Why I am still anti Lithium and EV

13 04 2017

Originally published at Alice Friedemann’s excellent blog, energyskeptic.com/

[This is by far the best paper explaining lithium reserves, lithium chemistry, recycling, political implications, and more. I’ve left out the charts, graphs, references, and much of the text, to see them go to the original paper in the link below.]

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I personally don’t think that electric cars will ever be viable because battery development is too slow, and given that oil can be hundreds of times more energy dense than a battery of the same weight, the laws of physics will prevent them from ever achieving enough energy density — see my post at Who Killed the Electric Car. (and also my more-up-to-date version and utility-scale energy storage batteries in my book When Trains Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation.  Some excerpts from my book about lithium and energy storage:

Li-ion energy storage batteries are more expensive than PbA or NaS, can be charged and discharged only a discrete number of times, can fail or lose capacity if overheated, and the cost of preventing overheating is expensive. Lithium does not grow on trees. The amount of lithium needed for utility-scale storage is likely to deplete known resources (Vazquez, S., et al. 2010. Energy storage systems for transport and grid applications. IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics 57(12): 3884).

To provide enough energy for 1 day of storage for the United states, li-ion batteries would cost $11.9 trillion dollars, take up 345 square miles and weigh 74 million tons (DOE/EPRI. 2013. Electricity storage handbook in collaboration with NRECA. USA: Sandia National Laboratories and Electric Power Research Institute) 

Barnhart et al. (2013) looked at how much materials and energy it would take to make batteries that could store up to 12 hours of average daily world power demand, 25.3 TWh. Eighteen months of world-wide primary energy production would be needed to mine and manufacture these batteries, and material production limits were reached for many minerals even when energy storage devices got all of the world’s production (with zinc, sodium, and sulfur being the exceptions). Annual production by mass would have to double for lead, triple for lithium, and go up by a factor of 10 or more for cobalt and vanadium, driving up prices. The best to worst in terms of material availability are: CAES, NaS, ZnBr, PbA, PHS, Li-ion, and VRB (Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092). ]

Vikström, H., Davidsson, S., Höök, M. 2013. Lithium availability and future production outlooks. Applied Energy, 110(10): 252-266. 28 pages

 

Abstract

Lithium is a highly interesting metal, in part due to the increasing interest in lithium-ion batteries. Several recent studies have used different methods to estimate whether the lithium production can meet an increasing demand, especially from the transport sector, where lithium-ion batteries are the most likely technology for electric cars. The reserve and resource estimates of lithium vary greatly between different studies and the question whether the annual production rates of lithium can meet a growing demand is seldom adequately explained. This study presents a review and compilation of recent estimates of quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discusses the uncertainty and differences between these estimates. Also, mathematical curve fitting models are used to estimate possible future annual production rates. This estimation of possible production rates are compared to a potential increased demand of lithium if the International Energy Agency’s Blue Map Scenarios are fulfilled regarding electrification of the car fleet. We find that the availability of lithium could in fact be a problem for fulfilling this scenario if lithium-ion batteries are to be used. This indicates that other battery technologies might have to be implemented for enabling an electrification of road transports.

Highlights:

  • Review of reserves, resources and key properties of 112 lithium deposits
  • Discussions of widely diverging results from recent lithium supply estimates
  • Forecasting future lithium production by resource-constrained models
  • Exploring implications for future deployment of electric cars

Introduction

Global transportation mainly relies on one single fossil resource, namely petroleum, which supplies 95% of the total energy [1]. In fact, about 62% of all world oil consumption takes place in the transport sector [2]. Oil prices have oscillated dramatically over the last few years, and the price of oil reached $100 per barrel in January 2008, before skyrocketing to nearly $150/barrel in July 2008. A dramatic price collapse followed in late 2008, but oil prices have at present time returned to over $100/barrel. Also, peak oil concerns, resulting in imminent oil production limitations, have been voiced by various studies [3–6].

It has been found that continued oil dependence is environmentally, economically and socially unsustainable [7].

The price uncertainty and decreasing supply might result in severe challenges for different transporters. Nygren et al. [8] showed that even the most optimistic oil production forecasts implied pessimistic futures for the aviation industry. Curtis [9] found that globalization may be undermined by peak oil’s effect on transportation costs and reliability of freight.

Barely 2% of the world electricity is used by transportation [2], where most of this is made up by trains, trams, and trolley buses.

A high future demand of Li for battery applications may arise if society choses to employ Li-ion technologies for a decarbonization of the road transport sector.

Batteries are at present time the second most common use, but are increasing rapidly as the use of li-ion batteries for portable electronics [12], as well as electric and hybrid cars, are becoming more frequent. For example, the lithium consumption for batteries in the U.S increased with 194 % from 2005 to 2010 [12]. Relatively few academic studies have focused on the very abundance of raw materials needed to supply a potential increase in Li demand from transport sector [13]. Lithium demand is growing and it is important to investigate whether this could lead to a shortfall in the future.

 

[My comment: utility scale energy storage batteries in commercial production are lithium, and if this continues, this sector alone would quickly consume all available lithium supplies: see Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092.]

Aim of this study

Recently, a number of studies have investigated future supply prospects for lithium [13–16]. However, these studies reach widely different results in terms of available quantities, possible production trajectories, as well as expected future demand. The most striking difference is perhaps the widely different estimates for available resources and reserves, where different numbers of deposits are included and different types of resources are assessed. It has been suggested that mineral resources will be a future constraint for society [17], but a great deal of this debate is often spent on the concept of geological availability, which can be presented as the size of the tank. What is frequently not reflected upon is that society can only use the quantities that can be extracted at a certain pace and be delivered to consumers by mining operations, which can be described as the tap. The key concept here is that the size of the tank and the size of the tap are two fundamentally different things.

This study attempts to present a comprehensive review of known lithium deposits and their estimated quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discuss the uncertainty and differences among published studies, in order to bring clarity to the subject. The estimated reserves are then used as a constraint in a model of possible future production of lithium and the results of the model are compared to possible future demand from an electrification of the car fleet. The forecasts are based on open, public data and should be used for estimating long term growth and trends. This is not a substitute for economical short-term prognoses, but rather a complementary vision.

Data sources

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been particularly useful for obtaining production data series, but also the Swedish Geological Survey (SGU) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) deserves honourable mention for providing useful material. Kushnir and Sandén [18], Tahil [19, 20] along with many other recent lithium works have also been useful. Kesler et al. [21] helped to provide a broad overview of general lithium geology.

Information on individual lithium deposits has been compiled from numerous sources, primarily building on the tables found in [13–16]. In addition, several specialized articles about individual deposits have been used, for instance [22–26]. Public industry reports and annual yearbooks from mining operators and lithium producers, such as SQM [27], Roskill [28] or Talison Lithium [29], also helped to create a holistic data base.

In this study, we collected information on global lithium deposits. Country of occurrence, deposit type, main mineral, and lithium content were gathered as well as published estimates for reserves and resources. Some deposits had detailed data available for all parameters, while others had very little information available. Widely diverging estimates for reserves and resources could sometimes be found for the same deposit, and in such cases the full interval between the minimum and maximum estimates is presented. Deposits without reserve or resource estimates are included in the data set, but do not contribute to the total. Only available data and information that could be found in the public and academic spheres were compiled in this study. It is likely that undisclosed and/or proprietary data could contribute to the world’s lithium volume but due to data availability no conclusions on to which extent could be made.

Geological overview

In order to properly estimate global lithium availability, and a feasible reserve estimate for modelling future production, this section presents an overview of lithium geology. Lithium is named after the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone”, represented by the symbol Li and has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions, lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali group of elements.

