“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Richard Feynman


Thermodynamics And The Sustainability Of Food Production by Jay Hanson

by Jay Hanson — revised 4/12/97

Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment—that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.
—Daly and Townsend

All matter and energy in the universe are subject to the Laws of Thermodynamics. In the discipline of Ecological Economics, systems are delimited so that they are meaningful to our economy. What does thermodynamics have to do with the sustainability of food production?

Thermodynamic potential is a measure of a system’s capacity to perform work. The two essential forms of stored thermodynamic potential are “energy” (e.g., a barrel of oil) and “order” (e.g., clean drinking water and deep topsoil).[1]

“Entropy” is a measure of the unavailability of energy: the entropy of oil increases as it burns. Entropy can also be thought of as a measure of disorder in a system: polluted water that reduces crop yield has higher entropy than the same water unpolluted, and the entropy of topsoil increases when it erodes, is waterlogged, or is degraded by irrigation that “inevitably leads to the salinization of soils and waters.”[2]

[3]Increasing entropy in our food system is reducing the potential of the system to do work (produce food).

Sustainable systems are “circular” (outputs become inputs)—all linear physical systems must eventually end.[4]Modern agriculture is increasing entropy in both its sources (e.g., energy, soil, and ground water) and its sinks (e.g., water, soil, and atmosphere). Thus, modern agriculture is not circular—it can not be sustained.

Consider one of the most important limiting variables—energy.[5]Food grains produced with modern, high-yield methods (including packaging and delivery) now contain between four and ten calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of solar energy.[6]In the 70s, it was estimated that about four percent of the nation’s energy budget was used to grow food, while about 10 to 13 percent was needed to put it on our plates.[7]

There is NO substitute for energy. Although the economy treats energy just like any other resource, it is NOT like any other resource. Energy is the precondition for ALL other resources and oil is the most important form of energy we use, making up about 38 percent of the world energy supply.

NO other energy source equals oil’s intrinsic qualities of extractablility, transportability, versatility and cost. These are the qualities that enabled oil to take over from coal as the front-line energy source in the industrialized world in the middle of this century, and they are as relevant today as they were then.

40 years ago, geologist M. King Hubbert developed a method for projecting future oil production and predicted that oil production in the lower-48 states would peak about 1970. These predictions have proved to be remarkably accurate. Both total and peak yields have risen slightly compared to Hubbert’s original estimate, but the timing of the peak and the general downward trend of production were correct.[8]

In March of 1996, World Resources Institute published a report that stated:

“Two important conclusions emerge from this discussion. First, if growth in world demand continues at a modest 2 percent per year, production could begin declining as soon as the year 2000. Second, even enormous (and unlikely) increases in [estimated ultimately recoverable] oil buy the world little more than another decade (from 2007 to 2018). In short, unless growth in world oil demand is sharply lower than generally projected, world oil production will probably begin its long-term decline soon—and certainly within the next two decades.”[9]

Well, so much for oil! Should we be alarmed? YES! Modern agriculture—indeed, all of modern civilization—requires massive, uninterrupted flows of oil-based energy. For example, the International Energy Agency projects that world oil demand will rise from the current 68 million barrels per day to around 76 million b/d in year the 2000 and 94 million b/d in 2010.[10]What will happen when demand for oil exceeds maximum possible production?

To really understand the underlying causes and implications of oil depletion, one must stop thinking of the “dollar cost” of oil, and take a look at the “energy cost” of oil. We note that the energy cost of domestic oil has risen dramatically since 1975.[11]As oil becomes harder and harder to find and get out of the ground, more and more energy is required to recover each barrel. In other words, the increasing energy cost of energy is due to increasing entropy (disorder) in our biosphere.

Optimists tend to assume that the “quality” (e.g., liquid vs. solid) of energy we use is not significant, that an infinite amount of social capital is available to search for and produce energy, and that an infinite flow of solar energy is available for human use. Realists know that none of these assumptions is true.

In fact, ALL alternative methods of energy production require oil-based energy inputs and are subject to the same inevitable increases in entropy. Thus, there is NO solution to the energy (entropy or disorder) problem, and the worldwide energy-food crisis is inevitable.

