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Eating Fossil Fuels [Paperback]

Dale Pfeiffer

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Book Description

July 9 2009

The miracle of the Green Revolution was made possible by cheap fossil fuels to supply crops with artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. Estimates of the net energy balance of agriculture in the US show that ten calories of hydrocarbon energy are required to produce one calorie of food. Such an imbalance cannot continue in a world of diminishing hydrocarbon resources.

Eating Fossil Fuels examines the interlinked crises of energy and agriculture and highlights some startling findings:

  • The world-wide expansion of agriculture has appropriated fully 40% of the photosynthetic capability of this planet.
  • The Green Revolution provided abundant food sources for many, resulting in a population explosion well in excess of the planet's carrying capacity.
  • Studies suggest that without fossil fuel based agriculture, the US could only sustain about two thirds of its present population. For the planet as a whole, the sustainable number is estimated to be about two billion.

Concluding that the effect of energy depletion will be disastrous without a transition to a sustainable, relocalized agriculture, the book draws on the experiences of North Korea and Cuba to demonstrate stories of failure and success in the transition to non-hydrocarbon-based agriculture. It urges strong grassroots activism for sustainable, localized agriculture and a natural shrinking of the world's population.

(2006-05-01)

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Review

The miracle of the Green Revolution was made possible by cheap fossil fuels to supply crops with artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. Estimates of the net energy balance of agriculture in the US show that ten calories of hydrocarbon energy are required to produce one calorie of food. Such an imbalance cannot continue in a world of diminishing hydrocarbon resources.

Eating Fossil Fuels examines the interlinked crises of energy and agriculture and highlights some startling findings:

  • The world-wide expansion of agriculture has appropriated fully 40% of the photosynthetic capability of this planet.
  • The Green Revolution provided abundant food sources for many, resulting in a population explosion well in excess of the planet's carrying capacity.
  • Studies suggest that without fossil fuel based agriculture, the US could only sustain about two thirds of its present population. For the planet as a whole, the sustainable number is estimated to be about two billion.

Concluding that the effect of energy depletion will be disastrous without a transition to a sustainable, relocalized agriculture, the book draws on the experiences of North Korea and Cuba to demonstrate stories of failure and success in the transition to non-hydrocarbon-based agriculture. It urges strong grassroots activism for sustainable, localized agriculture and a natural shrinking of the world's population.

(2006-05-01)

About the Author

Dale Allen Pfeiffer is a novelist, freelance journalist and geologist who has been writing about energy depletion for a decade. The author of The End of the Oil Age, he is also widely known for his web project: survivingpeakoil.com.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Wane Of Industrial Agriculture? April 29 2007
By Kevin Spoering - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
As a farmer, albeit part time, I am concerned about rising fuel prices, and other costs of production, nearly all energy related. In this book author Dale Allen Pfeiffer reviews possible consequences of the coming worldwide peaking of the production of conventional oil. These consequences may be dire and not limited to transportation, also affecting agriculture as we know it. Industrial agriculture with it's vast corporate interests tends to be very fuel inefficient, which includes all sorts of things such as tilling, fertilizer, perticides, harvesting, processing, transportation to markets, and more. When peak oil hits food may become much more expensive.

Do we have time to correct this, as a move to a sustainable food production system would allow? Pfeiffer writes to this question to some length, the jury is still out on it. He does write that most oil experts expect about a two percent decline per year of oil after peak oil hits, that would allow a transition, however rough, to a more energy efficient food production infrastructure. Pfeiffer gives the example of North Korea, where many have starved after their oil supply was mostly cut off after the Soviet Union collapsed, very poor planning there, then gives the example of Cuba, which also lost most of it's supply of Soviet oil, and how they successfully overcame that and converted to a sustainable agriculture system. North Korea and Cuba remain exceptions, Pfeiffer writes, as they abruptly lost most of their oil stream. The rest of the world will face a more gradual decline (my guess, sometime between now and 2025 peak oil will hit). Anyway, Pfeiffer writes that production and consumption need to be closer to each other, with local communities and individuals participating in food production. This is obviously a large and difficult problem to solve. There is also discussion in the book about corporations with their special interests which could be a problem to overcome. In the last chapter Pfeiffer describes twelve 'fun' activities if you want to become an activist. Farmers' markets, for example, are a good way to sell local produce to local people, eliminating the middleman, and overall more energy efficient than buying food shipped thousands of miles, Pfeiffer writes. But in reality the marketplace will determine the real winners and losers here, with convenience and quality also considerations, none of this is stressed in the book. Overall, though, Pfeiffer gives readers a great introduction to a subject that will probably get much more attention in the future.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good concise review of the coming crisis in agriculture April 25 2007
By John G. Curington - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Eating Fossil Fuels," by David Allen Pfeiffer, is a fascinating review of the upcoming crisis in production of food for our population. He starts with a quick discussion of land degradation and water degradation, and then goes into the data behind the use of fossil fuels in modern agriculture. With the approaching decline in global oil production, our ability to produce food will be severely compromised.

