Unsustainability of sustainability


Kids don’t like to work—at least the physical kind of work. That became painfully clear this weekend, when I asked my two boys to straighten up a pile of two-by-fours. Between smirking, jokes, dropping boards and just generally silly behaviour, the work took far too long and the pile ended up in the wrong spot.

This isn’t their problem of course, it’s mine. All kids—not just mine—need to be taught to do real work, and to have it backed up with regular routines or schedules. Homework needs to get done. Bedrooms need to be cleaned, tables cleared, dishes done, and lawns mowed.

I’m not sure if modern parents think that it’s unfashionable to have their kids learn how to do manual labour, or whether there are just too many distractions for parents and kids. Answering e-mail and keeping up Facebook pages take up the extra hours after school and after work and getting meals on the table. Who has time to micro-manage a child’s work routine? Isn’t it enough that little Justin and Jessica are getting good grades and mom can actually find a path across their bedroom floor? Besides there’s soccer, dance class, music lessons and karate—not to mention sleepovers and birthday parties with their friends.

There’s a reason why I’m puzzling over this. Within 40 years or so, our kids will be running out of fossil fuel. And that’s a daunting problem, which needs to be solved now rather than later. As one begins to think about the problem, the tougher the problem—or problems—get.

For example, in our modern agricultural economy it takes 9 to 10 (kilo)calories of fossil fuel to grow a single (kilo)calorie of food. So to put that into perspective, a tiny town of 2000 people needs about 3.5 million (kilo)calories a day—every day—to survive. That means they currently use up 35 million (kilo)calories of fossil fuel each day getting food on the table. In other words, it takes about 1130 gallons of gasoline—or almost 27 barrels of oil—to feed that small town every day.

I guess that half a gallon of gasoline per person per day doesn’t sound too excessive. Except that there’s a ridiculous amount of energy in a gallon of gas. Dr. David Pimentel, one of the academics concerned about our future without oil, calculates that the energy contained in one gallon of gas translates into one human agricultural labourer working for three weeks in the fields.

So, let’s go back to that small town of 2000 people. If they were depending on labourers instead of gasoline to get fed, they’d each require 10 farm workers to raise their food each and every day. In other words, our modern agriculture system is so inefficient it would take 20,000 workers—if oil were to vanish—to feed just 2000 people. When one factors in the agricultural harnessing of fossil fuel, it’s no wonder that the planet has undergone a human population explosion.

Given that all of us are adverse to hard physical labour, how in the world do we expect to grow our own food if and when fossil fuel gets scarce? Well, it’s not a future problem at all. It’s a problem right now. Here’s what Professor Heather MacLeod at St. Mary’s University in Halifax e-mailed me just today:

“Its amazing how unsustainable agriculture is in Canada in so many ways—including labour, with 15,000 Mexicans coming to the country every year to plant and harvest the fields. Nova Scotia farmers are worried the swine flu precautions may prevent the Mexicans from arriving in the next week or so to help on their farms. Apparently they are paid $9 an hour and work an 80-hour week to make as much money as possible before leaving. There just aren't enough local people interested in doing this work. What a crazy world. You can buy local food but the labour to produce that food has come from 4,000 miles away.

“Another concern here is the high cost of fertilizer, which is leading some Annapolis Valley farmers to use sewage sludge on their soil instead—which has traces of all the chemicals that make their way through the sewage system—nasty stuff to put on precious soil. The downside of Halifax now having a sewage treatment plant is that we have sewage sludge marketed to farmers as fertilizer.”

I suppose there’s faint comfort in knowing I’m not alone in this human energy relative to sustainability thought. But how exactly does one deconstruct 100 years of fossil fuel-driven technology? Good question, and one posed by a great documentary ‘A Crude Awakening, The Oil Crash’. Just about every aspect of the coming oil crisis is laid out—including how great a challenge it will be to replace oil.

We’re all aware by now that our enormous consumption of energy is the main contributor to the atmospheric build up of greenhouse gases, which scientists predict will lead to massive climate change within the lifetimes of our children. One has to wonder how the spike in fossil fuel consumption actually affects the spike in world population growth and the subsequent spike in greenhouse gases. If we start running out of fossil fuel in 40 or 50 years, will the human population begin to crash as well? And how about greenhouse gases? Will these too begin to decline dramatically, triggering an ice age in a hundred years or so? Who knows?

Case in point, who would have predicted the recent financial meltdown five years ago?

But I have to say that I find the whole subject of food somewhat ironic. I mean, today food is so inexpensive we’re awash in the stuff. Our garbage dumps are full of our leftovers. We—along with our neighbours and kids—fight the battle of the bulge on a daily basis. Weight loss regimes, diet pill makers and fitness franchises are making a fortune on us. Yet here I am, worrying about the future of our food supply.

Undoubtedly, there’s a lot we don’t know about the future. But, if we don’t change our habits soon, and begin to actively plan for a fossil-fuel-free future, our kids and grandkids are very likely to find out the hard way—in the form of extremely demanding physical labour. And a whole lot more.


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