De-Urbanization: The Future is Rural

The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptation to the Great Simplification

By Jason Bradford

Book Review

Free PDF: The Future is Rural

This recent publication by the Post Carbon Institute disputes the common mainstream assertion that migration towards urban areas will continue to increase in coming decades. Instead it offers compelling arguments (based on substantive research) that the transition away from fossil fuels will reverse the current demographic flow, resulting in major “de-urbanization.”

Bradford’s prediction of a major migration from urban to rural areas is based mainly on the inability (owing to higher costs) of renewable energy to fully substitute for cheap fossil fuels. He asserts there will be less energy available to move food into cities from the countryside, as well as less energy to move wastes in the opposite direction. Thus he predicts a growing number of city dwellers will be forced to relocate to ensure continuing access to food.

Bradford argues that despite its current low cost, a total transition to renewable energy will result in higher costs because

1) most renewable sources are intermittent and energy storage tends to be expensive.

2) there is no cheap renewable replacement for liquid fossil fuels. While there are renewable replacements for gasoline and jet fuel (eg biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells), getting all cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes to run on renewable fuel alternatives will require costly retrofitting.

3) renewable energy has a much larger geographic footprint (ie requires a larger land areas) than fossil fuels. While renewables have a much lower environmental impact, capturing renewable energy on a massive scale will require careful planning so as not to interfere with food production.

The good news is that increasing automation will also shift job availability from cities to rural areas, as the loss of cheap energy leads farmers to once again rely more on human and animal labor.

The book is mainly a compilation of research related to fossil-fuel free localized food production. It seems to cover all the basis, including permaculture; biointensive farming; no-till soil management; perennial polycultures and natural systems agriculture; and fermentation and other ancient food preservation techniques.

Bradford also devotes a chapter to exploring what the food system transition will look like.

Permaculture Technology: Greening the Desert

Greening the Desert Project: Jordan September 2018

Geoff Lawton (2018)

Film Review

This short video is a brief update of the Greening the Desert project Australian permaculture guru started in 2010 in the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan. His goal is to demonstrate the success of permaculture techniques in restoring barren desert to food production with minimal irrigation

As Lawton describes in the video, he began by planting native spiky acacia to condition the sandy soil and produce a continuous supply of mulch. He then added a series of legume, mulch producing and fruit trees. The legume trees add nitrogen to the soil while the mulch producing trees are an ongoing source of carbon. All are an essential source of shade to prevent water loss in the dry season (there is no rain at all between March and September).

In addition to trees, the project employs reed beds to recycle waste water from hygiene, laundry and dishwashing and passion fruit and Singapore daisy vines for additional shade and ground cover.

Workers are already harvesting dates (date palms help fix soil phosphate) and guava from the food forest Lawton helped them create. They will harvest their first citrus crops at the end of winter. They have also planted olive, pomegranate, papaya, kumquat and neem trees. The highlight of the film is when Lawton discovers a snail (which only breed in damp conditions) in a neem tree.

Workers have just planted their veggie garden in anticipation of rain over the winter months.

The winter rain will be collected in rain tanks and swales.* In addition the compound harvests municipal tap water, delivered a few hours a day three times a week. They also have water tanked in for drinking, hygiene, laundry and dishwashing, which they recycle through the reed beds.

They only use irrigation to start their veggie seedlings.

Four years ago Lawton proposed a similar solution for southern California, but local officials have yet to adopt his recommendations: A Natural Solution to Drought

Is It Time to Bring Down Civilization?

Endgame: The Problem of Civilization

by Derrick Jensen

Seven Stories Press (2006)

Book Review

Although the writing style is quite informal, the basic structure of environmental activist Derrick Jensen’s two volume opus is that of a philosophical treatise. In Endgame, Jensen makes two highly controversial arguments:

1. The planet and the human species can only be saved by bringing down civilization.

2. This can only be accomplished by violent means.

Like a philosopher, Jensen builds his case on 20 basic premises listed at the beginning of both volumes (see below). By definition, a premise is mutually agreed assumption (as opposed to a statement of fact) that is used to rationally derive a set of conclusions. In other words, if someone rejects your premises, they will also disagree with conclusions based on these premises.

