Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Agriculture in the Anthropocene


     In the past I liked to think about climate change as a future problem.  Something that would happen if we don't get our act together. Something that would happen _if _ we get to 2 degrees.

     But my view is changing.

        First the weird weather, the arctic melting make it clear that climate change won't wait for 2 degrees.  And the idea that 2 degrees is the bright line between acceptable and dangerous, is probably wrong as well.   See Anderson on how one degree is now seen as much more dangerous than before.

       Second I've come to appreciate inertia.  The changes we are experiencing now are a result of carbon put in the air 30-40 or so years ago. So changes over the next 30 years are already "baked in the cake".   Even if we shut down all the coal plants tomorrow, we can't avoid those changes.

       And third, the tipping points.  Even if we put on the brakes now, we will slide into higher temperatures and those higher temperatures will trigger more carbon  and methane releases from places like the permafrost,

       The last 10,000 years have been a pleasant  time in the life of humanity.  Moderate average temperatures.    But also moderate variability. .  Now we can expect something different.  Different seasons.  Late spring frosts, killing young plants in the spring   Too much rain, or too little in the summer.   Early fall frosts.  

      Most of us aren't farmers.  We live and work indoors.    We don't really know what is normal.  So its easy for us to miss the significance of these changes. Probably time to learn a little..


When agriculture stops working: A guide to growing food in the age of climate destabilization and civilization collapse

This is Part 1 of an essay in 2 parts. Part 1, below, outlines the issues. Part 2,offers 'Ten Recommendations for Growing Food in the Anthropocene
 “Well it's hotter 'n blazes and all the long faces / there'll be no oasis for a dry local grazier” – Tom Waits
 “What we’re seeing is stark evidence that the gradual temperature increase is not the important story related to climate change; it’s the rapid regional changes and increased frequency of extreme weather that global warming is causing. As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, we expect an increased probability of extreme weather events across the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, where billions of people live.” --  Jennifer Francis (
 “[W]hen we learn that in the collapse now underway resides the seeds of a different style of agriculture that does not carry all the historic baggage that burdens us, we may, with good justification, rejoice.” – Albert Bates (

Summary:  As the toxic trappings of industrial civilization crumble around us, agriculture is set to regain its place at the forefront of our daily American lives.  …And won’t we be surprised to find out that it barely works anymore!  Worsening climate destabilization, combined with the legacy of industrial ecosystem degradation and the loss of crucial pre-industrial agricultural genetics and knowledge, will severely challenge our ability to feed ourselves in the decades ahead.  So perhaps it’s time we re-think our modern food-acquisition strategies in the face of the massive changes bearing down on us.  …And I mean REALLY re-think them.
Below are some key resources to both back up the stuff I’m going to talk about and help people move ahead with the good work we need to do.  
I. Ten Agricultural Premises
My main goal in this essay is to outline a suite of agricultural or food-acquisition strategies that might stand a chance in our climate-destabilized, civilization-collapsing future – and how we might go about laying the foundation for those strategies now. 
But before getting into the essay-proper, I think it’s a good idea to lay out the basic agricultural premises that underlie these recommendations.  For example, if I tell you it’s a really good idea to hone your hunting and gathering skills (as I will do), an acceptance of that message will only take if you’re fully aware of the reasoning that gave birth to such a wild suggestion (pun intended).  So here they are:
Premise 1: The Earth’s climate is destabilizing.  Humans are forcing an unprecedented destabilization of the global climate with fossil fuel CO2 emissions.  We are likely very close to (if not exactly at, or even past) a positive-feedback tipping point, beyond which most or all of the planet becomes uninhabitable to humans.  Due to inertia in the climate system, even if CO2 emissions stopped tomorrow, the worst climatic disruptions are ahead of us and will continue at least for many centuries.
Premise 2: Our agriculture is adapted to the stable Holocene climate.  Land-based human agriculture, the main source of bodily sustenance for North Americans, is adapted only to the stable Holocene climate of the past 10,000 years – the relatively predictable patterns (in both magnitude and timing) of temperature, rainfall, snowmelt, storm intensity, and pest densities in any given region.  Unfortunately, this is a climate our species will likely never see again. 
Premise 3: Climate destabilization will severely stress agriculture.  Climatic destabilization will severely stress the viability of human agriculture via extremes in these traditional climatic patterns – e.g., extremes in the magnitude and timing of temperature, rainfall, snowmelt, storm intensity, and pests.  Such stresses have indeed already begun, and will intensify over the coming years, decades, and centuries as the climate continues to destabilize.
Premise 4: Collapse of industrial civilization will magnify the climatic stresses.  These already-severe agricultural stresses from a destabilizing climate will be magnified by industrial depredations (past, present, and future) and disruptions from the ongoing collapse of industrial civilization.  Specifically, these magnifying factors include rapid disappearance of the fossil fuel platform for current agricultural practices, loss of pre-industrial agricultural technology and genetics, soil loss and degradation, bioaccumulation of toxins (metals, organics, and nuclear), depletion of fossil aquifers, as well as war and social strife.   Post-industrial deforestation and mounting ocean acidification will also have deleterious indirect effects on terrestrial agriculture.
Premise 5: Agriculture will unavoidably shrink in scale and technological complexity.  The combination of climatic destabilization, past/residual industrial depredations, and collapse of industrial civilization will unavoidably shrink the scale and technological complexity of human agriculture.  Agriculture will quickly evolve from (1) today’s doomed, high-tech, huge-scale operations, to (2) still-fragile, large-scale, mechanized operations, to (3) a medium-scale, draft-animal-based agriculture, to (4) a small-scale, ‘primitive’ human-labor-based agriculture, to (5) increasing reliance on managed hunting and gathering, and perhaps finally to (6) regional extirpation.  Different societies will differ in the rate and ultimate level of agricultural simplification based on geographical, ecological, and social factors -- but the general trends will be near-universal and undoubtedly severe.
Premise 6:  Ecological complexity in agriculture will necessarily replace technological complexity.  Challenged by (1) the disappearance of essentially all industrial agricultural technology, (2) the loss of much pre-industrial agricultural technology to cultural erosion, (3) severely degraded agricultural ecosystems, and (4) worsening climatic destabilization, successful human food acquisition will necessarily rely increasingly on ecological knowledge and assistance – what we can perhaps call ‘ecological technology’.  We will need to return humbly, thankfully, and thoughtfully to ‘the tangled bank.’  And given the climatic, ecological, and social challenges bearing down on us, such an ecological awakening will not be optional for human survival.
Premise 7: A polyculture of perennial vegetation has the best chance of providing food for humans in the future.  In light of challenges outlined above, a diverse polyculture of perennial vegetation has many advantages over the largely-annual monocultures of traditional human agriculture: more robust structural integrity, improved soil-holding and building ability, superior nutrient and water gathering efficiency, decreased annual labor inputs, more efficient gathering of sunlight, longer annual period of active photosynthesis, and less reliance on precise rainfall and temperature patterns.  As such, an agriculture based largely on a rich diversity of ecologically-managed, food and fiber-producing perennials embedded within diverse perennial-based wild ecosystems will exhibit maximum resilience and stand the best chance of providing food in our climate-destabilized, civilization-collapsing future.
Premise 8:  Our current ‘leaders’ will not aid the necessary transition to an ecologically-sound perennial agriculture – they will hinder it.  The crucial near-term response of the ‘powers that be’ (corporations, national governments) to the gathering existential agricultural emergencies will continue to be, perversely and suicidally, their exacerbation – e.g., trying to maximize carbon emissions (even as they fall), accelerating industrial depredations, and a desperate inflating of the industrial bubble via economic and public-relations chicanery, resulting in a more rapid and destructive collapse when the bubble inevitably pops.  Lobbying of such ‘powers that be’ to change course has proven, at best, largely ineffectual – and perhaps even counter-productive, as it can perpetuate the illusion of ‘if only they understood’ and distract from constructive efforts possible at the local level.
Premise 9:  Local responses are possible, necessary, and should begin ASAP.  In this critical pre-collapse period, constructive responses to both our agricultural and broader predicaments will only be fashioned at the local and community level – a fact that is at once frightening, sad, embarrassing, and empowering.  These responses involve efforts to learn, preserve, and disseminate (1) a more resilient, ecologically-attuned agriculture, (2) hunting and gathering skills, along with the accompanying ecological knowledge and sensitivity, (3) craftsmanship and artistry in the manufacturing of basic necessities (tools, shelter, water infrastructure, medicines), and (4) key social skills, such as conflict-resolution, cooperation, and collaboration, as well as the cultivation of beauty, joyfulness, and thankfulness in our everyday lives.
Premise 10: We may not succeed, but we must try.  Livable outcomes in any given region are neither assured nor frankly probable at this point, but we must try – we have a moral, biological, and spiritual imperative to try.  …Because what do you do when human civilization gives you global catastrophe?  You make catastrophe-aid.  J

