Small Things

Sharon May 31st, 2009

A while back, Kiashu had a post, in which he debunked the commonly held perception (so commonly held that people are still repeating it - Toby Hemenway repeats this claim in his recent essay “Is Food the Last Thing To Worry About?” for example) that Cuba lost almost all or half of its oil imports after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Kiashu establishes that actual oil consumption in Cuba dropped only by about 20%. 

 What is the case is that a 20% drop in oil imports caused massive disruptions in Cuban society - some of them undoubtedly because their government was full of idiots (since my government has no idiots in it, I know I’m safe from this particular problem ;-)), but also because despite the fact that there remained plenty of oil for agriculture and basic needs, the loss of a compareatively small amount of oil meant a massive allocation problem.

In the United States, we can see how small losses also add up - for example, the 1970s oil crisis was precipitated by a 5% reduction in imports - that’s all.  Those who remember the gas lines and the economic dislocation may have assumed that something much more serious occurred - 5% is very little, after all, and even in the 1970s, we had plenty of room for belt tightening, as we found when we responded.  But the economic and structural implications of a small decline were much greater than most people might have predicted. 

There are plenty of other examples of small things becoming big things.  Looking at the current mortgage crisis, I’ve seen numbers that range between 6-9% of mortgages may have been “troubled” assets at the start of things (now many more mortgages are troubled, because of the crisis) - that is, it wasn’t the case that half of all those assets were bad - a small percentage was sufficient to bring down a good chunk of the global economy, simply because there was so little resilience in the system.

The food crisis was precipitated by a comparatively slight tightening of world grain supplies - overall, about 10% of the world’s grain harvest disappeared into fuel tanks, pushing almost a billion people back into poverty, and adding millions to the rolls of the starving. 

I’m hardly the first person to notice this, but it is important to note that complex systems tend to create situations where reverbations from small disruptions become extremely vast.  Which means that analyses of our absolute capacity, or waste in the system, don’t always help us.  That is, when people sit down and say “but the US produces X amount of oil each year and that’s sufficient for these four or five essential  projects” - that is indeed true.  It just isn’t all of the story. 

 Or when we observe that 25% of food or energy is completely wasted - that’s true, and much can be done to reduce waste.  But a waste free society has never been achieved, at least on this scale - that is, there will always be losses, there will always be failures and wastage - and when you get close to the systems’ limits in any respect, small losses can become large.  I think Gail the Actuary articulated this best when she said,

“I’ve discovered when you say, “There may not be medications”, I get a lot of arguments that this is the highest use, so of course we would have medications, even if we had nothing else. Also, if I say there may not be plastics, someone believes that since they take such a small share of the petroleum, surely they will be spared. And so on.”

The reality of our situation is that whatever balance we eventually strike in a world of shortfalls, we are likely to leave some needs - probably many needs - inadequately met.  There will always be competing priorities, many of them compelling, many of them compelling to those in power. 

All of which makes the IEA’s report on the decline of energy investment more disturbing - the IEA had already predicted substantial declines, with adequate investment - now we get confirmation of what many of us had already expected - that adequate investment is simply not occurring.   They also confirm that if the economy does recover, we are likely to see another high oil price spike - and probably another economic crisis, in response, if the work of James Hamilton and others are correct.  That is, it may no longer possible to grow in any meaningful sense.

Will this cause structural problems?  I don’t know the answer.  But I do think that the public discourse must include the recognition that it doesn’t require a large dislocation, a vast decline, in order to create a crisis.  Even small things matter.

 Sharon

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12 Responses to “Small Things”

  1. Theresaon 31 May 2009 at 10:23 am

    This is a point I try to get across to my managers at work when I tell them of the consequences of some of the changes they are planning in our department. They think these consequences are trivial and therefore will have little effect on the big picture (and that I should stop making a big deal about it). They are very wrong, but they absolutely do not see how a small change in large system will exponentially ripple throughout it and shake its foundations. There are systems everywhere poised to fail, that’s for certain.

  2. Interesting. I had not heard that Cuba lost only 20% of its oil after the Soviet Union collapsed. Thank you for correcting my understanding of that issue.

    More and more these days it is brought home to me that those who are not deeply worried about the near future are simply not paying attention.

  3. Heronon 31 May 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Good information and perspective check.

    When I read a similar article recently, declaring that food wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. because we export and waste so much now, a shakedown would still leave plenty at home, I hoped that not too many would take that reasoning seriously.

