Monday, May 18, 2009

The Myth of Efficiency

Efficient, adj. 1. Acting or producing effectively with a minimum of waste or effort. 2. Exhibiting a high ratio of output to input.

Along with freedom and progress, efficiency rounds out the triad of America's most treasured ideals. We like things to be "efficient," without really knowing what it means. Americans tend to use the term efficiency as a code word for getting things done cheaply and conveniently. Take agriculture, for example. It certainly is an achievement to churn out food at prices that are far less than historical averages (by percentage of family budget spent on food). That frees up a lot of money for people to spend on other things - clothes, travel, books, furniture, whatever your desire might be.

But what makes efficiency? Is it clever management? The "productivity" of human resources? Economies of scale? Centralization? Better information and computer systems? The competition of markets? Business people give credit to these innovations, and all of these changes may contribute incrementally to the cheapness of our food, but these are just icing on the cake. The real underpinning of what we think of as efficiency is cheap energy - especially cheap oil.

Farms here in America have been consolidating for over 50 years. The average size of a "farm" is now 459 acres. They are managed with the aid of GPS systems, barns of tractors, and miles of irrigation systems. The farms of today have replaced people, armed with knowledge of local conditions and crop varieties and supported by rainfall and rich topsoil, with machines fueled by gasoline and regular applications of chemicals created from fossil fuels.

Efficiency, in other words, means replacing energy from humans and animals and plants with the incredibly cheap, concentrated energy found in oil. It does not mean less waste (at least when measured in BTUs). Americans pride ourselves on our innovations, but we did not in fact create better, less wasteful farming systems - we just found ways to pour as much of this cheap energy into our farms as possible, without considering how long the resource would remain cheap.

Small farms are actually more productive and efficient than large farms. They produce more per acre. However, while fuel is inexpensive, small farms cannot achieve the massive economies of scale enabled by the replacement of people with gigantic tractors and chemicals. Since a gallon of oil can replace the energy of hundreds of hours of human labor, at a fraction of the cost, it makes a whole lot of economic sense to use it in place of people.

Replacing man (and horse) with machines may seem efficient, but it is not the efficiency of nature, which uses every particle of matter and energy and creates no waste. It is the economic efficiency of man, which inevitably generates pollution and destruction because the costs are not borne by the user, but by nature and by the community at large. What we call efficiency is simply the conversion of a fossil fuel inheritance millions of years in the making into cheap fuel and food for a few generations.

What we call "efficiency" is actually the height of inefficiency. The foundation of modern agriculture is mostly just the addition of more energy to the system, and any fool can do that. Our current food systems are only made possible by massive wastefulness, ruination of natural systems, and unbridled use of our inheritance of fossil fuels. These are the costs that our economic accounting does not take into account.

How efficient will it be to manage a 1,000 acre farm when production of oil begins to decline? How efficient will it be to ship lettuce 1,500 miles when gas costs $6 a gallon? How efficient will it be to use 20 calories of fossil fuels to create one calorie of food? What will we be left with when the age of oil begins to wane? Eroded topsoil, depleted aquifers, and the loss of the valuable farming knowledge of entire generations of Americans.

Here in Oklahoma, we are lucky to have small farmers still holding on to their farms and activists dedicated to reviving our local, sustainable and organic foodsheds. We have the Oklahoma Food Co-operative, an Extension Service supportive of sustainable agriculture, Community Supported Agriculture shares, and several local farmer's markets. Many of the people living here have memories of farms, of growing gardens and raising animals, and many continue to grow fruits and vegetables regardless of whether they live in the country or city. Here we are not that far away from our food.

As the price of fuel rises, the myth of efficiency will be exposed. We can choose to recognize that our ideal was an illusion, and rebuild our local food systems and economies now, or we can choose to be a deer in the headlights as the price of food rockets along with the price of fuel. We can use real design innovations, like permaculture and integrated pest management, which rely on careful observation and knowledge of the ecology, instead of the application of chemicals. We don't know when high gas prices will return, but oil has already demonstrated an ample capacity for volatility. Let's prepare now, so that we won't have to pay later.


Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

This an excellent post and agrees with scientific studies.

According to independent studies, global crude oil production peaked in 2008 and is now declining terminally.

Within a year or two, oil prices will skyrocket as supply falls below demand.

Independent studies indicate that global crude oil production is now declining from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time, demand will increase. Oil supplies will be even tighter for the U.S. As oil producing nations consume more and more oil domestically they will export less and less. Because demand is high in China, India, the Middle East, and other oil producing nations, once global oil production begins to decline, demand will always be higher than supply. And since the U.S. represents one fourth of global oil demand, whatever oil we conserve will be consumed elsewhere. Thus, conservation in the U.S. will not slow oil depletion rates significantly.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. There is no plan nor capital for a so-called electric economy. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The independent scientists of the Energy Watch Group conclude in a 2007 report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”

"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."

With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, water supply, waste water treatment, and automated building systems.

Documented here:

Ron Strilaeff said...

Very clearly written, and optimistic. People will adapt when they NEED to and I think we'll be surprised how quickly lawns and golf courses will be converted to food gardens and technology will be applied locally when it's a matter of survival. The next American dream will be different, but I hope we still have the internet. :-)

Wendy said...

I think we're lucky here in Maine, too, in that we never really experienced as much of the "boom times" as other places, and so most people around here have always tried to live more frugally. I think it will make the transition we're facing much easier to deal with, because many of the people I know have never had all that much to begin with.

In addition, even as all of this development and urban sprawl was happening, there have been plenty of small farmers who've held onto their farms and are enjoying the renewed interest in the local foods economy.

I agree with Ron, though. I hope enough people will realize the benefits of the Internet to try to keep it running, even as we find ourselves not driving and using less. The Internet is a huge, energy sucking entity, but what it does is so incredible, and I'd hate to lose it as we descend into a lower energy world.

AccidentalHW said...

Fantastic post and applies to so many things, large and small.

nomad496 said...

This is an excellent post; well thought out and well written. Now if we could just get the average American to read it and pay attention to what it says.

jewishfarmer said...

Nice post. And if you haven't read Thomas Princen's superb _The Logic of Sufficiency_, you should -it does a thorough debunking of the notion of efficiency as a solution, and offers a much better choice. It is a lovely, fascinating book.


Anonymous said...

Efficiency actually has a mathematical formula which is the inverse of effort. I can't remember any of the formula except the crucial factor, which is a squared number. The squared number is distance: effort varies with the square of the distance and efficiency varies inversly [divided by] with the distance. A little more distance is a lot more effort and a lot less efficiency. Distance is the crucial factor, which is why cheap fossil fuels masked the problem.

Green_Viking said...

I agree that our current corporate farming infrastructure is a nightmare of waste and inefficiency in sustainable terms.

It seems readily apparent to me that we are not ready, even with things like the recent "Climate 2030" plan ( put forth by the Union of Concerned Scientists, to deal with the realities of peak oil.

This begs the question, to speak of the big elephant in the room, where are people going to get food? A recent blogger on spoke of the fact that he moved back to Portland when he realized that his neighbors might be highly tempted to just take his food come trouble.

Oklahoma and Maine may very well have good small farmer stock, but what are those farmers going to say when the hungry hordes show up at the door? As many men do, I fantasize on occasion about being Mad Max, but really, it will be communication that carries the day overall.

I would love to see some discussion on verbal crowd control and emergency "tear up the asphalt and get planting" ideas. In these days of waning IndustroTech, it sure seems like we might need them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but what to do with the excess people that we have been able to support by using fossil fuels? When food becomes scarce I don't think everyone will play nice.