The word “resilience” is bandied about these days among environmental designers. In some quarters, it’s threatening to displace another popular word, “sustainability.” This is partly a reflection of newsworthy events like Hurricane Sandy, adding to a growing list of other disruptive events like tsunamis, droughts, and heat waves.
We know that we can’t design for all such unpredictable events, but we could make sure our buildings and cities are better able to weather these disruptions and bounce back afterwards. At a larger scale, we need to be able to weather the shocks of climate change, resource destruction and depletion, and a host of other growing challenges to human wellbeing.
We need more resilient design, not as a fashionable buzzword, but out of necessity for our long-term survival.
An illustration of a resilient architecture: fossils of a marine ecosystem from the Permian period, about 250 to 300 million years ago. These ecosystems were resilient enough to endure dramatic changes over millions of years. Image by Professor Mark A. Wilson/Wikimedia
Aside from a nice idea, what is resilience really, structurally speaking? What lessons can we as designers apply towards achieving it? In particular, what can we learn from the evident resilience of natural systems? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Resilient and non-resilient systems
Let’s start by recognizing that we have incredibly complex and sophisticated technologies today, from power plants, to building systems, to jet aircraft. These technologies are, generally speaking, marvelously stable within their design parameters. This is the kind of stability that C. H. Holling, the pioneer of resilience theory in ecology, called “engineered resilience.” But they are often not resilient outside of their designed operating systems. Trouble comes with the unintended consequences that occur as “externalities,” often with disastrous results.
On the left, an over-concentration of large-sale components; on the right, a more resilient distributed network of nodes. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros.
A good example is the Fukushima nuclear reactor group in Japan. For years it functioned smoothly, producing reliable power for its region, and was a shining example of “engineered resilience.” But it did not have what Holling called “ecological resilience,” that is, the resilience to the often-chaotic disruptions that ecological systems have to endure. One of those chaotic disruptions was the earthquake and tsunami that engulfed the plant in 2010, causing a catastrophic meltdown. The Fukushima reactors are based on an antiquated U.S. design from the 1960s, dependent upon an electrical emergency cooling system. When the electricity failed, including the backup generators, the emergency control system became inoperative and the reactor cores melted. It was also a mistake (in retrospect) to centralize power production by placing six large nuclear reactors next to each other.
The trouble with chaotic disruptions is that they are inherently unpredictable. Actually we can predict (though poorly) the likelihood of an earthquake and tsunami relatively better compared to other natural phenomena. Think of how difficult it would be to predict the time and location of an asteroid collision, or more difficult yet, to prepare for the consequences. Physicists refer to this kind of chaos as a “far from equilibrium condition.” This is a problem that designers are beginning to take much more seriously, as we deal with more freakish events like Hurricane Sandy — actually a chaotic combination of three separate weather systems that devastated the Caribbean and the eastern coast of the U.S., in 2012.
Hurricane Sandy on 28 October 2012. NASA image courtesy LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC
As if these unforeseen dangers were not enough, we humans are contributing to the instability. An added complication is that we ourselves are now responsible for much of the chaos, in the form of our increasingly complex technology and its unpredictable interactions and disruptions. Climate change is one consequence of such disruptions, along with the complex and unstable infrastructures we have placed in vulnerable coastal locations. (In fact, Japan’s technological infrastructure has been heavily damaged over a much wider area by the chaotic “domino” effects of the Fukushima disaster.) Our technological intrusion into the biosphere has pushed natural systems into conditions that are far from equilibrium — and as a result, catastrophic disruptions are closer than ever.
So what can we learn from biological systems? They are incredibly complex. Take, for instance, the rich complexity of a rainforest. It too generates complicated interactions among many billions of components. Yet many rainforests manage to remain stable over many thousands of years, in spite of countless disruptions and “shocks to the system.” Can we understand and apply the lessons of their structural characteristics?
It seems we can. Here are four such lessons extracted from distributed (non-centralized) biological systems that we will discuss in more detail:
1) These systems have an inter-connected network structure.
2) They feature diversity and redundancy (a totally distinct notion of “efficiency”).
3) They display a wide distribution of structures across scales, including fine-grained scales.
4) They have the capacity to self-adapt and “self-organize.” This generally (though not always) is achieved through the use of genetic information.
Map of the Internet: a paradigmatic resilient network in part because it is scale-free and redundant. Image by The Opte Project/Wikimedia
The Internet is a familiar human example of an inter-connected network structure. It was invented by the U.S. military as a way of providing resilient data communications in the event of attack. Biological systems also have inter-connected network structures, as we can see for example in the body’s separate blood and hormone circulation systems, or the brain’s connected pattern of neurons. Tissue damaged up to a point is usually able to regenerate, and damaged brains are often able to re-learn lost knowledge and skills by building up new alternative neural pathways. The inter-connected, overlapping, and adaptable patterns of relationships of ecosystems and metabolisms seem to be key to their functioning.