When we can no longer subsidize modern agriculture with massive fossil energy inputs (oil-based pesticides and fertilizers, machine fuel, packaging, distribution, etc.), yields will drop tobelowwhat they were before the Green Revolution![12]Moreover, billions of people could die this coming century when the U.S. is no longer able to export food[13]and mass starvation sweeps the Earth.[14]

Is there nothing we can do?

We could lessen human suffering if all the people of Earth cooperated for the common good. But as long as political systems serve only as corporate errand boys, we’re dead.

  1. “With the development of the Second Law, thermodynamics confronted the general question of identifying the natural direction of change for all systems and processes. The entropy of the system and its surroundings becomes the key to answering this question. Much of the effort in late 19th and 20th century thermodynamics was concerned with rephrasing the criterion of increasing entropy of the system and its surroundings in terms of new properties of the system alone. The ideas evolved into the invention of thermodynamic potentials, quantities analogous to potentials in mechanics and electricity, whose changes are equal to the best possible performance of a system or process, either the work the system can do or the heat it can transport. The new properties are the Helmholtz and Gibbs free energies . . . These are the most generally used of the thermodynamic potentials. They are functions of state that put bounds on a process variable, the amount of work that a process can do when it operates under particular constraints.”p. 193, UNDERSTANDING ENERGY, Berry; World Scientific, 1991. ISBN 981-02-0342-X. See Also See Energy, Entropy, Economics, and Ecology
  2. [dead link]
    [dead link]
  4. “Material value is produced by concentrating and structuring matter into useful forms. Yet due to the law of nature that ‘everything disperses’ (the 2nd law of thermodynamics), all productive activities will always cause greater dispersal and disruption elsewhere. Plant cells are the engine for creating value in the biosphere since only they can oppose the tide of constant decay by using energy from the sun. The other law of nature, ‘nothing disappears’ (the law of conservation of matter) shows how every atom has only two choices: it either becomes new resources or accumulating junk.”—Karl-Henrik Robert founder of The Natural Step
  5.  [dead link]
  6.  [dead link]
  7. p. 172, BEYOND OIL, Gever et al.; Univ. Press Colorado, 1991. ISBN 0-87081-242-4. Phone: 303-530-5337
  8. p. 55, Ibid. See Interactive Hubbert’s peak prediction vs. actual oil production in the United States
  9.  [dead link]
  10.  [dead link]
  11.  Beyond Oil
  12. Yield will be lower than before the Green Revolution because:
    1. The ability of the land to support agriculture has been markedly diminished through poor farming practices (mining not husbanding the land);
    2. Erosion and the removal of vegetation has diminished the quality and quantity of the soils;
    3. Water resources (even beyond fossil water—groundwater) are reduced; and
    4. Seeds suitable for a sustainable agriculture are no longer available or in quantity.
    Also see: p. 27, Gever et al., 1991.
  13. Estimated in 1994 to be about 2025 by Pimentel. See FOOD, LAND, POPULATION and the U.S. ECONOMY
  14. “Finally investment can not keep up with depreciation (this is physical investment and depreciation, not monetary). The economy cannot stop putting its capital into the agriculture and resource sectors; if it did, the scarcity of food, materials, and fuels would restrict production still more. So the industrial capital plant begins to decline, taking with it the service and agricultural sectors, which have become dependent upon industrial inputs. For a short time the situation is especially serious, because the population keeps rising, due to the lags inherent in the age structure and in the process of social adjustment. Finally population too begins to decrease, as the death rate is driven upward by lack of food and health services.”—p. 133, Meadows, et al., BEYOND THE LIMITS; Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-930031-62-8.

POWER SURGE, Christopher Flaven and Nichols Lenssen, Worldwatch Institute, 1994. p. 289.Global Oil Production from WRI.

  • If one considers the last one hundred years of the U.S. experience, fuel use and economic output are highly correlated. An important measure of fuel efficiency is the ratio of energy use to the gross national product, E/GNP. The E/GNP ratio has fallen by about 42% since 1929. We find that the improvement in energy efficiency is due principally to three factors: (1) shifts to higher quality fuels such as petroleum and primary electricity; (2) shifts in energy use between households and other sectors; and (3) higher fuel prices. Energy quality is by far the dominant factor.

