Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: the myth of cheap energy

Throughout his collection of essays The Gift of Good Land Wendell Berry directs the reader's attention to the myth of cheap energy, in particular cheap petroleum-based energy. This myth has made possible much of America's post-World War Two progress for both good and ill. In the area of agriculture this has led to consolidation which has seen the almost total demise of small farms in areas that we'd now consider marginal. Increasingly we've put all our agricultural eggs in one basket so to speak, both in terms of land and crops grown. Recently, there was an interesting piece in The New York Times on how this summer's drought in the Midwest is exposing the folly of this strategy. William Mosely writes:

We have become dangerously focused on corn in the Midwest (and soybeans, with which it is cultivated in rotation). This limited diversity of crops restricts our diets, degrades our soils and increases our vulnerability to droughts. Farmers in the central plains used to grow a greater diversity of food and forage crops, including oats, hay, alfalfa and sorghum. But they gradually opted to grow more and more corn thanks to federal agricultural subsidies and expanding markets for corn in animal feed, corn syrup and ethanol.

Of course this is the sort of thing Berry has been saying for decades. Just another confirmation that he's one of the few contemporary figures for which the word prophet is not hyperbole, and like most (all?) prophets throughout history he's largely ignored.

In his 1979 essay "Energy in Agriculture" Berry reflects on a memoir by Donald Hall of life on his grandparents' New Hampshire farm circa 1930s - 1950s. This farm was based on patterns of agriculture that have been extinguished by the methods of industrial agriculture (though thankfully these older methods are making a comeback here and there). Farms like the Hall's gave way to assumptions of "progress" that privileged the city over the country, the large-scale over the small, uniformity over diversity -- and Berry argues it was made possible by the myth of cheap energy.

But these assumptions could not accomplish much on their own. What gave them power, and made them able finally to dominate and reshape our society, was the growth of technology for the production and use of fossil fuel energy. This energy could be made available to empower such unprecedented social change because it was "cheap." But we were able to consider it "cheap" only by a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a "right" to as much of it as we could use. This was a "right" made solely by might. Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were, were nevertheless limited in quantity and not renewable, they obviously did not "belong" to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the "miracle" of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children.

That is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence. The reason that we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth—you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much. The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our own time the birthright and livelihood of posterity.

Quote found on p. 127 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

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