Are we on the verge of mass starvation? Has the planet reached its “carrying capacity?” Is a big “die-off” lurking around the corner of history? Dale Allen Pfeiffer thinks so. He’s the author of Eating Fossil Fuels, an alarming little book with a familiar ring to it, for those old enough to remember Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, and for those studious enough to remember Malthus two hundred years before that, with his own dismal projections about huge population increases.

It’s an alarm we’ve heard before, an alarm we will hear again, and one always, in some ways, worth listening to. Pfeiffer’s particular brand of doom arrives under the umbrella of the Peak Oilers, and this book is aimed squarely at them, perhaps hoping to make a few converts along the way. Peak Oilers, as the name implies, believe that world production of oil will peak sometime soon — in 2010. Each year after that, they say, we’ll have a little less oil to go around. This will make getting to the mall harder and more expensive, yes, but Pfeiffer is more concerned about the impact of oil scarcity on agriculture, particularly on the industrial brand of agriculture that rules the United States. Large-scale agriculture requires a tremendous input of energy to produce food and move it from coast to coast. Rising energy prices could be “catastrophic” to mass food production, writes Pfeiffer, adding, “Hunger could become commonplace in every corner of the world, including your own neighborhood.”

Drawing on a number of studies, Pfeiffer tosses out reams of scary statistics. We put 10 times as much energy into our food as we get out of it, for example. With fossil fuels, he calculates, it takes about 20 minutes of labor to feed each American each day. Without the help of fossil fuels, Pfeiffer argues that it would take 111 hours of labor to feed each American each day. As with many numbers in this kind of conversation, this number looks right but feels wrong, or vice versa; humans, after all, did remain self-sufficient for millennia before the oil age, and it was not likely based on a 111-hour workday. But, still ... “Quite plainly,” he goes on to write, leaving this odd figure, like so many others, behind, “as fossil fuel production begins to decline within the next decade, there will be less energy available for the production of food.”

Many Peak Oilers worry that the decline in energy will be sudden, as rising demand panics in the face of shrinking supply. It would be devastating, of course, but it is not actually quite plain that Peak Oil will hit us in 2010. The truth is, no one knows when it will — or whether we’ll be able to develop technological fixes to respond to the shortage when (or, better yet, before) it does. Meanwhile, efficiency measures, as demonstrated in the early '80s, can happen quickly and with astounding effect. For instance, according to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit energy-policy organization, we cut oil consumption 15 percent in the six years after 1979, while the economy grew 16 percent.

Our end, then, may not be awful and right around the corner, but Eating Fossil Fuels is useful all the same, suggesting a number of ways to make agriculture more local, less environmentally destructive, and less energy intensive. There are, after all, more than enough reasons to scale back on our use of fossil fuels — and soon — beyond the threat of running out of them. Global warming is a big one, of course. But local agriculture undertaken in a low-impact way provides aesthetic as well as world-saving benefits. Industrial agriculture, while enabling us to feed the world, has also led to imbalances in the ecosystem, the conversion of too many small farms into subdivisions, and a real lack of lush and ripe tomatoes in our markets. Here’s hoping Americans don’t need the threat of an apocalypse to change all that — especially the part about the tomatoes.

Story by Bryant Urstadt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.

Food scare
What will happen to agriculture when the oil runs out?