Updated: Jul 9, 2021
Many of the books, web pages and blogs to do with climate change suggest that we need to return to a basic, agricultural lifestyle. Doing so will provide some degree of food security, particularly if our commercial systems start to fail. The following quotation is representative of this way of thinking; it is taken from the Introduction to the book The Future is Rural, Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification, written by Jason Bradford.
Today’s economic globalization is the most extreme case of complex social organization in history—and the energetic and material basis for this complexity is waning. Not only are concentrated raw resources becoming rarer, but previous investments in infrastructure are in the process of decay and facing accelerating threats from climate change and social disruptions.
The collapse of complex societies is a historically common occurrence, but what we are facing now is at an unprecedented scale. Contrary to the forecasts of most demographers, urbanization will reverse course as globalization unwinds during the 21st century. The eventual decline in fossil hydrocarbon flows, and the inability of renewables to fully substitute, will create a deficiency of energy to power bloated urban agglomerations and require a shift of human populations back to the countryside. In short, the future is rural.
Many people have a positive reaction to this way of thinking. Their response may be on the lines of, “I’ve always liked gardening, and I welcome a life style which puts us back in touch with nature.” These people have a vision of a worldly Paradise — a time when we lived in a Garden of Eden, a Paradise.
Not so fast.
The story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis symbolizes the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a agricultural way of living. About 10,000 years ago, in many parts of the world, mankind learned how to control nature through the use of agriculture. This transition was possible because the climate entered a time of stability following the last major ice age.
The image below shows Adam and Eve being ejected from Paradise. They are carrying the gardening and farming tools that they will need in their future life. Gardening is not Paradise —
and farm work are the result of being ejected from Paradise. While they were living in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve did not have to work for their living — food was there for the taking. Once they left that garden, they had to work for their living.
Expulsion from Eden: Caedmon Manuscript. c. 1000 CE
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
The phrase “the future is rural” that was used at the start of this post may be correct, but transitioning into that future will be as challenging for us as it was for Adam and Eve when they were ejected from Paradise.
The reason that such a transition will be so difficult key problem to do with the transition is to do with the growth in the world’s population and the lack of available land for agriculture. The earth’s population has grown from less than half a billion in biblical times to about 7.5 billion now, and that number keeps rising. The chart shows how population rose suddenly around the middle of the 19th century. The reason for this sudden increase is that it was then that we learned how to exploit the buried energy that lay beneath our feet. It is the energy provided by coal, oil and gas that has provided us with the "food" needed for the population growth.
Although we do not consume fossil fuels directly, but they have enabled the following technologies that have enabled food production to be so much more effective.
Fossil fuels provide the chemical building blocks to create today’s bewildering array of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed supplements. Without these chemicals we could not grow nearly enough food for 7.5 billion people. (It has been estimated that we use 10 kilocalories of fossil fuel energy for every single kilocalorie of food energy that we grow.)
Seeds and other vital materials for self-sufficient agriculture are supplied by the same global commercial chains that supply food to the supermarkets. Self-sufficient agriculture requires that famers and gardeners save their own seeds from one season to the next. Otherwise they they remain vulnerable to disruptions in those supply chains.
The machinery that is needed to run a farm or market garden is utterly dependent on the availability of fossil fuels, both for its manufacture and for its maintenance.
The skill sets needed to support more basic agricultural practices have mostly disappeared, and will take a long time to rebuild/recreate them. For example, not only are there almost no farriers in modern society, it is probably fair to say that most people even know what a farrier is. (He is a blacksmith who specializes in shoeing horses.)
Transportation needed to provide supplies to the farms, and then to take the resulting produce to urban centers is also dependent on the availability of fossil fuels.
It is likely that, as supplies of raw materials dwindle and as the environment becomes every more polluted that we will indeed return to a future that is more rural. But that future will be very different from the agricultural societies of the past — the huge increase in population that has taken place in the last 300 years is not something that will just go away, nor can we simply return to the ways in which we used to grow food. A rural future is not one in which we return to Paradise. A rural future will be a time of hard work and struggle.
Man with a Hoe, Jean-Francois Millet