Saturday, March 29, 2014

Survival Gardening: Pests, Diseases, and Weeds

There are "seven pillars of pest control" (with apologies to Lawrence of Arabia). These rules mainly apply to the control of insects, but roughly the same rules can be applied to the control of more primitive forms of life: fungi, viruses, bacteria, and mycoplasmas.

(1) Selection: Choose resistant species and varieties.

(2) Diversity: Grow a fair number of species and varieties at the same time (avoid monoculture).

(3) Rotation: Do not grow a crop in the same place in the following year.

(4) Health: Keep your plants strong by providing good soil and enough water, light, and space.

(5) Sanitation: Remove and burn any dead or dying plants, and avoid touching wet plants.

(6) Tillage: Dig up the ground each year to destroy insects.

(7) Attack: Fight insects by handpicking or by applying natural insecticides (wood ashes on the leaves for flea beetles [or on the ground for cabbage-root maggots], soap spray for cabbage-butterfly larvae, garlic spray for aphids).

A common disease problem is the white mildew that can spread over vegetables in the late summer or in unusually damp weather. To prevent such a problem, maintain a good distance between plants, don't sow them in shady areas, and don't touch plants when they're wet. If you supply water to your vegetables, put it on the roots, not the leaves. Try not to touch plants that have mildew, but if you do so then you should wash your hands before touching healthy plants. Mildew is mainly a problem later in the summer, when most of the crops will have been harvested already, so there may little to worry about. If diseases become serious, the best thing is to remove all the affected plants and burn them or bury them.

Insects and other small creatures can cause trouble in a garden. The best cure is prevention: always keep the garden soil in good condition, because good soil produces healthy plants, and healthy plants are more resistant to bugs. If you do get insects on your plants, you can often just pick them off by hand. Don't worry much about insects getting some of the young plants; there's not much you can do about it, and they will give up as soon as the plants have grown a few inches tall. If insects are really causing havoc with cabbages or similar crops, you might want to plant more thickly and just allow the insects to take their portion.

There is evidence to suggest that garden pests are more common than they were 50 or 100 years ago. Problems caused by such creatures as the Colorado potato beetle or the European corn borer seem to represent a new stage in the history of agriculture. Admittedly, there are many methods for dealing with pests, even without resorting to poisons -- maintaining good soil, using good rotation systems, hand picking, spraying with garlic or pepper, and so on -- but the fact that such a struggle is going on seems to suggest that the war has escalated over the years. Government studies seem to reach no definite conclusions about a possible increase, mainly because of the lack of solid data from the past, but even generalized descriptions of earlier times can leave one a little pessimistic.

Many books and articles have been written in or about pioneer times, and also about the agricultural methods of the native peoples. Very few of those documents say much about insect pests, however, except to mention that locusts created serious trouble for pioneers on the prairies. Perhaps, in describing earlier conditions, the historians and anthropologists have simply forgotten to mention pests -- perhaps it never occurred to them as a subject worth mentioning. But that seems unlikely. A more likely explanation is that pests were less frequently encountered in those days.

If it does turn out that pests are more common, we are then left with the further question of why this has happened. One problem, of course, is that insects have become resistant to chemicals, but that fact not would explain why they would be more common in the first place. The most likely three main causes of such an increase would be: the arrival of alien species (as in the case of the "European" corn borer), which attack plants that have no natural resistance; the decline in the practice of crop rotation; and the spread of monoculture.

If you water your crops, you can do it either in the early morning or in the evening, but early morning is better. If you water in the evening, you might be letting water stay on the plants too long, thereby encouraging insects and slugs. In any case, try not to water at midday, particularly on a hot summer day, because the water will just evaporate.

Birds and animals can do a lot of damage. Birds especially like anything with grains or seeds; if your crop is large enough, you may be safe, but for a small patch you may need to erect a net. Woodchucks enjoy eating young crops of various sorts, whereas deer prefer young corn. Always grow more than you need, so that predation by animals won't ruin you. You can discourage woodchucks by putting mothballs or creosote in their burrows. If you have the money and time, you can put a fence around your garden: a 6-foot (2 m) fence will keep out deer if they can't see through it, but it will have to be 10 feet (3 m) high if they can see what's on the other side. That same fence will have to extend a few feet into the ground if you want to keep burrowing animals out. Plastic (polypropylene) deer netting, a floppy and therefore discouraging material, may be cheaper than wire fencing, and easier to set up. Don't "make friends" with wild animals; no matter how cute they are, that friendship is entirely one-sided, and they'll be back the next day to eat their way through your garden.

