Culture Change e-Letter #72
of materialism, and implications for our future in
the post-petroleum reality
The end of false progress
by Jan Lundberg
- What will be the alternative to today's consumerism and
fear of material insecurity? This essay looks toward the next
mainstream culture: Life after petroleum-culture collapse. To help
explain today's lack of preparation for fundamental change, we
examine historical practices particularly in Europe. This installment
focuses on the history of food production vis-à-vis political power
Not only has petroleum become an essential component of diet for modern
societies, petroleum has also allowed people to separate themselves from the
land that feeds them. With petroleum instead of humans and animals doing
so much work to produce and distribute food, the direct skills and relationships
have gotten rusty. Thus, new structures of land ownership have emerged,
such as the agribusiness tracts of monocrops and toxicity that eliminate
participation by masses of people.
Semi-abundant food-supply for a large population in a
degraded ecosystem is a hope of those considering “new” or unusual sources
of food and materials. For example, seaweed, acorns and hempseeds could
help feed untold thousands of people who today are relying on fossil-fueled
factory farms for (polluting and unhealthful) meat and animal products. Those who are
already eating plenty of grain, beans and green vegetables are not far removed
nutritionally and psychologically from eating a lot of seaweed, acorns and hempseeds.
During today's age of separation from food production, the social and
political control of the masses has been refined and advanced. Order will
break down when urban people scramble to seize or produce food on land they don't
own. Although the land could feed many of them sustainably if Permaculture
were implemented, the lack of preparation indicates upheaval and die-off ahead.
If we stipulate that such “unorthodox” foods are edible and proven as
staples, it is just a matter of commencing their “production” or collection –
the sooner the better. Knowledge is key and can resurrect traditions to
assure palatability and efficiency.
We cannot include in the aforementioned diet the staple that was salmon.
Perhaps it can sill return in abundant numbers, but too many spawning streams have been
trashed by roads and related activity. Overfishing and pollution have
taken their toll as well.
If only the end of the 1990s had featured the planting of fruit and nut trees
all over urban and suburban areas throughout the petroleum-dependent
world. By now the trees would be bearing well and offering some food-security.
However, it is illegal in many cities to
plant food-bearing plants and trees along roads, and parks don't offer very
useful trees either –– yet.
Wisdom of cultivation and the subeconomy
Alongside the measurable market economy there has always been
undetectable "informal other half of economic activity, the world of
self-sufficiency and barter of goods and services within a very small radius...
even in industrialized countries." [historian Fernand Braudel]. But
no matter how creative people may be, the local environment eventually must
provide the great majority of the source of life-giving resources. In a
petroleum-free economy, such as France three hundred years ago, three or four
acres of very local cultivable land were required to support one adult, allowing
for crop rotation. Almost two hundred years ago in America one man, H. D.
Thoreau, managed on one and a half acres.
Under Europe's conditions in the late Middle Ages it was usual for bread or a kind of grain to be half a
family's food budget. Although grains fed many, it
also implied slavery, as the dependence resulted in famine from time to time.
On top of the vagaries of nature and farming, the market was an instrument of
oppressive greed that hurt the many.
One of the few times in the Middle
Ages in Europe that life wasn't tough for the peasants was the period after the
Black Death because of helpful depopulation. In today's modern conditions,
despite all our "progress", once people
are forced to embrace life after WalMart, after Safeway, after Shell, etc., an
agricultural solution for a community might mean the return of a person
typically subsisting on bread or a grain for half the diet.
Alternatives to civilization
Although people now feel comfortable with the idea of civilization
for their whole lives, whether they love it or feel stuck with it, we should
keep in mind that civilization's grain-production basis is not the only way
people have lived. Indeed, it is very recent in human experience.
The rice field that developed in south China thousands of years ago became a
factory and the basis of empire. During this development the
non-cultivated areas were left to a full biological diversity, but this
co-existence eventually came to an end as humans and civilization encroached
everywhere. As long as we are being critical, let us ask: Why would
we only want to imagine going back to the Middle Ages? There are easier
ways of living off the land, if people are allowed to pursue them – involving
more choice than whether to pursue livestocking. After Petroleum Collapse,
more options be possible because the global economy will be almost entirely
gone, and depopulation will also lend itself to limited foraging.
Some people will get through their days by forcing themselves to drive harnessed
animals, to the near exclusion of almost any other human activity. In contrast,
some areas rich in acorns will again support sustainable human populations, as
was the case in the Peloponnese in ancient Greece. In ancient Mexico
cultivation of corn was so easy that it provided the basis of their diet at a
cost of only working one day in seven or eight, according to the season.
However, it will be impossible for the whole overpopulated North American
continent, for example, to all go back to the land for subsistence.