  • “In 1989 the world reserve/production ratio for natural gas was 60 years, which means that if current known reserves continued to be used at 1989 consumption rates, they would last until the year 2050. Two things will happen to make that simple extrapolation wrong. One is that more reserves will be discovered. The other is that future use will not be constant.
  • “Suppose, for purposes of illustration, that enough recoverable gas will eventually be discovered to use at the 1990 world rate not for 60 but for 240 years. (That is a generous estimate. The general consensus is that yet-undiscovered reserves will be roughly the same size as current proved reserves, and there is a systematic tendency for fossil fuel resource estimates to overshoot the actual amounts finally obtainable. 33) If the 1990 use rate remained constant, gas reserves would go down linearly, as illustrated by the diagonal line in Figure 3-11 and would last 240 years. But if consumption continues to grow at the rate at which it has grown over the past twenty years, about 3.5% per year, the 240-year reserve would plummet exponentially as shown by one of the lines in Figure 3-11. It would be exhausted not in 2230, but in 2054; it would last not 240 but only 64 years.”If, to reduce some forms of pollution and escape oil depletion, the world calls upon natural gas to carry the energy load now handled by coal and oil, the growth rate could well be faster than 3.5%. If it were 5% per year, the “240-year supply” would be exhausted in 50 years.”[p.p. 70-71]

BEYOND THE LIMITS, Meadows, et al.; Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1992. 800-639-4099, 603-448-0317, Fax 603-448-2576; ISBN 0-930031-62-8

CountryExtent of Degradation
ChinaErosion affects more than a third of China’s territory some 3.67 million square kilometers. In Guangxi province, more than a fifth of irrigation systems are destroyed or completely silted up by eroded soils. Salination has lowered crop yields on 7 million hectares, use of untreated urban sewage has seriously damaged some 2.5 million hectares, and nearly 7 million hectares are polluted by industrial wastes.
RussiaEroded area increases by 400,000-500,000 hectares each year, and now affects two-thirds of Russia’s arable land. Water erosion has created some 400,000 gullies covering more than 500,000 hectares.
IranNearly all—94 percent—of Iran’s agricultural land is estimated to be degraded, the bulk of it to a moderate or strong degree. Salination affects some 16 million hectares of farmland, and has forced at least 8 million hectares from production.
PakistanGullies occupy some 60 percent of the 1.8 million hectare Pothwar Plateau. More than 16 percent of agricultural land suffers from salination. In all, more than 61 percent of agricultural land is degraded.
IndiaDegradation affects one-quarter of India’s agricultural land. Erosion associated with shifting cultivation has denuded approximately 27,000 square kilometers of land east of Bihar. At least 2 million hectares of salinized land have been abandoned.
Haiti32 percent of land is suitable for farming, but 61 percent is farmed. Severe erosion eliminated 6,000 hectares of cropland per year in the mid-1980s.
AustraliaMore than 4.5 million hectares of drylands—10 percent of all cropland—and more than 8 percent of irrigated area are affected by salting. Area affected by dryland salting doubled in size between 1975 and 1989.

Worldwatch Institute, Paper #131, Gary Gardner, July 1996, p.p. 28-29.HECTARES PER PERSON OF WORLD GRAIN HARVESTED, 1950-2030Ibid. p. 37.