Focusing upon redundancy, diversity, and plasticity, biological examples contradict the extremely limited notion of “efficiency” used in mechanistic thinking. Our bodies have two kidneys, two lungs, and two hemispheres of the brain, one of which can still function when the other is damaged or destroyed. An ecosystem typically has many diverse species, any one of which can be lost without destroying the entire ecosystem. By contrast, an agricultural monoculture is highly vulnerable to just a single pest or other threat. Monocultures are terribly fragile. They are efficient only as long as conditions are perfect, but liable to catastrophic failure in the long term. (That may be a pretty good description of our current general state!)
Why is the distribution of structures across scales so important? For one thing, it’s a form of diversity. By contrast, a concentration at just a few scales (especially large scales) is more vulnerable to shocks. For another thing, the smaller scales that make up and support the larger scales facilitate regeneration and adaptation. When the small cells of a larger organ are damaged, it’s easy for that damaged tissue to grow back — rather like repairing the small bricks of a damaged wall.
Distribution of inter-connected elements across several scales, drawing by Nikos Salingaros
Self-organization and self-adaptation are also central attributes of living systems, and of their evolution. Indeed, this astonishing self-structuring capacity is one of the most important of biological processes. How does it work? We know that it requires networks, diversity, and distribution of structures across scales. But it also requires the ability to retain and build upon existing patterns, so that those gradually build up into more complex patterns.
Often this is done through the use of genetic memory. Structures that code earlier patterns are re-used and re-incorporated later. The most familiar example of this is, of course, DNA. The evolutionary transformation of organisms using DNA gradually built up a world that transitioned from viruses and bacteria, to vastly more complex organisms.
Applying the lessons to resilient human designs
How can we apply these structural lessons to create resilient cities, and to improve smaller vulnerable parts of cities by making them resilient? Developing the ideas from our previous list, resilient cities have the following characteristics:
1) They have inter-connected networks of pathways and relationships.They are not segregated into neat categories of use, type, or pathway, which would make them vulnerable to failure.
2) They have diversity and redundancy of activities, types, objectives, and populations. There are many different kinds of people doing many different kinds of things, any one of which might provide the key to surviving a shock to the system (precisely which can never be known in advance).
3) They have a wide distribution of scales of structure, from the largest regional planning patterns to the most fine-grained details. Combining with (1) and (2) above, these structures are diverse, inter-connected, and can be changed relatively easily and locally (in response to changing needs). They are like the small bricks of a building, easily repaired when damaged. (The opposite would be large expensive pre-formed panels that have to be replaced in whole.)
4) Following from (3), they (and their parts) can adapt and organize in response to changing needs on different spatial and temporal scales, and in response to each other. That is, they can “self-organize.” This process can accelerate through the evolutionary exchange and transformation of traditional knowledge and concepts about what works to meet the needs of humans, and the natural environments on which they depend.
Resilient cities evolve in a very specific manner. They retain and build upon older patterns or information, at the same time that they respond to change by adding novel adaptations. They almost never create total novelty, and almost always create only very selective novelty as needed. Any change is tested via selection, just as changes in an evolving organism are selected by how well the organism performs in its environment. This mostly rules out drastic, discontinuous changes. Resilient cities are thus “structure-preserving” even as they make deep structural transformations.
How do these elements contribute to resilient cities in practice, in an age of resource depletion and climate change? It’s easy to see that a city with networked streets and sidewalks is going to be more walkable and less car-dependent than a city with a rigid top-down hierarchy of street types, funneling all traffic into a limited number of “collectors” and “arterials.” Similarly, a city designed to work with a mix of uses is going to be more diverse and be able to better adapt to change than a city with rigidly separated monocultures.
A complex resilient system coordinates its multi-scale response to a disturbance on any single scale. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros
A city with a rich and balanced diversity of scales, especially including and encouraging the most fine-grained scales, is going to be more easily repairable and adaptable to new uses. It can withstand disruptions better because its responses can occur on any and all different levels of scale. The city uses the disruption to define a “pivot” on a particular scale, around which to structure a complex multi-scale response. And it’s more likely to be able to self-organize around new economic activities and new resources, if and when the old resources come to be in short supply.
The evolution of non-resilient cities
So where are we today? Many of our cities were (and still are) shaped by a model of city planning that evolved in an era of cheap fossil-fuel energy and a zeal for the mechanistic segregation of parts. The result is that in many respects we have a rigid non-resilient kind of city; one that, at best, has some “engineered resilience” towards a single objective, but certainly no “ecological resilience.” Response is both limited and expensive. Consider how the pervasive model of 20th century city planning was defined by these non-resilient criteria:
1) Cities are “rational” tree-like (top-down “dendritic”) structures, not only in roads and pathways, but also in the distribution of functions.