…And now for the essay-proper:
II. Growing Food in a Funhouse
In that heady time before every American youth was enslaved by their portable electronics to the cold realm of cyberspace, end-of-summer fairs were the place to be.  The gaudy lights, the blaring tinny music, the hormone-addled teens, the strung-out carnies, the crumbling nuclear families with double-wide strollers, the way-too-made-up tweens, the ever-changing ribbons of smells pummeling your nostrils: cotton candy, cigarette smoke, fried dough, cheap perfume, diesel fumes, oily dust, italian ice… 
Ahhh...the (cough) memories!   

Flemington Fair, NJ, circa 1978.
 But more than anything, I remember a haunting, fair-themed nightmare I had around the time I was ten:  My friends and I were exploring a funhouse, but the place kept taking on a progressively more menacing vibe.  The normal funhouse elements -- the amusing surprises, the pleasant distortions of normality, the benign helplessness – were becoming less amusing, pleasant, and benign by the second.  At some point, after realizing that the funhouse was actually trying to kill us rather than fun us, I found myself alone in a barren field outside the funhouse, pock-marked with what appeared to be deep bomb craters.  Descending into one such water-filled crater, an alien (?!) reached out of the water, grabbed my leg, and pulled me under.  …And then I woke up.  (cold shiver)  

Psychoanalyze away, but that dream still haunts me to this day.  I can still see it, still feel it.  It still scares the hell out of me.  In fact, it’s starting to scare me more than ever these days. 
…Because it’s coming true.
Earth’s climate, a key leg of the three-legged agro-ecological stool (climate, soil & ecosystem health, genetics), is taking on all the elements of that menacing funhouse from my nightmare – the increasingly-unpleasant surprises, the ominous distortions of normality, the growing feelings of helplessness among its victims.  …It’s all coming true.
As David Korowicz warns of our collapsing civilization: we are going someplace we have never been before.  This is true economically, socially, and politically – but, most frighteningly, it is also true climatically.  We are in the process of forcing the climate into a state unlike anything our species, much less agriculture, has ever experienced.  Given that, is it really wise to expect our Holocene-adapted agriculture to function adequately in this new ‘evil-funhouse’ climate we’re making?  I would argue no.
So perhaps then we need to rethink our modern food-acquiring strategies in the face of the massive changes now bearing down upon us, with all their challenges and inherent uncertainties. 
…And maybe we better start soon, no?   

III. The Making of a Funhouse Climate
Let me be blunt here: We are wrecking the climate.  Or I should say, we havewrecked the climate.  Because by increasing the atmospheric CO2 from 280ppm to over 390ppm over the few hundred years of our industrial experiment, we havealready wrenched the climate out of the relatively stable Holocene climate that gave birth to human agriculture.  And we have likely even wrenched the climate out of its million year long glacial-interglacial dance (to a 100K year beat!) during which our species developed.
As UCLA climatologist Aradhna Tripati reported in Science in 2009, “The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today…and were sustained at those levels…global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland.” 
…And that was 15 million years ago, by the way – well before our species existed.
We are stumbling suicidally into uncharted waters.  The arctic, warming at over twice the global average, is melting rapidly.  Summer arctic sea ice will likely be gone just a few years from now.  (See Figure 1, below.)  And with it will go the reflective albedo buffer to further rapid warming, as well as the regular weather patterns we count on for temperate Northern hemisphere agriculture.        
Figure 1.  Arctic sea ice collapse.  Late summer sea ice volume has dropped over 80% in just the past 33 years.  The arctic will likely be ice-free in summer in a few years, resulting in even more rapid warming.
 But how exactly do warmer temperatures disrupt regular weather patterns?  Witness the ‘new, improved’ jet stream!  The Northern hemisphere jet stream, that bringer of crop-friendly weather systems to US agriculture, is having some problems.  Even the relatively meager warming to date of the arctic relative to the temperate latitudes appears to have already caused both a slowing and a more extreme meandering of the west-to-east winds of the jet stream.  (See Figure 2, below.)   
Figure 2.  Extreme jet stream!  This figure shows abnormally-meandering path of the jet stream on March 21, 2012 – an increasingly common occurrence as the arctic warms and the temperature differential between the arctic and temperate regions decrease.
And a slower, more randomly-meandering jet stream brings with it some weird, unpleasant weather to the agricultural bread-baskets of the world.  Larger-amplitude meanderings bring more extremes in hot and cold, often at rather odd times relative to what our crops and agricultural practices are adapted to.  And the slower movement of the jet stream means that these wacky weather systems stick around longer.  Often way too long.  (See short video embedded in link for Figure 2.)  Think of the brutal heat and dryness in the US 2011-12, Russia 2010, and France 2003. 
Indeed, the relatively modest warming of land and ocean temperatures experienced so far has already resulted in a noticeable increase in extreme temperature and rainfall events.  James Hansen has recently documented an alarming and steady shift in summer temperature extremes well beyond anything experienced even in recent times.  (See Figure 3, below.)  And similar upticks in frequencies of severe droughts and massive rainfall events have also been documented.  (Follow all the action at Joe Romm’s 

