing, because in England "corn" refers to any type of grain, while "maize" is the name for the plant that Americans and Canadians call "corn." In any case, the scientific name of the latter is Zea mays.

Most of the native people of North America grew their own food, and by far the most important crop was corn, which was first developed around 7000 B.C. Corn needs warm weather, but the natives nevertheless grew corn quite far north. Even the Huron Indians of southern Ontario had large corn fields, and there were large corn fields around what is now Montreal. All of the modern kinds of corn, which give us popcorn, cornmeal, "corn on the cob," and so on, are descended from Indian varieties of corn, although in those days there were far more varieties than we have today.

Nowadays there are two main types of corn, sweet corn and field corn, although these are not botanical distinctions. The former is the type that we usually eat as "corn on the cob," while the latter is the type that is either ground into cornmeal or fed to animals. In general, the sweet varieties of corn are less suitable for drying, and they have more problems with diseases and insects. Field corn, on the other hand, is definitely worth growing. It has a higher yield per acre than any other temperate-climate grain, and (unlike some other grains) there is no complicated threshing or winnowing involved. In Canada, the United States, and Europe today, by far the most common type of corn is a field corn called "yellow dent." Less common is "flint" corn, a harder type (hence the name) that lacks the "dent" at the top of the dried kernel. Popcorn, the most ancient of all the surviving types of corn, is actually a sort of flint corn.

In modern times, however, you're unlikely to find varieties of corn that qualify as both "field corn" and "open-pollinated," with the exception of those that are generally known as "Indian" or "ornamental" corn. As long as you don't choose a variety that has too long a growing season for your area, you should do fine. Indian corn can be ground for cornmeal, or at an earlier stage it can be cooked in the same manner as sweet corn, although the colors don't look so pretty if the ears are boiled. The types of Indian corn listed as "flour" corn are easier to grind and therefore more practical than the harder types.

Corn is technically the simplest of grains to grow. It has multiple uses as food, since the kernels can be turned into everything from soup to bread. The silk can be steeped to make a pleasant tea. But other parts of the plant are useful. The cobs, after the kernels are removed, can provide fuel for a campfire or stove. The husks can be made into rope, baskets, or dolls, and they make a good stuffing for a mattress.

There are, however, several drawbacks to growing corn. A common fungal problem is smut, which appears as large grayish lumps on the ears; be sure to burn these right away, since the spores can last for years -- or eat them when they're young, since they taste like ordinary mushrooms.

Insects are often the biggest worry. Corn earworms can devastate a crop. The most troublesome insect is the European corn borer; the larva is pale gray, brown, or pink, with a dark brown or black head.

There are no "organic" methods that will totally prevent insects from attacking your corn. There are, however, a few tricks that will reduce insect problems considerably: grow field corn rather than sweet corn; grow open-pollinated types; plant late; bury or burn all crop residues (the plants after the ears have been harvested); grow corn with longer and tighter husks (older varieties are best for this reason); keep your soil in good condition; and don't peel back the tips of the husks to see if the ears are ripe (since that invites insects).

Corn is also a favorite food of many birds and mammals. One defense is to plant several kernels to a hole, in the hope that the animals will leave one to grow. Plant the kernels deeply, and step on them to keep them hidden. Another tactic is to post a guard over the field: dogs, children, and elderly people can be conscripted, and scarecrows might work. Or you could put up a high fence.

As food, corn has the defect that it is low in isoleucine and lysine, two of the essential amino acids that make up protein. To take care of this deficiency, you should eat corn with beans, which have roughly the opposite amino-acid composition. Corn is also low in one of the B vitamins, niacin (nicotinic acid), and again the problem can be remedied by eating beans.

Corn will grow on almost any kind of soil, although it does better on rich soil, high in nitrogen; it's best to plant a legume such as beans, alfalfa, or clover, in the year before you plant corn. In the north, sandy soil is better, since it heats up more quickly in the spring. It also needs a lot of light, so don't plant it where trees or houses are going to cast a shadow.