2) “Efficiency” demands the elimination of redundancy. Diversity is conceptually messy. Modernism wants visually clean and orderly divisions and unified groupings, which privilege the largest scale.
3) The machine age dictates our structural and tectonic limitations.According to the most influential theorists of the modernist city, mechanization takes command (Giedion); ornament is a crime (Loos); and the most important buildings are large-scale sculptural expressions of fine art (Le Corbusier, Gropius, et al.).
4) Any use of “genetic material” from the past is a violation of the machine-age zeitgeist, and therefore can only be an expression of reactionary politics; it cannot be tolerated. Novelty and neophilia are to be elevated and privileged above all design considerations. Structural “evolution” can only be allowed to occur within the abstracted discourse of visual culture, as it evaluates and judges human need by its own (specialized, ideological, aestheticizing) standards.
From the perspective of resilience theory, this can be seen as an effective formula for generating non-resilient cities. It is not an accident that the pioneers of such cities were, in fact, evangelists for a high-resource dependent form of industrialization, at a time when the understanding of such matters was far more primitive than now.
Here, for example, is the architect Le Corbusier, one of the most influential thinkers in all of modern planning, writing in 1935, and providing a blueprint for modern sprawl:
“The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work … enough for all.”
Sadly, there is no longer enough for all! This relatively brief age of abundant fossil fuels — and the non-resilient urban architecture that it has spawned all over the globe — is rapidly drawing to a close. We must be prepared for what has to come next. From the perspective of resilience theory, the solutions are not going to be simple techno-fixes, as so many naively believe. What is required is a deeper analysis and restructuring of the system structure: admittedly not an easy thing to achieve since it doesn’t make money short-term.
Postscript: a lesson from our own evolution
People tend to be carried along by the present, and put both past and future out of their mind. Even in our information-glutted age, the past is remote and abstract—just another set of images like any movie. And so we ignore where we have come from, and the path that brought us here to our marvelous technological culture. We are ill prepared to see where we must go next. For our techno-consumerist culture, tomorrow will bring no surprises.
But new research in anthropology, anthropogeny, and genetics suggests that we humans are, quite literally, creatures of climate change. Thanks to ingenious detective work, we now know that 195,000 years ago, our species very nearly became extinct — down to hardly more than 1,000 survivors clinging to the southern African coast, as a mega-drought swept that continent. Our evident response was to diversify, and to develop many new sources of food as well as new technologies for acquiring them: fishhooks, barbs, baskets, urns, and other innovations. More complex language probably followed, allowing us to coordinate more sophisticated strategies for hunting and gathering.
10,000 years ago, it now appears, we adapted once again to a mini-ice age, prompting us to innovate with new agricultural technologies, and new forms of settlement around them. These innovations arose more or less simultaneously in many parts of the then-disconnected world, suggesting that the trigger was very likely the climate.
Now we are facing the third great adaptation of our history to climate change. But this time it is we, ourselves, who have triggered it with our own technologies. If we are going to adapt successfully, we will need to understand the opportunities to innovate yet again, in the way we design and operate our technology. Our comfortable lifestyle (in the wealthy West, and among those socioeconomic classes that can afford to copy us) is significantly less resilient than most people would care to admit, or even dare think about. If we are going to continue our so-far remarkably successful run as a technological civilization, we had better take the lessons of resilience theory to heart.
AUTHORS’ NOTE: With this post we begin a new five-part series on the concept of resilience, and how designers can apply its insights.
Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Currently he is a Sir David Anderson Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, a Visiting Faculty Associate at Arizona State University; a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Chris Alexander’s research center founded in 1967; and a strategic consultant on international projects, currently in Europe, North America and South America.
Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work onurban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonioand is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in Italy, Mexico, and The Netherlands.
“[W]hen we learn that in the collapse now underway resides the seeds of a different style of agriculture that does not carry all the historic baggage that burdens us, we may, with good justification, rejoice.” – Albert Bates (http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-02-27/going-deep)
Summary: As the toxic trappings of industrial civilization crumble around us, agriculture is set to regain its place at the forefront of our daily American lives. …And won’t we be surprised to find out that it barely works anymore! Worsening climate destabilization, combined with the legacy of industrial ecosystem degradation and the loss of crucial pre-industrial agricultural genetics and knowledge, will severely challenge our ability to feed ourselves in the decades ahead. So perhaps it’s time we re-think our modern food-acquisition strategies in the face of the massive changes bearing down on us. …And I mean REALLY re-think them.
Below are some key resources to both back up the stuff I’m going to talk about and help people move ahead with the good work we need to do.
I. Ten Agricultural Premises
My main goal in this essay is to outline a suite of agricultural or food-acquisition strategies that might stand a chance in our climate-destabilized, civilization-collapsing future – and how we might go about laying the foundation for those strategies now.