 Figure 3.  Shift in Northern hemisphere summer temperature extremes in recent decades.  The bottom axis is in standard deviations (σ) above or below the 1951-1980 average summer temperature.  Note the alarming increase in extreme temperature events in the maroon-colored +3σ to +5σ range -- crop-killing events with a vanishingly small probability prior to recent decades. 
Oh, and did someone say ‘massively destructive storms’?  Because as temperatures increase, so also do the strength of storms, with their eroding deluges, vast flooding, violent winds, and deadly storm surges.  ‘Frankenstorms’ are indeed an apt term for these part-natural/part-human-caused monstrosities.  Higher ocean, land, and air temperatures mean more water vapor pumped more rapidly into an atmosphere that can now hold that extra water.  In turn, the extra water vapor in the atmosphere (+4-5%) provides both higher rainfall potential and more stored energy (‘latent heat’) to power the destructive winds.  (See
Frankenstorm Sandy, November 2012 (Source:
And bear in mind that, due to inertia in the climate system, even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow, there is still more destabilization in the pipeline – warming and its resulting ‘wacky weather’ that will persist for centuries and even millennia.  That means significantly more arctic melting, more sea-level rise,more jet stream convulsions, more extreme weather events – the heat-waves, the droughts, the deluges, the hurricanes, the derechos. 
…And all the while, arctic methane feedbacks loom.  If you have the stomach for it, watch this 20min video about the dire situation unfolding up North:  We are children with hammers, banging on armed thermonuclear warheads.  Clink.  Clink.  Clink-clink.  Clunk…uh oh.
In short, our sputtering fossil-fuel orgy is in the process of turning the stable Holocene into an ‘evil funhouse’ climate straight out of a nightmare – one where horrifying surprises pop up ever more frequently, where normal weather patterns are grotesquely and dangerously distorted, where we are increasingly helpless in our efforts to ‘adapt’ to a climate that appears more and more like it’s trying to kill us.
…And all of this, of course, does not bode well for human agriculture. 

IV. The Coming Failure of Holocene-adapted Agriculture
Let me tell you a secret:  Human agriculture is no longer a given.  This is, of course, only a ‘secret’ because so many people these days have so little knowledge of agriculture, climate, or ecology.   …But it’s true:  the 10,000 year-old agricultural experiment may soon be coming to an end.
Human agriculture is, despite our culture’s unthinking faith in its inevitability, an exceedingly-fragile, three-legged stool resting on the shaky legs of (1) Holocene-like climate stability, (2) culturally-preserved genetics and agricultural knowledge, and (3) the health of the soil and surrounding ecosystems.  Knock out any one of those and the stool comes a-tumblin’ down.  And a culture blinks out.
Because, contrary to popular opinion here in the spastic endgame of our death-dealing civilization, agriculture doesn’t come from shiny tractor dealerships, sacks of genetically-engineered ‘miracle’ seeds, heaping piles of fertilizer, tanks of [insert organism]icide, irrigation pipes, six-figure bank loans, and an ‘essentially-infinite’ torrent of fossil fuels.  No -- it comes from the Earth, from the skies, from our bodies, and from a complex (and often heartbreakingly destructive) culture passed down from generation to generation . 
...And without any thought to the consequences or to developing alternatives, we’re doing our damndest to snuff it out.  Indeed, a lethal one-two-three punch of climate destabilization, accumulated/ongoing industrial depredations, and the chaos unleashed by a collapsing civilization will very likely bring human agriculture to its knees – possibly within the next few decades, and almost certainly within this century.
So here’s a quick anatomy of our agricultural train-wreck, already in progress:  
1.      Climatic Destabilization:
The climatic requirement for agricultural viability represents a relatively narrow range – in both magnitude and timing – of a number of key variables: temperature, water (in the form of both rainfall and snowmelt), wind, and climate-influenced pest/disease densities. 
Unfortunately, crops born of Holocene-era climate stability and further embrittled by industrial, fossil-fueled coddling and yield-maximization are sitting ducks for the kind of wacky, extreme weather they will increasingly face.  Decade-long crippling droughts, weeks of ultra-extreme high temperatures, surprise late-Spring freezes from a tortured jet stream, erosive levee-bursting deluges, salinization of delta farmland from increasingly-common and severe coastal storm surges, brutal outbreaks of weather-influenced pests and disease, and violent storms with crop-flattening winds – these are the kinds of things we’ll be dealing with.  And not once a decade, but likely every year – several times a year! 
That’s the climate we’re making -- and it’s simply not the one Holocene agriculture signed up for.  And note again that this climate destabilization is not academic speculation or merely a reading of the climate-model tea leaves – it’s what we’re already seeing.  It’s already bad and already worsening exponentially.  (See, as well as the climate references above.) 
2.      Loss of Agricultural Genetics, Technology, and Knowledge:
The second key requirement for human agricultural is the suite of culturally-preserved genetics (plant & animal) and accumulated agricultural technology/knowledge available to farmers.
I think it scarcely needs to be said here that virtually the entire toolkit of industrial agricultural technology -- the fossil-fuel powered machines, the industrial chemical-dependent crop varieties and animal breeds, and the knowledge of how to manage such technologies -- will be next to useless without fossil fuels.  And sometime soon, we just won’t have fossil fuels to kick around anymore.  Why not?  Because the remaining ‘difficult half’ of fossil fuels – tricky enough to access with the industrial machine still humming along – will certainly remain in their dark geologic tombs once the economic wheels come off.  (And just in case, it will be up to the post-collapse ‘monkey-wrench gangs’ to ensure they do.  Long live Edward Abbey!  Long live Derrick Jensen!  Long live…you?)
So where does that leave us?  It leaves us depending on agricultural genetics, technology, and knowledge that served us in pre-industrial times.  And unfortunately for human agriculture, a massive and mostly-unacknowledged loss of these resources has been occurring during the industrial era – a loss that has rapidly accelerated in recent decades.  (Now, I fully realize the destructiveness of many pre-industrial annuals-based agricultural practices -- and one could well argue ‘good-riddance’ -- but I’ll address that later in the essay when I discuss recommendations for the future.)   
Diverse place-adapted pre-industrial varieties of crops and breeds of domesticated animals, each with their special attributes, have been increasingly sacrificed to a relative small number of industrial varieties and breeds with the narrowest of attributes: yield maximization in a high-input, fossil-fuel-drenched system.  This is unfortunate, of course, because a wide genetic variety will be needed to handle the challenging, unpredictable, low-input conditions that Anthropocene (Funhousocene?) agriculture will certainly face. 
Need a chicken that doesn’t keel over in two weeks of 115 oF heat?  Oh sorry, that breed was lost.  Need a deeply-rooted, sprawling apple tree that can withstand 100 mph winds…twice a year?   Sorry.  Re-breeding will, of course, be possible and necessary (more on that later), but for some crops suffering significant genetic losses, breeding the required genetic varieties from the pathetically narrow set of genetics that ultimately squeeze through the bottleneck may be very slow.  And in some cases, the genetic losses will be so extreme that re-breeding will be effectively impossible – like trying to re-breed a passenger pigeon.
Likewise, pre-industrial agriculture technology and knowledge have also been hemorrhaging, especially since the industrial war machine turned its cold, metallic eyes towards agriculture after WWII.  It’s a familiar story: old-time farmer with place-based knowledge dies, kids in city sell farm to industrial farmer, old-time technology rusts away beside the collapsing barn, many kinds of crucial knowledge blink out.
 How many people will remember how to grow, harvest, and process our crops without fossil fuels?  How many people will remember how to propagate and breed all the new plant or animal varieties we’ll need?  How many people will remember how to preserve and store the harvest for the lean early-Spring months?  (How many people remember that there even are lean months of the year?)  And how will we disperse our remaining fragmented knowledge and technology at a time when long-distance travel and communication for the spreading of these agricultural necessities will likely be close to nil?     
And then there’s the whole war thing.  Namely, that the already-severe loss of the pre-industrial genetics, technology, and knowledge will be further exacerbated by the social strife, war, and population dislocations that will certainly accompany the unraveling of the industrial fabric and the climate catastrophes-to-come.  Varieties, breeds, technology, and knowledge that have been carefully safeguarded from the industrial shredder for generations in back-yard gardens, small farms, and seed-banks can and will be lost in just a single ‘unfortunate incident’.  …And there will certainly be no shortage of ‘unfortunate incidents’ to choose from as we careen onward and downward from here. 
So now close your eyes and mentally layer these lost genetics, technologies, and knowledge onto the toxic disruptions from climate destabilization.  What do you get?  Well, you get an agriculture that barely works.  Hmmm…can’t wait!  But, of course, we’re not even done yet: 
3.      Ecosystem degradation:
The third ‘key requirement’ for the viability of human agriculture is adequate health of the soil and surrounding ecosystems.
Try this:  Look around you.  Marvel at the deep rich topsoil outside your door – fertile topsoil that runs deep right up to the top of the nearby mountain.  And at the foot of the mountain, refresh yourself from the cold, gushing spring that pours out from beneath the boulder.  And now follow the stream down to the crystal-clear river under the cool shade of the huge old-growth trees – now walk across.  That’s right, walk across on the backs of the fish, so thick in the water that the surface boils.
…Now snap out of it.  …Sorry about that.  It hurts, doesn’t it?  As the great tracker/teacher Jon Young has said, “We have lost so much.”  It breaks your heart.  But even beyond the deflating spiritual implications, all our ecosystem degradations are certainly going to come back to bite us physically, as we stumble into the gathering train-wreck of Anthropocene agriculture.  …And they will bite us hard.
Why?  Because as the fossil fuel platform of industrial agriculture blinks out, we’ll need to rely on these ecosystems more than ever (the soil nutrients and communities, the groundwater, the streams and rivers, the pollinators and the other ‘beneficial’ insects, birds, and amphibians, etc.) to furnish all the agricultural services that fossil fuels once myopically provided for us.  And perversely, these are the very treasures that fossil-fueled agriculture was so good at destroying – to the point that many currently-‘productive’ agricultural regions are so ecologically-denuded that we’re in for a very rude awakening once the fossil fuel spigot runs dry and we try in vain to coax food from them. 
For example, take the Central Valley, California, post-collapse:  Soil fertility?  Gone.  Soil communities?  Gone.  Aquifers and springs?  Gone.  Pollinators?  Gone.  Mountain snowmelt?  Gone.  Rainfall?  Wacky.  Agricultural potential?  Gone.  …Now try this exercise in the long-abused-but-now-fossil-fuel-deprived heartlands of Texas, Illinois, etc.  Now try it at home.  Fun!
And don’t forget to layer on that additional legacy of our modern insanity: the persistent toxins that lie as industrial booby traps all over this great land of ours – in the aging nuclear reactors, in the brimming industrial ‘retention’ ponds, in the soils, the water, the animals, our bodies.  Think of the bio-accumulating heavy metals, the PCBs, the radioactive ‘hot particles’ – health-compromising poisons that are both already present in excessive amounts and ready to flood over our communities en masse from their temporary repositories once the feeble industrial safeguards melt away with collapse.  …So like the present-day farmers of Fukushima, many of us will indeed be raising radioactive cesium from the soil along with our post-collapse fruits, nuts, and veggies.  Yum.  ...Hey, what’s this lump?      
So we are about to ‘discover’ (surprise!) that human agriculture indeed has an ecological foundation – and that this foundation is either severely eroded, toxic, or just plain gone.  …All of which sort of sucks if your goal is to feed yourself, your family, and your community. 
…But hey, no worries – human agriculture’s a given, right?  
V. The Hazy Future of Human Food
Now, I find no joy in being a ‘Danny Downer’ here, but there just seems to be an awful lot conspiring against our ability to grow food in the decades ahead.  And Ido realize I have no divine knowledge; I fully understand that these are complex systems interlinked in complex ways, resulting in an awful lot of possible futures.  But when you start to weight those futures based on the apparent biophysical trajectories of all-things-agricultural (climate change, loss of genetics, soil degradation, economic collapse, etc.), it just doesn’t look too promising.
So as a way to visualize where we may be headed, I made a little chart plotting the possible climate destabilization versus the possible loss of agricultural genetics/technology/knowledge.  I’m holding the degree of ecosystem degradation as a constant here – an approximation, of course, since it is linked to the other variables.  I do this because I suspect that such degradation is (sadly) the most predictable of the three key factors discussed in the last section.