As all alkali elements, Li is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, it never occurs freely in nature and only appears in compounds, usually ionic compounds. The nuclear properties of Li are peculiar since its nuclei verge on instability and two stable isotopes have among the lowest binding energies per nucleon of all stable nuclides. Due to this nuclear instability, lithium is less abundant in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements [30].

Resources and reserves

An important frequent shortcoming in the discussion on availability of lithium is the lack of proper terminology and standardized concepts for assessing the available amounts of lithium. Published studies talk about “reserves”, “resources”, “recoverable resources”, “broad-based reserves”, “in-situ resources”, and “reserve base”.

A wide range of reporting systems minerals exist, such as NI 43-101, USGS, Crirsco, SAMREC and the JORC code, and further discussion and references concerning this can be found in Vikström [31]. Definitions and classifications used are often similar, but not always consistent, adding to the confusion when aggregating data. Consistent definitions may be used in individual studies, but frequently figures from different methodologies are combined as there is no universal and standardized framework. In essence, published literature is a jumble of inconsistent figures. If one does not know what the numbers really mean, they are not simply useless – they are worse, since they tend to mislead.

Broadly speaking, resources are generally defined as the geologically assured quantity that is available for exploitation, while reserves are the quantity that is exploitable with current technical and socioeconomic conditions. The reserves are what are important for production, while resources are largely an academic figure with little relevance for real supply. For example, usually less than one tenth of the coal resources are considered economically recoverable [32, 33]. Kesler et al. [21] stress that available resources needs to be converted into reserves before they can be produced and used by society. Still, some analysts seemingly use the terms ‘resources’ and ‘reserves’ synonymously.

It should be noted that the actual reserves are dynamic and vary depending on many factors such as the available technology, economic demand, political issues and social factors. Technological improvements may increase reserves by opening new deposit types for exploitation or by lowering production costs. Deposits that have been mined for some time can increase or decrease their reserves due to difficulties with determining the ore grade and tonnage in advance [34]. Depletion and decreasing concentrations may increase recovery costs, thus lowering reserves. Declining demand and prices may also reduce reserves, while rising prices or demand may increase them. Political decisions, legal issues or environmental policies may prohibit exploitation of certain deposits, despite the fact significant resources may be available.

For lithium, resource/reserve classifications were typically developed for solid ore deposits. However, brine – presently the main lithium source – is a fluid and commonly used definitions can be difficult to apply due to pumping complications and varying concentrations.

Houston et al. [35] describes the problem in detail and suggest a change in NI 43-101 to account for these problems. If better standards were available for brines then estimations could be more reliable and accurate, as discussed in Kushnir and Sandén [18].

Environmental aspects and policy changes can also significantly influence recoverability. Introduction of clean air requirements and public resistance to surface mining in the USA played a major role in the decreasing coal reserves [33].

It is entirely possible that public outcries against surface mining or concerns for the environment in lithium producing will lead to restrictions that affect the reserves. As an example, the water consumption of brine production is very high and Tahil [19] estimates that brine operations consume 65% of the fresh water in the Salar de Atacama region. [ The Atacama only gets 0.6 inches of rain a year ]

Regarding future developments of recoverability, Fasel and Tran [36] monotonously assumes that increasing lithium demand will result in more reserves being found as prices rise. So called cumulative availability curves are sometimes used to estimate how reserves will change with changing prices, displaying the estimated amount of resource against the average unit cost ranked from lowest to highest cost. This method is used by Yaksic and Tilton [14] to address lithium availability. This concept has its merits for describing theoretical availability, but the fact that the concept is based on average cost, not marginal cost, has been described as a major weakness, making cumulative availability curves disregard the real cost structure and has little – if any – relevance for future price and production rate [37].

Production and occurrence of lithium

The high reactivity of lithium makes it geochemistry complex and interesting. Lithium-minerals are generally formed in magmatic processes. The small ionic size makes it difficult for lithium to be included in early stages of mineral crystallization, and resultantly lithium remains in the molten parts where it gets enriched until it can be solidified in the final stages [38].

At present, over 120 lithium-containing minerals are known, but few of them contain high concentrations or are frequently occurring. Lithium can also be found in naturally occurring salt solutions as brines in dry salt lake environments. Compared to the fairly large number of lithium mineral and brine deposits, few of them are of actual or potential commercial value. Many are very small, while others are too low in grade [39]. This chapter will briefly review the properties of those deposits and present a compilation of the known deposits.

Lithium mineral deposits

Lithium extraction from minerals is primarily done with minerals occurring in pegmatite formations. However, pegmatite is rather challenging to exploit due to its hardness in conjunction with generally problematic access to the belt-like deposits they usually occur in. Table 1 describes some typical lithium-bearing minerals and their characteristics. Australia is currently the world’s largest producer of lithium from minerals, mainly from spodumene [39]. Petalite is commonly used for glass manufacture due to its high iron content, while lepidolite was earlier used as a lithium source but presently has lost its importance due to high fluorine content. Exploitation must generally be tailor-made for a certain mineral as they differ quite significantly in chemical composition, hardness and other properties[13]. Table 2 presents some mineral deposits and their properties.

Recovery rates for mining typically range from 60 to 70%, although significant treatment is required for transforming the produced Li into a marketable form. For example, [40, 41] describe how lithium are produced from spodumene. The costs of acid, soda ash, and energy are a very significant part of the total production cost but may be partially alleviated by the market demand for the sodium sulphate by-products.

Lithium brine deposits

Lithium can also be found in salt lake brines that have high concentrations of mineral salts. Such brines can be reachable directly from the surface or deep underground in saline expanses located in very dry regions that allow salts to persist. High concentration lithium brine is mainly found in high altitude locations such as the Andes and south-western China. Chile, the world largest lithium producer, derives most of the production from brines located at the large salt flat of Salar de Atacama.

Lithium has similar ionic properties as magnesium since their ionic size is nearly identical; making is difficult to separate lithium from magnesium. A low Mg/Li ratio in brine means that it is easier, and therefore more economical to extract lithium.

Lithium Market Research SISThe ratio differs significant at currently producing brine deposits and range from less than 1 to over 30 [14]. The lithium concentration in known brine deposits is usually quite low and range from 0.017–0.15% with significant variability among the known deposits in the world (Table 3).

Exploitation of lithium brines starts with the brine being pumped from the ground into evaporation ponds. The actual evaporation is enabled by incoming solar radiation, so it is desirable for the operation to be located in sunny areas with low annual precipitation rate. The net evaporation rate determines the area of the required ponds [42].

It can easily take between one and two years before the final product is ready to be used, and even longer in cold and rainy areas.

The long timescales required for production can make brine deposits ill fit for sudden changes in demand. Table 3. Properties of known brine deposits in the world.

Lithium from sea water

The world’s oceans contain a wide number of metals, such as gold, lithium or uranium, dispersed at low concentrations. The mass of the world’s oceans is approximately 1.35*1012 Mt [47], making vast amounts of theoretical resources seemingly available. Eckhardt [48] and Fasel and Tran [36] announce that more than 2,000,000 Mt lithium is available from the seas, essentially making it an “unlimited” source given its geological abundance. Tahil [20] also notes that oceans have been proclaimed as an unlimited Li-source since the 1970s.

The world’s oceans and some highly saline lakes do in fact contain very large quantities of lithium, but if it will become practical and economical to produce lithium from this source is highly questionable.

