[p2p-research] The one thing depleting faster than oil is the credibility of those measurin...

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Thu Nov 19 03:27:50 CET 2009

J. Andrew Rogers wrote:
> On Wed, Nov 18, 2009 at 8:10 AM, Paul D. Fernhout
> <pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com> wrote:
> Cost of living is much lower in agricultural areas, and the median
> salary is more like US$30k. This is equivalent to $50k in
> non-agricultural regions when adjusted for purchasing power parity.

As I suggested, try paying the equivalent of US$100K a year for 9-5 work, 
and see if you still have an agricultural labor shortage. :-)

>> Can you show me any agricultural jobs where, say, people doing labor in
>> fields are getting US$30 an hour and up? US$10 an hour, maybe. Or more
>> likely, closer to minimum wages.
> Agriculture is like commercial fishing, you make very high wages over
> a relatively small number of months which are then averaged over the
> rest of the year when you are not working.  If you bust your ass and
> work long hours during peak season, you can make some pretty good
> money.

Think of the logic of that. If twice as many people did the work, it would 
be easier.

Also, the fact that US agriculture is often in monocultures that all fruit 
at the same time is another problem. A diversified organic production system 
can distribute labor load in an area better throughout the year.

> One of the great things about being a teenager in a farming
> community is that you can make a lot of money over the summer if you
> are willing to work -- far, far more than you could ever make as a
> burger-flipper.

Well, the point will soon be moot because both sets of tasks will be 
automated. :-)

Even for pancakes:
"Flipping brilliant! Now Japan has invented a robot that can cook you 
pancakes for breakfast"

>> So, I think a lot of this is a wage problem. It is a lot of work for other
>> people, but for little pay.
> No, the wages are fine. The problem is that it is hard, dirty work
> with irregular hours.  It is not and cannot be a 9-to-5,
> Monday-through-Friday type job. Most people will accept significantly
> lower wages for an easier, more regular job.

Except that, if you put twice as many people on the problem, the work can be 
regularized into first shift and second shift, or it can just be 9-5 with 
more equipment.

Besides, there are many jobs like road maintenance even in suburban and 
urban areas that are not 9-5 jobs (think snowplowing) that people are 
willing to do.

>> And considering how important food is to our
>> society, if we were to pay agricultural laborers similar to union
>> autoworkers in Detroit were, they should be getting around US$50 an hour to
>> do things like pick oranges or plant seedlings.
> Most autoworkers are grossly overpaid.  Agricultural labor is not a
> high-skill job, it is just a lot of dirty work with an irregular
> schedule.

OK, you seem to be trying to create a circular argument. You say there is a 
labor shortage. I say, fine, if there is, pay people five times more or 
whatever. Then you say, most of agriculture is not a high skill job, and so 
by implication should not be paid well. Is this a country where supply and 
demand matter or not? If there is inadequate supply of labor, and close to 
20% of the US workforce is now unemployed or underemployed, then just pay 
more and people will almost certainly work.

The fact is, in the USA, US$30K a year is not much, whatever you say about 
cost of living in rural areas (if that, and ignoring occupational hazards 
that could be minimized in an organic setting like pesticides or otherwise 
minimized with safer but more expensive production equipment). Is the price 
of a distant college much less if you live in a rural area? Is the cost of 
health insurance much less in a rural area? Is food that much cheaper? Is 
fuel that much cheaper? Are big TVs that much cheaper?

Pay day-laborers like union factory workers, and people will show up. :-)

But one reason farmers can't do that is that, as basic macroeconomics will 
admit, agriculture is a fairly mature industry, and so profits have been 
squeezed out. Also big agribusinesses have a lot of control over wages and 
working conditions relative to illegal immigrants.

>> This is off the top of my head, so feel free to get better figures, but I'm
>> guessing a person can pick and sort at least 500 oranges an hour without too
>> much stress, while talking to other coworkers and having an OK time.
> You have obviously never worked in agriculture. :-)

Another personal generalization based on few facts.

>> So, these labor rates might not increase food prices that much, unless you
>> talk about all the other aspects of our food distribution system that don't
>> make much sense. For example, farmers might get ten cents on that dollar I
>> pay in the grocery store, in which case the cost of picking would be all of
>> it, and given other costs, clearly that would not work out.
> Farmers get better than ten cents on the dollar, but you are pretty
> seriously misestimating the cost and risk structure of agriculture.

