Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 12

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part II. Age of Excess

Chapter 12. Gustave's Tires

In the gathering dusk, a swallow skims along the lake in search of food for her young, hatched the day before. This year pesticides have extended their ravages even farther than the previous year, when the mother was forced to push several of her babies out of the nest because she had not been able to find enough moths and other insects to feed them. She will continue to search as long as she can, hoping that the fireflies will appear soon after nightfall.

A few days after my demoralizing discovery of the "plastic dune" on the beach, which occupied my thoughts so much, I met a farmer working in his fields a few miles inland. He was driving an enormous tractor. By then, the majority of the French population was concentrated in cities. With family farms largely abandoned, most food comes from vast agricultural tracts of huge "factory" farms. The farmer I met that day, Gustave, was working on one of these, forcing Nature to produce carrots and cabbages with his big machines and chemicals. Under his control, carrots came up glowing orange and cabbages radiated vitality all summer long.

Watching him, I found myself criticizing everything he did. His tractor was too big. His fertilizers choked the air. To me he was marching boldly onward toward the future, just as I had done with my polystyrene factory, without thinking about anything beyond the work at hand. I was seeing all of his actions in an extremely negative light.

Gustave was living not far from a small oil field, located under Lake Parentis in the region known as Aquitaine. This reserve produced what was known as "Parentis oil". Suddenly the voice of a little ergamine rose out of the lake and overtook my thoughts. Like the dune, this ergamine had come to haunt me, too. They were my conscience, it seemed. The little "Cinderella" did not go easy on me, the builder of plastics factories. She did not go easy on the farmer, either. I can still hear her voice:

"Keep the wheels turning Gustave! Dig deep furrows with your deafening machine! The plough horse is long gone! In your furrows, spread chemical fertilizers. Horse manure is passe! Industrial fertilizers will force your carrots to grow! Chemical complexes run by men of genius turn ergamines into deadly pesticides! Come on, Gustave, with your big drum filled to the brim with poison powder! Kill the innocent cabbage butterfly! Keep the wheels turning, Gustave!"

Parentis' words brought to my attention the huge tires on Gustave's tractor. I had thought they were too big, but I also thought this ergamine had gone too far. Those rubber tires were the result of a phenomenal process. It takes all of engineering science to "shoe" a farmer's tractor. First the ergamines are transported to refineries to undergo an initial selection process. As soon as they are distilled, chemical plant operators propel the ones that they think would make good tires into powerful cracking units to break their molecules down. The butadiene ergamines created by this process are placed in fantastic reactors to be polymerized with styrene and isoprene produced by similar processes. Chemists heat and blend them under pressure to make an amazing soup, fusing their molecules into a gummy compound of synthetic rubber. They mill this gum again and again, then send it through sophisticated mechanical presses to form tires like the ones Gustave rides around on in the fields of southwestern France.

But Parentis took my thoughts further:

"Go on, chemical engineers, crack the ergamines! Keep your chimneystacks smoking! And you, Gustave, dig your furrows deep! Rob Nature of its vitality so you can make it your own! Keep it up, Gustave! Make industrialized farming the norm! Chemical products line your path. Birds carry poisoned insects in their beaks. Nature trembles in your wake. Keep on and don't look back! If you do, the city dwellers will ask what it is you think you're doing, daydreaming in your fields."

Gustave was definitely not daydreaming. It was cabbage-harvesting day. His tractor was pulling a machine with huge mechanical jaws. It swallowed the green balls, chopped them into strips with its big steel teeth, and spit them into white barrels. An assistant, driving yet another motorized device, loaded the white barrels onto a truck. The cabbages then went off to factories where they would be bleached, sterilized, softened, revitalized, seasoned, and hermetically sealed in shiny steel cans - manufactured by yet another factory - before being delivered to the cities.

I knew that the sauerkraut egosystem did not stop there. Although the fertilizer plants and the farm equipment formed the immediately visible portion of the unseen chain linking Gustave in the fields to the city dwellers of France, many other chains had a part in the ingenious processing of these cabbages. Advertising geniuses came to mind, beaming their appetizing images of marvelous green cabbages in sparkling cans onto the nation's television screens, urging consumers to buy.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how complex a cycle was involved in raising vegetables on the plains of France. Man has decided to domesticate Nature once and for all. He is hard at it. City dwellers and farmers are now bound together in a complex series of interlocking egosystems. And I realized the enormous numbers of ergamines that it takes to keep the long and complex farming egosystem running.