Plant your corn around the time of the last spring frost, but if you want to play it safe you might want to wait a few more days because corn is sensitive to cold weather. Just make sure you give the plants plenty of room: the kernels should be planted about 1 or 2 inches (2.5-5 cm) deep and about 2 feet (60 cm) apart, in rows that are 3 feet (1 m) apart. In an arid area, you might want to increase these distance. Many of the native tribes planted the kernels in clusters separated by perhaps 3 feet (1 m) in every direction; this method may have conserved water or ensured that a few plants would survive depredation by animals.

If you're growing field corn, you probably don't need to add water, but in an arid climate you may have to give each plant an occasional cup of water during the first weeks of growth.

About a week after you've planted the kernels, they'll appear above ground, and after that they'll grow at an amazing rate. If you lose any plants, just replace them. You can also try replanting, if you have some that need thinning out, although replanted corn doesn't always grow.

Each corn plant has a male part and a female part. The male part, at the top of the plant, produces pollen, which is so light that the wind should be able to blow it onto the female part of another plant. If this happens, the pollen mysteriously travels along the silk, and the result is germination. If the entire process is successful, the mature ear of corn will have all its kernels nicely filled out. If the pollination has not been entirely successful, you will notice gaps in the rows of kernels on an ear. In order to maximize the chances of successful pollination, it is important that each corn plant be surrounded by other corn plants. That is why corn should be planted in blocks rather than single rows.

Corn plants often have "suckers" (tillers), small stalks that rise up beside the main stalk. There is no reason to remove suckers from a plant, in spite of advice to the contrary. Actually, suckers provide more leaf area for the plant, which means that it can react further with sunlight to provide more food energy for its growth.

You could try growing corn, beans, and squash together, as the native people used to do, although the crowding of plants might create a problem with the consumption of rainwater. On the south side of the corn patch, about two weeks after the corn is sown, plant one pole bean beside each corn sprout. The beans grow up the corn stalk, utilizing the land more fully, and the beans replace some of the nitrogen that the corn takes out of the soil. You can also plant squash among some of the corn plants: put about 3 squash seeds in a hole, about 1 inch deep, a few inches away from the base of each of the corn sprouts.

Weeding is simple, since you can walk around the plants freely. Give the land a weeding before you plant the corn, of course. You can give the plants another good weeding as soon as they come up. Once the corn gets to be about knee-high, however, don't put the hoe more than an inch into the ground, or you'll damage the roots, which are quite close to the surface and reach out horizontally for a foot or so.

Unlike most other grains, those of sweet corn will not last long as viable seed -- perhaps 4 years, perhaps only 1. You need to keep replanting it on a regular basis. But field corn will stay viable for many years.

When a crop has grown, look for the healthiest plants and the best ears, and save these for your next year's crop. You might want to be even more selective: from each ear, choose the best kernels from those ears, those in the middle rather than the ends of the ear.

Corn, has a problem with genetic deterioration, so it should not be grown indefinitely from its own "progeny." You can save some of the dried kernels and replant them to form the next year's crop, but eventually you may find your corn plants becoming degenerate. To avoid such a problem, always mix the kernels from at least 100 plants if you want to use the kernels for the next year's crop; 200 plants would be better. Even if you have that many plants to choose from, it would be best to refresh the gene pool of your corn field by occasionally introducing new seed from elsewhere. (For the same reason, if you want to grow "Indian" corn, you should buy a good-sized package of seeds, instead of relying on one or two ears from a Thanksgiving decoration.)

In late summer, when the corn begins to ripen, you can pick some of it and eat it as "corn on the cob," just as with sweet corn. To remove an ear, grasp it firmly, then twist it while you bend it downwards. You can leave the husk on and place the ears in the ashes of a fire. Most of the ears, however, should be left until the plants have gone brown and dried. The ears can then be brought inside. Pull the husks back and hang the corn up to dry.

Actually there are several ways of harvesting corn. Some people prefer to cut the plants close the ground, stack them together, and then tie them, somewhat in the manner of harvesting wheat, instead of removing the ears immediately. The plants can be left that way to dry for a few more weeks.