The biggest summer job, especially on a new patch of ground, is keeping the weeds under control. To save labor, eradicate them while they're small, preferably before they're even visible. Pulling up weeds by hand is sometimes more efficient than any other method, especially when they're close to your vegetables, although a hoe is better on the main stretches. The seeds of some weed species will stay in the ground for years before a little human disturbance wakes them up, so don't be surprised when weeds seem to appear out of nowhere. Most weeds will die pretty quickly after they've been dug up. Purslane, unfortunately, actually thrives from being chopped up and exposed, so you may need to rake it into piles and leave it far from any soil or compost heap.

Low soil fertility is one of the main causes in the growth of certain kinds of weeds. Soil that is rich in organic matter allows the growth of more desirable plants. Rich soil also contains bacteria that make weed seeds lose their viability.

Weeds can sometimes be valuable. They add organic matter to the soil, bring up important elements from the depths, and often take nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil. Weeds can break up hard soil and improve the soil's ability to absorb air and water. Many weeds are also edible; they are the ancestors of cultivated crops, and others may become crops in the future.

Because different weeds grow in different types of soil, you can use the weeds that grow on your land to tell you a lot about it.

If most of the trees are evergreens, the soil is acidic. Acidic soil is also indicated by bramble, cinquefoil, corn spurrey, dock, hawkweed, knapweed, low star grass, sheep sorrel, swamp horsetail, or wild strawberry. Slightly acid soil is indicated by daisy, dandelion, dog fennel, doorstep weed, garden sorrel, horsetail, mayweed, or plantain. On the other hand, limestone soil will support Canada blue grass, chicory, field peppergrass, field madder, mountain bluet, penny cress, teasel, wormseed, or yellow camomile.

Alkali soil (soil containing alkaline salts) occurs in parts of the southwestern United States, and on it you are likely to find common spikeweed, goldenrod, kochia, nitrophila, pickleweed, salt grass, saltbushes, saltwort, samphia, sesuvium, tussock weed, or yerba mansa.

On sandy soil you will probably see broom bush, goldenrod, many-flowered aster, onions, partridge pea, wild lettuce, or yellow toadflax. On deep clay, the opposite type of soil, you might find selfheal and wild onion.

Dry land, and also land that is low in organic matter, will support devil's paint brush, spurge, mosses, lichens, and poverty grass. On the other hand, land that is excessively wet due to poor drainage will be growing buttercup, cattail, creeping Charlie, ferns, hedge bindweed, hedge nettle, horsetail, ironweed, Joe-Pye weed, loosestrife, March foxtail, meadow pink, pennywort, rice cut-grass, rush, sedge, silverweed, smartweed, stinking willie, swamp horsetail, or tradescantia.

Tight, compressed land will grow bluegrass and knotweed. Hardpan, soil that has become cemented together and is impervious to water, will grow camomiles, field mustard, horse nettle, morning glory, penny cress, pineapple weed, or couch grass

Other weeds may be indicators of high-quality soil: burdock, dock, amaranth, lamb's quarters, purslane, ragweed, or thistle.

Peter Goodchild

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

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Peak Oil: Laherrère, Real Curves, and Official Curves

The graph above is Figure 11 from Jean Laherrère, "World Oil and Gas Production Forecasts up to 2100," The Oil Drum, July 16, 2013. Retrieved from

Notes on some of Laherrère's abbreviations:

AEO = Annual Energy Outlook (from EIA) (= US Energy Information Administration)


Tb = trillion barrels

U = ultimate recoverable

WEO = World Energy Outlook (from IEA) ( = International Energy Agency)

WOO = World Oil Outlook (from OPEC)

The thin blue line at the top right is Laherrère's prediction of the grand totals, differing considerably from the others.

He explains: "The confidential technical data on [mean values of proven + probable reserves] is only available from expensive and very large scout databases. . . . There is a huge difference between the political/financial proved reserves [so-called], and the confidential technical [proven + probable] reserves. . . . Most economists . . . rely only on the proved reserves coming from [the Oil and Gas Journal, the US Energy Information Administration], BP and OPEC data, which are wrong; they have no access to the confidential technical data."