For example, consider gold in sea water – in total nearly 7,000,000 Mt. This is an enormous amount compared to the cumulative world production of 0.17 Mt accumulated since the dawn of civilization [49]. There are also several technical options available for gold extraction. However, the average gold concentration range from <0.001 to 0.005 ppb [50]. This means that one km3 of sea water would give only 5.5 kg of gold. The gold is simply too dilute to be viable for commercial extraction and it is not surprising that all attempts to achieve success – including those of the Nobel laureate Fritz Haber – has failed to date.

Average lithium concentration in the oceans has been estimated to 0.17 ppm [14, 36]. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that it is theoretically possible to use a wide range of advanced technologies to extract lithium from seawater – just like the case for gold. However, no convincing methods have been demonstrated this far. A small scale Japanese experiment managed to produce 750 g of lithium metal from processing 4,200 m3 water with a recovery efficiency of 19.7% [36]. This approach has been described in more detail by others [51–53].

Grosjean et al. [13] points to the fact that even after decades of improvement, recovery from seawater is still more than 10–30 times more costly than production from pegmatites and brines. It is evident that huge quantities of water would have to be processed to produce any significant amounts of lithium. Bardi [54] presents theoretical calculations on this, stating that a production volume of lithium comparable to present world production (~25 kt annually) would require 1.5*103 TWh of electrical energy for pumping through separation membranes in addition to colossal volumes of seawater. Furthermore, Tahil [20] estimated that a seawater processing flow equivalent to the average discharge of the River Nile – 300,000,000 m3/day or over 22 times the global petroleum industry flow of 85 million barrels per day – would only give 62 tons of lithium per day or roughly 20 kt per year. Furthermore, a significant amount of fresh water and hydrochloric acid will be required to flush out unwanted minerals (Mg, K, etc.) and extract lithium from the adsorption columns [20].

In summary, extraction from seawater appears not feasible and not something that should be considered viable in practice, at least not in the near future.

Estimated lithium availability

From data compilation and analysis of 112 deposits, this study concludes that 15 Mt areImage result for lithium reasonable as a reference case for the global reserves in the near and medium term. 30 Mt is seen as a high case estimate for available lithium reserves and this number is also found in the upper range in literature. These two estimates are used as constraints in the models of future production in this study.

Estimates on world reserves and resources vary significantly among published studies. One main reason for this is likely the fact that different deposits, as well as different number of deposits, are aggregated in different studies. Many studies, such as the ones presented by the USGS, do not give explicitly state the number of deposits included and just presents aggregated figures on a national level. Even when the number and which deposits that have been used are specified, analysts can arrive to wide different estimates (Table 5). It should be noted that a trend towards increasing reserves and resources with time can generally be found, in particularly in USGS assessments. Early reports, such as Evans [56] or USGS [59], excluded several countries from the reserve estimates due to a lack of available information. This was mitigated in USGS [73] when reserves estimates for Argentina, Australia, and Chile have been revised based on new information from governmental and industry sources. However, there are still relatively few assessments on reserves, in particular for Russia, and it is concluded that much future work is required to handle this shortcoming. Gruber et al. [16] noted that 83% of global lithium resources can be found in six brine, two pegmatite and two sedimentary deposits. From our compilation, it can also be found that the distribution of global lithium reserves and resources are very uneven.

Three quarters of everything can typically be found in the ten largest deposits (Figure 1 and 2). USGS [12] pinpoint that 85% of the global reserves are situated in Chile and China (Figure 3) and that Chile and Australia accounted for 70 % of the world production of 28,100 tonnes in 2011 [12]. From Table 2 and 3, one can note a significant spread in estimated reserves and resources for the deposits. This divergence is much smaller for minerals (5.6–8.2 Mt) than for brines (6.5– 29.4 Mt), probably resulting from the difficulty associated with estimating brine accumulations consistently. Evans [75] also points to the problem of using these frameworks on brine deposits, which are fundamentally different from solid ores. Table 5. Comparison of published lithium assessments.

Recycling

One thing that may or may not have a large implication for future production is recycling. The projections presented in the production model of this study describe production of lithium from virgin materials. The total production of lithium could potentially increase significantly if high rates of recycling were implemented of the used lithium, which is mentioned in many studies.

USGS [12] state that recycling of lithium has been insignificant historically, but that it is increasing as the use of lithium for batteries are growing. However, the recycling of lithium from batteries is still more or less non-existent, with a collection rate of used Li-ion batteries of only about 3% [93]. When the Li-ion batteries are in fact recycled, it is usually not the lithium that is recycled, but other more precious metals such as cobalt [18].

If this will change in the future is uncertain and highly dependent on future metal prices, but it is still commonly argued for and assumed that the recycling of lithium will grow significantly, very soon. Goonan [94] claims that recycling rates will increase from vehicle batteries in vehicles since such recycling systems already exist for lead-acid batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that large automotive batteries will be technically easier to recycle than smaller batteries and also claims that economies of scale will emerge when the use for batteries for vehicles increase. According to the IEA [95], full recycling systems are projected to be in place sometime between 2020 and 2030. Similar assumptions are made by more or less all studies dealing with future lithium production and use for electric vehicles and Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that it is commonly assumed that recycling will take place, enabling recycled lithium to make up for a big part of the demand but also conclude that the future recycling rate is highly uncertain.

There are several reasons to question the probability of high recycling shares for Li-ion batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that lithium recycling economy is currently not good and claims that the economic conditions could decrease even more in the future. Sullivan and Gaines [96] argue that the Li-ion battery chemistry is complex and still evolving, thus making it difficult for the industry to develop profitable pathways. Georgi-Maschler [93] highlight that two established recycling processes exist for recycling Li-ion batteries, but one of them lose most of the lithium in the process of recovering the other valuable metals. Ziemann et al. [97] states that lithium recovery from rechargeable batteries is not efficient at present time, mainly due to the low lithium content of around 2% and the rather low price of lithium.

In this study we choose not to include recycling in the projected future supply for several reasons. In a short perspective, looking towards 2015-2020, it cannot be considered likely that any considerable amount of lithium will be recycled from batteries since it is currently not economical to do so and no proven methods to do it on a large scale industrial level appear to exist. If it becomes economical to recycle lithium from batteries it will take time to build the capacity for the recycling to take place. Also, the battery lifetime is often projected to be 10 years or more, and to expect any significant amounts of lithium to be recycled within this period of time is simply not realistic for that reason either.

The recycling capacity is expected to be far from reaching significant levels before 2025 according to Wanger [92]. It is also important to separate the recycling rates of products to the recycled content in new products. Even if a percentage of the product is recycled at the end of the life cycle, this is no guarantee that the use of recycled content in new products will be as high. The use of Li-ion batteries is projected to grow fast. If the growth happens linearly, and high recycling rates are accomplished, recycling could start constituting a large part of the lithium demand, but if the growth happens exponentially, recycling can never keep up with the growth that has occurred during the 10 years lag during the battery lifetime. In a longer time perspective, the inclusion of recycling could be argued for with expected technological refinement, but certainties regarding technology development are highly uncertain. Still, most studies include recycling as a major part of future lithium production, which can have very large implications on the results and conclusions drawn. Kushnir and Sandén [18] suggest that an 80% lithium recovery rate is achievable over a medium time frame. The scenarios in Gruber et al. [16], assumes recycling participation rates of 90 %, 96% and 100%. In their scenario using the highest assumed recycling, the quantities of lithium needed to be mined are decreased to only about 37% of the demand. Wanger [92] looks at a shorter time perspective and estimates that a 40% or 100% recycling rate would reduce the lithium consumption with 10% or 25% respectively by 2030. Mohr et al. [15] assume that the recycling rate starts at 0%, approaching a limit of 80%, resulting in recycled lithium making up significant parts of production, but only several decades into the future. IEA [95] projects that full recycling systems will be in place around 2020–2030.