But before getting into the essay-proper, I think it’s a good idea to lay out the basic agricultural premises that underlie these recommendations. For example, if I tell you it’s a really good idea to hone your hunting and gathering skills (as I will do), an acceptance of that message will only take if you’re fully aware of the reasoning that gave birth to such a wild suggestion (pun intended). So here they are:
Premise 1: The Earth’s climate is destabilizing. Humans are forcing an unprecedented destabilization of the global climate with fossil fuel CO2 emissions. We are likely very close to (if not exactly at, or even past) a positive-feedback tipping point, beyond which most or all of the planet becomes uninhabitable to humans. Due to inertia in the climate system, even if CO2 emissions stopped tomorrow, the worst climatic disruptions are ahead of us and will continue at least for many centuries.
Premise 2:Our agriculture is adapted to the stable Holocene climate. Land-based human agriculture, the main source of bodily sustenance for North Americans, is adapted only to the stable Holocene climate of the past 10,000 years – the relatively predictable patterns (in both magnitude and timing) of temperature, rainfall, snowmelt, storm intensity, and pest densities in any given region. Unfortunately, this is a climate our species will likely never see again.
Premise 3:Climate destabilization will severely stress agriculture. Climatic destabilization will severely stress the viability of human agriculture via extremes in these traditional climatic patterns – e.g., extremes in the magnitude and timing of temperature, rainfall, snowmelt, storm intensity, and pests. Such stresses have indeed already begun, and will intensify over the coming years, decades, and centuries as the climate continues to destabilize.
Premise 4:Collapse of industrial civilization will magnify the climatic stresses. These already-severe agricultural stresses from a destabilizing climate will be magnified by industrial depredations (past, present, and future) and disruptions from the ongoing collapse of industrial civilization. Specifically, these magnifying factors include rapid disappearance of the fossil fuel platform for current agricultural practices, loss of pre-industrial agricultural technology and genetics, soil loss and degradation, bioaccumulation of toxins (metals, organics, and nuclear), depletion of fossil aquifers, as well as war and social strife. Post-industrial deforestation and mounting ocean acidification will also have deleterious indirect effects on terrestrial agriculture.
Premise 5:Agriculture will unavoidably shrink in scale and technological complexity. The combination of climatic destabilization, past/residual industrial depredations, and collapse of industrial civilization will unavoidably shrink the scale and technological complexity of human agriculture. Agriculture will quickly evolve from (1) today’s doomed, high-tech, huge-scale operations, to (2) still-fragile, large-scale, mechanized operations, to (3) a medium-scale, draft-animal-based agriculture, to (4) a small-scale, ‘primitive’ human-labor-based agriculture, to (5) increasing reliance on managed hunting and gathering, and perhaps finally to (6) regional extirpation. Different societies will differ in the rate and ultimate level of agricultural simplification based on geographical, ecological, and social factors -- but the general trends will be near-universal and undoubtedly severe.
Premise 6:Ecological complexity in agriculture will necessarily replace technological complexity. Challenged by (1) the disappearance of essentially all industrial agricultural technology, (2) the loss of much pre-industrial agricultural technology to cultural erosion, (3) severely degraded agricultural ecosystems, and (4) worsening climatic destabilization, successful human food acquisition will necessarily rely increasingly on ecological knowledge and assistance – what we can perhaps call ‘ecological technology’. We will need to return humbly, thankfully, and thoughtfully to ‘the tangled bank.’ And given the climatic, ecological, and social challenges bearing down on us, such an ecological awakening will not be optional for human survival.
Premise 7: A polyculture of perennial vegetation has the best chance of providing food for humans in the future. In light of challenges outlined above, a diverse polyculture of perennial vegetation has many advantages over the largely-annual monocultures of traditional human agriculture: more robust structural integrity, improved soil-holding and building ability, superior nutrient and water gathering efficiency, decreased annual labor inputs, more efficient gathering of sunlight, longer annual period of active photosynthesis, and less reliance on precise rainfall and temperature patterns. As such, an agriculture based largely on a rich diversity of ecologically-managed, food and fiber-producing perennials embedded within diverse perennial-based wild ecosystems will exhibit maximum resilience and stand the best chance of providing food in our climate-destabilized, civilization-collapsing future.
Premise 8:Our current ‘leaders’ will not aid the necessary transition to an ecologically-sound perennial agriculture – they will hinder it. The crucial near-term response of the ‘powers that be’ (corporations, national governments) to the gathering existential agricultural emergencies will continue to be, perversely and suicidally, their exacerbation – e.g., trying to maximize carbon emissions (even as they fall), accelerating industrial depredations, and a desperate inflating of the industrial bubble via economic and public-relations chicanery, resulting in a more rapid and destructive collapse when the bubble inevitably pops. Lobbying of such ‘powers that be’ to change course has proven, at best, largely ineffectual – and perhaps even counter-productive, as it can perpetuate the illusion of ‘if only they understood’ and distract from constructive efforts possible at the local level.