Figure 4. Human food-acquisition in the Anthropocene.  Different food acquisition strategies will be possible based on different (as-yet-to-be-determined) degrees of climate destabilization and loss of agricultural genetics/technology/knowledge.  Both scale and technological complexity decrease upwards and to the right – as each of the variables becomes more degraded. 
So how do we interpret this graph?  Different regions of the graph correspond to different food acquisition strategies that may be possible under various (as-yet-to-be-determined…but looking worse every day) combinations of climate destabilization and genetics/technology/knowledge-losses. 
My (not-exactly-earth-shattering) thesis here is that increased climate destabilization and increased genetics/technology/knowledge-losses will necessarily reduce both the scale and technological complexity of human agriculture.  They will simply reduce what is possible.  First fossil fuel agriculture blinks out.  Then progressively simpler forms of agriculture blink out.  And at some point, any form of agriculture becomes non-viable as a sole provider of food and must be supplemented with hunting and gathering.  Beyond that, only hunting and gathering become viable.  And beyond that, no food acquisition strategies are effective, and the population blinks out.
What I think is vital about the graph is that it’s a conversation we are not having -- and one that we really need to start having.  We need to stop pretending human agriculture is a given – and especially to stop pretending that we will be able to feed ourselves using the same fragile, annuals-based, fossil-energy-dependent agriculture we now employ.  …Because we certainly won’t.  And heck, we might not be able to employ any agriculture at all – at least not as it’s now recognized.
And beyond that, we need to start saying that, yea, the stakes of our industrial depredations are rising so high that we actually need to invoke the dreaded “E” words here – extirpation and extinction.  We need to stop telling ourselves that, by continuing our wicked industrial ways, we’re only endangering ‘the economy’ or ‘growth’ or ‘prosperity’ or ‘our standing as a nation.’  Fuck that.  …We’re endangering our lives.  We’re endangering the lives of our children.  We’re endangering the lives of every living being on the planet.  Those are the stakes here, and if we’re hell-bent on offing ourselves for the sake of double-caramel lattes, we should at least have the pseudo-dignity to acknowledge it and maybe sort of apologize to everything we’re taking down with us.
(deep breath)
So there.  And aside from just being kind of scary (or inspiring, I suppose, if you rejoice at the demise of ecosystem-degrading human agriculture), the graph above does have practical implications, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