The difference between his figures and the various government figures is enormous. It reminds me of the 1950s, when M.K. Hubbert and others were saying one thing, and the government was saying quite the opposite.

A few years ago I met someone who told me that his father had been a geoscientist in the 1950s. Back in those early days, the father had told the son about "peak oil" (in the years to come), but the father also said he would risk being fired if he made any public statement.

It's considered bad for business to tell your investors that you're going to be running out of product to sell. To me that sounds in some ways like superstitious nonsense. Surely if a product becomes rarer, each unit of that product gains more financial value for its owner. I suspect the real answer to that question, though, is closer to what Colin Campbell said to Adam Porter in 2004: "If the real figures were to come out there would be panic on the stock markets. . . ."

The general public must be kept happy but ignorant. Well, maybe not too happy, but certainly ignorant, as anyone knows who has had tried to deal with any important global issue, from pollution to population. Newspapers aren't allowed to print bad news, at least not bad news that would shake anyone up. And the only books one is supposed to read are high-school romances. Orwell had it right, a perfect score (except for the title) when he wrote 1984. Reminds me of a conversation I have at irregular intervals with people I meet. They say, "Everyone knows what Freud/Marx/Darwin said. He was a terrible man." "Have you ever read any of his books?" Without embarrassment, the answer is an angry "no!" In other words, "Why should I read the books of such a terrible man?"

Oh, well, even Galileo had to deal with disinformation, so who am I to complain?


BP. (2013). Global statistical review of world energy. Retrieved from

Heinberg, R. (2013). Snake oil: How fracking's false promise of plenty imperils our future. Santa Rosa, California: Post Carbon Institute.

Höök, M., Hirsch, R., & Aleklett, K. (2009, June). Giant oil field decline rates and their influence on world oil production. Energy Policy, Volume 37, Issue 6, pp. 2262-72. Retrieved from

Hughes, J. D. (2013, Feb.) Drill, baby, drill; Can unconventional fuels usher in a new era of energy abundance? Executive Summary. Post Carbon Institute. Retrieved from

Klare, M.T. (2012).The race for what's left: The scramble for the world's last resources. New York: Picador.

Simmons, M. R. (2006). Twilight in the desert: The coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Peter Goodchild

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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fracking: Reserves, Production Rates, and Net Energy

A lively discussion in the past few years has involved the fracturing ("fracking") of rock using large quantities of water, sand, and chemicals to extract both oil and gas. There's no question that fracking can cause astonishing environmental damage to drinking-water supplies and in other ways, which is why it has been subject to moratoriums, restrictions, and bans in about a dozen countries so far. But in the midst of the controversy, what gets overlooked is another trouble of global proportions: the fact that the global boom in fracking will ultimately do very little to prevent the decline in fossil fuels.
The numbers involved, with regard to these recent "miracles," don't come anywhere near the much larger numbers for annual oil and gas consumption to which we were accustomed long before fracking became popular: about 30 billion barrels of oil a year, and about 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

The disinformation industry has advanced in leaps and bounds since the Cold War days. Hence Obama's statement in his third State of the Union address (January 29, 2012): "We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. . . ." In today's journalism, many "press releases," particularly about "unconventional oil," are just thinly disguised advertising, designed to lure gullible investors into supporting projects that will have large expenses but small profits.

Let's start with a few definitions, if only rough-and-ready ones. "Conventional oil" is the cheap, free-flowing, easy-to-to reach oil, the liquid that was refined to produce all gasoline until a decade or two ago. "Unconventional oil," on the other hand, is all the other stuff related to conventional oil but less desirable for most purposes, either because of its inherent properties or because of its difficulty of access: heavy oil, tight oil ("shale oil," an ambiguous term), kerogen, tar-sands oil, natural-gas-liquids, and so on.

Why the great interest in unconventional oil these days? For no other reason than that we're beginning to run out of conventional oil. The expression "scraping the bottom of the barrel" is a fairly good description of the struggle for unconventional oil. As a young student once said to me: "If we're doing things like fracking, it just shows how little is left of all this stuff, and how desperate we are to get at it."

