Friday, February 4, 2011

It will be worse than you think: the energy key to homestead farming

The collapse scenario that people frequently discuss will not take us back to the Victorian 1880s, but to  the 1680s.
It will take us a moment to wind our way to the subject referenced by the title:  I appreciate your patience.  If you are in a hurry, you could start after the last quote and get the summation.
In the early modern period there were a number of countries that were very modern in political and commercial methods.  You had the Netherlands, Japan, France and England as primary examples.  The Netherlands is of particular interest because it preceded the English in modernization, but they peaked early and were not the ones who began the industrialization of the world.  The Japanese are of interest because, they have many similarities to the English, and caught up so quickly once they were shown the way.  All of these countries were "modern" in some way, but they were missing a key element that differentiated the English:  the English were extremely productive farmers.
What is not realized by many is that England did not just lead with the industrial revolution, but also prior to that time period had lead with an agricultural revolution.
In England the output per man employed in agriculture probably doubled between 11550 and 1750, whereas much to the continent, there was hardly any increase in per capita productivity…There was also a much greater output per acre of land in use.  Starting from a roughly similar level in the sixteenth century, the increase in output per acre appears to have been much greater in England than was normal on the continent over the two succeeding centuries.
The average man on the land in 1800 was able to provide foodstuffs for about 1.5 families in addition to his own [thus 2.5 total] whereas his forerunner 200 years earlier had been able to provide only the needs for his own family and, at most, half those of one other family [1.5 families total].  Alan Macfarlane, E.A. Wrigley and the Riddle of the World
I will cut to the chase, and get straight on with how they did this:  They used animals.   A will also tell you that this was unusual.
Each working horse needs the fodder produced by about 5 acres of land to keep it in good condition over the working year.  Oxen can feed of lower value foods, but as we will see they are also less productive.  So most societies, as their population increases, gradually phase out animals and replace them with crops (with some extra human labor input).
So why did the English use horses (and oxen to a lesser degree).  Oxen in one hour can do the work of about 4 men, and a horse the work of six.  In some forms of agriculture the horse is the equivalent of between 5.1 and 7.6 men.  A man can only produce 1/10th the foot/pound efforts of a horse in an hour.
So how did the English do it?  How were they able to use horses and oxen, when other cultures faced with land pressures reduced them?  To understand this we most for a moment switch subjects.
The average inhabitant of the town needed about 1-1/2 pounds of wheat or other grain each day for his bread, but about 10 pounds or more of firewood to bake it, to brew his beer, roast his meat, boil his water, heat his living room and to cover his industrial needs, heating a dye vat or working metal for example.  Alan Macfarlane, E.A. Wrigley and the Riddle of the World
As Macfarlane notes, even in today’s world, the poor person in Bangladesh pays more for his fuel needs than for his food:  and Bangladesh is not a particularly cold country.
The fuel was as important as the food.  And the English started running out of wood, so they started using coal.  Even before they had an industrial revolution they began developing coal as a fuel.  They had access to coal and good inland water routes to get it to the markets where it was needed.
So how did this coal help revolutionize their agriculture.  Well, in other countries they would always reserve a large amount of forest land for fuel.  In England they could chop down the forest and use it as pasture for their horses and cows.   This allowed the English to push for more advanced uses of animal power, and also set up an advanced market for the fuel of industry before the industry even existed.
So what is the point here?
When worrying about sustainability in homesteading situations, you frequently here discussions of food output and security.  But what exactly is being lost with the loss of power is not just heat, or convenience, or communications, it is also food.    It may not be a concern for a few years, but eventually the lack of dependable-hopefully sustainable source of energy will cost you food.  From a large societal point of view, it will keep your community from having very little in the way of surplus:  a hard life with some enjoyment versus a hard life.


Waldow said...

So I paraphrase. The English used coal to replace the fuel that formerly came from woodlots, and the woodlots were then brought under cultivation (for pasture and/or grain)?

So this coal in the pre-industrial era was, I presume, relatively easy-to-reach, yes? In that case, the "back to horse and buggy days" semi feel-good collapse scenario is pushed back beyond 1680, since we have used up the easy to reach coal.

The depth and breath of our reliance on technology is nearly beyond our comprehension. How much longer will technology need us, especially once we become erratic and destructive under the pressure of collapse? Silly question easily dismissed. I'm sure the wold will have 16 Billion people some day, each with a robot for sex and housework ;)

Certainly a few of us will be kept around in Zoos or game parks, perhaps not dissimilar to pre-casino Indian reservations. Might want to check out that little bit of on-going history to see the future.