The impact of assumed recycling rates can indeed be very significant, and the use of this should be handled with care and be well motivated.

Future demand for lithium

To estimate whether the projected future production levels will be sufficient, it isImage result for lithiuminteresting to compare possible production levels with potential future demand. The use of lithium is currently dominated by use for ceramics and glass closely followed by batteries. The current lithium demand for different markets can be seen in Figure 7. USGS [12] state that the lithium use in batteries have grown significantly in recent years as the use of lithium batteries in portable electronics have become increasingly common. Figure 7 (Ceramics and glass 29%, Batteries 27%, Other uses 16%, Lubrication greases 12%, Continuous casting 5%, Air treatment 4%, Polymers 3%, Primary aluminum production 2%, Pharmaceuticals 2%).

Global lithium demand for different end-use markets. Source: USGS [12] USGS [12] state that the total lithium consumption in 2011 was between 22,500 and 24,500 tonnes. This is often projected to grow, especially as the use of Li-ion batteries for electric cars could potentially increase demand significantly. This study presents a simple example of possible future demand of lithium, assuming a constant demand for other uses and demand for electric cars to grow according to a scenario of future sales of

electric cars. The current car fleet consists of about 600 million passenger cars. The sale of new passenger cars in 2011 was about 60 million cars [98]. This existing vehicle park is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels, primarily gasoline and diesel, but also natural gas to a smaller extent. Increasing oil prices, concerns about a possible peak in oil production and problems with anthropogenic global warming makes it desirable to move away from fossil energy dependence. As a mitigation and pathway to a fossil-fuel free mobility, cars running partially or totally on electrical energy are commonly proposed. This includes electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid vehicles (HEVs) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid vehicles), all on the verge of large-scale commercialization and implementation. IEA [99] concluded that a total of 1.5 million hybrid and electric vehicles had been sold worldwide between the year 2000 and 2010.

Both the expected number of cars as well as the amount of lithium required per vehicle is important. As can be seen from Table 9, the estimates of lithium demand for PEHV and EVs differ significantly between studies. Also, some studies do not differentiate between different technical options and only gives a single Li-consumption estimate for an “electric vehicle”, for instance the 3 kg/car found by Mohr et al. [15]. The mean values from Table 9 are found to be 4.9 kg for an EV and 1.9 kg for a PHEV.

As the battery size determines the vehicles range, it is likely that the range will continue to increase in the future, which could increase the lithium demand. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to assume that the technology will improve, thus reducing the lithium requirements. In this study a lithium demand of 160 g Li/kWh is assumed, an assumption discussed in detail by Kushnir and Sandén [18]. It is then assumed that typical batteries capacities will be 9 kWh in a PHEV and 25 kWh in an EV. This gives a resulting lithium requirement of 1.4 kg for a PHEV and 4 kg for an EV, which is used as an estimate in this study. Many current electrified cars have a lower capacity than 24 kWh, but to become more attractive to consumers the range of the vehicles will likely have to increase, creating a need for larger batteries [104]. It should be added that the values used are at the lower end compared to other assessments (Table 9) and should most likely not be seen as overestimates future lithium requirements.

Figure 8 shows the span of the different production forecasts up until 2050 made in this study, together with an estimated demand based on the demand staying constant on the high estimate of 2010– 2011, adding an estimated demand created by the electric car projections done by IEA [101]. This is a very simplistic estimation future demand, but compared to the production projections it indicates that lithium availability should not be automatically disregarded as a potential issue for future electric car production. The amount of electric cars could very well be smaller or larger that this scenario, but the scenario used does not assume a complete electrification of the car fleet by 2050 and such scenarios would mean even larger demand of lithium. It is likely that lithium demand for other uses will also grow in the coming decades, why total demand might increase more that indicated here. This study does not attempt to estimate the evolution of demand for other uses, and the demand estimate for other uses can be considered a conservative one. Figure 8. The total lithium demand of a constant current lithium demand combined with growth of electric vehicles according to IEA’s blue map scenario [101] assuming a demand for 1.4 kg of lithium per PHEV and 4.0 kg per EV. The span of forecasted production levels range from the base case Gompertz model

Concluding discussion

Potential future production of lithium was modeled with three different production curves. In a short perspective, until 2015–2020, the three models do not differ much, but in the longer perspective the Richards and Logistic curves show a growth at a vastly higher pace than the Gompertz curve. The Richards model gives the best fit to the historic data, and lies in between the other two and might be the most likely development. A faster growth than the logistic model cannot be ruled out, but should be considered unlikely, since it usually mimics plausible free market exploitation [89]. Other factors, such as decreased lithium concentration in mined material, economics, political and environmental problems could also limit production.

It can be debated whether this kind of forecasting should be used for short term projections, and the actual production in coming years can very well differ from our models, but it does at least indicate that lithium availability could be a potential problem in the coming decades. In a longer time perspective up to 2050, the projected lithium demand for alternative vehicles far exceeds our most optimistic production prognoses.

If 100 million alternative vehicles, as projected in IEA [101] are produced annually using lithium battery technology, the lithium reserves would be exhausted in just a few years, even if the production could be cranked up faster than the models in this study. This indicates that it is important that other battery technologies should be investigated as well.

It should be added that these projections do not consider potential recycling of the lithium, which is discussed further earlier in this paper. On the other hand, it appears it is highly unlikely that recycling will become common as soon as 2020, while total demand appears to potentially rise over maximum production around that date. If, when, and to what extent recycling will take place is hard to predict, although it appears more likely that high recycling rates will take place in electric cars than other uses.

Much could change before 2050. The spread between the different production curves are much larger and it is hard to estimate what happens with technology over such a long time frame. However, the Blue Map Scenario would in fact create a demand of lithium that is higher than the peak production of the logistic curve for the standard case, and close to the peak production in the high URR case.

Improved efficiency can decrease the lithium demand in the batteries, but as Kushnir and Sandén [18] point out, there is a minimum amount of lithium required tied to the cell voltage and chemistry of the battery.

IEA [95] acknowledges that technologies that are not available today must be developed to reach the Blue Map scenarios and that technology development is uncertain. This does not quite coincide with other studies claiming that lithium availability will not be a problem for production of electric cars in the future.

It is also possible that other uses will raise the demand for lithium even further. One industry that in a longer time perspective could potentially increase the demand for lithium is fusion, where lithium is used to breed tritium in the reactors. If fusion were commercialized, which currently seems highly uncertain, it would demand large volumes of lithium [36].

Further problems with the lithium industry are that the production and reserves are situated in a few countries (USGS [12] in Mt: Chile 7.5, China 3.5, Australia 0.97, Argentina 0.85, Other 0.135]. One can also note that most of the lithium is concentrated to a fairly small amount of deposits, nearly 50% of both reserves and resources can be found in Salar de Atacama alone. Kesler et al. [21] note that Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China hold 70% of the brine deposits. Grosjean et al. [13] even points to the ABC triangle (i.e. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) and its control of well over 40% of the world resources and raises concern for resource nationalism and monopolistic behavior. Even though Bolivia has large resources, there are many political and technical problems, such as transportation and limited amount of available fresh water, in need of solutions [18].

Regardless of global resource size, the high concentration of reserves and production to very few countries is not something that bode well for future supplies. The world is currently largely dependent on OPEC for oil, and that creates possibilities of political conflicts. The lithium reserves are situated in mainly two countries. It could be considered problematic for countries like the US to be dependent on Bolivia, Chile and Argentina for political reasons [105]. Abell and Oppenheimer [105] discuss the absurdity in switching from dependence to dependence since resources are finite. Also, Kushnir and Sandén [18] discusses the problems with being dependent on a few producers, if a problem unexpectedly occurs at the production site it may not be possible to continue the production and the demand cannot be satisfied.

