I stumbled on the term “agrocollapse” in fairly typical fashion. Collapse is a concept drawing a lot of attention and discussion these days…and just as we’ve built out a lot of words by putting the word “agro” in front of them (agroforestry, agroindustry, etc.), agrocollapse seemed like a compelling and worthwhile concept.
What really set me forward on the concept, however, was when I attended a sustainable agriculture conference in November of 2012. As is often the case at these events, many familiar faces and old hands were in attendance. The topic was “How to Feed 9 Billion”. The agenda was surprisingly tame: soil ecology, improved grazing management, plant breeding, fruit tree production, and the like. Few of the presenters addressed the really tough questions, like What happens to sustainable ag as fossil fuel depletion continues? Why aren’t we feeding 100 million people using these techniques now, instead of talking about 9 billion? How can we really do any of the things we’re talking about on the scale we’re imagining when most of the land is in the hands of the top 1%? None of these questions were on the agenda. After all, we wouldn’t want to make people think too hard, and we certainly wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
The one presenter who did address the issue of land reform was from Latin America; of course, the circumstance would require a latino to feel culturally comfortable with the topic, as land reform has been a powerful revolutionary force in Latin America for at least 100 years. For him, the topic is not so taboo as it is here in the United States.
As the conference progressed, I began in private conversations to press people about my concerns. Why aren’t we talking about these things? After all of our technical achievements over the years, why aren’t we providing for a greater portion of the nation’s food supply? Do we really believe that we’ll just gradually win, because our way is better, and we will just replace industrial agriculture with sustainable agriculture, the same way one replaces an old pair of shoes with a new pair? Inevitably, the response that I got was generally the same: sooner or later, the industrial agricultural model is going to collapse. And be replaced by what? By us, who barely have the man-power and the land to feed 30 million people? And what will happen to our movement as the beating heart of our country’s food supply implodes? Will we even have the fuel to get our products to market? Are we preparing ourselves for the collapse of the industrial food system, so that our own systems have the resilience to continue during the collapse of the industrial model and beyond?
These questions, I came to realize, are the questions of the agrocollapse. It is frightening and alarming that the general public is not grappling with the great dilemmas of our time; it is downright Apocalyptic that even the sustainable agriculture community is not able to do so.
My own construction of agrocollapse is multi-faceted: it is a set of scenarios for thinking about the future, a series of data points from the present to improve our understanding, and perhaps most importantly, it is a developing set of strategies for thriving under difficult circumstances.
But it is also a process underway in the real world, one that runs parallel to the slow and step-wise decline of industrial civilization as it slides down the slope of energy descent. Agrocollapse is not a simultaneous global catastrophe, and it is certainly not something that occurs in isolation from the many other social, economic, political, and natural forces that shape our world. It is driven by financial collapse, peak oil, climate change, war, and social revolution; therefore, much like climate change and peak oil, it impacts different groups differently at different times.
Some may benefit, at least temporarily, from its effects. Just as oil companies benefit from price spikes associated with peak production, and hedge funds benefit from rampant speculation and volatility in collapsing financial markets, so too do industrial agricultural producers benefit from high commodity prices resulting from similar phenomena. Others may be devastated by its effects, like the rancher or pastoralist who is is forced to cull and destock the herd as a result of climate disruption and drought.
The pace of agrocollapse, and collapse in general, will be tempered by global connectivity and massive investments in maintaining the status quo; many have argued that the former is a vulnerability of the current system, but in fact global connectivity has acted as a buffer against localized collapse. After a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, aid poured into the country, unevenly and marred by bungling and corruption, to be sure, but the flow of resources certainly helped to mitigate the worst effects of the disaster. The case is similar around the world: a desert community imports fossil fuels to run electric pumps during years of drought (Phoenix), refugees of seasonal floods are provided with tents, food, and medicine (Staten Island). Manufactured goods, energy, and human resources move around the world at amazing speeds and with incredible efficiency; thus the pace of collapse is slow and uneven, straining our resources, which spurs our descent, but never quite resulting in immediate and global Armageddon.
The questions of the agrocollapse will be the main theme of this blog moving forward. If we think, and plan, and prepare, perhaps we will preserve the vital elements of permaculture, and some critical manufactured technologies, so that our children and grandchildren will inherit a world that is livable and comfortable, and their society will be one that is aware of our history and the greatest elements of our cultural legacy. This is our task.