British citizens, not so incidentally, made a disproportionate number of the innovations that led to the information age. Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, and the makers of the WWII Colossus machines.

Waldow said...

Thanks the post BTW. Wasn't trying to sound snotty with the "you should check out X" BS. I very much enjoy how you bring refinement to your scenarios with precise original information.

Hell, it's all I can do to keep my sheep and chickens fed and come up with $10 on a friday to see my buddies beat each other up boxing. Ha!

Have a good day. Thanks for the posts again.

Degringolade said...

I would offer that the amount of energy used will range around that used in the middle of the period which to speak. I would use 1800 as a likely stopping point.

When you pull transportation out of the mix, providing farms with adequate energy is still within the range of the possible. Cars and planes are the biggest culprits.

We'll see. Right now it is conjecture.

As for my hiatus, I just got tired of the process. Right now it is all pretty stale. I start to write a post and it just peters out and I lose interest.

Maybe in a month or so.


russell1200 said...

In reverse order:

Degingolade: I saw you respond in a few other blogs that I also look at from time-to time. Looking at some of them I almost wonder if their main survival strategy is to be grouchy. LOL

Waldrow: I did not take your comment as grouchy. I was busy this weekend at a NRA sponsored class on hand-loading so I did not have time to respond.

Your estimation of where we are visa vi coal is pretty much mine. There are some wildcat miners in WV that occassionaly do a grab and run bit of work, so not all the easy stuff is gone. But getting the coal to where it is needed without the tranport (which D- made note of) will be interesting.

With regards to D-'s summation, it is hard to know. My main concern is people who volantarily stick themselves out in the middle of nowhere and do not understand that very special circumstances where in place to allow the farming of the late 19th century. The crafty village of Kunstler's fictional world would very quickly run into problems without a huge surplus of food (per worker in agriculture) that seems to be evident from his writing. I am not sure he realizes how industrial and global the farming economy was prior to the industrial revolution.

Waldow said...
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Waldow said...

I want to add that besides the access to "easy" coal ca. 1800 there is something else densely energetic the British had then we do not now and will not ever have again. Highly developed stable working human relationships. I think technology has damaged our natural environment, but also dissolved almost completely the relationships between people that would be required for a return to a society with that high of agricultural production without cheap energy. When I say "relationships", I don't just mean marriages. I mean honest business, Master-journeyman-apprentice, congregations, sewing circles, the whole 9 yards (note the tailor made pun... ha!) necessary for the fabric of such a society. We have lost it. It takes a huge amount of energy to get it back. I'm not speculative here. I grew up on a smallish crappy modern cattle farm, went to college, went to work a while, and have now come back to try and remake something my great-grandparents did here. It is a clusterf**k. Everybody is f***ing crazy, lazy, diabetic, and clueless. I have the advantage of a big family who, on both my Mother and Father's side, have lived in the same valley for over 120 years, and still we are divided. Conquered. That is how civilizations fall. It is happening right now. People my age from middle and upper middle class backgrounds aren't the least bit ashamed to talk openly about how to get on food stamps, and I hang around good people. I'd sooner starve than go on food stamps, but perhaps if I went on the psych meds like everybody else, I'd say eh? Who cares. Feed me!

Kunstler is OK, but Tom Wolf's book K. ripped off for the Geography of Nowhere covers this idea for construction tradesmen. The title of that book is From Bauhaus to Our House... I'm rambling, but my point is that once you lose a trade it takes a miracle to put it back together. Farming w/o much fossil fuel will be re-mastered as things are going to shit? Very doubtful.

My experience with accomplishing really difficult tasks has been that you first have to speculate, to imagine that you could do a thing. So eliminating possibilities, you move on to eventually imagine the right thing. I need to incorporate the essence of the coal post into my plans for the next 10 years, it really frightens me as an impossible but necessary task.

It will seem now I am jumping around, but I'm not paitent or a good 'splainer. In short, there are some Frankensteins out there that may well be successful in addressing these problems for the technological system. That I think will survive and thrive, but there won't be much left in it that resembles anything we regard as human. Check out and you will see a set of people working to have us all just chill out and go extinct quietly.

russell1200 said...

Yes the torn fabric will need a stitch-in-time to save the whole 9 yards! LOL – don’t get me started on poor punning.

In reverse order:

I had not looked at the in a while. I took a glance. I stumbled upon Taleb (Mr. Black Swan) telling them they were going to blow themselves up playing around: LOL. Seems pretty much on with regards to your Frankenstein statements.