Premise 9:Local responses are possible, necessary, and should begin ASAP. In this critical pre-collapse period, constructive responses to both our agricultural and broader predicaments will only be fashioned at the local and community level – a fact that is at once frightening, sad, embarrassing, and empowering. These responses involve efforts to learn, preserve, and disseminate (1) a more resilient, ecologically-attuned agriculture, (2) hunting and gathering skills, along with the accompanying ecological knowledge and sensitivity, (3) craftsmanship and artistry in the manufacturing of basic necessities (tools, shelter, water infrastructure, medicines), and (4) key social skills, such as conflict-resolution, cooperation, and collaboration, as well as the cultivation of beauty, joyfulness, and thankfulness in our everyday lives.
Premise 10: Wemay not succeed, but we must try. Livable outcomes in any given region are neither assured nor frankly probable at this point, but we must try – we have a moral, biological, and spiritual imperative to try. …Because what do you do when human civilization gives you global catastrophe? You make catastrophe-aid. J
…And now for the essay-proper:
II. Growing Food in a Funhouse
In that heady time before every American youth was enslaved by their portable electronics to the cold realm of cyberspace, end-of-summer fairs were the place to be. The gaudy lights, the blaring tinny music, the hormone-addled teens, the strung-out carnies, the crumbling nuclear families with double-wide strollers, the way-too-made-up tweens, the ever-changing ribbons of smells pummeling your nostrils: cotton candy, cigarette smoke, fried dough, cheap perfume, diesel fumes, oily dust, italian ice…
Ahhh...the (cough) memories!
Flemington Fair, NJ, circa 1978.
But more than anything, I remember a haunting, fair-themed nightmare I had around the time I was ten: My friends and I were exploring a funhouse, but the place kept taking on a progressively more menacing vibe. The normal funhouse elements -- the amusing surprises, the pleasant distortions of normality, the benign helplessness – were becoming less amusing, pleasant, and benign by the second. At some point, after realizing that the funhouse was actually trying to kill us rather than fun us, I found myself alone in a barren field outside the funhouse, pock-marked with what appeared to be deep bomb craters. Descending into one such water-filled crater, an alien (?!) reached out of the water, grabbed my leg, and pulled me under. …And then I woke up. (cold shiver)
Psychoanalyze away, but that dream still haunts me to this day. I can still see it, still feel it. It still scares the hell out of me. In fact, it’s starting to scare me more than ever these days.
…Because it’s coming true.
Earth’s climate, a key leg of the three-legged agro-ecological stool (climate, soil & ecosystem health, genetics), is taking on all the elements of that menacing funhouse from my nightmare – the increasingly-unpleasant surprises, the ominous distortions of normality, the growing feelings of helplessness among its victims. …It’s all coming true.
As David Korowicz warns of our collapsing civilization: we are going someplace we have never been before. This is true economically, socially, and politically – but, most frighteningly, it is also true climatically. We are in the process of forcing the climate into a state unlike anything our species, much less agriculture, has ever experienced. Given that, is it really wise to expect our Holocene-adapted agriculture to function adequately in this new ‘evil-funhouse’ climate we’re making? I would argue no.
So perhaps then we need to rethink our modern food-acquiring strategies in the face of the massive changes now bearing down upon us, with all their challenges and inherent uncertainties.
…And maybe we better start soon, no?
III. The Making of a Funhouse Climate
Let me be blunt here: We are wrecking the climate. Or I should say, we havewrecked the climate. Because by increasing the atmospheric CO2 from 280ppm to over 390ppm over the few hundred years of our industrial experiment, we havealready wrenched the climate out of the relatively stable Holocene climate that gave birth to human agriculture. And we have likely even wrenched the climate out of its million year long glacial-interglacial dance (to a 100K year beat!) during which our species developed.
As UCLA climatologist Aradhna Tripati reported in Science in 2009, “The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today…and were sustained at those levels…global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland.”
…And that was 15 million years ago, by the way – well before our species existed.
We are stumbling suicidally into uncharted waters. The arctic, warming at over twice the global average, is melting rapidly. Summer arctic sea ice will likely be gone just a few years from now. (See Figure 1, below.) And with it will go the reflective albedo buffer to further rapid warming, as well as the regular weather patterns we count on for temperate Northern hemisphere agriculture.
But how exactly do warmer temperatures disrupt regular weather patterns? Witness the ‘new, improved’ jet stream! The Northern hemisphere jet stream, that bringer of crop-friendly weather systems to US agriculture, is having some problems. Even the relatively meager warming to date of the arctic relative to the temperate latitudes appears to have already caused both a slowing and a more extreme meandering of the west-to-east winds of the jet stream. (See Figure 2, below.)