Final remarks

Although there are quite a few uncertainties with the projected production of lithium and demand for lithium for electric vehicles, this study indicates that the possible lithium production could be a limiting factor for the number of electric vehicles that can be produced, and how fast they can be produced. If large parts of the car fleet will run on electricity and rely on lithium based batteries in the coming decades, it is possible, and maybe even likely, that lithium availability will be a limiting factor.

To decrease the impact of this, as much lithium as possible must be recycled and possibly other battery technologies not relying on lithium needs to be developed. It is not certain how big the recoverable reserves of lithium are in the world and estimations in different studies differ significantly. Especially the estimations for brine need to be further investigated. Some estimates include production from seawater, making the reserves more or less infinitely large. We suggest that it is very unlikely that seawater or lakes will become a practical and economic source of lithium, mainly due to the high Mg/Li ratio and low concentrations if lithium, meaning that large quantities of water would have to be processed. Until otherwise is proved lithium reserves from seawater and lakes should not be included in the reserve estimations. Although the reserve estimates differ, this appears to have marginal impact on resulting projections of production, especially in a shorter time perspective. What are limiting are not the estimated reserves, but likely maximum annual production, which is often missed in similar studies.

If electric vehicles with li-ion batteries will be used to a very high extent, there are other problems to account for. Instead of being dependent on oil we could become dependent on lithium if li-ion batteries, with lithium reserves mainly located in two countries. It is important to plan for this to avoid bottlenecks or unnecessarily high prices. Lithium is a finite resource and the production cannot be infinitely large due to geological, technical and economical restraints. The concentration of lithium metal appears to be decreasing, which could make it more expensive and difficult to extract the lithium in the future. To enable a transition towards a car fleet based on electrical energy, other types of batteries should also be considered and a continued development of battery types using less lithium and/or other metals are encouraged. High recycling rates should also be aimed for if possible and continued investigations of recoverable resources and possible production of lithium are called for. Acknowledgements We would like to thank Steve Mohr for helpful comments and ideas. Sergey Yachenkov has our sincerest appreciation for providing assistance with translation of Russian material.





Fifty Million Farmers

14 03 2014

There was a time not so long ago when famine was an expected, if not accepted, part of life. Until the 19th century—whether in China, France, India or Britain—food came almost entirely from local sources and harvests were variable. In good years, there was plenty—enough for seasonal feasts and for storage in anticipation of winter and hard times to come; in bad years, starvation cut down the poorest and the weakest—the very young, the old, and the sickly. Sometimes bad years followed one upon another, reducing the size of the population by several percent. This was the normal condition of life in pre-industrial societies, and it persisted for thousands of years.

SainsburyInStoreToday, in America, such a state of affairs is hard to imagine. Food is so cheap and plentiful that obesity is a far more widespread concern than hunger. The average mega-supermarket stocks an impressive array of exotic foods from across the globe, and even staples are typically trucked from hundreds of miles away. Many people in America did go hungry during the Great Depression, but those were times that only the elderly can recall. In the current regime, the desperately poor may experience chronic malnutrition and may miss meals, but for most the dilemma is finding time in the day’s hectic schedule to go to the grocery store or to cook. As a result, fast-food restaurants proliferate: the fare may not be particularly nutritious, but even an hour’s earnings at minimum wage will buy a meal or two. The average American family spent 20 percent of its income on food in 1950; today the figure is 10 percent.

This is an extraordinary situation; but because it is the only one that most Americans alive today have ever experienced, we tend to assume that it will continue indefinitely. However there are reasons to think that our current anomalous abundance of inexpensive food may be only temporary; if so, present and future generations may become acquainted with that old, formerly familiar but unwelcome houseguest—famine.

The following are four principal bases (there are others) for this gloomy forecast.

The first has to with looming fuel shortages. This is a subject I have written about extensively elsewhere, so I shall not repeat myself in any detail. Suffice it to say that the era of cheap oil and natural gas is coming to a crashing end, with global oil production projected to peak in 2010 and North American natural gas extraction rates already in decline. These events will have enormous implications for America’s petroleum-dependent food system.

energyfarmingModern industrial agriculture has been described as a method of using soil to turn petroleum and gas into food. We use natural gas to make fertilizer, and oil to fuel farm machinery and power irrigation pumps, as a feedstock for pesticides and herbicides, in the maintenance of animal operations, in crop storage and drying, and for transportation of farm inputs and outputs. Agriculture accounts for about 17 percent of the U.S. annual energy budget; this makes it the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries. By comparison, the U.S. military, in all of its operations, uses only about half that amount. About 350 gallons (1,500 litres) of oil equivalents are required to feed each American each year, and every calorie of food produced requires, on average, ten calories of fossil-fuel inputs. This is a food system profoundly vulnerable, at every level, to fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices. And both are inevitable.

An attempt to make up for fuel shortfalls by producing more biofuels—ethanol, butanol, and biodiesel—will put even more pressure on the food system, and will likely result in a competition between food and fuel uses of land and other resources needed for agricultural production. Already 14 percent of the U.S. corn crop is devoted to making ethanol, and that proportion is expected to rise to one quarter, based solely on existing projects-in-development and government mandates.

communityfarmingThe second factor potentially leading to famine is a shortage of farmers. Much of the success of industrial agriculture lies in its labour efficiency: far less human work is required to produce a given amount of food today than was the case decades ago (the actual fraction, comparing the year 2000 with 1900, is about one seventh). But that very success implies a growing vulnerability. We don’t need as many farmers, as a percentage of the population, as we used to; so, throughout the past century, most farming families—including hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions that would have preferred to maintain their rural, self-sufficient way of life—were economically forced to move to cities and find jobs. Today so few people farm that vital knowledge of how to farm is disappearing. The average age of American farmers is over 55 and approaching 60. The proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9 percent in 1982 to 5.8 percent in 2002. Of all the dismal statistics I know, these are surely among the most frightening. Who will be growing our food twenty years from now? With less oil and gas available, we will need far more knowledge and muscle power devoted to food production, and thus far more people on the farm, than we have currently.

The third worrisome trend is an increasing scarcity of fresh water. Sixty percent of water used nationally goes toward agriculture. California’s Central Valley, which produces the substantial bulk of the nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables, receives virtually no rainfall during summer months and relies overwhelmingly on irrigation. But the snowpack on the Sierras, which provides much of that irrigation water, is declining, and the aquifer that supplies much of the rest is being drawn down at many times its recharge rate. If these trends continue, the Central Valley may be incapable of producing food in any substantial quantities within two or three decades. Other parts of the country are similarly overspending their water budgets, and very little is being done to deal with this looming catastrophe. [editorial note:  this is happening right now!]

climateagricultureFourth and finally, there is the problem of global climate change. Often the phrase used for this is “global warming,” which implies only the fact that the world’s average temperature will be increasing by a couple of degrees or more over the next few decades. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms in general (hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, hail storms)—in short, unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a climate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year’s production. Given the fact that modern American agriculture has become highly centralized due to cheap transport and economies of scale (almost the entire national spinach crop, for example, comes from a single valley in California), the damage from that freak storm is today potentially continental or even global in scale. We have embarked on a century in which, increasingly, freakish weather is normal.