I myself agree with all but premise 9 and 12. Ten years ago, it was believed that the loss of fossil fuel based industrial agriculture would result in a big drop in population. However more recent research shows that permaculture and biointensive agriculture produce higher crop yields than factory farming. I also believe there is a vast difference between rich and poor people, both in terms of lived experience and power.

In Volume 1, Jensen traces the rise of cities, which by necessity steal resources from distant regions and eventually denude the entire landscape of these resources. After making the case that the corporate elite are voraciously consuming an ever increasing amount of energy, land, water and other resources, Jensen reminds us that we live on a finite planet. He then argues that corporations will most likely continue this greedy consumption until everything is used up – or until we stop them.

Volume 2, which is less structured and more informal, encapsulates many of Jensen’s experiences with the environmental movement and dogmatic “nonviolent” resistance advocates. Given the CIA’s heavy infiltration of both domestic and foreign non-violent resistance campaigns (see How the CIA Promotes Nonviolence), these chapters resonated strongly with my own experiences.

Other than general talk about blowing up dams and cellphone towers, Jensen is deliberately (and in my view wisely) vague about the exact form of violence he’s proposing.

Jensen’s (somewhat abbreviated) premises:

1. Civilization can never be sustainable, especially industrial civilization.
2. Traditional (ie indigenous) communities do not give up or sell their resources unless these communities are destroyed.
3. Industrial civilization would quickly collapse without its reliance on widespread violence.
4. Civilization is based on a clearly defined – violence by those at the top of the hierarchy against those at the bottom is often invisible.
5. The property of those at the top of the hierarchy is more valuable than that of those at the bottom.
6. Civilization isn’t redeemable – it will never voluntarily undergo sane transformation.
7. The longer we wait to bring down civilization, the messier the ultimate crash will be.
8. The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.
9. Some day there will be far fewer human beings on the planet than there are today.
10. The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.
11. From the beginning this culture – civilization – has been a culture of occupation.
12. There are no rich people and no poor people. The rich delusionally believe they own all the land and the police enforce these delusions. The poor buy into these delusions almost as completely as the rich.
13. Those in power rise by force. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can decide how best to resist them.
14. From birth on, we’re acculturated to hate life, the natural world, women and children, to fear our bodies and to hate ourselves.
15. Love doesn’t imply passivism.
16. The material world is primary (to the spiritual world). Real world actions have real world consequences.
17. It’s a mistake (or more likely denial) to base our decisions on whether the actions stemming from them will or won’t frighten fence sitters or the mass of Americans.
18. Our current sense of self is no more sustainable than our current use of energy or technology.
19. This culture’s main problem is the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.
20. Within this culture economics – not community well being, not morals, not ethic, not justices, not life itself – drives social decisions.

The 2011 documentary EndCiv: Resist or Die is loosely based on Endgame.

The Revolutionary Mud House Movement

First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Directed by David Sheen (2010)

Film Review

First Earth is about the growing movement to build homes from wood rather than word or concrete. The film is divided into 12 segments, providing an intriguing glimpse into the 50% of the world who already live or work in mud structures. A growing number of third world leaders are highly critical of industrial society’s efforts to colonize them by destroying their cultures and dragging them into a cash economy.

Part 1 Intro Any civilization that continually consumes its non-renewable resources will eventually destroy the land base that supports it. According to the US Department of Energy, wood and concrete buildings consume 40% of total global energy and 40% of the raw materials the world consumers. In North America, 75% of the trees felled are used in construction.

Ravaging our forests in this way is responsible for approximately 200 species extinctions every day. Replanting trees is ineffective in preventing extinctions because it doesn’t replace the delicate forest ecosystems which have been destroyed.

Part 2 African Earth visits a Ghanaian village where every member knows how to build their own house from free locally sourced materials.