Here are some key resources to both back up the stuff I’m going to talk about and help people move ahead with the good work we need to do.  
A. Climate
B. Collapse
C. Agriculture
  • Mark Shepard:  Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers(2013)  …VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
  • Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier: Edible Forest Gardens (2005)
  • Bill Mollison: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (1988)
  • David Holmgren: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability(2002)
  • Permaculture videos: and
  • Eric Toensmeier: Perennial Vegetables (2007)
  • Joseph Jenkins:  The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure (2005)
  • P.A. Yeomans:  Water For Every Farm: Yeoman’s Keyline Plan (2008)
  • Janisse Ray:  The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food(2012)
  • Carol Deppe:  The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times (2010)
  • Sandor Katz: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World (2012)
  • Mike & Nancy Bubel:  Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables (1991)
D. Hunting and Gathering
  • Samuel Thayer:  Natures Garden: A guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Plants (2010); The Forager’s Harvest: A guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Plants (2006)
  • Richo Cech:  Making Plant Medicine (2000)
  • Jon Young:  Animal Tracking Basics (2007); What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (2012)
  • Paul Rezendes: Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign (1999)
  • Tom Brown: Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival (1987);Grandfather: A Native American’s Lifelong Search for Truth and Harmony with Nature (2001)

Part II

When Agriculture Stops Working: Ten Recommendations for Growing Food in the Anthropocene