I am not pointing out these problems, and their likely consequences, in order to cause panic. As I propose below, there is a solution to at least two of these dilemmas, one that may also help us address the remaining ones. It is not a simple or easy strategy and it will require a coordinated and sustained national effort. But in addition to averting famine, this strategy may permit us to solve a host of other, seemingly unrelated social and environmental problems.

Intensifying Food Production

In order to get a better grasp of the problems and the solution being proposed, it is essential that we understand how our present exceptional situation of cheap abundance came about. In order to do that, we must go back not just a few decades, but at least ten thousand years.

stone-age-farm-farmer-lgThe origins of agriculture are shrouded in mystery, though archaeologists have been whittling away at that mystery for decades. We know that horticulture (gardening) began at somewhat different periods, independently, in at least three regions—the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Central America. Following the end of the last Ice Age, roughly 12,000 years ago, much of humanity was experiencing a centuries-long food crisis brought on by the over-hunting of the megafauna that had previously been at the center of the human diet. The subsequent domestication of plants and animals brought relative food security, as well as the ability to support larger and more sedentary populations.

As compared to hunting and gathering, horticulture intensified the process of obtaining food. Intensification (because it led to increased population density—i.e., more mouths to feed), then led to the need for even more intensification: thus horticulture (gardening) eventually led to agriculture (field cropping). The latter produced more food per unit of land, which enabled more population growth, which meant still more demand for food. We are describing a classic self-reinforcing feedback loop.

As a social regime, horticulture did not represent a decisive break with hunting and gathering. Just as women had previously participated in essential productive activities by foraging for plants and hunting small animals, they now played a prominent role in planting, tending, and harvesting the garden—activities that were all compatible with the care of infants and small children. Thus women’s status remained relatively high in most horticultural societies. Seasonal surpluses were relatively small and there was no full-time division of labor.

But as agriculture developed—with field crops, ploughs, and draft animals—societies inevitably mutated in response. Plowing fields was men’s work; women were forced to stay at home and lost social power. Larger seasonal surpluses required management as well as protection from raiders; full-time managers and specialists in violence proliferated as a result. Societies became multi-layered: wealthy ruling classes (which had never existed among hunter-gatherers, and were rare among gardeners) sat atop an economic pyramid that came to include scribes, soldiers, and religious functionaries, and that was supported at its base by the vastly more numerous peasants—who produced all the food for themselves and everyone else as well. Writing, mathematics, metallurgy, and, ultimately, the trappings of modern life as we know it thus followed not so much from planting in general, as from agriculture in particular.

As important an instance of intensification as agriculture was, in many respects it pales in comparison with what worldpopgrowth4has occurred within the past century or so, with the application of fossil fuels to farming. Petroleum-fed tractors replaced horses and oxen, freeing up more land to grow food for far more people. The Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia from fossil fuels, invented just prior to World War I, has doubled the amount of nitrogen available to green nature—with nearly all of that increase going directly to food crops. New hybrid plant varieties led to higher yields. Technologies for food storage improved radically. And fuel-fed transport systems enabled local surpluses to be sold not just regionally, but nationally and even globally. Through all of these strategies, we have developed the wherewithal to feed seven times the population that existed at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And, in the process, we have made farming uneconomical and unattractive to all but a few.

That’s the broad, global overview. In America, whose history as an independent nation begins at the dawn of the industrial era, the story of agriculture comprises three distinct periods:

The Expansion Period (1600 to 1920): Increases in food production during these three centuries came simply from putting more land into production; technological change played only a minor role.

The Mechanization Period (1920 to 1970): In this half-century, technological advances issuing from cheap, abundant fossil-fuel energy resulted in a dramatic increase in productivity (output per worker hour). Meanwhile, farm machinery, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, new hybrid crops, and synthetic fertilizers allowed for the doubling and tripling of crop production. Also during this time, U.S. Department of Agriculture policy began favoring larger farms (the average U.S. farm size grew from 100 acres in 1930 to almost 500 acres by 1990), and production for export.

The Saturation Period (1970-present): In recent decades, the application of still greater amounts of energy have produced smaller relative increases in crop yields; meanwhile an ever-growing amount of energy is being expended to maintain the functioning of the overall system. For example, about ten percent of the energy in agriculture is used just to offset the negative effects of soil erosion, while increasing amounts of pesticides must be sprayed each year as pests develop resistances. In short, strategies that had recently produced dramatic increases in productivity became subject to the law of diminishing returns.

While we were achieving miracles of productivity, agriculture’s impact on the natural world was also growing; indeed it is now the single greatest source of human damage to the global environment. That damage takes a number of forms: erosion and salinisation of soils; deforestation (a strategy for bringing more land into cultivation); fertilizer runoff (which ultimately creates enormous “dead zones” around the mouths of many rivers); loss of biodiversity; fresh water scarcity; and agrochemical pollution of water and soil.

In short, we created unprecedented abundance while ignoring the long-term consequences of our actions. This is more than a little reminiscent of how some previous agricultural societies—the Greeks, Babylonians, and Romans—destroyed soil and habitat in their mania to feed growing urban populations, and collapsed as a result.

Fortunately, during the past century or two we have also developed the disciplines of archaeology and ecology, which teach us how and why those ancient societies failed, and how the diversity of the web of life sustains us. Thus, in principle, if we avail ourselves of this knowledge, we need not mindlessly repeat yet again the time-worn tale of catastrophic civilizational collapse.

The 21st Century: De-Industrialization

How might we avoid such a fate?

deindustrialisationSurely the dilemmas we have outlined above are understood by the managers of the current industrial food system. They must have some solutions in mind.

Indeed they do, and, predictably perhaps, those solutions involve a further intensification of the food production process. Since we cannot achieve much by applying more energy directly to that process, the most promising strategy on the horizon seems to be the genetic engineering of new crop varieties. If, for example, we could design crops to grow with less water, or in unfavourable climate and soil conditions, we could perhaps find our way out of the current mess.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws with this plan. Our collective experience with genetically modifying crops so far shows that glowing promises of higher yields, or of the reduced need for herbicides, have seldom been fulfilled. At the same time, new genetic technologies carry with them the potential for horrific unintended consequences in the forms of negative impacts on human health and the integrity of ecosystems. We have been gradually modifying plants and animals through selective breeding for millennia, but new gene-splicing techniques enable the re-mixing of genomes in ways and to degrees impossible heretofore. One serious error could result in biological tragedy on an unprecedented scale.

Yet even if future genetically modified commercial crops prove to be much more successful than past ones, and even if we manage to avert a genetic apocalypse, the means of producing and distributing genetically engineered seeds is itself reliant on the very fuel-fed industrial system that is in question.

Is it possible, then, that a solution lies in another direction altogether—perhaps in deliberately de-industrializingdetroitfarm production, but doing so intelligently, using information we have gained from the science of ecology, as well as from traditional and indigenous farming methods, in order to reduce environmental impacts while maintaining total yields at a level high enough to avert widespread famine?

This is not an entirely new idea (as you all well know, the organic and ecological farming movements have been around for decades), but up to this point the managers of the current system have resisted it. This is no doubt largely because those managers are heavily influenced by giant corporations that profit from centralized industrial production for distant markets. Nevertheless, the fact that we have reached the end of the era of cheap oil and gas demands that we re-examine the potential costs and benefits of our current trajectory and its alternatives.

I believe we must and can de-industrialize agriculture. The general outline of what I mean by de-industrialization is simple enough: this would imply a radical reduction of fossil fuel inputs to agriculture, accompanied by an increase in labour inputs and a reduction of transport, with production being devoted primarily to local consumption.