    That position struck me as so much whistling in the dark - hunger and starvation obviously being one of our prime human fears, and food being a prime way we comfort ourselves whatever the circumstance, we can’t really bear to think seriously about not having food or much hope of getting it.

    Food production isn’t rocket science, but it’s a steep learning curve for anyone who didn’t inherit the knowledge and skills directly from the forebearers. Anyone who has ever started to garden for food knows the many failure that must be borne before substantial production occurs.

    And many of my own failures in that area occurred with access to bags of soils and amendments and mulches, trays of already-thriving plants from the nursery (try starting all your plants from seed and see how you do the first few times, even in these days of grow lights–organic or not, warming pads, etc.), jars of slow-release fertilizer, and cheap, plentiful water from the garden hose. When I failed, I could just shrug and go back to the nursery for more plants, or try again next year. When the home composting project didn’t turn into that black gold soil I envisioned, I could just go buy a few bags of compost or composted manure. Our agricultural failures are so easy to fix when they’re oil-fed hobbies.

    Booting up to sustainability in a situation of crisis and diminished resources will be an entirely different matter.

    Sure, we have lots of gardeners in the land, but how does the competence and infrastructure for growing petunias or hostas or a couple of tomato plants morph in a growing season to food sustainability? It doesn’t.

    And then, how can we make these comforting assumptions about the ease of growing food on demand without factoring in the unknown, but clearly not good and potentially catastrophic, agricultural effects of climate change, short term and mid term?

    The dustbowl of the Great Depression days, the much worse Irish potato famine…there are numerous stories that should be cautionary tales against any cavalier assumptions that food is easy, that, like the rising of the sun, we’ve got it today and therefore must have it tomorrow.

    I don’t actually have a personal forecast about how quickly and widespread food system collapse will be in a persistent oil collapse. But I know just enough about food, and about hunger, to be respectful - like I’m respectful of skunks, porcupines and fire ants - of fragility and challenge of food supply in either a complex or simple world.

    A few of the Peak Oil luminaries are scornful or dismissive of the various strategies to prepare for a food supply collapse of any sort. I consider that attitude a failure of imagination and/or that old personal need to whistle in the dark over the idea of trying to sleep on an increasingly empty stomach.

    To the idea that focusing on food risk mitigation distracts us from working on more important/likely types of collapse, I ask who is willing to take the risk of making food supply a lower priority.

    If the labor pool (me, you, the neighbor, the farmer 10 miles out, the community leader) is out of food, how will we effectively put into play whatever strategies we developed (instead of food strategies) for the other systems (health care, transportation, or whatever we deemed more important/likely to fail?

    I think our intuition, or plain survival reflex, will cause most of us to keep food supply high on our priority list anyway, no matter who encourages us to skip that, or who belittles that preparation with a pat on the head — store whatever makes you feel comfy dear, but it’s not really necessary.

    That’s a good thing, that our survival instincts should guide us, because I’m with Sharon. It’s the small things that make us successful or cause our demise.

    The pure oxygen in the space capsule that burned up three astronauts as a result of a small spark during a simple communication test. The faulty O ring on a freezing day in Florida, and the group-think of the decision makers that everything would be ok for launch because well, it always was, and it had to be.

    It doesn’t take much to take down the system. It takes a lot of care and planning to keep it working when the a small wrench is thrown into the system.

  4. steve from virginiaon 31 May 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Excellent and timely topic and overhung with uncertanty …

    My understanding of the Cuba situation is limited but I do recall when the Soviets collapsed Cuba lost most of its foreign exchange so they could not buy very much on overseas markets. Part of this was resulting from the US embargo which became much tighter after the USSR dissolved. It was only after Europeans began vacationing in Cuba in large numbers - and spending hard cash - that the Cuban economy got off its knees. In the interim, there were indeed allocation problems, the country needed electricity, that was a fuel priority. Cuba also needed spare parts for its Soviet trucks and tractors which could not be had even with money. It was a lack of spare parts that caused problems. Another was that Cuban agriculture was USA- style ‘corporate monoculture’ - sugar and tobacco plantations - for foreign exchange that system had to be ‘turned on a dime’ toward local vegetable production instead.

    I can’t see American grain plantations being turned into smaller cash- crop permaculture farms with less than a violent revolution.

    A 20% cut would be a heavy burden in a limited command economy where there is no consumer segment with a lot of waste to re- allocate. Even before the Soviet meltdown the Cuban economy was not flexible. Cuba had very small currency reserves and no banking system. The Soviet collapse made a bad situation worse.