This is the concluding part of a 2 Part essay. Read Part 1 here.
VI. Ten Recommendations for Growing Food in the Anthropocene
Now, despite my best efforts to look into the crystal ball here, I fully expect there will be a lot about the future of human food acquisition that will surprise me…and perhaps even in a good way!  But in light of all the known troubles bearing down on us, I think it’s just plain suicidal to muddle on as-per-usual and hope it’ll all be OK.    
…So we need to act.  …Now.  And I think there’s an awful lot we can do now – that we must do now – to give ourselves and the planet the best shot of coming out of this in one piece.  And I think that most of these things (aside from hastening the collapse of the industrial earth-destroying machine), involve the manner in which we get our food.    
And please don’t wait around for BigAg Inc. (and its subsidiary, the US government) to start doing anything useful.  Because they won’t.  They have very clearly cast their policy vote for the mass murder-suicide of the industrial model of agruculture.  It’s up to us – you and me.  We need to do this ourselves. 
…So towards the goal of fashioning a livable future in which we can enjoy both bodily and spiritual sustenance, here are my humble recommendations:    
1. Plant perennials!
Perennials have several key advantages over annuals in our climate-challenged, soil-depleted, fossil-fuel-deprived, socially-upheaved future.  Perennials have more robust structural integrity, improved soil-holding/building ability, superior nutrient and water gathering efficiency, decreased annual labor input requirements, more efficient gathering of sunlight, longer annual period of active photosynthesis, and less reliance on precise rainfall and temperature patterns. 
It’s hard to say exactly what’s coming, but it’s not gonna be pretty -- and I’m putting mymoney on perennials.   
And there is a large selection of perennial food-producing perennials to choose from in just about any region of the US.  In central NJ, I’ve planted a large-and-growing selection of (1) nuts (Chinese chestnut, hybrid hazelnut, black walnut, pecan, heartnut, butternut, Carpathian walnut, shagbark hickory), (2) fruits (pear, apple, peach, pie cherry, persimmon, plum, blueberry, pawpaw, fig, elderberry, raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry, kiwi, grape), (3) perennial vegetables (asparagus, sunchoke, rhubarb, scorzonera, Chinese yam, skirret, nettle, horseradish), and (4) grasses (sheep & cows) 
My first plantings are a good 13 years old at this point and I’m starting to have a feel for what works and what doesn’t in my soils and the current climate.  I don’t coddle them because I won’t be able to coddle them in the future.  I want to see what species/varieties can produce with minimal inputs in ‘tough times.’  For example I don’t spray, I add only compost amendments, and I do only minimal maintenance to ensure survival (plastic vole collars at base, deer-browse protection tubes when young).  I’ve found sweet cherries don’t work for me.  Non-hybrid plums don’t look good (although the jury’s still out on the hybrid plums).  Figs die back most winters (…so far).  But everything else looks good – and some of it looks great.  …Again, my money’s on the perennials.
But you need to plant them now – this Spring.  And next Spring.  …And every Spring after that until you can no longer lift a spade.  We’ve got an awful lot of roots to put down.    
And for those who poo-poo perennials because they don’t feel the yields can match annuals, I suggest they try a few years of growing annuals in the manner we will be growing them shortly – only manure fertilizers, no sprays, no tractors for annual soil preparation or cultivating, open pollinated seeds, minimal watering.  …Because, as they say, you gotta compare apples to apples.  …And so how do the yields look now?  Not quite as much, huh?  Especially with all that wacky weather.  Hmmm… 
And as Mark Shepard discusses in his unbelievably-excellent new book,Restoration Agriculture (2013), both the nutrient profiles and yields of perennials show that perennials can provide both the calories and nutrition we currently get from annuals. 
…And it’s not like we have a choice anyway.  As the kids say, annuals are so…so Holocene.           
2. Plant a polyculture of perennials!
The weather in any given growing season can be perfect for one plant species and a disaster for another.  So to hedge our bets against increasingly wacky weather – as well as the increasingly-severe pest outbreaks, economic convulsions, and social upheavals that we can expect – we need to plant a rich selection of perennial food crops on our farms and homesteads.
But more than just planting a diversity of perennials, we’ll need to plant themtogether, in a ‘polyculture.’  Why?  Several reasons: (1) First, a polyculture decreases the severity of pest outbreaks due to lower density of each plant species and richer ecosystem to foster predators to those pests. (2) Secondly, it increases nutrient and water uptake efficiency since different plant species utilize a different suite of nutrients and occupy different regions of the soil profile. (3) And thirdly, it provides a richer, more complexly-structured ecosystem to nurture all the unappreciated heroes of our world – the fungi, the soil organisms, the insects, the birds, the amphibians and reptiles, the mammals. 
As a general rule, mimic the structure of a diverse natural ecosystem with your food crops and all the former ecosystem functions of the forest return.  Like magic.  And, exactly opposite to the industrial orthodoxy, we don’t thrive unless everything else thrives.  So we need to quit trying to exterminate everything else and create conditions where they and we thrive.  Period.  Everything else is a recipe for suicide.
And I should note here that these benefits of perennial polyculture won’t just be ‘nice things to have’ in the very challenging years ahead, they will be damn nearessential.  To put it bluntly, we’ll have a hell of a time growing anything unless our future food systems are structured around the resilient framework of fully-functioning ecosystems.  It’s literally the only shot we have.    
OK, so perennial polyculture is essential.  But what will such a modern agricultural heresy look like?  Well, just pick up a copy of Mark Shepard’sRestoration Ecology and look at all the pretty pictures!  Shepard has created a working 100+ acre farm in Wisconsin based on a polyculture of perennial crops, combined with a slew of cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys – all set in the middle of a sea of soon-to-be-defunct corn-&-bean industrial monocultures on surrounding farms.    
One of the versions of perennial polyculture Shepard describes features one row of hybrid chestnuts with a shade-tolerant gooseberry understory, and then a neighboring row of apple trees with a hybrid hazelnut and raspberry understory.  This double row pattern then repeats.  Oh yea… grape vines are trellised on each tree.  And oh yea… cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are grazed in a controlled manner on the grasses, herbs, and clovers between the rows.  This configuration (one of countless possibilities) not only gives a bountiful yield of carbohydrates, oils, proteins, and nutrients, but it does so in a way that can persist (climate-destabilization-willing) essentially forever.  It builds soil, not wastes it.  It fosters a diversity and abundance of ecosystem-sustaining life, not destroys it.  It provides bodily and spiritual fulfillment to farmers, not degradation.  It is the healing of the world, not its destruction.    
Of course, such a perennial polyculture agriculture goes by another name as well: permaculture.  Shepard is a trained permaculture designer (see Mollison, 1988) and devoted follower of the permaculture ethics and principles (see Holmgren, 2002), which are demonstrated on many other enlightened farms as well.  See, for example, these two videos: and    
3. Breed your own perennial varieties!
OK, let’s say you have a fantastic permaculture farm set up -- the diversity is humming, the land is healing, the plants are producing, you’re spreading the word and teaching others how to do it…and then disaster after disaster hits.  Wacky weather on top of wacky weather.  A blight sweeps through your peach trees, killing them all.  Several species of nuts wilt and die mid-season from…well, who knows?!  …Now what?
A key feature of perennial polyculture is the creation of a self-sustaining, food-producing ecosystem that works for your soils and your climate.  …But what if the climate changes?  Well, we better have not only a wide diversity of perennial crops species (in case some blink out), but a good bit of genetic diversity withineach species.  With this genetic diversity, some extreme shift in the local climate or pest/disease outbreak is unlikely to kill all of any one crop – giving you an opportunity to expand with the genetics of the varieties that made it through.
And to get this genetic diversity we’re all going to need to become seat-of-the-pants, Johnny-Appleseed-type breeders and start planting a lot of seedling fruits and nuts – in addition to the standard grafted varieties that produce well under current conditions.
I currently have between two and a dozen grafted varieties of each of my fruit/nut species.  And as I said previously, most of them are starting to produce on the spectrum between good and great.  But I don’t think my current genetic diversity is resilient enough to handle what’s coming.  So I’m going to be planting a lot of seedling fruit and nuts this Spring from seed I saved from last fall and seed that I’ve purchased.  And I’ll plant more the following year, and more the…etc.
I’ve already started this strategy with Chinese chestnut, of which I have hundreds of seedling trees -- hundreds of different genetic talents -- in various stages of growth.  I’m about to become a latter-day Danny Appleseed by doing the same thing with apples, pears, peaches, persimmon, pie cherries, and more this Spring.  I even sent away to the NY State Agricultural Experiment Station (Geneva, NY) for a bunch of apple seeds from their Kazakhstan wild apple orchard (Malus sieversii -- See Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, as well as  I realize that a lot of these seedling trees won’t be too useful from the start.  …But they very well may become useful as the climate changes and things get weird.  Hey, it’s not that hard to do, and it just might be the difference between apples or no apples a few decades from now.        
So exactly how do we become plant breeders?  Do we need to shuffle back to the universities and get masters degrees in botany and genetics?  Umm…No.  As Mark Shepard passionately advises in Restoration Agriculture
