Friday, 25 January 2008

How Relocalisation May Work

In the last week there has been a flurry of activity over at The Oil Drum on the subject of relocalisation. It began with an essay by Stuart Staniford, titled The Fallacy Of Reversibility which looked at the future prospects for relocalisation. There was a followup piece analysing this essay, mainly aimed at pointing out the holes, called Is Relocalisation Doomed by Sharon Astyk. Green With A Gun has also made some important points on the issue, and certainly a lot easier to follow.

There are now hundreds of comments on the articles, arguing to and fro about their merits and the general future of relocalisation and/or society. It's a lot to wade through, and as with all such commenting, there will never be a consensus. I'm setting out here to put together my thoughts on the matter. These thoughts have kept me awake for the last night or two (or three) so hopefully by setting them down I might get a peaceful night's rest. It is not a quantitative analysis, more a discussion on probable mechanisms that would influence a change in social behaviour to bring about something resembling relocalisation.

To begin, Stuart approaches the subject of whether relocalisation will result from peak oil from the perspective of the supplier. This, I think, is a major flaw in his analysis. Any change does not proceed from one element of a relationship alone, but is the result of the changes in both sides. Supplier and consumer are intimately linked in the case of food supply, and by only looking at the supply side of the equation we are missing at least half of the case.

Boiled down, Stuart is asking "will industrial agriculture become unprofitable due to peak oil?" and unfortunately this is missing the heart of the matter. It's not whether industrial agriculture will be profitable or not that tells us whether relocalisation will work post-peak oil.

The first question should be "what is relocalisation?". This will give us a basis that will allow us to consider the situation in the correct light.

To my mind relocalisation is about sourcing your goods and services in the local economy. An adjunct to that is that the local economy must step up to the plate and supply more goods and services to meet the demands of local consumers. That's it in a nutshell. Keep in mind that supplier and consumer are always intimately linked, one accepts feedback from the other and vice versa.

Nothing in that description implies the continuance or otherwise of industrial agriculture. There is also nothing in it that says industrialised agriculture cannot be used locally. We must insert a caveat, that obviously fuel and parts for the maintenance of machinery are generally not locally available commodities, but a profitable enterprise should be able to deal with those issues.

Relocalisation is more about the spatial relationship with sources of goods than the sources themselves. Sure other issues can be brought into it, such as of ethical production, but these are sideline issues to the central issue of distance. I'm not sure whether it fits the purist relocalisation philosophy, but I believe trade over distance will continue to a degree even in a relocalised area, but that trade wont be in the goods required for our day-to-day survival.

Whilst relocalisation covers things other than food, the focus here is on food, due to the critical part it plays in our continued existence. I believe the ideas expressed for food can be applied to other things with some consideration.

I do appreciate that Stuart was most likely approaching the issue in the fashion he did in order to prove that whilst there was broadscale industrial agriculture there was no impetus for suppliers to turn to any other model of production, but I personally see this as playing around the fringes of the true issues that need to be considered. It's not about whether the supplier needs to turn to some new model of production, but about whether the consumer needs to.

I will touch briefly on a related issue for a moment. There is a lot of talk about calls for large proportions of the population to return to producing their own food as a part of the relocalisation ethos. In Stuart's essay it seemed to be assumed that this would be enacted by a movement of people into the workforce of existing farms, that there would be some economic spur that would drive the farmer to take on physical labourers in place of machinery. I think this is also a misunderstanding of relocalisation. Such a thing would not come to pass at least until it cost more to run machinery than it did to hire labour. Whilst that state of affairs is entirely possible, as Stuart was able to prove it's not likely for some time to come, at least not from a purely economic standpoint in relation to the farmer's bottom line.

Let us consider the consumer, strangely absent from Stuart's analysis, yet central to the reasoning behind relocalisation as a mitigation strategy for peak oil.

Relocalisation is currently a voluntary exercise. It is an activity undertaken by people and communities as a form of insurance. Why insurance? By patronising local suppliers, demand will increase supply, according to economic theory. With an abundance of local suppliers a community or region becomes insulated against shocks to the industrialised mechanisms of goods supply.