Once again, fossil fuel depletion almost ensures that this will happen. But at the same time, it is fairly obvious that if we don’t plan for de-industrialization, the result could be catastrophic. It’s worth taking a moment to think about how events might unfold if the process occurs without intelligent management, driven simply by oil and gas depletion.

Facing high fuel prices, family farms would declare bankruptcy in record numbers. Older farmers (the majority, in other words) would probably choose simply to retire, whether they could afford to or not. However, giant corporate farms would also confront rising costs—which they would pass along to consumers by way of dramatically higher food prices.

Yields would begin to decline—in fits and starts—as weather anomalies and water shortages affected one crop after another.

Meanwhile, people in the cities would also feel the effects of skyrocketing energy prices. Entire industries would falter, precipitating a general economic collapse. Massive unemployment would lead to unprecedented levels of homelessness and hunger.

Many people would leave cities looking for places to live where they could grow some food. Yet they might find all of the available land already owned by banks or the government. Without experience of farming, even those who succeeded in gaining access to acreage would fail to produce much food and would ruin large tracts of land in the process.

Eventually these problems would sort themselves out; people and social systems would adapt—but probably not before an immense human and environmental tragedy had ensued.

I wish I could say that this forecast is exaggerated for effect. Yet the actual events could be far more violent and disruptive than it is possible to suggest in so short a summary.

Examples and Strategies

cityfarmThings don’t have to turn out that way. As I have already said, I believe that the de-industrialization of agriculture could be carried out in a way that is not catastrophic and that in fact substantially benefits society and the environment in the long run. But to be convinced of the thesis we need more than promises—we need historic examples and proven strategies. Fortunately, we have two of each.

In some respects the most relevant example is that of Cuba’s Special Period. In the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its source of cheap oil. Its industrialized agricultural system, which was heavily fuel-dependent, immediately faltered. Very quickly, Cuban leaders abandoned the Soviet industrial model of production, changing from a fuel- and petrochemical-intensive farming method to a more localized, labor-intensive, organic mode of production.

How they did this is itself an interesting story. Eco-agronomists at Cuban universities had already been advocating a transition somewhat along these lines. However, they were making little or no headway. When the crisis hit, they were given free rein to, in effect, redesign the entire Cuban food system. Had these academics not had a plan waiting in the wings, the nation’s fate might have been sealed.

cubaHeeding their advice, the Cuban government broke up large, state-owned farms and introduced private farms, farmer co-ops, and farmer markets. Cuban farmers began breeding oxen for animal traction. The Cuban people adopted a mainly vegetarian diet, mostly involuntarily (Meat eating went from twice a day to twice a week). They increased their intake of vegetable sources of protein and farmers decreased the growing of wheat and rice (Green Revolution crops that required too many inputs). Urban gardens (including rooftop gardens) were encouraged, and today they produce 50 to 80 percent of vegetables consumed in cities.

Early on, it was realized that more farmers were needed, and that this would require education. All of the nation’s colleges and universities quickly added courses on agronomy. At the same time, wages for farmers were raised to be at parity with those for engineers and doctors. Many people moved from the cities to the country; in some cases there were incentives, in others the move was forced.

The result was survival. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds of body weight, but in the long run the overall health of the nation’s people actually improved as a consequence. Today, Cuba has a stable, slowly growing economy. There are few if any luxuries, but everyone has enough to eat. Having seen the benefit of smaller-scale organic production, Cuba’s leaders have decided that even if they find another source of cheap oil, they will maintain a commitment to their new, decentralized, low-energy methods.

I don’t want to give the impression that Cubans sailed through the Special Period unscathed. Cuba was a grim place during these years, and to this day food is far from plentiful there by American standards. My point is not that Cuba is some sort of paradise, but simply that matters could have been far worse.

It could be objected that Cuba’s experience holds few lessons for our own nation. Since Cuba has a very different government and climate, we might question whether its experience can be extrapolated to the U.S.

uncle-sam-victory-gardenLet us, then, consider an indigenous historical example. During both World Wars, Americans planted Victory Gardens. During both periods, gardening became a sort of spontaneous popular movement, which (at least during World War II) the USDA initially tried to suppress, believing that it would compromise the industrialization of agriculture. It wasn’t until Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden in the White House lawn that agriculture secretary Claude Wickard relented; his agency then began to promote Victory Gardens and to take credit for them. At the height of the movement, Victory Gardens were producing roughly 40 percent of America’s vegetables, an extraordinary achievement in so short a time.

In addition to these historical precedents, we have new techniques developed with the coming agricultural crisis in mind; two of the most significant are Permaculture and Biointensive farming (there are others—such as efforts by Wes Jackson of The Land Institute to breed perennial grain crops—but limitations of time and space require me to pick and choose).

permapicPermaculture was developed in the late 1970s by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in anticipation of exactly the problem we see unfolding before us. Holmgren defines Permaculture as “consciously designed landscapes that mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber, and energy for provision of local needs.” Common Permaculture strategies include mulching, rainwater capture using earthworks such as swales, composting, and the harmonious integration of aquaculture, horticulture, and small-scale animal operations. A typical Permaculture farm may produce a small cash crop but concentrates largely on self-sufficiency and soil building. Significantly, Permaculture has played an important role in Cuba’s adaptation to a low-energy food regime.

Biointensive farming has been developed primarily by Californian John Jeavons, author of How to Grow More Vegetables. Like Permaculture, Biointensive is a product of research begun in the 1970s. Jeavons defines Biointensive (now trademarked as “Grow Biointensive”) farming as

. . . an organic agricultural system that focuses on maximum yields from the minimum area of land, while simultaneously improving the soil. The goal of the method is long-term sustainability on a closed-system basis. Because biointensive is practiced on a relatively small scale, it is well suited to anything from personal or family to community gardens, market gardens, or minifarms. It has also been used successfully on small-scale commercial farms.

???????????????????????????????Like Homgren and Mollison, Jeavons has worked for the past three decades in anticipation of the need for the de-industrialization of food production due to accumulating environmental damage and fossil fuel depletion. Currently Biointensive farming is being taught extensively in Africa and South America as a sustainable alternative to the globalized monocropping. The term “biointensive” suggests that what we are discussing here is not a de-intensification of food production, but rather the development of production along entirely different lines. While both Permaculture and Biointensive have been shown to be capable of dramatically improving yields-per-acre, their developers clearly understand that even these methods will eventually fail us unless we also limit demand for food by gradually and humanely limiting the size of the human population.

In short, it is possible in principle for industrial nations like the U.S. to make the transition to smaller-scale, non-petroleum food production, given certain conditions. There are both precedents and models.

However, all of them imply more farmers. Here’s the catch—and here’s where the ancillary benefits kick in.

The Key: More Farmers!

comfarmOne way or another, re-ruralization will be the dominant social trend of the 21st century. Thirty or forty years from now—again, one way or another—we will see a more historically normal ratio of rural to urban population, with the majority once again living in small, farming communities. More food will be produced in cities than is the case today, but cities will be smaller. Millions more people than today will be in the countryside growing food.

They won’t be doing so the way farmers do it today, and perhaps not the way farmers did it in 1900.

Indeed, we need perhaps to redefine the term farmer. We have come to think of a farmer as someone with 500 acres and a big tractor and other expensive machinery. But this is not what farmers looked like a hundred years ago, and it’s not an accurate picture of most current farmers in less-industrialized countries. Nor does it coincide with what will be needed in the coming decades. We should perhaps start thinking of a farmer as someone with 3 to 50 acres, who uses mostly hand labour and twice a year borrows a small tractor that she or he fuels with ethanol or biodiesel produced on-site.