I suddenly saw myself in my office working on some petrochemical complex, an integral part of this inexorable cycle. I wanted to say something to silence this ergamine who was tormenting me. Although it might be difficult to understand the logic behind modern science and agriculture, I thought one had to appreciate the effort that had gone into securing a future for farming here in southwest France. Thousands of books had been written by the world's most talented engineers to explain how to build and ran these large, terribly complicated complexes covering hundreds of acres. It would take a very large library to hold all of the stratagems devised by engineers to help Gustave and his friends raise carrots and cabbages in the fields of Aquitaine. The best technicians living in the cities had worked so hard to produce the machines, trucks, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other products his agribusiness required.

As I struggled to respond, it dawned on me that the ergamine was perhaps closer to the truth of things than I was. Gustave was laboring in one of the most oil-intensive agricultural egosystems imaginable. With all of the fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and plastic and chemical compounds required to run the modern agricultural egosystem, France was consuming 4,000 of these little invisible slaves a day - the equivalent of the labor of 4,000 men - to feed just one of its citizens!

BOX: In one day, one person can produce the equivalent of ten kilocalories of physical work. To do so, he needs to eat 2,000 kilocalories of food, which requires 40,000 kilocalories of fuel to produce!

40,000 kilocalories, translated into horsepower, is equivalent to the labor provided in one day by 150 draft horses. It is as if ten billion draft horses were constantly toiling to feed the sixty million inhabitants of France. All of the Earth's farmlands and pastures would not be enough to feed such a herd - and that's just France, which, with its modern oil based agricultural "teams", has created one of the most intensive forms of agriculture possible! END BOX

France is not alone on this path; we, in the West, have converted a significant portion of the Earth's surface into a gigantic agricultural egosystem that is entirely dependent on finite resources, a luxury we will not be able to afford much longer.

It occurred to me that Gustave must think fondly of the city dwellers, for they are the ones who keep it all going for him. They build the manufacturing plants, run the engineering schools, hold strategy sessions to promote the aggressive use of chemicals, and find solutions to the impossible. Nevertheless, I knew that farmers often complain about their financial situations, despite the widely held assertion that the methods of modern agriculture make farming much less risky than before. What more can Man and Nature give Gustave? Does he expect insurance from the gods?

The cows and oxen of yesteryear provided less than a hundredth of the power that is hitched to Gustave's wagons now! They were sentient beings who seldom even fell ill. No engineering was required to exploit their labor. They needed no spare parts. Self-contained, they required only themselves and some tender care. They did not spit fire, fouling the air with noxious fumes. Of course, back then, the work was harder and the oxen, cows, and horses required a little more personal attention than do tractors or drums of mosquito spray.

Like the rest of us, Gustave is not conscious of the fact that he belongs to an industrialized world that has been drugged by easy energy. The power of this drug is so strong that none of us can live without it. In our delirium, we use ergamines in quantities that are beyond wasteful, without giving it a thought. Gustave the farmer is only one oil addict among many millions of others.

I watched Gustave for a long time. Finally he stopped his machine and I was able to exchange a few words with him. I was relieved to see there was a human being inside that giant tractor! As I was telling him how interested I was in his work, I noticed another person at the far end of the field and asked who he was. Gustave answered:

"That guy? Oh, he lives alone over there near his field with only two cows for company. He doesn't participate in agribusiness. He's crazy, in fact! He wanted to keep farming just as his parents had done before him. But soon the city people stopped coming for his milk; he didn't produce enough. Then they stopped coming for his butter. Then he had to sell all of his cows except the ones you see right there. When they are gone, he won't even be able to replace them, he doesn't have the money. He's living in another time! Crazy! No one goes to see him anymore."

Yes, I thought with a bitter smile. He must be crazy, of course - he does not even emit exhaust! And everyone knows that living with cows and horses will drive you mad. Gustave was not like him. Riding around on his enormous tractor, he was bursting with strength and vitality! He was wearing out his tires made of plastic - plastic like the ones for which I was responsible. In a way, Gustave was one of my customers. His egosystem was mine. Like Gustave, I was part of the very complex agricultural egosystem, which depended on the egosystems that produced trucks, tractors, fertilizers, chemicals, advertising, et cetera.

Since my visit to Gustave's fields, nothing has changed. We are all intertwined, just like the interlocking egosystems of the San Francisco Bay. France is still nothing more than a giant oil addict, reaching its tentacles into Algeria, Gabon, the Middle East - even as far as Indonesia - for drops of oil to feed its insatiable egosystems. These, in turn, reach hundreds of other tentacles beyond the country's borders to export what has been produced: cans of sauerkraut, tires, cars, cheese, planes, champagne, and guns.

And, once in a while, a kindly French tentacle reaches into an isolated African village to leave a sack of grain ...

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home