“Plant way too many food-producing trees and shrubs in the early years.  …Continue to remove the ones that are susceptible to diseases and that are attacked by pests and continue to plant new seedlings and varieties year after year after year.  Let the dynamics of population ecology kick in and let pest and disease populations stabilize.  A deeply diverse system will provide habitat for predatory insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  If a plant wants to die, let it!  We’re not interested in the ones that get diseases.  We are not interested in the ones that are unproductive.  We are not interested in the ones that require tons of specialty fertilizers manufactured in gleaming factories thousands of miles away.  We’re interested in the ones that live.  …We want the ones that are pest- and disease-resistant and need very little care.  If a plant wants to live and thrive and reproduce, we will harvest its seeds, its fruit, its leaves or other edible, medicinal or otherwise marketable products.  This is the essence of the permaculture principle of working with nature instead of fighting against it.  Figure out what is working effortlessly well in perennial polyculture systems and run with it.” (Restoration Agriculture, p. 249)
That excellent advice and some dirt under your fingernails (i.e. practice and experience) are all you need to become a plant breeder.  So let’s do it.
I would just add that we might not want to be too picky about selecting for great production from these new perennial varieties.  There’s just so much trouble coming down the pike and some of the lesser-producing varieties might be the only ones to make it through.  …And I’d also add that due to the velocity of the changes we’ll be facing, this breeding will necessarily be an ongoing process, done year after year after year – like evolution on steroids, so to speak.  …Which we’ll certainly need to match a climate on steroids.
4. Include animals!
One of the first things you learn in ecology is that plants capture energy from the sun, and that only about 10% of that energy is available to the herbivores (say, cows & sheep).  But also only about 10% of the energy embodied in the herbivores is available to those who eat them (say, humans).  So it follows that by eating animals who eat plants (and getting just 1% of the initial sunlight energy), we’re wasting an awful lot of energy/resources that would otherwise be available for humans and other species if just ate the plants directly.  So, the thinking goes, to conserve ever-scarcer resources and leave room for other species, we should just eat plants.
But in light of approaching climate/collapse troubles, I think there are two main arguments for keeping (and eating) animals.  One of the arguments is that it just doesn’t seem possible to grow plants in a low-input, sustainable manner withoutanimals.  There’s just something about animal manure that facilitates nutrient cycling.  Nature farms with animal manure, and, so it seems, should we.  Time after time you hear farmers say this: “Well, I don’t use animals on my farm – except for manure that I get from a nearby cow/horse/sheep/goat/pig/chicken/turkey farm.”  And if it’s not manure from one of those species, its human manure.  Witness pre-industrial Japan and China described in F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries.    
The other argument is that farm animals, especially the ones who eat food wastes and grasses that we can’t, can not only fit snugly into our little perennial polyculture ecosystems, but also represent a hedge against disaster.  Because what do you do with your prize chestnut trees if fighting breaks out locally and you’re forced to relocate for a few months or years?  You leave them and their life-sustaining nutrition behind.  But what do you do with your sheep?  You bringthem…and eat them.  And what do you do if your perennial polyculture suffers from the disaster of disasters -- a near complete crop failure?  Well, you eat your animals and you forage for wild foods.  (More on honing our foraging skills coming up!)    
So basically, (1) we need animal manure to grow our perennial polycultures, and (2) animals, when managed with ecological sensitivity, can be a security blanketagainst famine under certain disastrous situations.  We certainly need to start putting our human manure back on the land (See Jenkins’ The Humanure Handbook), but I think that, for resilience sake, we also need to incorporate animals into our perennial polyculture farms. 
I currently graze sheep in my young food-forest-to-be, but there many more-developed examples of ecologically-sound animal husbandry out there.  One is (surprise!) at Mark Shepard’s Wisconsin farm.  In Restoration Agriculture, he describes using pigs to clean up both the early fruit drop and the damaged fruit in the fields at harvest time.  He just lets the pigs out in the food forests/savannahs at appropriate times and they do the rest – which has the added benefit of breaking many of the pest cycles that bother the fruit trees.  He also uses cows to mow the grass between the woody-crop rows, dropping piles of soil-enriching manure as they go.  And here’s an excellent video from Sepp Holzer’s farm in Switzerland showing a similarly mutualistic relationship of cows and food trees:
5. Manage the rain water!
The climate disruption I fear the most is the armada of crippling droughts that are on the way as summer temperatures rise and high pressure systems get ‘stuck’ over us for months at a time with the ever-more-sluggish jet stream.  (See my essay, and the references therein.)  And to compound this, the rain that we do get is expected to come in ever-more-intense bursts, most of which will merely sheet right off the land and into the streams and rivers.
So what’s required of us agriculturally is this: to keep as much of this precious rainwater on our farms as possible.  Planting multi-storied, perennial polyculture ecosystems will certainly help, as the increased soil organic matter and rain-drop-slowing leaf structures will allow more rain to sink into the soil.  But we’ll also need to employ other clever strategies to get the water into the soil and to spread it out around the farm.  Mark Shepard (in Restoration Agriculture) gives an enthusiastic plug to P.A. Yoemans’ ideas from Water for Every Farm: namely, (1) using ‘collector swales’ to direct runoff water to numerous ‘pocket ponds’ around the farm, and (2) using mini-berms and ‘spreader swales’ to redirect water from higher-elevation valleys to lower-elevation ridges.
Shepard swears by these hydrology practices, and says they not only keep water on the farm, but serve to build soil as well.  There is some soil movement and tractor work required (subsoiler or ‘keyline plow’, and earth-mover for pond construction), but the benefits may indeed be worth it while we still have access to fossil fuels.  In absence of tractors, we’ll need a lot of able-bodied people with shovels to do the same work.  …But hey, what else are we gonna do when there’s no more TV and computers – stare at the wall?  …No, we’ll throw a ‘pocket pond’ party!
A substantial side-benefit to keeping a lot more water on the farms is some relief from the devastating floods that are already increasing and likely to skyrocket with increased climate destabilization.  In addition, we’ll have tons of food-producing ponds, a lot more sustained flow in streams and rivers, and a plethora of springs popping up in places only our great, great, great grandparent’s generation knew about.  …Sounds like a good deal.
6. Process, preserve, add value, & store on-site!
In addition to the epic challenges of just growing our food within an evil-funhouse climate and collapsing civilization, we’re going to need to drastically change the way we handle this food on our farms.  Namely, we’ll need to become skilled at processing, preserving, adding value, and storing multi-year quantities of this food on our increasingly-stressed and buffeted farms and homesteads.
The great majority of food produced by today’s industrial farms leaves the fields directly in fossil-fuel powered 18-wheelers, headed many miles away to fossil-fueled processing plants, and is then distributed by more fossil-fueled trucks to fossil-fueled box stores and supermarkets, to eventually be consumed in fossil-fueled homes or feed lots.  …This is an arrangement that obviously has no future. 
Absent of fossil fuel and its dependent infrastructures, we’ll need to transform a majority of the food we grow into more stable forms right here on our farms and homesteads.  This will not be too challenging for a number of perennial polyculture nut crops (chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, etc.) which store well with minimal processing, but a lot of our other crops will require more effort.  Our farms will thus need to be skilled at drying, fermenting, smoking, canning, salting, root-cellaring and any other preservation strategies we can dream up.  (See Katz and Bubel references above, among many others.)
There is, of course, a tremendous up-side to all this: turning our ecologically-rich farms into bustling compounds populated by variously-skilled artisans, all adding value and shelf-life to a wide diversity of nutritious foods.  Contrast that with today’s ‘farms’, populated sparsely by lonely humans roving immense, ecologically-devastated, bare-dirt landscapes in hulking metallic shells, transforming fossil fuels and soil into a handful of nutrient-deprived industrial-food raw materials.  (Gaia shudders)
And don’t forget that all this wonderful processing and preserving will be occurring within the context of a destabilizing climate and collapsing civilization.  With the resulting food insecurity, we’ll need to discipline ourselves into storing at least several year’s worth of our community’s food at any given time.  Maintaining this discipline will obviously be challenging while our communities are buffeted left and right, up and down -- but I suspect that if we don’t take this storage imperative seriously, we simply won’t be communities very long.  …Just sayin’.  Moving forward, we need to keep reminding ourselves that these will notbe ‘normal’ times.
7. Don’t forget annuals!  
Given all the heartbreaking, 10,000-year ravages of annuals-based agriculture, it’s tempting to try to sweep these annual crops into the erosion gullies of history as fast as possible.  And maybe we should.  …But maybe we can’t.  Because now and then I get this gnawing fear in my gut that all my perennial plantings may be for naught. 
