Sunday, February 8, 2015

Do not grow your own food

One of the major tenets of the peak oil collapse movement was that civilization will collapse and then revert to a medieval state. There will be no more electricity, gasoline, diesel, machinery, or any other conveniences of modern civilization. Instead, life will soon resemble what it was like in the 16th century. People will need to grow their own food, make tools by hand, and so on. These ideas are found throughout the works of Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler, and many, many others.

To that end, many peak oil doomers relocated to very rural areas and began growing their own food on small plots of land. Some of them also engaged in "re-skilling" which meant learning medieval crafts such as making shoes, weaving, sewing, blacksmithing, and so on. They believed (and some of them still believe) that doing so was preparation for the new medieval era which would happen after civilization collapsed from peak oil.

Some peak oilers are still doing this. Some of them are still trying to grow their own food or are considering moving to rural locations so they can grow their own food. Let me give an example from a comment I read today on peakoil.com:

I plan on buying a house in the middle of nowhere and starting to grow food there... The best way to prepare for peak oil is to grow your own food and help others grow their own food.

...and the same sentiments have been echoed thousands of times on peak oil forums. 

Unfortunately, the author of the above quotation is sadly mistaken. Growing your own food is a waste of time and is the worst way to prepare for collapse. Even if civilization were really collapsing, it would still be a waste of time to grow your own food.

Food is a about 50x cheaper now, relative to the average income, than it will be when the tractors stop running. For example, it takes a subsistence farmer about 100% of his labor to grow enough basic foodstuffs to survive, whereas it takes a modern American about 2% of his income to do the same. As a result, the rational strategy to prepare for collapse is to make as much money as possible now, and to stockpile food while it's easily obtained. You could stockpile far more food by purchasing it than you could by growing it. Furthermore, you could stockpile far more food now than you could ever hope to grow after the collapse. As a result, the best strategy is to stockpile food while it's still plentiful, not to grow it, which would be a waste of time even if civilization were collapsing.

I think the best thing to do would be to stockpile canisters of granulated sugar in some hidden remote location. Do not relocate to the hidden remote location, because that would interfere with your income and therefore with your ability to stockpile food. I would stockpile granulated sugar because it has an indefinite shelf life, is extremely cheap, is calorically dense, and could be bartered after the collapse for whatever other foods you would need. Granulated sugar would be like gold after the collapse and could be bartered for other goods.

Let's say I wanted to stockpile enough granulated sugar to provide calories for the remainder of my life. I have about 15,000 days left to live, which means I will consume (15,000*2500) 37,500,000 food calories in the remainder of my life. Since there are 4 food calories per gram of sugar, I would require 9,375,000 grams of sugar, or 9,375 kilograms, to provide enough calories for the remainder of my life. That's about 20,000 pounds of sugar, for those of us in the United States. I checked out the price of sugar at my local Sam's Club and found that it costs about $5 for a 10-pound bag. As a result, I could stockpile the 20,000 pounds of sugar I would need for approximately $10,000.

Let me repeat that fact:

I can stockpile enough food calories for the remainder of my life for $10,000.

That's about 2 months of my wages. Stockpiling food now is vastly easier than a lifetime of horrendous toil after the collapse.

Obviously, I can't live on sugar alone, but I could barter sugar for whatever other foods I would need. After the collapse, it will be calories that are in short supply. Sugar will be like gold. I could barter some of my sugar for other foods that provide the micronutrients I need. Let other people do the farming and back-breaking labor. Or, if I preferred, I could also stockpile some canned vegetables since vegetables are far cheaper now (relative to my income) than they will be after the collapse.

There is another advantage of stockpiling food rather than growing it. If the collapse prophecies fail, yet again, for the 50th time, then I've lost almost nothing. I spent $10,000 on sugar, and maybe also some money on canned vegetables, but it's still a fairly minor financial loss. By stockpiling food, I can continue living in a normal area and won't waste years or decades of my life preparing for a collapse that doesn't occur.

In short, growing your own food is the worst way of preparing for collapse, for two reasons. First, food is about 50x cheaper now (relative to the average income) than it will be after the collapse, so it makes sense to earn money and buy food now, while it's cheap. Second, if the collapse prophecies fail yet again, then I won't have wasted my life.

Growing your own food simply doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense even if civilization were collapsing. Even if you want to prepare for collapse, the best approach would be to stockpile food and get on with your life in the mean time.