For anyone who reads much about "peak oil" or modern agricultural policy, this will come as no surprise. Pfeiffer's book shines, though, in his discussions of the examples of South Korea and Cuba. It is fascinating to consider the different paths taken by each of these countries during their politically-imposed sudden drop in oil availability.

Pfeiffer goes finishes with a discussion of sustainable agriculture and some ideas for what a concerned activist might do.

On the whole, I learned much from the short, well-written book about an important topic.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Feast or famine without oil? (review by author of When Technology Fails) Nov. 17 2007
By Matthew I. Stein - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Concerned about food and how a world economy fueled by oil will continue to feed over 6  billion people when the oil squeeze comes? I suggest you read this book. Pfeiffer, a geologist and science journalist who has been intimately involved with peak oil issues for more than ten years, provides profound insight with his analysis of two parallel nations suffering from similar predicaments, but with radically different outcomes. He uses the powerful example of how Cuba and North Korea each dealt with nearly instantaneous loss of their supplies of oil after the Soviet Union dissolved. In the case of North Korea, their economy was shattered and millions of people died of starvation and disease. In the case of Cuba, people lost weight and made do with less, but a shift to sustainable agriculture and natural healing averted catastrophe. Cuba provides us with a glimpse of a possible future that avoids violent collapse and provides a good quality of life in spite of having to get by using less energy and buying less stuff.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very informative! July 5 2008
By Luis Mansilla M - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
One good thing about this book is that the author does not need 300 pages to explain the Oil/Agriculture relation. What I liked most of this book is the explanation on the evolution of agriculture to these days, making clear that Oil is an important contributor to production performance, due to the use of fertilizers, pesticides and of course the energy derived from it in Industrial Agriculture. I agree with the author that we are beginning a transition to a new way of living, not pleasant, due to the fact that oil depletion will make difficult to attain a sustainable agriculture, even a sustainable civilization with the population numbers we have. The effects are visible, inflation and food crisis.
Most people think that technology will remedy the situation, but if you read more about energy you will realize the future's precarious situation. Governments in the world need to put an eye on it and start doing energy projects, particularly Nuclear. India must control its population growth also. I have my opinion on Cuba but considering all this is a very informative book.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We Need to Bring Back the Victory Garden Feb. 27 2008
By MartaJan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I wish I had read this book last year, I would already have prepared a vegetable garden to plant this spring. I know about Peak Oil, etc. but this book really got my attention. It provides a clear explanation of how dependent our food supply is on fossil fuels. Higher and higher food prices are in store for us, soon. And that's before we start to see food shortages. The agricultural land in the U.S. can only support about 200 million people, and we have almost 300 million. Plus this agriculture is heavily dependent on oil (to run the irrigation pumps, harvest, process and transport the products), and natural gas (to make fertilizer..who knew?). In a politically unstable world of rising fuel prices, not to mention a future without those fuels, do we really want to rely on imported food to feed our nation? Or go to war over food? This book outlines the problems and has an action plan and extensive list of resources to help solve the problems. Yes! There are things you can do to avert this crisis, whether you live in the city, suburbs, or country.
Spade up those (organic) Victory Gardens, folks, and learn how to provide and preserve at least some of your own food. Support your local food producers. This year. You'll be glad you did.

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