Today people are conditioned to not want what they may soon crave after the
petroleum facade crashes: they will want productive, healthy land and waters.
However, for several hundred years the dominant culture has looked down upon
those who relied upon the hoe rather than the plow, and even lower at the bottom in
Europeans' notions of respect were the savages who lived (more easily) by
gathering plants, hunting and fishing. Modern peoples are taught,–– in
order to keep them in line as productive workers –– to view natural areas as
The precursor of the ultimate worker/consumer society –– the European system
of hierarchy –– bestowed upon modern people the notion that hierarchy is
inevitable and that its raison d'être socially is to enjoy luxury. The
trouble is, an imbalance of essential needs amongst a population creates
the basis of unnecessary shortages. The shortages and catastrophes became
necessary by virtue of attitudes and maintaining high populations for generating
the elite's wealth. "Living standards are always a question of the
number of people and the total resources at their disposal." [Braudel]
Red meat, plagues, material culture
From the mid 14th century until sometime in the 18th century, Europe was
plagued by frequent diseases whose pandemics decimated the population,
especially the poor. During this period, and before, disasters of crop
failure were all too frequent as well. The same means of
population-reduction happened for centuries in other civilized/long-cultivated
lands such as China and India, and these factors did not abate in those eastern
lands as soon as they did in modern Europe.
Rather than argue how sustainable all these mostly agrarian societies were, or
at what point overpopulation needed a correction the hard way, we can agree that
the long experience of much deprivation and massive die-offs shaped peoples
worldviews. Such that, when famine and plague nearly disappeared in
"advanced societies" with the
rise of technology and the spread of industrial power, people came to imagine there has
been great progress –– despite deforestation, the loss of the commons, the
yoke of capitalism –– so we now cannot even think about "going back."
The illusion of sustainable industrial culture is a key issue, but also
something to argue elsewhere as we have done in many Culture Change Letters.
During the same period of pre-Renaissance until the Industrial Revolution,
Europe had the further example of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie each proving
to the masses of people that affluence and private property has its advantages.
More than advantages was the perception that wealth, material gain, manipulation
of nature, abandoning tribal and community ties, and other trends in ways of
living offered security and social acceptance. The commons were enclosed,
factories started to displace rural peoples and force them into cities.
John Trudell, native American poet, has pointed out that when the European
invasion of the Americas occurred, white people had lost their tribal
connections centuries ago and had been persecuted for not being pious enough as
doctrinaire Christians. As David Kubrin wrote in "Dead on Arrival:
The Fate of Nature in the Scientific Revolution," folk medicines, the power
of women and the "magic of the woods" were destroyed as much as possible in order
for the emerging ruling order to consolidate power and control the masses. (see
Kubrin's Culture Change magazine article http://www.culturechange.org/issue20/deadonarrival.htm).
Consider the major delusion that die-off is behind us: the bigger we are, the
harder we fall. And we have indeed grown very large on our petroleum diet
of huge short-term agricultural productivity. Modern people have almost all
bought into the idea of eternal gross entropy at the hands of cars, refrigerators,
computers and the like. Every self-respecting, hardworking person does not
want to think of him/herself as a polluting slave who has sold out for a little
bag of silver, but "Mother Earth and Father Sky" have been betrayed.
Institutional Science and the rest of society's propaganda machinery have told us
everything is hunky-dory or, uhh, heading for some problems that technology and
human ingenuity will just have to grapple with a little later, considering realpolitik!
Diet as a reflection of conditions and as a cause
Today’s availability for meat and animal products for the “modern
diet” extends a former upper class/conqueror prerogative. Lower
populated and often aggressive cultures that husbanded or moved herds with
success did not have to rely on the lower-protein, lower-calorie diets of vast
numbers of people toiling in agriculture.
Instead, conquerors and rulers ate what they wished with little regard to
constraints for the masses of people. In addition to living on as much meat
as they pleased, they could afford to reject the brown bran of wheat and rice
and let animals have it. The people who still ate brown grains, at the
bottom mass of the social pyramid, were also used as animals by the rich elite.
Masses of people ate no end of vegetable matter even in heavily livestocked
Europe. The elite that get the best fresh meat dined on
white bread too, and in Europe was no more than 4% of the population. So it is no
wonder the other 96% aspired to ape their oppressors and reach materialist
comfort to perhaps save themselves from misery.