I feel this is one of the core paradigms of the relocalisation movement. Forseeing disruptions to stretched supply chains (often global in extent) localities hope to minimise the impact of such disruptions on their daily lives, and therefore upon their chances of continued existence.

The push for relocalisation is not going to come from the bottom line of the grower, but from the consumer. Whilst we have abundant transport fuels to run the current networks everything is okay. As soon as supply declines to any great extent then trouble begins. It does not matter whether a farm in the U.S. is economically viable post-peak oil if the people reliant on it's produce are half a world away in Australia and the goods never arrive because the transport company is unable to purchase fuel.

This highlights the fact that one of the primary motivators is going to be the cost and availability of transport. The cost of getting the goods to market, where this remains possible. Farm gate prices will have an influence on the final price, but these are compounded along with the cost of transport, and the overheads and operating profit of the end marketers, to give a final price. As this goes up, so the affordability of the food decreases.

This leads us to the second factor that needs to be considered when trying to understand what may push people to relocalisation, spending power. Let's consider a "case study" to illustrate some points.

A consumer earns $800 per week working. Of that $800, $200 goes to driving 40km into the nearest town to work on a daily basis. A further $300 is spent on food for the family and the rest goes on mortgage/rent, and sundry other expenses.

As the price of food increases due to the increasing input costs (fundamentally, fuel), we will have inflation (if I understand economic theory correctly!) and the standard approach to combatting inflation is to raise interest rates. So as food costs increase and mortgage/rent payments increase.

Our hypothetical consumer does not want to give up her job, so cutting back on fuel use is not an option. Due to the troubled housing market, moving is not an immediate option. The non-essential sundry expenses go first, and then the budget of food needs to be trimmed. Over time this happens again and again. No more chocolate biscuits, then no more biscuits at all. No more pre-packaged meals. No more soft drink. Before too long the consumer is at a point where they are forced to buy raw foods (if they know of such things, perhaps they have starved for lack of 2 minute noodles by this time) and create their own meals.

The essential message (if sense prevails) is that the consumer gradually moves to a state of producing meals from raw foods. They are now caught between a rock and a hard place. Further increases in price cannot be dealt with by making the diet more raw, they can only be dealt with by reducing the amount of food available.

Now of course there are a multitude of humans, and every one will have a different response to such a situation. Perhaps they turn to charity, move in with relatives, etc. Some though, will have thought ahead and now be growing some proportion of their own food, likely to be mostly vegetables. So begins one aspect of forced relocalisation. Not forced in the sense that everyone will be required to do it by some authority, but forced in that there is an outside factor or influence driving people to it.

The final element of relocalisation to be considered (here at least) is that of the source of food. Currently the majority of people shop in big chain supermarkets. The buying power of these organisations means that food can be brought to the consumer at a price that is often lower than the input costs to the producer. I am personally acquainted with horticulturalists who have left the industry due to the fact that they were getting paid less for their produce than it cost them to grow it.

Now many people would argue that this is a push toward economies of scale, that larger farms will take the place of these smaller, family run enterprises, and one of the central assertions of Stuart's piece is that such large farms will remain profitable throughout.

It is already a fact that our local farmer's market is cheaper than the local supermarket (when I say local, both are 45km away from the village where we reside) The farmer's market is well supported, but only occurs fortnightly.

Again, talking of sensible choices, as fuel prices rise, and following them food prices, we should still see a difference between these two means of obtaining food. Word would get around as people began to search for cheaper sources of food. Patronage at the market would increase, local growers currently supplying to the central markets would hear of this and change the way they do business, moving to sell through the markets. The markets may then run weekly, or daily even, as demand from the consumer spurs the suppliers on.

The cheaper prices at the market still generally mean that the supplier is getting more than when selling to the wholesale market, as long as the farmer is willing to go to such lengths. I imagine that other forms of market selling will come about, such as local agent systems where the fellow who enjoys the hurley burley of the markets collects produce from a group of more socially reticent suppliers and takes it along weekly or daily.

And so relocalisation would come about through the forces applied upon the consumer by the system, and then applied by the consumer back onto the system. As budgets are squeezed by increasing prices consumers move from the ease of driving to the nearest supermarket for pre-packaged meals to sourcing rawer foods closer to home in an attempt to maintain their existence. To be sure this will not happen as a rule, and not be across the board, but it is a mechanism that will result in relocalisation without conscious intent.