How many more farmers are we talking about? Currently the U.S. has three or four million of them, depending on how we define the term.

Let’s again consider Cuba’s experience: in its transition away from fossil-fueled agriculture, that nation found that it required 15 to 25 percent of its population to become involved in food production. In America in 1900, nearly 40 percent of the population farmed; the current proportion is close to one percent.

Do the math for yourself. Extrapolated to this country’s future requirements, this implies the need for a minimum of 40 to 50 million additional farmers as oil and gas availability declines. How soon will the need arise? Assuming that the peak of global oil production occurs within the next five years, and that North American natural gas is already in decline, we are looking at a transition that must occur over the next 20 to 30 years, and that must begin approximately now.

Fortunately there are some hopeful existing trends to point to. The stereotypical American farmer is a middle-aged, Euro-American male, but the millions of new farmers in our future will have to include a broad mix of people, reflecting America’s increasing diversity. Already the fastest growth in farm operators in America is among female full-time farmers, as well as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American farm operators.

young-farmer-female

Another positive trend worth noting: Here in the Northeast, where the soil is acidic and giant agribusiness has not established as much of a foothold as elsewhere, the number of small farms is increasing. Young adults—not in the millions, but at least in the hundreds—are aspiring to become Permaculture or organic or Biointensive farmers. Farmers markets and CSAs are established or springing up throughout the region. This is somewhat the case also on the Pacific coast, much less so in the Midwest and South.

What will it take to make these tentative trends the predominant ones? Among other things we will need good and helpful policies. The USDA will need to cease supporting and encouraging industrial monocropping for export, and begin supporting smaller farms, rewarding those that make the effort to reduce inputs and to grow for local consumption. In the absence of USDA policy along these lines, we need to pursue state, county, and municipal efforts to support small farms in various ways, through favourable zoning, by purchasing local food for school lunches, and so on.

We will also require land reform. Those millions of new farmers will need access to the soil, and there must be some means for assisting in making land available for this purpose. Conservation land trusts may be useful in this regard, and we might take inspiration from Indian Line Farm, here in the northeast.

Since so few people currently know much about farming, education will be essential. Universities and community colleges have both the opportunity and responsibility to quickly develop programs in small-scale ecological farming methods—programs that also include training in other skills that farmers will need, such as in marketing and formulating business plans.

Since few if any farms are financially successful the first year or even the second or third, loans and grants will also be necessary to help farmers get started.

These new farmers will need higher and stabilized food prices. As difficult as it may be even to imagine this situation now, food rationing may be required at some point in the next two or three decades. That quota system needs to be organized in such a way as to make sure everyone has the bare essentials, and to support the people at the base of the food system—the farmers.

Finally, we need a revitalization of farming communities and farming culture. A century ago, even in the absence of the air and auto transport systems we now take for granted, small towns across this land strove to provide their citizens with lectures, concerts, libraries, and yearly chautauquas. Over the past decades these same towns have seen their best and brightest young people flee first to distant colleges and then to the cities. The folks left behind have done their best to maintain a cultural environment, but in all too many cases that now consists merely of a movie theater and a couple of video rental stores. Farming communities must be interesting, attractive places if we expect people to inhabit them and for children to want to stay there.

If We Do This Well

We have been trained to admire the benefits of intensification and industrialization. But, as I’ve already indicated, we have paid an enormous price for these benefits—a price that includes alienation from nature, loss of community and tradition, and the acceptance of the anonymity and loss of autonomy implied by mass society. In essence, this tradeoff has its origins in the beginnings of urbanization and agriculture.

Could we actually regain much of what we have lost? Yes, perhaps by going back, at least in large part, to horticulture. Recall that the shift from horticulture to agriculture was, as best we can tell, a fateful turning point in cultural history. It represented the beginning of full-time division of labour, hierarchy, and patriarchy.

permaculture_farmBiointensive farming and Permaculture are primarily horticultural rather than agricultural systems. These new, intelligent forms of horticulture could, then, offer an alternative to a new feudalism with a new peasantry. In addition, they emphasize biodiversity, averting many of the environmental impacts of field cropping. They use various strategies to make hand labor as efficient as possible, minimizing toil and drudgery. And they typically slash water requirements for crops grown in arid regions.

We have gotten used to a situation where most farmers rely on non-farm income. As of 2002 only a bit less than 60 percent of farm operators reported that their primary work is on the farm. Only 9 percent of primary operators on farms with one operator, and 10 percent on farms with multiple operators, report all of their income as coming from the farm.

The bad side of this is that it means it’s hard to make a living farming these days. The good side is that we don’t have to think of farming as an exclusive occupation. As people return to small communities and to farming, they could bring with them other interests. Rather than a new peasantry that spends all of its time in drudgery, we could look forward to a new population of producers who maintain interests in the arts and sciences, in history, philosophy, spirituality, and psychology—in short, the whole range of pursuits that make modern urban life interesting and worthwhile.

Moreover, the re-ruralization program I am describing could be a springboard for the rebirth of democracy in this nation. I do not have to tell this audience how, over the past few years, democracy in America has become little more than a slogan. In fact this erosion of our democratic traditions has been going on for some time. As Kirkpatrick Sale showed in his wonderful book Human Scale, as communities grow in size, individuals’ ability to influence public affairs tends to shrink. Sociological research now shows that people who have the ability to influence policy in their communities show a much higher sense of satisfaction with life in general. In short, the re-ruralization of America could represent the fulfilment of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian democracy—but without the slaves.

If we do this well, it could mean the revitalization not only of democracy, but of the family and of authentic, place-based culture. It could also serve as the basis for a new, genuine conservatism to replace the ersatz conservatism of the current ruling political elites.

What I am proposing is nothing less than a new alliance among environmental organizations, farmers, gardeners, organizations promoting economic justice, the anti-globalization movement, universities and colleges, local businesses, churches, and other social organizations. Moreover, the efforts of this alliance would have to be coordinated at the national, state, and local level. This is clearly a tall order. However, we are not talking about merely a good idea. This is a survival strategy.

It may seem that I am describing and advocating a reversion to the world of 1800, or even that of 8,000 BC. This is not really the case. We will of course need to relearn much of what our ancestors knew. But we have discovered a great deal about biology, geology, hydrology, and other relevant subjects in recent decades, and we should be applying that knowledge—as Holmgren, Mollison, Jeavons, and others have done—to the project of producing food for ourselves.

whats-wrong-with-our-food-system

Cultural anthropology teaches us that the way people get their food is the most reliable determinant of virtually all other social characteristics. Thus, as we build a different food system we will inevitably be building a new kind of culture, certainly very different from industrial urbanism but probably also from what preceded it. As always before in human history, we will make it up as we go along, in response to necessity and opportunity.

Perhaps these great changes won’t take place until the need is obvious and irresistibly pressing. Maybe gasoline needs to get to $10 a gallon. Perhaps unemployment will have to rise to ten or twenty or forty percent, with families begging for food in the streets, before embattled policy makers begin to reconsider their commitment to industrial agriculture.

But even in that case, as in Cuba, all may depend upon having another option already articulated. Without that, we will be left to the worst possible outcome.

Rather than consigning ourselves to that fate, let us accept the current challenge—the next great energy transition—as an opportunity not to vainly try to preserve business as usual, the American Way of Life that, we are told, is not up for negotiation, but rather to re-imagine human culture from the ground up.

(This lecture drew on certain ideas earlier put forward by Knox, New York farmer Sharon Astyk in her remarks at the 2006 Peak Oil and Community Solutions conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and on others that emerged in conversation with Pat Murphy of Community Service and Julian Darley of the Post Carbon Institute.)