    Good situation - fair situation - poor situation - bad situation - horrible situation - catastrophic situation. I suppose these have to be taken in order - we are in the fair to poor situation with bad upcoming. How soon? I don’t know but the recovery is a chimera. Costs matter. Energy prices increasing an order of magnitude in less than ten years - and average price 300% in ten years - tells me that Peak oil is a thing of the past. What does this mean for food?

    It means basic cereals will become expensive again and probably pretty soon. If there are spikes then the same sorts of foreign exchange problems that arose in 2008 will reappear.

    I dunno about the gardens. Americans aren’t close to the land like the grandparents. Suburban soils are rotten to horrible. Some areas are contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Gardens also require permanent gardener presence which may be in short supply as jobs continue to evaporate and people migrate. Better I think to focus the minds of politicians on food distribution until the gardening approach can be sorted out.

  5. Karinon 31 May 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Thankyou yet again for a much needed kick in the pants.The scenario you portray in this essay is not decades away. It can happen very quickly.

    Timely and needed.

  6. Alanon 01 Jun 2009 at 1:56 am

    Yes, Americans (and other denizens of the “developed world”) are — mostly — not very good gardeners, especially without access to supplies of plant starts, commercial compost and fertilizer, and municipal water. All the more reason to get cracking and learn!

    And, if reports are to be believed, Americans are food-gardening in much larger numbers than at any time in recent memory. Good on us. More of us are paying attention. That’s good news.

  7. knutty knitteron 01 Jun 2009 at 6:21 am

    I think we are doing a preview right now in this house hold. Its a good thing I did store what I could because there won’t be anything else till next week at the earliest. (slight hiatus in jobs)

    As for growing stuff I hope to have a better garden next season. We did keep ourselves in salad greens this year which is a start and I do know how to garden although its not my favourite occupation. I prefer orchards really but we only have space for about 6 trees here.

    I remember the 70s well. I think some limitation will be ok but the trouble will come when those limitations keep on keeping on and getting worse. I’m hoping that the shift will be gradual enough for things to change step wise instead of the big cliff. However I’m not holding my breath because people have a habit of using things right to the end. Think of the passenger pigeon. There were billions at one time but the hunters said “There are millions out there.” and kept on hunting until there really were none left. The last one died in a zoo of old age.

    That could be us too if we continue to over exploit everything.

    viv in nz

  8. Mark Non 01 Jun 2009 at 6:30 am

    “And I agree: growing food is simple. ” - from the Toby Hemenway article.

    Maybe growing corn or soybeans is simple…with modern agrochemicals and mechanized industrial farming methods. So, maybe we could all easily maintain a steady diet of high fructose corn syrup and soy products until the oil runs out. I happen to like organically-grown fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts, though. Is a forest garden simple?

    Real, nutritious and natural food is not simple to grow…at least from my experience.

  9. deweyon 01 Jun 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I am not worried about whether city soil has “toxic chemicals or heavy metals” in it. Sure, if your house was build downwind of a lead mine your produce may be toxic enough to make you ill, but otherwise, not likely. Here we have all these home gardeners testing their soil and clucking over every atom in it - who convinced them to do this and who benefits from their FUD? We have no way of knowing whether the fields on which corporate foods’ raw materials were grown have been similarly tested at all, much less what the results were, and no right to go take independent samples. Let’s not be stampeded away from improved nutrition and food security by people whose interests is to convince us that corporate soil just has to be safer than our own, no matter how chemical-soaked it may be.

  10. Lynnon 02 Jun 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Hi Sharon, the link for Kiashu is expired - could you tell us the title of the article and ballpark date? thanks, Lynn

  11. Andrewon 07 Jun 2009 at 8:44 am

    I agree that small things can have large impacts - especially when it comes to food supply.

    I live in Canada, and am currently (June 7) experiencing a snowstorm (which is a little unusual). This is my example of a small change in my food supply - with such a short growing season to start with, little events like this can wipe out a number of my growing beds.

    We often forget to think in terms of time - that situations and outcomes have a time line. Perhaps this is one of the downsides to the instant on, always on, virtual worlds we live in (like this blog response).

    One big drought in the US prairie states, combined with some failures in irrigation distribution, and the wheat production drops in one season. Prices rise, shortages occur and the system starts again from a crisis state for the next growing season.

  12. Small Things « Transition Chicago (TC)on 09 Jun 2009 at 12:30 pm

    […] Small Things by Sharon Astyk http://sharonastyk.com […]

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