Region/AquiferEstimates of Depletion
High Plains Aquifer System, United StatesNet depletion to date of this large aquifer, which underlies nearly 20% of all U.S. irrigated land, totals some 325 billion cubic meters, roughly 15 times the average annual flow of the Colorado River. More than two-thirds of this depletion has occurred in the Texas High Plains, where irrigated area dropped by 26% between 1979 and 1989. Current depletion is estimated at 12 billion cubic meters per year.
California, United StatesGroundwater overdraft averages 1.6 billion cubic meters per year, amounting to 15% of the state’s annual net groundwater use. Two-thirds of the depletion occurs in the Central Valley, the country’s (and to some extent the world’s) fruit and vegetable basket.
Southwest, United StatesOverpumping in Arizona alone totals more than 1.2 billion cubic meters per year. East of Phoenix, water tables have dropped more than 120 meters. Projections for Albuquerque, N.M., show that if groundwater withdrawals continue at current rates, water tables will drop an additional 20 meters on average by 2020.
Mexico City and Valley of MexicoPumping exceeds natural recharge by 50-80%, which has led to falling water tables, aquifer compaction, land subsidence, and damage to surface structures.
Arabian PeninsulaGroundwater use is nearly three times greater than recharge. Saudi Arabia depends on nonrenewable groundwater for roughly 75% of its water, which includes irrigation of 2-4 million tons of wheat per year. At the depletion rates projected for the 1990s, exploitable groundwater reserves would be exhausted within about 50 years.
North AfricaNet depletion in Libya totals nearly 3.8 billion cubic meters per year. For the whole of North Africa, current depletion is estimated at 10 billion cubic meters per year.
Israel and GazaPumping from the coastal plain aquifer bordering the Mediterranean Sea exceeds recharge by some 60%; salt water has invaded the aquifer.
SpainOne-fifth of total groundwater use, or 1 billion cubic meters per year, is unsustainable.
IndiaWater tables in the Punjab, India’s breadbasket, are falling 20 centimeters annually across two-thirds of the state. In Gularat, groundwater levels declined in 90% of observation wells monitored during the 1980s. Large drops have also occurred in Tamil Nadu.
North ChinaThe water table beneath portions of Beijing has dropped 37 meters over the last four decades. Overdrafting is widespread in the north China plain, an important grain-producing region.
Southeast AsiaSignificant overdraft has occurred in and around Bangkok, Manila, and Jakarta. Overpumping has caused land to subside beneath Bangkok at a rate of 5-10 centimeters a year for the past two decades.

Worldwatch Institute, Paper #132, Sandra Postel, September 1996, p.p. 20-21.

by Garrett Hardin (1993)


Since Jevons’s day petroleum has replaced coal as the principal spur to industrial civilization. Modern transportation would be seriously handicapped if it had to depend only on coal, lignite, and peat. (These other resources can, of course, be converted into liquid fuel, but with considerable loss of useful energy in the conversion.) Almost a century after Jevons’s cry of “wolf!” was refuted by history, it was natural that scepticism should be focused on the next wolf-outcry, which was stimulated by worries about the early exhaustion of oil supplies.

A graph of the course of extraction of oil from the ground looks very much like the graph of the exponential growth of debt given previously in Figure 8-2. A “cornucopist” who finds it natural to suppose that the debt curve is a curve of the increase of wealth may well find it easy to assume that the curve of energy “production” will soar upward forever. If challenged he will justify his position by saying that his optimism is based on the idea and reality of “substitutability.” He uses history as a justification for this assumption.

A long time ago we used wood for energy; then we found out we could use coal; now we use oil; when the oil runs out, we can go back to coal; and by the time that runs out we will no doubt have found some other energy source. The greatest “other” of course is nuclear energy, the discussion of which is postponed to the next chapter. For the present we will look into the limitations of petroleum as a future source of energy for industrial civilization.

The alarm about petroleum was sounded early in this century. Looking over the oil industry’s data some pessimistic prophets predicted an early end to petroleum supplies, usually in about twenty years. Then twenty years passed, and oil was found to be as plentiful (relative to demand) as before. At this point (naturally) some new prophet proclaimed that the exhaustion of oil lay only another twenty years ahead. The pessimists’ horizon seemed to be a constant twenty-years-to doomsday. Such a moving target is hardly the sort of thing to inspire public confidence in the nervous peepings of our Chicken Littles!

Why were pessimistic prophets repeatedly wrong? The most important reason was this: the forecasters confused petroleum resources with petroleum reserves. As was stated in Chapter 7, “resources” refers to the total amount of oil estimated — or “guesstimated” -to be in the ground. Obviously not much precision can be claimed for this figure. “Reserves,” on the other hand, refers to the total amount of petroleum that has already been discovered and is waiting to be pumped up. This figure can be fairly closely estimated by standard methods — provided the owners of the reserves (the oil companies) are willing to share their “proprietary” information with others (which they usually are not).