-Tom S

8 comments:

  1. ...and it won't work.
    The reason for that is that a civilisation collapse implies many things :
    1) it is not going to be easy to get to your sugar cache if you don't live near it. When sugar is like gold, petrol to fuel your car is like platinum. If you didn't stockpiled it too, your sugar is useless.
    2) Now let's assume that that you also stockpiled some oil and you can go to your sugar stash. Assuming that you can barter your way to idleness while others farm and break their back with work is naive. Considering that all you have to offer is in your cellar, the rational think to do for your counterpart is to break your neck instead of his/her back and take the whole bounty of sugar. Remember, in a civilisation collapse, there is no police to protect you (or more realistically, it is precisely the police who will break your neck to get your sugar !)
    3) As an economist, you should know that it is all about incentives, so what will be the incentive for people not to harm you :
    - they can be family, but in this case, it just has moved the problem to the level of interaction between groups instead of interaction between individual. Plus, even a family can be subject to gaming and betrayal.
    - the real solution, as game theory would suggest, is to have something interesting to offer in the future that necessitates that you are alive and happy, and the most obvious is the output of your work in the future, not your possession. What would be the most valuable work to offer in a civilisation collapse state ? Not giving economy 101 lesson I would guess, but rather give medical care, repair various appliance, or ... grow food !

    Note that the latter solution works only if people are nice enough to not enslave you and know you enough to know that you have some skills to produce the things they want (that is the only way to make the game work) That means making friends with your few neighbours and help each other.

    Now that starts to look furiously like the example from peak oil.com you were deriding ...

    If you still have doubts, rich people buy farms, not sugar : http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/jan/23/nervous-super-rich-planning-escapes-davos-2015

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  2. Hi Charles,

    Actually, I was guessing that I would keep a sailboat. When the shit starts to hit the fan, I'd sail the seas for a couple of months until the chaos died down.

    "he rational think to do for your counterpart is to break your neck instead of his/her back"

    I was assuming that some semblance of law and order would be restored by the time I return on my sailboat.

    If you are assuming a Mad Max-style future where everybody is shooting it out, and trying to kill each other, then neither stockpiling food nor growing your own food would be helpful. In that case, you should either stockpile food in a bunker in some inaccessible region, or you should prepare for violence by hoarding ammunition and practicing your shooting skills.

    If the Mad Max scenario happens, it would not have been good preparation to have grown your own food. In a Mad Max style scenario, there won't be enough arable farmland to support the 7+ billion people in the world. Approximately 6 out of 7 people won't be able to acquire enough arable land to feed themselves and their families. It would be a shooting war for land, and the hordes would kill you for your little plot of arable farmland. If you are over the age of 35 or so, then you wouldn't even make a good agricultural slave.

    "That means making friends with your few neighbours and help each other. "

    If you are able to "make nice" with your neighbors and the people around you, then you are contradicting your own premise of a Mad Max style future. If you can make nice, then you should stockpile food and not grow it. If you are not able to "make nice", then the hordes would kill you for your plot of land as much as they would for your stash of sugar.

    There are two possibilities here: 1) law and order is restored after the collapse; or 2) civilization remains in a Mad Max style scenario with people killing each other and warlords roaming the land. In either case, growing your own food now is poor preparation. In case #1, you should stockpile food. In case #2, you should stockpile food in an inaccessible location and go there when civilization starts collapsing, or you should practice your violence skills.

    -Tom S

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  3. Hi Tom,

    I think the reality of a collapse is between "Mad Max" and complete restoration of law and order. The fall of Rome showed that pockets of civility remained in some province and regions, and this was where one wanted to go at that time. Quite frequently it was regions administered by the Church, which makes sense as religion is one of the best answer to the problem of collaboration and associated prisoner's dilemma. This being said, one shouldn't push temptation too much and a member of the community whose only value is on the physical assets he possesses is at a higher risk.

    Regarding your sailboat idea, it is not bad, but keep two things in mind :
    - you still have the security problem : Instead of a stash of sugar, you have a boat and a stash of sugar, so you are even more tempting... to pirates this time ! Don't think it is a theoretical risk : already today, it is quite risky to exit the arabian sea and enter the indian ocean. Same in the Malacca straits.
    - you better like sailing, because disaster preparation is going to cost you much much more than two months of pay (there is a joke that says that to emulate the feeling of sailing, one just have to take a cold shower while tearing apart high denomination banknotes). Hardening your boat against pirates (weapons, speed) is going to make it way costlier. Again, if you put the price, it can be an option. It is not for nothing that yachts and private planes are popular in ultra-rich circles.

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    Replies
    1. "I think the reality of a collapse is between "Mad Max" and complete restoration of law and order."

      I'd guess there would be a brief period of chaos followed by restoration of law and order. Probably some warlord would take over and impose law and order violently, and extract some kind of tribute or taxation. That's what happened historically. I don't think there has ever been a protracted period of just total chaos. Even Somalia and Afghanistan had warlords take over fairly quickly. The warlords may keep fighting each other but within any one warlord's domain there is relative security.