And a slower, more randomly-meandering jet stream brings with it some weird, unpleasant weather to the agricultural bread-baskets of the world. Larger-amplitude meanderings bring more extremes in hot and cold, often at rather odd times relative to what our crops and agricultural practices are adapted to. And the slower movement of the jet stream means that these wacky weather systems stick around longer. Often way too long. (See short video embedded in link for Figure 2.) Think of the brutal heat and dryness in the US 2011-12, Russia 2010, and France 2003.
Indeed, the relatively modest warming of land and ocean temperatures experienced so far has already resulted in a noticeable increase in extreme temperature and rainfall events. James Hansen has recently documented an alarming and steady shift in summer temperature extremes well beyond anything experienced even in recent times. (See Figure 3, below.) And similar upticks in frequencies of severe droughts and massive rainfall events have also been documented. (Follow all the action at Joe Romm’s http://thinkprogress.org/climate/issue/?mobile=nc.)
And bear in mind that, due to inertia in the climate system, even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow, there is still more destabilization in the pipeline – warming and its resulting ‘wacky weather’ that will persist for centuries and even millennia. That means significantly more arctic melting, more sea-level rise,more jet stream convulsions, more extreme weather events – the heat-waves, the droughts, the deluges, the hurricanes, the derechos.
…And all the while, arctic methane feedbacks loom. If you have the stomach for it, watch this 20min video about the dire situation unfolding up North:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSsPHytEnJM. We are children with hammers, banging on armed thermonuclear warheads. Clink. Clink. Clink-clink. Clunk…uh oh.
In short, our sputtering fossil-fuel orgy is in the process of turning the stable Holocene into an ‘evil funhouse’ climate straight out of a nightmare – one where horrifying surprises pop up ever more frequently, where normal weather patterns are grotesquely and dangerously distorted, where we are increasingly helpless in our efforts to ‘adapt’ to a climate that appears more and more like it’s trying to kill us.
…And all of this, of course, does not bode well for human agriculture.
IV. The Coming Failure of Holocene-adapted Agriculture
Let me tell you a secret: Human agriculture is no longer a given. This is, of course, only a ‘secret’ because so many people these days have so little knowledge of agriculture, climate, or ecology. …But it’s true: the 10,000 year-old agricultural experiment may soon be coming to an end.
Human agriculture is, despite our culture’s unthinking faith in its inevitability, an exceedingly-fragile, three-legged stool resting on the shaky legs of (1) Holocene-like climate stability, (2) culturally-preserved genetics and agricultural knowledge, and (3) the health of the soil and surrounding ecosystems. Knock out any one of those and the stool comes a-tumblin’ down. And a culture blinks out.
Because, contrary to popular opinion here in the spastic endgame of our death-dealing civilization, agriculture doesn’t come from shiny tractor dealerships, sacks of genetically-engineered ‘miracle’ seeds, heaping piles of fertilizer, tanks of [insert organism]icide, irrigation pipes, six-figure bank loans, and an ‘essentially-infinite’ torrent of fossil fuels. No -- it comes from the Earth, from the skies, from our bodies, and from a complex (and often heartbreakingly destructive) culture passed down from generation to generation .
...And without any thought to the consequences or to developing alternatives, we’re doing our damndest to snuff it out. Indeed, a lethal one-two-three punch of climate destabilization, accumulated/ongoing industrial depredations, and the chaos unleashed by a collapsing civilization will very likely bring human agriculture to its knees – possibly within the next few decades, and almost certainly within this century.
So here’s a quick anatomy of our agricultural train-wreck, already in progress:
1. Climatic Destabilization:
The climatic requirement for agricultural viability represents a relatively narrow range – in both magnitude and timing – of a number of key variables: temperature, water (in the form of both rainfall and snowmelt), wind, and climate-influenced pest/disease densities.
Unfortunately, crops born of Holocene-era climate stability and further embrittled by industrial, fossil-fueled coddling and yield-maximization are sitting ducks for the kind of wacky, extreme weather they will increasingly face. Decade-long crippling droughts, weeks of ultra-extreme high temperatures, surprise late-Spring freezes from a tortured jet stream, erosive levee-bursting deluges, salinization of delta farmland from increasingly-common and severe coastal storm surges, brutal outbreaks of weather-influenced pests and disease, and violent storms with crop-flattening winds – these are the kinds of things we’ll be dealing with. And not once a decade, but likely everyyear – several times a year!
2. Loss of Agricultural Genetics, Technology, and Knowledge:
The second key requirement for human agricultural is the suite of culturally-preserved genetics (plant & animal) and accumulated agricultural technology/knowledge available to farmers.