Reserves seldom amount to more than a twenty-year supply at the predicted rate of use. There are good financial reasons for this limitation. It takes money to drill wells, and borrowed money costs money. It doesn’t make economic sense to borrow money to discover oil that won’t be pumped up and sold until many decades in the future. A twenty-year reserve is quite enough. All too often our Chicken Littles look only at reserves, while cornucopists pin their hopes on resources. Though less precisely known than reserves, the resources are certainly much larger and they are not wholly fictitious.


Petroleum prophecy took a new turn in 1948, the 150th anniversary of Malthus’s essay. M. King Hubbert ( 1903-1989), a petroleum geologist employed at that time by Shell Oil, introduced a sophisticated new method of analysis.l2 His method was based on effort per barrel — the drilling effort expended per barrel of oil discovered and brought to the surface. The money price of oil will, “other things being equal,” increase with scarcity; but as long as people are willing to pay the price, oil companies have no reason to stop drilling. Ultimately, however, the energy price of obtaining oil will exceed the energy derivable from the product; beyond that point there is no rational defense for “producing” more fuel oil. Hubbert noted that the barrels of oil produced per unit effort required for the discovery of the reserves had been decreasing regularly for a long time. Projecting the curve into the future he predicted the “end of oil” for the United States and for the world. These terminal dates were much closer to hand than the ones assumed in the front office of the major oil companies. Understandably, Hubbert was promptly labeled as the latest reincarnation of Chicken Little.

Hubbert persisted, extending and refining his methods during the next two decades. He predicted that in the early 1 970s the price of petroleum would take a sharp turn upward. When the oil shock of 1973 came — the first oil shock we now call it — Hubbert was vindicated. We cannot ignore the fact that international politics played a role in producing the oil shock of 1973: price fixing by OPEC, the cartel of the major oil-exporting nations, touched it off. But the cartel could not have made its high prices stick in the absence of the relative shortage predicted by Hubbert.

The decade preceding the 1973 oil crisis was marked by sharp debates between the supporters of Hubbert (the “pessimists”) and his opponents, the “cornucopists” — who occupied positions of power in industry and government. While Hubbert estimated that the lifetime production of petroleum in the United States would be from 150 to 200 billion barrels, A. D. Zapp, of the U.S. Geological Survey, estimated 590 billion. The opponents were working with the same data.

A significant difference in their methods involved the estimate of oil found per foot of drilling in the future. Zapp assumed that the future would be like the past. This approach no doubt seemed conservative to many people, but it was not: Zapp was assuming that the extended future would be like the immediate past, which is a mere moment in time. A true conservative would use not the moment but the trend in constructing a telescope for looking into the future.

Hubbert was a conservative of the second sort. Extrapolating the trend of increasing effort that was apparent in the history of drilling, Hubbert concluded that the future will be worse than the past. Cornucopists of course called this attitude “pessimism.” Perhaps it is: but history has vindicated Hubbert. The yield per effort has gotten steadily worse. To expect otherwise would be to assert that petroleum geologists are incompetent. Faced with many possible drilling sites, a company geologist will advise his firm to drill the most hopeful ones first. If he is competent, the potential of the yet undrilled sites will diminish steadily with the passage of time. Productivity per foot drilled goes down, cost goes up. (If Zapp were right — if petroleum geologists were incompetent — then oil companies might as well save money by firing their geologists and choosing their drill sites by flipping coins.)

For a decade the influential director of the USGS “bought” Zapp’s estimate and opposed Hubbert. When the first oil shock came, two national committees (one within the USGS) were appointed to evaluate the situation. Both committees endorsed Hubbert. Finding his professional authority undermined, the director of the USGS resigned. Hubbert, for so long a “prophet without honor in his own country,” was fully vindicated.