      "you better like sailing, because disaster preparation is going to cost you much much more than two months of pay"

      As it happens, I'm an avid sailor. However, I do not prepare for the collapse of civilization and don't have a cache of sugar.

      "you still have the security problem : Instead of a stash of sugar, you have a boat and a stash of sugar, so you are even more tempting... to pirates this time !"

      You could sail to wherever law and order had been maintained.

      Security would be much less of a concern at sea than on land. I think there are only 30,000 or so ocean-capable sailboats in the world. Blue water sailing isn't that common. There are many remote small uninhabited islands which have no agricultural potential and where you wouldn't encounter anybody.

      -Tom S

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  4. I landed on your blog because you made some interesting posts on tom Murphys blog dothemath. I like that you're attempting to make rational sense out of a difficult topic. So many many people want to see collapse happen that it is understandable that you might be interested in taking the opposing viewpoint and seeing how far it goes. I for one look very hard for viewpoints that oppose my own - that confirmation bias thing is a bitch.

    In reading this post - and I admit I haven't read very deeply into this site - I'm struck by how many problems there are with your reasoning. Like many who argue that our farming system is awesome and getting better, you tend to look at numbers of calories instead of nutritional outcomes. Who are you going to barter that sugar with? Other people who have grown their own nutrionally healthful food? (The ones who didn't listen to you.). Also, you're use of statistics is pretty off. The average American spends about 7% of their income on food (not including eating out) and the Average American is not in great health. A more historically and globally accurate average is around 15-20% of income for food. Also, nowhere do any subsistence farmers spend 100% of their time growing food.

    While it is certainly true that big ag producers can produce large quantities of calories on a scale that a small DIYer could never match, I would really like to see a side by side apples to apples comparison where the mega atgcorporation creates a product that is as nourishing and healthful AND pays for all the externalized costs they currently don't have to pay for. That would be an interesting essay.

    I'm bummed that your blog isn't more rigorous. You have the same flip tone that the James Howard kunstler types do, just on the other side of things. Your posits are just as unfalsifiable as anything else I've read. Or like this post, theyre just kind of uninteresting thoughts using unrealistic substitions of the sort that economists tend to lean on.

    ~J

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    Replies
    1. Hi jcummings,

      "Who are you going to barter that sugar with? Other people who have grown their own nutrionally healthful food? (The ones who didn't listen to you.)."

      Yes, I would barter the sugar with other people who grow their own food. Why does it matter that they hadn't listened to me?

      "you tend to look at numbers of calories instead of nutritional outcomes."

      As I indicated in the article, it is calories which will be in short supply among the survivors after the collapse. Also, as I pointed out, you would not eat just the sugar.


      "A more historically and globally accurate average is around 15-20% of income for food"

      Why does it matter if the example is historically or globally representative? The people who are considering abandoning civilization to grow their own food, are people who live now and who overwhelmingly come from industrialized countries. The article is addressed to them. It is a question of what would be the most rational choice for them.

      Even if you are addressing poorer people, it would still be far easier to obtain food now than after the collapse.


      "Also, you're use of statistics is pretty off. The average American spends about 7% of their income on food "

      I said it takes 2% of his income for the average American to buy basic foodstuffs to survive. Most Americans also buy meat, cheeses, pizza, beer, wine, luxury foods, and so on, so they end up spending 7%. I was comparing modern Americans to subsistence farmers who spend almost all their labor obtaining just basic foodstuffs without luxuries.


      "Your posits are just as unfalsifiable as anything else I've read."

      How is it unfalsifiable? I listed how much it would cost to buy a certain amount of sugar, how many calories that sugar would provide, and so on. I think those things would be fairly easy to falsify if they were wrong.


      "I would really like to see a side by side apples to apples comparison where the mega atgcorporation creates a product that is as nourishing and healthful AND pays for all the externalized costs"

      Okay, but that's just not relevant here. The externalized costs like CO2 emissions from tractors, fertilizer runoff, etc, are not the highest priority to you if you think civilization is about to collapse and you must prepare for that. If you think civilization is about to collapse, the question for you becomes: how best to survive?

      "Or like this post, theyre just kind of uninteresting thoughts using unrealistic substitions"

      How is it unrealistic? As I pointed out, it's entirely doable using an average salary.

      jcummings, I'm sorry if you found this post to be somewhat flippant and uninteresting. Still, I don't see how your objections would substantially modify any of the conclusions in this article. Even if I were to grant your figure of 7% income on for basic foodstuffs rather than 2%, it changes nothing.

      I'll change remark whereby I claim that subsistence farmers spend "about 100% of his labor" on growing food to survive. That is a mild exaggeration. Other than that, I think the point stands, unless you have any further objections.

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