I think it scarcely needs to be said here that virtually the entire toolkit of industrial agricultural technology -- the fossil-fuel powered machines, the industrial chemical-dependent crop varieties and animal breeds, and the knowledge of how to manage such technologies -- will be next to useless without fossil fuels. And sometime soon, we just won’t have fossil fuels to kick around anymore. Why not? Because the remaining ‘difficult half’ of fossil fuels – tricky enough to access with the industrial machine still humming along – will certainly remain in their dark geologic tombs once the economic wheels come off. (And just in case, it will be up to the post-collapse ‘monkey-wrench gangs’ to ensure they do. Long live Edward Abbey! Long live Derrick Jensen! Long live…you?)
So where does that leave us? It leaves us depending on agricultural genetics, technology, and knowledge that served us in pre-industrial times. And unfortunately for human agriculture, a massive and mostly-unacknowledged loss of these resources has been occurring during the industrial era – a loss that has rapidly accelerated in recent decades. (Now, I fully realize the destructiveness of many pre-industrial annuals-based agricultural practices -- and one could well argue ‘good-riddance’ -- but I’ll address that later in the essay when I discuss recommendations for the future.)
Diverse place-adapted pre-industrial varieties of crops and breeds of domesticated animals, each with their special attributes, have been increasingly sacrificed to a relative small number of industrial varieties and breeds with the narrowest of attributes: yield maximization in a high-input, fossil-fuel-drenched system. This is unfortunate, of course, because a wide genetic variety will be needed to handle the challenging, unpredictable, low-input conditions that Anthropocene (Funhousocene?) agriculture will certainly face.
Need a chicken that doesn’t keel over in two weeks of 115 oF heat? Oh sorry, that breed was lost. Need a deeply-rooted, sprawling apple tree that can withstand 100 mph winds…twice a year? Sorry. Re-breeding will, of course, be possible and necessary (more on that later), but for some crops suffering significant genetic losses, breeding the required genetic varieties from the pathetically narrow set of genetics that ultimately squeeze through the bottleneck may be very slow. And in some cases, the genetic losses will be so extreme that re-breeding will be effectively impossible – like trying to re-breed a passenger pigeon.
Likewise, pre-industrial agriculture technology and knowledge have also been hemorrhaging, especially since the industrial war machine turned its cold, metallic eyes towards agriculture after WWII. It’s a familiar story: old-time farmer with place-based knowledge dies, kids in city sell farm to industrial farmer, old-time technology rusts away beside the collapsing barn, many kinds of crucial knowledge blink out.
How many people will remember how to grow, harvest, and process our crops without fossil fuels? How many people will remember how to propagate and breed all the new plant or animal varieties we’ll need? How many people will remember how to preserve and store the harvest for the lean early-Spring months? (How many people remember that there even arelean months of the year?) And how will we disperse our remaining fragmented knowledge and technology at a time when long-distance travel and communication for the spreading of these agricultural necessities will likely be close to nil?
And then there’s the whole war thing. Namely, that the already-severe loss of the pre-industrial genetics, technology, and knowledge will be further exacerbated by the social strife, war, and population dislocations that will certainly accompany the unraveling of the industrial fabric and the climate catastrophes-to-come. Varieties, breeds, technology, and knowledge that have been carefully safeguarded from the industrial shredder for generations in back-yard gardens, small farms, and seed-banks can and will be lost in just a single ‘unfortunate incident’. …And there will certainly be no shortage of ‘unfortunate incidents’ to choose from as we careen onward and downward from here.
So now close your eyes and mentally layer these lost genetics, technologies, and knowledge onto the toxic disruptions from climate destabilization. What do you get? Well, you get an agriculture that barely works. Hmmm…can’t wait! But, of course, we’re not even done yet:
3. Ecosystem degradation:
The third ‘key requirement’ for the viability of human agriculture is adequate health of the soil and surrounding ecosystems.
Try this: Look around you. Marvel at the deep rich topsoil outside your door – fertile topsoil that runs deep right up to the top of the nearby mountain. And at the foot of the mountain, refresh yourself from the cold, gushing spring that pours out from beneath the boulder. And now follow the stream down to the crystal-clear river under the cool shade of the huge old-growth trees – now walk across. That’s right, walk across on the backs of the fish, so thick in the water that the surface boils.
…Now snap out of it. …Sorry about that. It hurts, doesn’t it? As the great tracker/teacher Jon Young has said, “We have lost so much.” It breaks your heart. But even beyond the deflating spiritual implications, all our ecosystem degradations are certainly going to come back to bite us physically, as we stumble into the gathering train-wreck of Anthropocene agriculture. …And they will bite us hard.