This historical pattern of meat and animal products as luxuries and status-symbols – even
if common enough for certain rural folk in lower populated parts of northern Europe
– has persisted and expanded. With the advent of industrial and
consumer-convenience practices, today the world has a record number of rich or
would-be rich eating meat and animal
Not only do financially comfortable people continue their meat traditions, or
cling to the higher-pyramid social strata’s habits of meat; today’s aspiring
affluent peoples gravitate toward more meat and animal products. “Grain
used for (animal) feed in China jumped more than fivefold in the past two
decades. Since 1960, the share of Chinese grain going to livestock tripled
from 8 percent to 26 percent. In Mexico, the share jumped from 5 percent
to 45 percent over the same period…” [Worldwatch, 1998]
Reliance on meat and animal products drags down the ecological capacity of land
to provide not only maximum food for humans but to allow a large diversity of
species. About twenty times as much grain-based protein must be grown as
meat for the equivalent in protein. The effect of cattle on streams is devastating; in the U.S.,
livestock generates 130 times the waste that humans produce. Neither of
these considerations are known to masses of people getting the mainstream/public
education and ingesting corporate/government propaganda. When such people
learn of the ecological (and therefore economic) considerations, they generally
do nothing anyway to change their diets or other habits that waste land, water,
energy and air.
Reasons for inaction on the individual level are different from factors in
profit-oriented ranch-subsidy corporations’ and governments’, regarding
maintaining the status quo. Material security and clinging to notions of
success and abundance dictate that an individual or family must strive to
forever ape the affluent and the advantaged classes. “No, I will not eat
just bean sprouts and corn; give me at least a pizza with sausage or
pepperoni!” The pizza serves a minor source of some (tainted, nonorganic)
Refrigeration and freezing – high-energy processes that they are – along
with oil-fueled distribution (and preparation), allow meat and animal products
to spread and keep coming to today’s huge population. The
effect is to keep a growing, historically large segment of the population living
comfortably, at least psychologically in that the “progress” of eating
whatever one pleases for convenience, flavor and status is maintained. The
health-effects of the resultant cholesterol and toxic additives in today’s
meat and animal products, partly from just the plastic packaging’s migration
of carcinogens into food, are of little concern when it comes to either daily survival
today or glimpsing serious changes ahead affecting daily living. And besides, we are
dumb, hungry animals like most species, and are a species that can be self-herded.
The implications for (non) sustainability, apart from the delusions of true,
natural wealth being dissipated so rapidly today, are grave. Instead of
modern suburbanites growing a fair amount of food in the form of grains and
other vegetables in space used now by pavement and the biological pavement known
as lawns, the consumers forego any form of local self-sufficiency, and so will
soon starve. They
certainly will not be able to grow much food on the hoof with even their
suburban expanses until perhaps a die-off of petro-fed consumers relinquish
space for pastures and slaughter houses. Keeping chickens, however, is
anyone’s backyard option (if people could just think of living like a peasant
instead of a TV-dinner imbecile facing socioeconomic collapse).
Fish ponds also present an easy source of abundant food on a sustainable basis, if there is
an ecological design to assure productivity (e.g., through Permaculture).
[Vietnam relies successfully on fish pond aquaculture.]
The plants of civilizations – wheat, rice and maize (corn) – were and remain
the backbone of diet, even for conquerors and tycoons who depend on soldiers and
workers getting enough of those foods to expand the civilization or to greedily
milk the wealth of the land and peoples.
Overall, “progress” in the individual’s mind depends on accepting
imperialism and billionaires’ ability to “create” fortunes. How else
to explain voters' allowing predators and hogs to maintain
As long as “common people” can be bought off with meat-topped pizzas and
bedazzling technologies such as their own refrigerators, cars, DVD’s, etc.,
today’s virulent form of civilization is on a course to slam into an unmovable
wall of resource-limits. In fact, there is no time to avert the course or
slow down in time to avoid devastating impact. Fastening seat belts will
We will simply be left gazing at the shattered illusion of progress around our
feet, if we are among the lucky who are left standing. The quick will have
started running and grabbing what they can for short-term survival. The
long-term survivors will immediately start planting and depaving for more
planting, and some will remember discussions and writings on sustainability. Some will
advocate, in a lawless environment, for living without central government.
Predators and parasites from outside the community will become useless and passé,
while tools of sustainability will be welcome currency.
Note: Jan Lundberg was interviewed by National Public Radio on peak oil,
petroleum dependency, petroleum alternatives, and the post-petroleum energy
situation regarding possible lifestyles. The show was to be broadcast
Wednesday morning Aug. 25, 2004.
Sources for Culture Change Letter #72::
Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible
(volume one of Civilization and Capitalism 15th - 18th Century), Harper &
Leads World Meat Stampede: Worldwatch Institute Press
Release July 02, 1998
Worldwatch Institute's State of the World Trends and Facts:
The State of Consumption Today
The Rise and Spread of the Consumer Class
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