For one thing, I fear that these vicious droughts just over the climate-destabilization horizon may come too often and too severe to support trees.  Biomes historically wracked by periodic crippling droughts (and the associated fires) are typically largely treeless – the grassy steppes, prairies, and tree-sparse savannahs where the large migratory ruminants roam.  I fear this may be one of the futures for my central-NJ community and many other places around the US.  (See the projected drought maps in
If such a dire scenario comes to pass, we may need to hedge our bets as much as possible with a wide diversity of annual crops.  Obviously no food crops will thrivein such a difficult and changeable climate, but some of the hardier or quick-growing annuals may at least give us something.  Because, of course, that’s what annuals are adapted to – areas of disturbance where the plants get just a quick shot at glory.  And perhaps these little windows of ‘glory’ may help some of us sneak through the coming bottlenecks.  …So that’s why I suppose I’m not giving up my little 30+-species annual veggie/grain garden until they pry it from my hot, desiccated fingers.  (See
A second possibly-crucial attribute of annuals is their ability to travel with us if we get uprooted by the coming climate/collapse/nuclear craziness – much like our potentially-mobile farm animals.  A pocketful of seeds on a long hard refugee’s journey may just be the difference between life and death in a new, potentially-habitable land.  Which, of course, suggests we keep a robust supply of annual seeds (along with and even more robust supply of perennial ones!) in an accessible place.  Just in case.
Of course, part of me cringes shamefully for my advocacy of even small-scale annuals, in light of the devastation annual agriculture has wreaked on this planet.  …But if it’s a choice between my family’s life and a future generations’ environmental depredations, I suppose I’ll choose as humans have always chosen: I’ll try to keep us alive.  …You can take the caveman out of the cave, but you can’t…  Sigh.
In any case, check out the books by Carol Deppe and Janisse Ray in the references.  …But remember, we really should be concentrating most of our efforts on ways to get perennials into a nature-mimicking, resilient polyculture.  So (ominous voice)…be forewarned.  Annuals are quite seductive, as 500 generations of your ecosystem-destroying ancestors can attest.
8. Become a wild-plant gatherer!
As Samuel Thayer writes in his wonderful book, The Forager’s Harvest, “Foraging is the oldest occupation of humankind.  For most of our history we knew no other way of living.  We are built, both mentally and physically, to be hunters and gatherers.  Somewhere inside of us we are all foragers, no matter how much we have lost touch with that aspect of our nature.”
…Can’t argue with that.  You also can’t argue with his next statement, which is this: “Today, if cut off from purchased supplies, most of us would starve in the midst of plenty.”  Which brings us back to my main theme here: that if agriculture may well abandon us in the coming decades, we should probably hedge our bets and consider some other ways to feed ourselves – at least as much as that’ll be possible.
And thus recovering the lost arts of foraging/gathering wild plants becomes one of our current tasks at hand.  This is, of course, a scary proposition for most Americans, weaned on plastic-wrapped food-type-substances and little acquainted not only with edible wild plants, but with any plants.  Most of my high-school ‘AP Chemistry’ students (super-bright, 17 & 18 year-old suburbanites -- biological adults!) cannot even identify the most common local trees and birds, much less the scoffed-at ‘weeds’ – most of which, ironically, are perfectly edible and may very well be needed to keep their children alive.
So how do we go about re-learning the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?  Well, I suggest first some basic ecological and botanical knowledge.  In days gone by, this was obtained through osmosis by lives immersed in nature from birth.  In this disconnected era where children have been increasingly raised within electromagnetic prisons, such knowledge will need to come from books or mentors.  So find one...or two…or twenty.  Soon.  Good mentors are better and faster than good books – but books are available 24/7.  Use both.
Secondly, we need to get out in the yards, fields, woods, and ‘waste areas’ that surround our everyday lives and start looking at what’s there – preferably accompanied by someone who already knows, and maybe a few good books (ex: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, The Sibley’s Guide to Trees, Weeds of the Northeast, etc.)
Thirdly, (and only after thoroughly mastering the first two!) we need to start identifying and experimenting with the edible, nutritious plants that surround us.  This can, of course, be dangerous if done incautiously – for example, there’s a huge stand of poison hemlock (sometimes confused for the edible wild carrot) lining the stream out behind my high-school.  Be careful.  Get some good, knowledgeable mentors.  And get some good books – I very highly recommend Samuel Thayer’s wild edibles books (see references).  Euell Gibbon’s books from the 1960’s are good as well.  (Thayer warns that apparently many wild-edibles books are written by wild-food ‘semi-posers’ at the behest of market-savvy publishers.  He suggests we avoid those.)
Gathering the plants we’ll need for post-industrial medicines will also be a valuable skill – one which also requires reams of largely forgotten ecological knowledge.  Again, find some mentors.  Find some good books. 
9. Become a tracker/hunter!
I think it’s safe to say that most Americans at this point are utterly dumbstruck once they step off the sidewalk onto anything other than a lawn, a street, or a store.  Plop the majority of Americans into the middle of even a modestly-sized woodlot and I think you’d get a range of emotions from utter boredom to sheer terror.  This is, of course, a rather odd situation for a species completely at home in such an environment only very recently.
…And it’s also, of course, a rather deadly situation moving forward.  Because, deciphering the biophysical tea leaves here, it’s becoming more and more likely that we’ll need to both read and interact with our fellow critters if we want to eat in the challenging times to come.  And since most Americans -- even an awful lot of the remaining industrial ‘hunters’/target-shooters -- don’t know all that much about tracking and hunting, it means we’ll need to learn.
Now, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a skilled tracker or hunter, but I was deeply affected by the tracking and bird-language books of Tom Brown, Jon Young, and Paul Rezendes.  Since reading them, I’ve tried to think and act ‘like a scout’ as much as possible, wherever I am – slowing down, paying attention, listening, looking, being conscious of how I am being perceived by the surrounding organisms, trying to interpret their messages.  This practice, of course, is diametrically opposed to the industrial directive of staying snugly inside your own mind (or more preferably, the mind of your chosen electronic device) and barreling hurriedly through a sea of inanimate objects to your next appointment.  As such, it takes some practice – a lot of practice if you’ve been industrially indoctrinated since birth.
So we need to practice.  I recommend the tracking books above.  And also track down (ha ha) the authors’ thousands of former students scattered across the US for mentors in your area.  There are other resources for low-tech hunting and trapping strategies, as well as methods to process and preserve game.  I’m even less skilled at those than tracking itself, so you’re on your own there.  But nonetheless, these are skill we’ll need.  …So let’s learn them.
10. Start now!
I’m under no delusions that we’re going to make it out of this unholy hole (ha ha) we’ve dug ourselves into.  So much depends on whether industrial civilization has the good manners to collapse soon and rapidly – thus sparing us the killing blow of unendurable climate destabilization.  …But since it’s shown nothing but really bad manners so far, I’m not holding my breath.
But what I am doing is the only thing I can do: start making preparations that make sense, on the off chance that we get lucky.  These preparations (all the recommendations I’ve described above) are likely much easier started now than when the economic wheels really come off -- which may be (hopefully, for the climate’s sake and our children’s sake) any day now. 
So I’m doing what I can, while I can.  And when circumstances change, I’ll keep doing what I can, while I can.  And then at some point I’ll die, and maybe the world will be a better place for my efforts – a happier, more diverse, greener, funnier, prettier, kinder, more song-filled place.  …That’s what I’m hoping for.  That’s what I’m working for. 
…Well, that was a long essay.  But it’s warming up here, and I think it’s time for me to go plant some trees. 
So take care. 
And good luck. 
Here are some key resources to both back up the stuff I’m going to talk about and help people move ahead with the good work we need to do.  
A. Climate
B. Collapse
C. Agriculture
  • Mark Shepard:  Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers(2013)  …VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
  • Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier: Edible Forest Gardens (2005)
  • Bill Mollison: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (1988)
  • David Holmgren: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability(2002)
  • Permaculture videos: and
  • Eric Toensmeier: Perennial Vegetables (2007)
  • Joseph Jenkins:  The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure (2005)
  • P.A. Yeomans:  Water For Every Farm: Yeoman’s Keyline Plan (2008)
  • Janisse Ray:  The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food(2012)
  • Carol Deppe:  The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times (2010)
  • Sandor Katz: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World (2012)
  • Mike & Nancy Bubel:  Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables (1991)
D. Hunting and Gathering
  • Samuel Thayer:  Natures Garden: A guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Plants (2010); The Forager’s Harvest: A guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Plants (2006)
  • Richo Cech:  Making Plant Medicine (2000)
  • Jon Young:  Animal Tracking Basics (2007); What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (2012)
  • Paul Rezendes: Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign (1999)
  • Tom Brown: Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival (1987);Grandfather: A Native American’s Lifelong Search for Truth and Harmony with Nature (2001)


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