Category Archives: Agriculture

Chinese rural farmers are a worry for centralized government control

The New York Times is running an interesting series of articles on how the Chinese government is working to accelerate urbanization, by moving rural farmers off of their land and into apartment blocks in new cities. The first one is titled Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push from From to City.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough and the edges, but independent. On the left we have a city-dwelling family, fully under government control.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough around the edges, but independent. On the left we have a polished-looking city family, fully under government control.

The stated intent of this move is to drive the Chinese economy and to improve the standard of living for rural Chinese. There are so many problems with this in terms of sustainability that I don’t even know where to start, although I’ll try anyhow.

The New York Times article points out several of the challenges that the residents themselves are facing, such as no jobs in these new cities, and no money to pay for the electricity in their fancy new apartments. And of course there’s a the very valid perspective that these are not really optional relocations, but rather something that the government is pushing people into. It’s enough to make me want to reread the US Constitution, especially the Fifth Amendment and the Second Amendment, especially now that we know that the US government outright lies to us, supposedly for our own protection. Thanks.

I see some serious problems with China’s plan:

This is about government gaining unhealthy power over people.

  • A city dweller needs the government badly, or they’ll starve.
  • A rural farmer who can feed themselves doesn’t need the government.

City people are rough on the environment.

  • A city dweller lives high on resources from “elsewhere” and is disconnected from the impact they’re having on the world.
  • A small plot rural farmer uses few resources to live (because they don’t have money to throw around) and takes care of their land so it keeps producing over the long haul.

City people survive on the whims of international trade.

  • A city dweller–and indeed a nation of city dwellers–is intimately tied to the fortunes of mass market farming operations that are often very far away.
  • A rural farmer doesn’t care about the whims of other countries, international spats, farming policy in far off continents. They just grow food locally, and set aside for lean years.

City living requires huge inputs of energy, that are already waning.

  • City dwellers live based on the flow of oil, gas, coal that fuels their unsustainable lifestyles. They are living in a way that will not be possible in a matter of decades.
  • Rural farmers know how to live based on what they have available, without needing these inputs. Having said that, recent years and creature comforts have likely made them somewhat reliant on fossil fuels however they are miles closer to knowing how to live with the land than a city person is.

Bottom line: the rural farmer, in spite of being less comfortable, controls their destiny, as long as the government stays the heck out of the way. The city dweller is a cog in a larger machine, in which they have very little say. No wonder the Chinese government wants a country of city people.

I can see why China would have a motivation to do away with small plot rural farmers. Looks to me like “Cultural Revolution Light, run in reverse.” I bet this road is also paved up and down with good intentions–too bad it’s a fully unsustainable path.

My favorite resources for post-fossil fuel living

I was recently at an inspiring “unconference” in the Bay Area on the topic of sustainability, and I met many fascinating people with good questions. From those conversations, I decided to put together a list of the resources that I’ve found the most relevant when thinking about what living in a world with dramatically less fossil fuel use.

My top 3 recommended resources

1. Here’s the book that “changed everything” for me around sustainability. It is well written, makes a lot of sense, and doesn’t preach. Greer pretty much lays out what he sees, and lets you decide what you think. A provoking concept here is “if technology doesn’t bail us out yet again, THEN what happens?”

2. This is a fascinating book on the Soviet Union’s collapse experience. Since it happened relatively recently, it’s a great way to consider “what might it look like here.” I couldn’t put this down once I started reading it, because it’s not speculation, it’s a recording of what happened. He does a wonderful job of showing how the USSR had several structural things going for it that softened the cushion of collapse. These include most housing being state owned (so nobody got evicted or foreclosed on) and all housing being mass transit accessible (so people could get around without cars). I highly recommend this book.

3. Here’s a collection of post-peak short stories that Greer edited. There’s a great variety of future visions in here, and all are well thought-out:

Fiction, albeit well thought-through and grounded

More resources


How would a Fukushima-type nuclear accident in San Luis Obispo impact the California produce industry?

Fukushima Reactors BurningI was recently in Japan, and in the course of going about my usual visits with friends, I realized how broadly the nuclear accident has impacted Japan domestically, even outside of the accident area.

First of all, when it comes to farming, much of Northern Honshu is now on an unofficial “blacklist” among the typical Japanese consumer. Even though radiation measurements, official and unofficial, are only showing elevated radiation levels in very specific areas near the accident, the reputational impact has hit a much, much broader area.

This impact became clear when I suggested to friends that we go to a certain tofu restaurant. They politely demurred because they have a young daughter, and the soy beans for tofu that that restaurant uses are grown in Northern Honshu. It is notable that they were readily aware of where that restaurant sources it’s soy. So I went online and checked that area of Japan, but didn’t see any elevated readings anywhere nearby. Nonetheless the reputational damage has been done, for that farmland and that restaurant. We went elsewhere.

The impact became even more clear when my wife and I were visiting the resort (and farming!) town of Inawashiro. Although it’s in Fukushima province, Inawashiro is well away from the nuclear impact area, and shows no evidence of heightened radiation levels. My wife loves soba, so we went to a well-established local soba restaurant in town, where they make everything by hand. I like to eat local foods, and so I enthusiastically asked where the soba was from. The lady smiled and said that they found the best soba these days is from Hokkaido, and so that’s what they use. I pressed her a bit, and she said even that yes, the local soba was actually fine.

I’m guessing that they used to use soba grown closer to home, but had to stop doing that after the nuclear accident, in order to retain tourist business. Consider how painful that reality must be for them. But also consider that even though this area doesn’t show any signs of heightened radiation, it is gravely impacted through “guilt by association,” basically killing the domestic market for their produce. And in a way, it makes sense.

I bet that many Japanese consumers are thinking “Why take a chance?” along with “Can we really trust the government to tell us what is and isn’t safe, when they’ve lied to us so many times about what was really going on?” Thus when the accident is scary enough, and enough people are in active avoidance of all food products grown in a very broad area, then a cycle is in place where the retailers and restaurants avoid it as well, because develop a reputation of selling food that is potentially unsafe.

The end result is that for these farmers, their domestic markets are gone. They can try to sell at much lower prices on the international market, but given the costs of doing business in Japan, this might not be feasible. Understand that the produce they are selling is measured for radiation and is safe in that respect—we’re not talking about dumping radioactive food on other countries. But in Japan a premium is paid for high quality, domestic produce, and that market is wiped out for the conceivable future for a large swath of Honshu.

So that brings me back to California which, like Japan, is earthquake country, and which has two nuclear power plants on the coast, one near San Luis Obispo and another near San Diego. Both of these plants, being near the cost–like Fukushima is–are also very close to major earthquake faults.

In the case of a major earthquake that caused a Fukushima-type nuclear accident, one would think that the damage would be limited to the  farmland directly impacted by such an accident, based on radiation readings. That’d make logical sense, right?

But if we take the example of Japan, the emotional backlash against California product would be severe, regardless of what the experts with their Geiger counters say. People would get scared, and stay scared, for a long time about eating California produce.

Here’s the greatest  irony of it all: there is a safe, straightforward, cost-effective way for California to get rid of the need for nuclear energy. No I’m not talking about solar energy, although that has a lot going for it. I simply mean good old energy conservation. 

If more households took on home energy retrofits, especially for heating and cooling, and generally got smartly about how they heated and cooled, then the energy savings could be used to close down those nuclear plants.

Consider this: if you think the impact of coal fired plants is grave and long lasting, the impact of a nuclear accident is on another timescale altogether. To me it’s just not worth the risks, which based on Fukushima, we know are very real.