Then we must distinguish between "resources" and "reserves" -- a very important distinction, if not an easy one. Again speaking in rough-and-ready terms, the resources of any material -- oil, coal, copper, whatever -- are the grand total of whatever is under the surface of the Earth (or on it, for that matter). The "reserves" (roughly equivalent to the "ultimate recoverable"), on the other hand, are the small fraction of those resources that can be got at within any reasonable limits, either technological or financial. The United States Geological Service actually breaks resources and reserves down into about 20 sub-categories, but most definitions are less elaborate. Without wishing to downplay the importance of the distinction between resources and reserves, it should be noted that humans can't really tunnel under the entire 150 million square kilometers of the Earth's surface in order to verify the quantities, so a certain amount of guesswork is inevitable.

The consensus is that global production of conventional oil was somewhere around the year 2010, and that it is now beginning its decline. A mixed bag of unconventional fuels is keeping the total on a slight rise, or more like what is called a "bumpy plateau," but at some point that plateau will become a downward slope.

According to BP's 2013 report, for the past few years the annual production of conventional oil remained nearly flat at about 30 billion barrels, or about 80 million barrels per day. The report shows the total of annual global oil production increasing slightly now, though, because unconventional oil has increased, although it constitutes less than 10% of the total. In other words, the decline in conventional oil and the rise in unconventional oil roughly cancel each other out, therefore doing very little to prevent the basic horizontality of the "bumpy plateau."

Specifically, the total oil supply (both conventional and unconventional) increased by about 9% annually between 1930 and 2001, whereas between 2002 and 2012 the annual increase was only about 1%.

Of the 54 oil-producing countries, about 40 are past their peaks of production. The US peaked in 1970, and although production is now increasing again it is still at only about two-thirds of its peak rate. For that matter, in some respects the term "peak oil" by itself is a red herring: per capita, the peak date of global oil production was 1979, when there were 5.5 barrels of oil per person annually, as opposed to only 4.4 in 2012.

Besides the environmental problems and the financial burdens, there are three basic limitations to the use of unconventional oil:

-- The global reserves are low, and there will therefore be an early peak of production. In fact all sources of oil and gas, conventional and unconventional, will peak sometime before 2020.

-- The rate of production (rate of energy supply) is very low, and any technology to improve it substantially is unlikely to be discovered -- in contrast to the 30 billion barrels per year of conventional oil production. The tar sands, for example, have not even yielded enough oil annually to meet 2% of the world's oil requirements.

-- There is low net energy ("energy return on energy invested," EROEI), partly because of losses due to conversion of that material to a more-usable form -- e.g., the material taken from tar sands is not of much use until converted to liquid.

A few American organizations, such as the Energy Information Administration, take advantage of weak definitions to produce more-optimistic figures for unconventional-oil production. These organizations obtain their numbers by dividing a rather generous estimate of reserves by the current rate of consumption. At the same time, low rates of production and low net energy are ignored. The result is some cheerful but unrealistic upward curves.

US shale oil (now called "tight oil," because the famous Bakken formation is actually dolomite) now constitutes 20% of US oil production, and is expected to grow impressively, but it will reach a peak in 2017, before swiftly declining. Individual tight-oil plays are themselves characterized by very high decline rates.

As mentioned earlier, the second major target of fracking is natural gas. Largely because of fracking (mostly in the US), global gas production rose from 2,524 billion cubic meters in 2002 to 3,370 billion cubic meters in 2012, an average annual increase of 3%. As with shale oil, individual shale-gas plays are themselves characterized by high decline rates. Global gas production will peak around 2020.

In the US itself, gas production rose from 536 billion cubic meters in 2002 to 681 billion cubic meters in 2012, an average annual increase of 2.5%. Unconventional gas production (coal-bed methane, tight gas, and shale gas) has been higher than conventional gas production. Overall US gas production has been flat since 2011, though, with only shale gas production rising. The result will be a peak of all US gas, conventional and otherwise, in about 2020, like global gas. The very high decline rates of shale gas wells in the US results in costs of about $42 billion per year, yet the value of shale gas produced in 2012 was only $32.5 billion -- a losing proposition.