Part 3 American Earth explores the history of Pueblo architecture, based on adobe bricks and plaster, and the US permaculture movement, which is studying and teaching how to build homes out of cob.*

Part 4 Why Earth argues that cheap energy has allowed westerners to move building materials long distances. Building with locally sourced mud is far more sustainable, as it requires no fossil fuel energy and produces no end of life waste. Mud is also an ideal (free) insulator for homes relying on passive solar heating.

Part 5 Empowering Earth describes the history of the cob building movement, which started in Oregon and now offers courses across North America.

Part 6 Another Earth is Possible discusses the ins and outs of obtaining building permits and mortgages for a cob home.

Part 7 European Earth describes the spread of the cob movement to the UK.

Part 8 Arabian Earth describes the long history of earth building in Yemen, which uses mud bricks to construct high rise buildings and has mud brick structures standing that pre-date Islam (600 AD).

Part 9 Urban Earth explores how the earth building movement and similar experiments in sustainability are helping Portland residents improve civic engagement and regain their sense of community.

Part 10 Inner City Earth explores how African American activists in Oakland are fighting gentrification by engaging community members in earth building projects.

Part 11 International Earth is about bringing the cob movement to Thailand, where it’s reducing local villagers’ reliance on cement. The move 30 years ago to cement (from traditional bamboo and thatch) has caused a massive debt crisis in many areas of the country. Thailand now has 18 earth building centers teaching around 600 people a month how to build homes out of free, locally sourced mud.

Part 12: The Future of Earth – epilogue.


*Cob is a natural building material made of subsoil, water and some kind of fibrous material (usually straw)

Did Humanity Make a Wrong Turn at Agriculture?

Natural Farming with Manasobu Fukuoka

PermaculturePlanet (2012)

Film Review

The late Manasobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a Japanese natural farmer and philosopher celebrated for his natural farming and re-vegetation of desertified lands.

I first became interested in Fukuoka’s work when I was researching organic methods of ridding my veggie garden of the obnoxious weed oxalis. According to one website, the only effective organic method of controlling oxalis was to seed your vegetables in a continuous green cover crop of clover or alfalfa. After trying it, I found this approach not only suppressed oxalis and other weeds, but it greatly improved soil quality and vegetable growth, while simultaneously reducing the need for watering.

Fukukoa also used trees, shrubs and naturally growing weeds, in addition to nitrogen-fixing legumes, to support his fruit trees and vegetables. His methodology specifically forbids plowing, cultivation, watering, weeding or use of manure or prepared compost.

It strikes me that this that this approach closely approximates the original horticulture anthropologist Toby Hemenway describes as preceding agriculture by tens of thousands of years. Fukukoa comes to the identical conclusion Hemenway does – that it was in the transition from horticulture to agriculture, which systematically replaced natural landscapes for monoculture crops, that humankind made the first wrong turn.

According to Fukukoa, turning the soil over through plowing or cultivating is the worst because it kills the delicate soil microorganisms that support healthy plant growth. When a farmer employs natural methods, the trees, moles, legumes and earthworms do all the plowing for him. Artificially watering is nearly as damaging because it tends to compact the soil and stunt root development.

After seventy years of perfecting his technique, Fukukoa discovered the best way to sew vegetable in a pre-existing patch of trees, shrubs and weeds is to encase the seeds in clay balls he throws directly into the weeds. By encasing the seeds in clay, he protects them from being devoured by birds and insects.

He was always highly critical of agricultural methods that deliberately fell trees to produce monoculture crops supported by chemical herbicides and pesticides. Trees are essential in natural farming because they protect smaller plants against disease and play a fundamental role in producing rain. Denuding a region of trees is the fastest way to produce a desert.

Fukukoa is also highly critical of lawns, a European innovation he equates with the beginning of so-called civilization. They are also one of the main causes of insect infestation.

Crop yields produced by Fukukoa and his students always vastly exceed those industrial agriculture produces. With the development of agriculture, humankind became so obsessed with reducing labor inputs and improving efficiency, they failed to recognize they were killing their soil and destroying their yields.