Yet the biblical description of a “prophet without honor” is not entirely appropriate in this case. Pessimistic prophets and whistle-blowers are often given a hard time by their bosses. It is, therefore, a pleasure to report that the executives of Hubbert’s own company, the Shell Oil company, though not pleased with what he was saying, supported him during his “years in the wilderness.” 133 In 1963 M. King Hubbert joined the faculty of Stanford University, from which he retired in 1968. After his victory in 1973 the “retired” prophet was in great demand as a speaker on the significance of physical resources for the survival of civilization


The pivotal role of energy in determining the quality of human life is now widely recognized. In what follows I will, unless otherwise stated, use the phrase “quality of life” to refer to the physical quality of life-to the possibility of enjoying such amenities as a pleasant ambient temperature, good food, freedom from pollution of many sorts (including noise pollution), ease of moving from one place to another, and so on. This emphasis does not deny the importance of nonphysical aspects of living — the charms of art, music, nature, animal pets, and human friendship, for example. But the connection of nonmaterial treasures with simple physical wealth is not easily clarified.

The ease with which useful energy can be captured has a great deal to do with the physical quality of life. Cheap energy means abundant supplies of energy requiring goods; when energy becomes expensive, people start complaining of shortages. In the last three centuries an increasing fraction of our daily energy supply has come from petroleum, gas, and coal. What can we say about human history in the light of the supplies of fossil energy?

Graphing the rate of use of each fossil energy source yields a bell-shaped curve. Figure 14-1 gives Hubbert’s projection of the world’s use of petroleum over time. Until the year 1900 the level of world production was too low to show on the scale of this figure. Then it rose exponentially almost until the present. After 1973 the path departed more and more from an exponential curve due to increasingly tighter supplies. At some point (here estimated to be about 1995, but the date is not precise) the curve of petroleum use will bend over and start heading downward. As indicated in the figure, 80 percent of the oil will be used up in a mere fifty-six years, scarcely more than a moment in the history of mankind. All but a small percentage of the extractable oil will be taken from the ground in less than two centuries.

A similar graph for coal extraction would look much the same, but it would begin earlier and peak later than the oil curve. Comparable curves must hold for natural gas, tar sands, oil shales, and peat, but the numerical data are less reliable. Lumping all the energy data together produces the graph shown in Figure 14-2. This curve has come to be known as “Hubbert’s Pimple.”

The part of the curve that lies in the future is conjectural, of course, but there can be little doubt of its essential correctness. To feel the full impact of reality, one should, in imagination, extend the curve far beyond the bounds of the printed page. The leftward extension would go beyond the four thousand years shown (which take it only back to 2000 B.C.). Homo sapiens — our species — has been in existence for about one hundred thousand years. The progenitor species go back at least a million years. Were we to extend the curve backward a million years it would reach to the left of this printed page for about forty feet.

For all but a few hundred years of that time the curve of fossil fuel usage is nearly flat on the horizontal axis, not visibly above the level of usage = 0. The curve started rising only yesterday, as it were-specifically, about six hundred years ago, when we started using coal in significant quantities. From all the signs, the human species is only a few score years away from the peak of the curve. After that the curve will fall rapidly until it once more lies prostrate on the zero line. The prosperous period of our fossil-energy- fueled-civilization can be no more than a pimple on the lifeline of human existence.

Chapter 8 made the point that the ability to extract meaning from graphs is an essential part of “numeracy.” Hubbert’s pimple is a test of that ability. As one traces this curve from the evanescent present into the unavoidably near future the numerate viewer experiences something of a cold chill traveling down his spine. If words will help, the restrained summary Hubbert wrote in 1981 should be of aid (Box 14-1). 14 Those who understand Hubbert’s pimple find its implications as incompatible with easy optimism as Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

To date, from the beginning of time until we become entangled in the veil of the future, the curve of human population growth is essentially identical with the curve of fossil energy usage. The near identity of the two curves must be more than coincidence. Human life and civilization require steady inputs of energy. The number of human lives, and the scale of energy use per capita to which we have become accustomed, produce so high a rate of energy demand that the thought of exhausting fossil energy resources is scary. To see what lies ahead of us-and not very far ahead of us, at that-we need to look at a magnification of the yet-to-be-developed part of the curve where the turning takes place (Figure 14-3).