At some point you have to get the roots out of the ground. You might find that you can just pull up the entire plant, although that can be tiring. Or you can dig them out with a spade or shovel.

The native people crushed the kernels into flour in a huge wooden mortar and pestle, or the crushing was done with two stones, the bottom one wide and flat, the top one smaller and rounder. The finished cornmeal was used to make soups, pudding, or bread. Nowadays a good steel hand-mill does a quicker job.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Overpopulation: Just Stack 'Em Higher?

There are two separate reasons why it would not be feasible to create a "vertical society," i.e. a world with a much larger population than at present, with everyone housed in buildings a thousand stories high in order to keep most of the land surface available for agriculture.

By the way, I am not discussing birth control as an alternative to the vertical society, since the world merrily doubles its population every few decades, with no regard for common sense. Even in (mainly industrialized) countries where the birth rate is low, the immigration rate may be high, as in Canada, Australia, and the US, thanks to the stupidity of government policies, and so one excellent solution is offset by one terrible mistake. In any case, conscious "family planning" will be both inadequate and superfluous compared to the rapid massive mortality about to be caused by famine.

The first reason why the vertical society would not work is that there is a simpler response than to build such very expensive and technically demanding structures. The theory behind the construction of them is that urbanization is encroaching on agricultural land. Perhaps 3 percent of the world's land mass is now urbanized, and I would certainly not deny that this is already a regrettable situation. It is also true that the world's agricultural land constitutes about 10 percent of the total land surface. (The other 90 percent of the earth's surface is simply barren, at least in the sense that it cannot support the production of crops.) To a large extent, unfortunately, the urbanized land overlaps with the agricultural land. One can see that here in Canada, for example: about 7.5 percent of Canada's Class 1 agricultural land has been urbanized, although the figure drops if we include Classes 2 and 3, the less productive land.

In other words, urbanization would have to be far greater than at present for the world to be literally "standing room only." There is a shortage of farmland, not a shortage of land per se. It might therefore be easier to move the increasing numbers of people outward to the non-arable areas. The difficulties and costs of transporting food from the agricultural lands to those non-arable areas would probably be less than going in the opposite direction: building gigantic vertical habitats, within the zones of arable land, and then distributing the food upward inside each of those structures.

(What would happen, though, if we actually reached "standing room only," filling every desert and mountain range? Probably the same kind of problem that would occur if there were no more room left for thousand-story skyscrapers.)

The other reason, far more important, for avoiding a policy of creating a vertical society is that fossil-fuel production is now (or will soon) be going into decline. By the year 2030, annual production of fossil fuels will be only about half of what it was at the peak. Without fossil fuels, industrial society will collapse. (No, sorry, there is no "alternative energy" that is going to save the day, and certainly not for a world containing many billions of inhabitants.) As fossil fuels disappear, so do mining, manufacturing, transport, communication, and everything else. As David Pimentel points out, without fossil fuels for fertilizer and pesticides, and for the cultivation, harvesting, and transportation of crops, yields per hectare drop to less than a third of their present levels. The same problem of decline applies to a hundred other non-replaceable natural resources, from aluminum to zirconium, and contrary to another misconception recycling does little to reduce decline. There is simply not enough arable land, and not enough of the world's natural resources, to maintain a population much larger than that at present, no matter what type of housing we choose. We are returning to the Stone Age, and in that world there can be no thousand-story skyscrapers.

And do I want to be living in a high-rise of any sort on the day when the elevators, the lights, and other electrical devices stop working, when there is neither drinking water nor plumbing, and the heating has failed, and there is no fuel left for either private or public transportation, and getting out of town means a very long walk? No, not really.

-- Think of the above as a poem for Earth Day, which was founded in 1970, primarily by Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was quite concerned about overpopulation. Since that day, the Earth's population has nearly doubled, and it's politically incorrect to use the word "overpopulation." Sweat shops are good for business.

(with thanks to Tim Murray for referring me to Robert Silverberg's novel The World Inside, chapter 4 of which uses the term "vertical society")

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)