As indicated in the beginning, this is a consideration of hypothetical mechanisms that could drive relocalisation, an attempt to look at the factors that were missed in Stuart's essay. It lacks numerical backing, and also suffers for the fact that humans are, if nothing else, an unpredictable species. Still, if the chains of cause and effect outlined here are logically consistent, then it is certainly a possibility, though whether it is a probability remains to be seen. If ever I get a holiday again I may try to put some numbers to it.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Done, Perhaps? Well Shorn, Certainly!

First an update on the state of Billie, the new girl on the block, for the folks who have expressed a desire to see how she turned out after her run through the beauty salon. A much more visually and aromatically appealing creature :-) About a third the size as well.

Our professional goat wrangler friend tells us she is probably around 2 years old, and in good condition considering her recent lifestyle. Once shorn she had a toenail trim, drench and vaccination, and then kitted out with a collar. We were also informed that she has very nice fibre, so next shearing, when it hopefully wont be so infested with weeds and bugs, it might be a candidate for spinning.

Over the last few days she has already become much more tame. She enjoys a good scratch, though she needs to be caught to give her one. Once you've begun you can let go and she'll stand there enjoying it. She also doesn't run for the hills when we come near, so we're making swift progress. We're hoping that by the time she's willing to come when called for a treat of some kind then we'll be able to let her off and she wont immediately trash the fences in an attempt to escape.

As I hinted at in the last post, this weekend was spent out on the new block, doing the work that is required to "start construction" so that we can preserve the building entitlement when the boundary change goes through.

It was a wet, wet, wet weekend, especially Saturday, though a few showers went through on Sunday. This is the first time in some time that we've had decent rain, which I considered quite ironic. There was no way I was going to put off the work for an extra week, so went ahead regardless. I arrived on site at about 8 am on Saturday, and the bulldozer arrived half an hour later. Work commenced shortly after that.

My tasks were to get the new access installed, and when the earthworks were complete install the erosion control. Initially we were thinking we'd go with strawbales for this aspect of the project, but thankfully my FIL had some of the real stuff from one of his previous projects, so I was able to put that to use. Strawbales are very hard to come by at the moment, so we may have had to wait to get them.

Below are some pictures of the progress of leveling the house site.

Below, the job is done...

Below is a picture of the new access, about half way through the work. I still had to string some wire up on the left hand fence. We will need to introduce about a foot of fill into the "driveway" to bring it up to level. You can just make out a hummock of dirt at the foot of the left hand gatepost, which represents roughly where it will need to come up to.

The earthworks were completed by about 3pm on Sunday, fences and erosion control by 6pm. All in all it was an action packed, sometimes miserable and wet, weekend, but we got the jobs done, and maybe, just maybe, we might be only a couple of weeks away from settlement on the block. Then the fun will really begin. Our only concern at this stage is whether we have installed enough erosion control. We wont know the answer to that until the certifier gets back tomorrow and can get out and have a look at it. Our fingers are firmly crossed...

Friday, 18 January 2008

Construction, Angora And Forest Gardening

Tomorrow the bulldozer will be arriving and the levelling of the house site will begin. I've also got all of the bits and pieces ready to build the new gateway, so I'll do that whilst the big machinery crawls about doing it's thing. I'll be sure to get a few pictures!

With some luck (and a lot of hard work, I'm guessing) we should have all of the work finished this weekend, meaning we can hand the ball back to the vendor so he can do what needs to be done and we can settle on the land, contractually, if not physically at this stage.

On the home front we've recently been gifted an Angora goat. She's stinky and feral after living wild in a friend's paddock, an escapee from another farm that could never escape from the newer home after breaking in. With some paitent care she has become a bit more friendly in only a few days. There's hope for her, much more than when the prior "owner" was set to give her a "lead injection" to end her feral rampage and harrassment of his alpacas. Sometime later today our friend from across the road will be visiting with her shearing plant and we will clean off a few years worth of matted and crusty fleece and spruce her up. She should hopefully smell a lot better after that.

