Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Go East, Young Man

An op-ed in Saturday's New York Times argues that agriculture will have to move back East - back to its original places, like the long lost and delicious potatoes of Maine - in order to replace decreasing agricultural production out West due to depletion of water aquifers and declining levels of rainfall. There can be little doubt that this is right: not only will farming have to move back East, but it seems ever more evident that the patterns of population settlement of the 1970s-2000's will eventually have to be reversed. Life in areas of the nation that seemed cheap and attractive due to a blowout party of peak oil production - the Arizona's and Nevada's in the West, Florida's and Texas's in the South and Southwest - will actually become more expensive to maintain than life in those Eastern regions that were abandoned in droves. Cheap energy of the 1980s especially made these regions, with abundant unsettled land, remarkably cheap: pumping in water and running the air conditioners full time still didn't detract from the inexpensiveness and apparent liberty of life in the desert or the swamp. Creating vast desert cities of pumped in water and artificially created cool air was like a big middle finger to Mother Nature - Up Yours! We can build anywhere we Damn Well Please.

However, with oil prices now 20% away from $100 a barrel and geologists, analysts and the head of the International Energy Agency predicting a future of constrained supplies, the future of these regions is dubious. People won't abandon these areas with alacrity: they've invested too much in the illusion of a future in these unsustainable regions. However, as prices continue to rise and people begin to feel poorer and poorer, they will look at the depressed housing costs and lower cost of living in some of the regions of the East and will make the logical decision of a consumer - move back. (At a political science conference I attended last Spring in Las Vegas, the cab driver who drove me to the airport told me that life was getting too expensive and he was considering a move to ... North Carolina). Those who get out early may have some hope of selling their houses to the last fool. Those who wait will find that it's too late: their towns will have begun to look like the old Western mining towns, tumbleweeds and all. It may be that buying a foreclosed house or two in the Rust Belt could be a very good investment (consult your financial advisor!).

The article bothers me, however, and points to the problem of viewing our future of limits through the lens of a specialist. The authors - professors of Atmospheric Science - assure us that agriculture in the East makes sense because its products can be used to replace the parched crops of the West and additionally provide sources for bio-fuels. In short, we can continue to do business as usual. What they don't note is that a world of declining overall resources - especially petroleum - will translate into a world of declining and more expensive food stores (anyone bought milk or wheat products lately?). It's likely we will face a hard decision - do we eat or do we drive - and I'm betting that it will be the former. The authors also seem to assume that we can do the same kind of farming in the East that's done in the West. Now, I'm no farmer, but I'm willing to bet that one of the reasons that farming moved to the West in the first place was because it's easier to undertake industrial farming using large machinery on the flatter and broader land of the desert. Eastern land is rolling, hilly, broken by ravines, gulleys, streams and valleys, and hemmed in by higher densities of population. Farming is presumably less efficient - more needs to be done by hand or with smaller machines. So, it seems to me a matter of wishful thinking to assume that we can just replace whatever we lose by moving back East.

But, in the end we won't have a choice: a move away from our temporary Western fantasy will be necessitated by the need for more plentiful water and the sustainable land. We won't produce as much as easily, and more of us will necessarily be engaged in the business of producing our food. I think this is ultimately a good thing, but not for the reasons that the authors of this article suppose.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that much of the land in the East is already under cultivation (more than half of Ohio, about 2/3 of Indiana, and 3/4 of Illinois, the flattest states with the best soil). Even Pennsylvania and New York are currently 25% farmland, and Virginia and Maryland are 33%. One nice thing about the East is how it has reforested, and that will be gone if eastern states increase farming a great deal. Maybe shifting from energy production (corn for ethanol) to food production will make up in part for less farming in the areas fed by the Ogalala aquifer and from the Central Valley of California, but overall, I agree with you that it won't be easy to produce as much food here in the East.

One negative effect for small scale, local farming, might be that if farming moves East, it would drive up the cost of farmland, making it more likely that small farmers would sell to cash in, and making it more likely that farms would be used to grow commodities (corn, wheat), just like in the Great Plains, rather than the produce that sustains farmers markets and seems to be a point of emphasis for "Crunchy Cons." On the other hand, maybe that would lead more people to grow their own gardens more.

Robert said...

"It's likely we will face a hard decision - do we eat or do we drive - and I'm betting that it will be the former."

Isn't the more likely choice we'll face, "do others eat or do we (I) drive"? If so, I'm not sure the odds favor your bet.