The film below profiles one of Fukukoa’s last public appearances, a visit to some of his students’ farms in India.


*Six months after planting my first cover crop, a local permaculture instructor advised me that raising the soil pH (with lime) is also an extremely effective method of eradicating oxalis.

Grave Danger of Falling Food

Grave Danger of Falling Food

Tony Gailey (1989)

Film Review

This documentary is about Australian Bill Mollison, the father of the international permaculture movement. The title, which is ironic, refers to air drops of food aid (by the industrial north) to compensate the third world for destroying their food production systems. Mollison defines permaculture as a design system for housing, energy, water management, waste recycling and food production that follows nature’s engineering principles. Permaculture purposely mimics natural systems to create a permanent, sustainable culture for human beings.

In addition to exploring Mollison’s personal history and philosophy, Grave Danger of Falling Food offers a good introduction to permaculture design and the concept of permaculture zones.

Lifestyles that Restore the Planet

Despite Mollison’s lifelong concerns about the environmental devastation wreaked by industrial agriculture and multinational extractive industries, he has reservations about the war mentality of the environmental movement. Instead of “fighting” to save rain forests and endangered species, he thinks it makes more sense to get people as many people as possible to adopt lifestyles that naturally restore the planet.

The purpose of industrial agriculture, in his view, is to create profit rather than food. In their single minded search for profits, corporations essentially declared war on soil in 1940. In sixty years they have destroyed 70% of the planet’s topsoil by deluging it with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and killed off the wealth of microorganisms that make it fertile.

Applying Forest Principles to Food Production

Beginning his adult life as a lumberjack, he got fed up with destroying pristine forests to build homes for rich people and went to university to study and teach forest management. In 1972, it suddenly came to him that applying forest principles to food production would substantially increase yields, while simultaneously repairing the environmental destruction caused by 150 years of industrial capitalism.

He coined the term permaculture in 1978. From 1981 on, he has devoted his life to helping people to design farms and gardens based on permaculture principles.

Mollison has a special interest in urban permaculture, as it has the highest productive potential. By becoming self-sufficient in food production and water management (ie eliminating stormwater runoff and recycling gray water from showers, laundry etc and where possible, sewage water), cities offer the greatest potential energy and resource savings. By eliminating transport and packaging costs, locally grown food is automatically 95% cheaper.

Lawn Liberation

A strong believer in lawn liberation, Mollison has a special distaste for suburban lawns, which he considers a tremendous waste of water and energy. A food forest in the front yard uses 50% less water, is far less work and provides a continuous supply of healthy, chemical-free food. In the video below, a Denver woman has transformed her front lawn into a mini-food forest using permaculture design. According to Juliet Schor in The Overspent American, by 1995 were spending $7.6 billion annually on residential lawn care.

A Natural Solution to Drought

In the video below, Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton challenges the energy intensive system of water management employed in the southwestern US and California.

He gives the example of the canal off the Colorado River, which presently transports water 300 miles to Tucson. Increasing evaporation has made the water so saline that it’s useless for irrigation – except for golf courses. A sinking water table means massive energy is required to elevate the water prior to transporting it. In fact, providing water to Tucson is the single biggest consumer of electricity in the state of Arizona.

Lawton contrasts this energy intensive approach to water management with a system of swales* built in the Sonora Desert 80 years ago under the Works Project Administration (Roosevelt’s New Deal job creation program). After 80 years, the swales are full of lush grasslands and trees that have self-planted.

This low-energy design approach, which works with nature rather than against it, can be used to transform any desert region into productive food forests.

The video has been censored from YouTube, but you can see it at http://www.geofflawton.com/fe/73485-an-oasis-in-the-american-desert

In the second video Lawton takes viewers through a food forest he built, by constructing swales, in the Jordanian desert.

*A swale is an artificial ditch on contour used to slow and capture water runoff by spreading it horizontally across the landscape, thus facilitating runoff infiltration into the soil