I've recently finished reading Forest Gardening, by Robert A de J Hart. The concepts of forest gardening were developed in roughly the same era as those of Permaculture and agroforestry, in this case over in England. Many of the themes are similar to those running through Permaculture, but I found the book very enjoyable for the focus that was given to the philosophy and ethics of our lives. It is certainly a book about transitioning to post-industrial living, in harmony with the green world (though peak oil is not mentioned, or even hinted at, once!) It also discusses the role of craft as a part of being human. Creating things with our hands is one of the greatest things we can do, one of the most satisfying, and also one that can put us in much closer contact with nature. The following excerpt sums up the philosophy of the book perfectly:

To my mind, the basic criterion must be responsibility. The Green world is the responsible world. It recognises that the basis of all life is the miracle of the green leaf. The green pigment, chlorophyll, is the only substance on earth that understands how to harness the energy of the sun to create living matter. Moreover the green leaf absorbs harmful carbon dioxide, the cause of the greenhouse effect, and exhales oxygen, without which no living organism can exist for more than a few minutes. Therefore our first duty to all life is to preserve as much greenness as possible and to promote an ever increasing abundance of green growth. Industrial society, on the other hand, is essentially hostile to greenery. It kills it with it's acid rain, buries it beneath layers of concrete, it burns and bulldozes it out of existence. Therefore measures to ameliorate the colossal harm that it does are not enough. For the sake of all life, we must at all costs progress as speedily as possible towards a post-industrial society, which will meet the majority of it's physical needs, from the infinite and largely unexplored potentialities of the green world.

p133 (Any transcription errors are my own)

The following blog post is also well worth a read. US centric but applicable to all free peoples, it discusses the gradual erosion of the right to run small farms due to the fact that nobody seems to want to take responsibility for their own choices anymore, and would rather blame (and sue) someone else: Please Pass the Bubblewrap

Monday, 7 January 2008

A Quick Update

The silly season has drawn to a close now, or at least I'm hoping it has. The eldest son is still on holidays so his unique style of play still reverberates around the house, and they are all expecting visitors out later today, so it's not exactly going to be peaceful, but my holidays are over so things are returning to normal.

The Christmas period has been quiet in terms of progress with the new land, the council shut down so the changes we need to get through were stalled, and therefore everything else was as well. Hopefully they have returned to work now, and things will once again start moving along. There are under three months to go until we need to settle, and a lot needs to happen in that time. Realistically it shouldn't take too long to get it all done, but as always it depends on events occurring in a certain order, so trouble with any one of them puts a stop on the whole process.

My FIL has kindly offered to take his bulldozer out to the land and level the house site for us, which will be a substantial cost saving. Other than leveling the site we need to put in some erosion control, and build the entrance to council standards. I can have the entrance and erosion control done in a weekend, my FIL reckons the leveling will take the same. The trouble is we need to have the house site moved before we can proceed with that work, and the construction certificate issued. Moving the house site is our current stumbling block, but should be resolved this week (fingers crossed).

The Flood Street Farmlet has not been entirely neglected over this time, even though the focus of the blogging has been on the new land. The vegetables are growing very well, corn is starting to form cobs, we've been eating cucumbers, zucchinis and beans for some time now, and our late planted tomatoes are getting close to ripening. The potatoes are looking a little wilted, we've not had any rain for some time now, and we've returned to the usual struggle of trying to water everything within a short enough span to allow it enough moisture to survive. We're expecting around 37 degrees today, the hottest this summer, so things have been pleasantly mild to slightly too hot, which is great. Hopefully today is not going to be a change in regime, but rather a momentary aberration.

I was able to put part of my holidays to constructive use, the rotting front porch has been replaced with a nice new decking, and a bit of extra support added to stop it wobbling like a trampoline. I'll still need to paint all of the eaves and touch up other areas, but overall the outside is getting close to a "ready to sell" state. This leaves us considering what to do with the "lovely" carpet in the lounge room. Do we rip it up and go timber floor, replace it, or leave it for the next folks to change to their heart's desire? We realise there is too much to do to get the house into a state where it would be perfect, but our feeling is that the next owners will not be happy with that either, and will want to alter it to suit their own tastes, so we would be effectively wasting money to do too much. I guess the motto is something along the lines of just enough so that it doesn't look too awful :)