Other types of fossil fuels have even less to offer: tar-sands oil, natural gas plant liquids, kerogen, coal- bed methane, gas hydrates, Arctic oil and gas. The same is true of technologies such as coal- and gas-to-liquids, in-situ coal gasification, and deepwater oil and gas production.

What about forms of alternative energy other than fossil fuels? The favorite is still solar power, but it has no practicality on a large scale. There is a great deal of solar energy reaching the Earth, but it is too diffuse to be of much value. To meet the world's present energy needs with solar power, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) at least the size of France. Its production and maintenance would require vast quantities of fossil fuels, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process. In addition, photovoltaics require scarce metals (somewhat misleadingly called rare-earth elements) such as iridium and gallium, which simply do not exist in sufficient quantities. For these and other reasons, solar power is only about 0.2% of the world's energy supply, and cannot be made to increase to any significant extent.

Fracking must go into the same pile as every other miracle-energy-of-the-month: solar power, wind power, hydrogen fusion, bio-fuels, geothermal power, and so on. The common statement, "We must invest in a broad range of technologies," sounds very lofty and patrician, but it's missing the hard facts. Adding one bad idea to nine other bad ideas, if each of them has very low or even negative net energy, just means ten bad ideas, not ten good ones. We must start living a simpler life, and we must do it with a much smaller number of people. We can do that consciously or unconsciously, we can do that painfully or pleasantly, but one way or another it will be done.


BP. (2013). Global statistical review of world energy. Retrieved from

Heinberg, R. (2013). Snake oil: How fracking's false promise of plenty imperils our future. Santa Rosa, California: Post Carbon Institute.

Hughes, J. D. (2013, Feb.) Drill, baby, drill; Can unconventional fuels usher in a new era of energy abundance? Executive Summary. Post Carbon Institute. Retrieved from

Klare, M.T. (2012).The race for what's left: The scramble for the world's last resources. New York: Picador.

Laherrère, J. H. (2013, July 16). World oil and gas production forecasts up to 2100. The Oil Drum. Retrieved from

Peter Goodchild

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

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Survival Gardening: Composting

All plant material that you don't eat should be put on the compost heap. This includes various parts of your vegetables, but it also includes weeds. If you pull up the weeds before they go to seed, you're not going to be re-infesting your garden when you spread the compost; also, if the compost is properly decomposed it will heat up enough to kill any seeds that have already developed. Left for 6 months or a year, the compost will turn into organic soil. As the compost heap is maturing, you might give it water from time to time, and turn it over once in a while, but don't worry about precision. The compost heap should not be taking up land that you need right away for crops, but at the same time a central location is preferable, so that you don't have to travel too far when it's time to spread the compost on the garden. Of course, since valuable minerals will be leaching down into the soil from the compost heap to some extent, don't build that heap on a piece of land you'll never be using; it would be foolish to create fertile unused land. Ideally, you would have two or three compost heaps, started about a year apart. The oldest heap is the one that is put on the garden; if you allow that finished compost to dry out, it will be easier to carry. Put the mature compost on the garden in the fall, when you've finished harvesting. You might even dig it into the ground, ensuring looser and warmer soil in the following spring.

Because of composting, you don't have to worry too much about "wasting food." With supermarket food, anything you throw away is money out of your pocket. With food you have grown yourself, you can be fairly prodigal about throwing away plants that have grown too old or too tough, since all that unused material goes back to the compost heap to become new soil and eventually new vegetables. In fact, the more you add vegetation to the compost heap, the more you increase the organic content of the soil.

One of the purposes of recycling (composting) is to prevent the loss of essential elements. In particular, you must try to preserve nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K), not because these three are necessarily the most vital elements, but because they are the three that are most likely to be in short supply. It is helpful to bring in material from outside the farm: almost any kind of plant, animal, or mineral material will make some (although not necessarily an adequate) contribution in N-P-K. Farmers in eastern Asia used mud from irrigation canals, animal and human manure, and grass and other vegetation from the hills. Nitrogen, however, which is the most susceptible to loss by leaching, is also the one element that can literally be "got out of thin air." Any legume, such as beans, peas, clover, or alfalfa, will draw nitrogen out of the air, and if those plants are dug back into the soil (preferably without removing their seeds for food), the nitrogen supply of the soil is renewed.

Peter Goodchild

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