Too many of our people unfortunately expect the curve of available energy (the dashed line) to continue to increase exponentially forever. As energy inputs start to fall short of our exponential expectations there will be a period that is characterized by widespread fear and denial of the facts. This will be followed by what we can only designate by the pitifully inadequate word “shock.” Beyond that lies the pain of “social chaos” — also inadequate words.

All this is within the veil of the future, so it cannot be dignified by the name “fact.” The exhaustion of fossil fuel resources is certain enough to be called a fact. The human reactions of fear, denial, shock, and pain are also facts; but, being information-mutable facts, they are facts of a different order. Such facts are subject to some control (modification) by human decisions, by human effort and by human will. (But what sort of fact is human will?)

Can we develop a new and significant supply of energy? Is nuclear energy such a one? Theoretically, the per capita supply of energy can be increased by reducing the number of people making demands on the environment. Or a “shortage” can be done away with by lowering per capita energy demands. Both possibilities are denigrated as “utopian” by most people, but the mythical man-from-Mars (who is, by hypothesis, a perfectly intelligent and all-knowing being) might well, after examining the human situation on earth, ask: “What’s the trouble? There’s no reason on earth you earthlings cannot accept, in plenty of time, the necessity of stopping exponential growth. When you understand what has to be done, stop.”

No reason on earth why exponential expectations cannot be eliminated? Quite so: no reason on earth. The trouble is not exactly “on earth”: the problem is in our heads. Not in one human head, but in a collectivity of many human heads. Solving problems that are “in our heads” is much more difficult than solving problems “on earth.” We need to take a closer look at some of the curious processes that take place in the minds of human beings as they become aware of problems created by human successes in gaining a partial mastery of nature.


There is a family resemblance between the predictions of pessimists and the story of the boy who cried wolf. It may be argued that doom sayers, unlike the fabled boy, do not intend to deceive. Perhaps this is generally true; but Keynes, who gave a sympathetic reading to Jevons, called attention to the fact that Jevons was a prodigious hoarder of brown packing paper, of which he bequeathed so large a supply to his heirs that they still had not exhausted the supply fifty years later. Keynes went on to postulate that Jevons’s conclusions in the coal question “were influenced, I suspect, by a psychological trait, unusually strong in him, which many other people share, a certain hoarding instinct, a readiness to be alarmed and excited by the idea of the exhaustion of resources.” 15

In the days when scholars thought that logic alone was enough for the discovery of truth, a postulation like Keynes’s merited condemnation as an argumentum ad hominem — an argument against the man who advances a view, rather than an argument addressed to the facts. But Freud has taught us to mitigate our logical purity: justified or not, critics’ opinions of a man’s doctrines are shaded by their evaluation of his personality. Different critics, different evaluations, different judgments.

Pessimists are not given an easy time in this world. Prophets are subject to a double standard: optimists are permitted many mistakes; pessimists, none. One well-publicized mistake-and it may not even be a large one-and a doom sayer’s words are heavily discounted from then on. People hunger for pleasant truths. This is understandable: but should this hunger be encouraged? If there must be a failure in prophecy, which is the more dangerous: the optimistic prophecy that is refuted by events, or the pessimistic prophecy that blessedly proves false? What is the true path of prudence? (That, however, may be a poor appeal to make: when was the last time you heard the word prudence used in public? In today’s world many people are embarrassed to claim this virtue: Why?)

Abandoning psychologism, can the frightening implications of Hubbert’s pimple be escaped? This is the question that is now before the house. [p.p. 137-144]

