Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, September 01, 2008

Democracy and the end of cheap oil

by Grace Lee Boggs

Special to The Michigan Citizen (August 20 2008)

The shift from an industrialized to an agrarian economy, mandated by the end of cheap oil, will not only slow down global warming. Our food will be safer to eat and our society more democratic, according to a paper by Maynard Kaufman presented at the recent Green Party convention in Chicago.

That's why we should "actively affirm this as an agrarian revival, and not just wait in a passive way for it to happen. If we affirm it, we can plan for it - and for the recovery of democracy."

"The average family of four that buys its food", Kaufman points out, "uses more energy in the food they buy than in the car they drive. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal (for electricity), along with oil and natural gas, has long been recognized as a source of air pollution with acid rain.

"Other environmental impacts of the industrial food system include soil erosion, wasteful use of water, run-off from excessive fertilizer use, manure pollution in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Most of these costs are 'externalized' into the environment, not included in the price.

"Thus food is cheap in America because many costs are externalized. The annual subsidy of $39 billion dollars to the oil industry is not included in the price of food. And the cost of war to secure access to oil is also externalized to be paid by our children."

Industrial civilization has also "facilitated the transfer of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Already in 2000 the top one percent of Americans had as much disposable income as the bottom 100 million, or 35%.

Thus "the United States is more of a plutocracy than a democracy".

"We lost our democracy when we were trained to be good consumers of what the industrial food system produced. And as long as we had energy slaves to provide our food, we did not worry about it. Now we face a new situation as the spike in energy prices creates new threats and opens new political possibilities.

Thomas Jefferson promoted this possibility but it was gradually over-shadowed by a culture based on manufacturing.

The end of cheap oil re-opens this possibility.

"Rising food prices are already stimulating more people to raise their own or seek local farmer's markets which are popping up in every town.

"Still another aspect of an agrarian culture will be organic methods of food production, working in harmony with nature".

"An agrarian economy ... will be a society with a great deal more informal economic activity ... It would very likely get us off the treadmill of economic growth and into a steady-state society".

An agrarian society would be a good place or a Eutopia, according to Paul Gilk, Wisconsin Green activist in his new book, Green Politics is Eutopian (2008). A utopian society is no place in that it is not grounded in a natural context but exists as a man-made imposition of abstract and conceptual mental patterns on the natural environment. By contrast, a village (or city) that is rooted in the natural environment is a real place where people raise food with organic methods and live in harmony with nature.

One of Gilk's special concerns is the status of women as we move into an agrarian way of life. In past agrarian societies work was often gendered with women bearing the brunt of drudgery. If feminism can remain strong in a post-petroleum society, sexist discrimination may be mitigated. More efficient and appropriate technology might also be helpful.

Maynard Kaufman is a retired professor of religion and environmental studies. While teaching at Western Michigan University in the 1970s, he became a back-to-the-land part-time farmer so that his students could experience self-sufficiency and harmony with their environment. In 1991 his involvement in the organic movement led him to organize Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance as a state-wide group promoting local organic food and farming. Organic farming does not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Thus it uses thirty percent less fossil fuel energy. Organic fertilizers also reduce carbon emissions because they sequester carbon in the soil.

Bill Totten


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