My personal experience with accomplishing the difficult pretty much runs along the lines of having more determination than sense: LOL. You find out what the first step and just keep pushing until you get to the last one. My problem has been an awareness that I am a poor fortune teller, and that I am not always really sure what my goals should be.

I have not read too much of Kunstlers’ architectural criticisms. I was not aware that he was channeling Tom Wolf. I suppose there are worse people you could channel: it would be relatively easy because Wolf is not dead yet, and you could call him on the phone rather than hold a séance. I did see a K-presentation (I think on TED TV) on architecture. It struck me as beating a little too hard on the low hanging fruit. You have a society that just survived its second world war, and had just realized that it was a lick in time from atomizing itself. It is not that odd that it architectural preferences came out a little odd.

The modern family in the past worked because there were always opportunities for people to pick up and make it on their own if they choose. When those opportunities fade, the advantages of an expanding family rapidly fade. They become a liability as the inheritance is broken up.

I have an unpublished post somewhat on the subject. The post (from memory) was on the next Generation Number 2. The title is somewhat cynical; o.k. it is a lot cynical. About the only hope I have is that what is known as the Greatest Generation actually started off pretty weakly themselves but where able to (somewhat) rise to the occasion.

I work in an office, but I am a tradesman (electrician). We are the always the most chaotic of tradesmen. Probably has something to do with the idea that it is a good idea to be working with something that can electrocute you.

But to your point, nobody really knows how to build a building. What people do know is their little portion of how to build a building and enough of what the other people do to stay out of their way, or to interact when needed. Orlov had a recent guest post on the commune movement and the way they broke up into work teams, and a young lady who follows my blog is a current member of one. It does not look easy, but with committed people it does seem possible.

The best near term situation I can think of for power issues is solar, wind, or possibly even water power when the application is appropriate:

Freyja said...

Thanks for the mention... I totally agree with Waldow that we have forgotten how to have human relationships. This is especially evident in many of the 20 somethings that come to visit us. They wander out here with a dazed look in their eyes...they know something is terribly wrong with society but cannot articulate it. They are searching for answers, but don't know what questions to ask.
Many college educated techies do not know to use hot water for washing dishes, or not to lay their socks on the wood stove and walk away. I had to confirm the identity of a lemon for someone the other day.
Unfortunately, we have a steep uphill battle to re-learn just the basics; take responsibility for your actions, treat common areas with respect, speak honestly and directly using lots of qualifiers (I feel, in my opinion), and be willing to compromise. Take a close look at your ego so you can really see all the ways it messes up your life.
This is way harder than it sounds.

Great post. Keep up the good work.

russell1200 said...


I had no idea that a couple of decades of the microwave had left us that bereft of basic knowledge. Of course we eat half our meals out and the half we eat in are microwaved...

We are super retro in my household. A typical meal would be from the crockpot, and we eat our meals together. My wife works as many hours as I do, so it isn't a time constraint.

Freyja said...

One of my favorite things about this community is our communal dinners. Sitting down at a table to eat together is a bonding ritual and gives us an opportunity to think about being grateful for food.
Just that little change could make a huge difference in our culture (or losing that ritual HAS made a huge impact on our culture).

Wendy said...
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Wendy said...

must edit ... :)

Russel - thank you for posting the link on my blog. I hadn't seen this post.

I don't disagree at all with your assertions, and most of the more influential writers in the Peak Oil scene echo your concerns about food shortages, which is why home gardening and suburban homesteading have become such hot topics.

I don't think technology will save us, but as you mention in your reply to one of the comments above, small-scale power generation (like individual solar panels or small windmills) would be very useful, and if we can further develop on a larger scale the knowledge we've gained about solar passive heating and cooking, we might be able to prevent deforestation, too.

russell1200 said...


Your comment about about small-scale generation is very much on point. But it is odd how the :concerned about where things are going" crowd breaks up into different world views (often along political lines) that pay very little attention to each other.

One group is about sustainability in the context of the here and now. They have micro, sustainable power generation and farms, but very little in the way of emergency supplies. The other crowd tends to be into guns, stored food, and guns. Power generation is sometimes there, but they are not thinking they are going to save the system and some are willing to do without.

The first group tends to have a lot more money. or at least a vocal number of that crowd does. They have a more coherent voice within the existing political system. But as successful members of the economy they are very reluctant to face the more extreme, but plausible, scenarios that are out there.