Why? Because as the fossil fuel platform of industrial agriculture blinks out, we’ll need to rely on these ecosystems more than ever (the soil nutrients and communities, the groundwater, the streams and rivers, the pollinators and the other ‘beneficial’ insects, birds, and amphibians, etc.) to furnish all the agricultural services that fossil fuels once myopically provided for us. And perversely, these are the very treasures that fossil-fueled agriculture was so good at destroying – to the point that many currently-‘productive’ agricultural regions are so ecologically-denuded that we’re in for a very rude awakening once the fossil fuel spigot runs dry and we try in vain to coax food from them.
For example, take the Central Valley, California, post-collapse: Soil fertility? Gone. Soil communities? Gone. Aquifers and springs? Gone. Pollinators? Gone. Mountain snowmelt? Gone. Rainfall? Wacky. Agricultural potential? Gone. …Now try this exercise in the long-abused-but-now-fossil-fuel-deprived heartlands of Texas, Illinois, etc. Now try it at home. Fun!
And don’t forget to layer on that additional legacy of our modern insanity: the persistent toxins that lie as industrial booby traps all over this great land of ours – in the aging nuclear reactors, in the brimming industrial ‘retention’ ponds, in the soils, the water, the animals, our bodies. Think of the bio-accumulating heavy metals, the PCBs, the radioactive ‘hot particles’ – health-compromising poisons that are both already present in excessive amounts and ready to flood over our communities en masse from their temporary repositories once the feeble industrial safeguards melt away with collapse. …So like the present-day farmers of Fukushima, many of us will indeed be raising radioactive cesium from the soil along with our post-collapse fruits, nuts, and veggies. Yum. ...Hey, what’s this lump?
So we are about to ‘discover’ (surprise!) that human agriculture indeed has an ecological foundation – and that this foundation is either severely eroded, toxic, or just plain gone. …All of which sort of sucks if your goal is to feed yourself, your family, and your community.
…But hey, no worries – human agriculture’s a given, right?
V. The Hazy Future of Human Food
Now, I find no joy in being a ‘Danny Downer’ here, but there just seems to be an awful lot conspiring against our ability to grow food in the decades ahead. And Ido realize I have no divine knowledge; I fully understand that these are complex systems interlinked in complex ways, resulting in an awful lot of possible futures. But when you start to weight those futures based on the apparent biophysical trajectories of all-things-agricultural (climate change, loss of genetics, soil degradation, economic collapse, etc.), it just doesn’t look too promising.
So as a way to visualize where we may be headed, I made a little chart plotting the possible climate destabilization versus the possible loss of agricultural genetics/technology/knowledge. I’m holding the degree of ecosystem degradation as a constant here – an approximation, of course, since it is linked to the other variables. I do this because I suspect that such degradation is (sadly) the most predictable of the three key factors discussed in the last section.
Figure 4. Human food-acquisition in the Anthropocene. Different food acquisition strategies will be possible based on different (as-yet-to-be-determined) degrees of climate destabilization and loss of agricultural genetics/technology/knowledge. Both scale and technological complexity decrease upwards and to the right – as each of the variables becomes more degraded.
So how do we interpret this graph? Different regions of the graph correspond to different food acquisition strategies that may be possible under various (as-yet-to-be-determined…but looking worse every day) combinations of climate destabilization and genetics/technology/knowledge-losses.
My (not-exactly-earth-shattering) thesis here is that increased climate destabilization and increased genetics/technology/knowledge-losses will necessarily reduce both the scale and technological complexity of human agriculture. They will simply reduce what is possible. First fossil fuel agriculture blinks out. Then progressively simpler forms of agriculture blink out. And at some point, any form of agriculture becomes non-viable as a sole provider of food and must be supplemented with hunting and gathering. Beyond that, only hunting and gathering become viable. And beyond that, no food acquisition strategies are effective, and the population blinks out.
What I think is vital about the graph is that it’s a conversation we are not having -- and one that we really need to start having. We need to stop pretending human agriculture is a given – and especially to stop pretending that we will be able to feed ourselves using the same fragile, annuals-based, fossil-energy-dependent agriculture we now employ. …Because we certainly won’t. And heck, we might not be able to employ any agriculture at all – at least not as it’s now recognized.
And beyond that, we need to start saying that, yea, the stakes of our industrial depredations are rising so high that we actually need to invoke the dreaded “E” words here – extirpation and extinction. We need to stop telling ourselves that, by continuing our wicked industrial ways, we’re only endangering ‘the economy’ or ‘growth’ or ‘prosperity’ or ‘our standing as a nation.’ Fuck that. …We’re endangering our lives. We’re endangering the lives of our children. We’re endangering the lives of every living being on the planet. Those are the stakes here, and if we’re hell-bent on offing ourselves for the sake of double-caramel lattes, we should at least have the pseudo-dignity to acknowledge it and maybe sort of apologize to everything we’re taking down with us.
So there. And aside from just being kind of scary (or inspiring, I suppose, if you rejoice at the demise of ecosystem-degrading human agriculture), the graph above does have practical implications, which I’ll discuss in the next section.