LIVING WITHIN LIMITS, Garrett Hardin; Oxford University Press, 1993; ISBN 0-19-507811-X 800-334-4249 or FAX 212-725-2972

by Anne Matthews

Caprock covers much of the High Plains, and the Ogallala owes its recharge to the caprock. The aquifer is not an underground sea, as the name suggests, but rather a subterranean layer of saturated stone (five-sixths gravel, one-sixth water) built by millennia of raindrops absorbed into Plains grassland. The recharging process is still going on at a stately pace, a portion of every meager rainfall percolating down, centimeter by centimeter, through sandy topsoil and thirty feet of caprock. But caliche is lime hardened to the consistency of cement, strong enough to resist anything but a charge of dynamite. Water can get through caliche, but it takes a while. In Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, a billion water-feet are lifted yearly from the ancient aquifer for irrigated farming. In 1950 central Kansas had 250 wells sunk into the aquifer; in 1990 it had over 3,000. In 1950 the Kansas portion of the aquifer was fifty-eight feet thick; today, in some places, less than six feet of moisture remain. The Great Plains would have to enjoy the rainfall of a Brazilian jungle for the Ogallala to keep pace with so relentless a draw.

The strain is showing. Near Floydada, Texas, one county southwest of Quitaque, the water table has fallen nearly one hundred feet in one hundred years. Cracks and sinkholes have begun appearing in the earth from Texas to Nebraska as the traumatized Ogallala settles, and settles again. Beyond the Ogallala’s reach, drought and the politics of water are no less worrying. Periodic water rationing has been declared in towns and cities across South Dakota since 1989; South and North Dakota and Montana are currently suing the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for increased access to the waters of the Missouri. To which the Corps replies: Get real. Every water-foot is spoken for, and then some.

Like the residents—the former residents—of other sections of the Plains, Quitaque’s citizens appear to be voting with their feet. On a warm, clear Saturday afternoon, the silence in the central business district is absolute; no bird cries, no voices, no engines. Nothing. We wander the sidewalks and talk in whispers, like tourists at an archaeological site.

We do not know Quitaque’s population, official or actual. Deborah has only the 1980 census figure (696 people); her 1984 Hammond atlas, beloved by geographers for its completeness, shows Quitaque on the map, but the town in which we stand has disappeared from the Texas index. Unlike in Gotebo there is no one to ask or even to talk to. On the door of the town’s one semifunctioning hardware store hangs a sign, Call If You Want Anything, followed by a home phone number. The other stores along Quitaque’s main street are not in ruins, like their Goteboan counterparts, but neither are they in business. Instead, each front window in each locked and defunct shop houses a still life, neatly arranged and labeled, of artifacts from Great Plains life circa 1870-circa 1960, when Quitaque still thrived. Visit Our Sidewalk Museum, says a sign painted on the side of the downtown’s last building. [p.p.128-129]

On the plane back to Denver I sit beside a rancher and a sugar beet farmer. All the way across northeast Colorado we look out the window in silence. Like smoke from a hundred prairie fires, mile-high plumes of thin, dry dirt are rising in the golden afternoon light. The dust plumes are shortgrass topsoil, released by the spring tilling, blowing east and away.

“Hate to see the dust rising this early,” says the rancher with a sly sideways glance at his seatmate. “Shouldn’t ever have broke the sod in the first place.” The farmer flushes, turns abruptly from the window, and buries his nose in Forbes.

In Colorado alone nearly 750,000 acres of marginal grasslands were plowed between 1978 and 1987, in the interests of efficient, fencepost-to-fencepost crops. In 1989, after 10,000 acres of nearby range were plowed up for planting, one ranch owner in the terrain below us saw flying topsoil bury her grazing land up to the fencetops. Her neighbor called it an act of God. The rancher sued, saying, “It’s not an act of God. It’s an act of greed. God doesn’t have a plow.” [p. 153]

A few days later the U.S. Soil and Conservation Service reports that more than 14 million acres on the Great Plains have been damaged by wind erosion alone since the previous November—the worst damage since record-keeping began in 1954. Reported damaged in November and December 1990 were 1,844,437 acres, up from 1,743,000 acres in the same two months of 1989.

I try to call Kenny MacDonald and the Fries family, to see how they are getting along in the drought. It is just a year since Jeffrey Aaronson and I stood in their fields and watched the spring plowing for wheat. The Kansas operator searches her computer, then tries all the little towns nearby, but cannot find a phone listing. “Must have moved away,” she says at last. [p. 172]

WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM, Anne Matthews; Grove Weidenfeld, 1992. ISBN-0-8021-1408-3