What I am saying is that we as a society could change that, and individual 
farmers have been changing it for themselves, as the break free of the dogma 
that has been perpetuated in the past by land grant colleges that have been 
mainly catering to huge agribusiness concerns with their recommendations.

Organic methods are generally less risky because they produce a more 
consistent yield, even if a lower one than the best years of conventional 
methods. One way they do this is by planting varieties that are more 
diverse. Another way they do this is by planting many different species of 
plants in one farm. They also are less exposed to some variable costs 
related to fuel.

I know people who desperately wanted to farm and could not for all these 
cost structure reasons. They can be changed. But the goal of agricultural 
subsidies has never been to make people who want to farm happy, or to make 
people who eat food healthier. It has been to make the owners of big 
agribusiness concerns richer.

> Most of the cost of agriculture is *post-production*. This includes
> distribution and processing, both of which are energy intensive (hence
> why you see vegetable processing plants in the middle of the Nevada
> desert -- geothermal is "free" energy which reduces processing costs
> even accounting for extra transport).

Again, organic methods for local production change some of that.

> Part of the reason this is the case is that many agricultural
> production inputs such as diesel fuel are not taxed whereas their
> equivalents in the rest of the economy are taxed at relatively high
> rates.

Again, organic methods change the nature of some of that.

>> So, this is a political issue to make it work. If *all* farmers were
>> required to pay US$50 an hour for farm day-labor, then none would be at a
>> comparative disadvantage. Or, if all farmers and others were taxed, and the
>> money given to improve society so that even poorly paid farm workers had a
>> good life, with access to libraries and free-to-the-consumer prepared
>> organic food and so on, or alternatively the taxes given as a basic income
>> to everyone to spend as they saw fit, then that would be another approach.
> As an FYI, you are basing your analysis on a purely fictional concept
> of American agriculture. Just about every last one of your assumptions
> is wrong, and hence any conclusions from those assumptions.

Well, you seem to be talking a lot about conventional agriculture. I am 
talking about organic agriculture, as well as what could be.

>> Although, no doubt, we might see a rush to automate. Then the issue is, who
>> should get the benefits of the automation? The farmers? The engineers? The
>> displaced workers?
> What displaced workers?  Capital investment in automation helps solve
> the problem of a labor *shortage*.

There are a few other deeper issues here. Everyone expects illegal 
immigrants to do farm work, so no one looks into it. Everyone expects 
illegal immigrants to accept dangerous working conditions and low wages, so 
no one wants to change.

But, automation continues. Now we are reaching the point where it is getting 
cheaper to automate than even to pay illegal immigrants who you will poison. 
So economics dictates a shift to robots.

The government could step in and do that, but it is against the dominant 
economic mythology.

For decades people in robotics wanted to automate agriculture, but there was 
no significant funding for it. I've known some of these people.

>> Or, maybe, everyone should share in it somehow?
> That depends. Is everyone going to bear the risk and cost of
> automation in the first place?

Sure, our entire society faces the risk of collapse if it goes wrong, or for 
that matter, right. :-)

Plus, who paid to educate the engineers (such as education is). Who paid for 
the roads? Who paid for the research?

But really, some of this is a political and mythological argument about who 
is the ultimate owner of the land or the machinery. And even if that is 
settled in favor of the current farmers, then there is the issue of taxes, 
which are justified on a variety of grounds one might argue with, but we 
have had them for centuries.

>> Anyway, why not pay people thirty Euros? What are the implications?
>> How much would food prices really rise?
> Prices would not rise that much, since production is only a modest
> portion of the total cost.

Great. We agree on that. So, in some sense then, now we can argue whether it 
is exploitive by our society not to pay higher wages to illegal immigrants 
that our entire US economy depends on, and without whom the USA would 
collapse pretty quickly as a functioning society (without food, for 
example). See also:

Mexican-ancestry people are not all illegal immigrants, obviously. But there 
is this really funny scene in the trailer where the border guard finds 
illegal immigrants crossing the border and start cheering. :-)

> But again, you are assuming that raising
> wages will magically increase the labor pool. It is like fishing in
> the boonies of Alaska; you can make a $100k/month, but the work sucks,
> is dangerous, and requires you to live in the middle of nowhere such
> that they have a hard time finding people willing to do it.

Got any links to a job posting like that? And how many are there?

"Hard time" is always relative to what you will pay and also how good your 
willing to make the work. More money spent on equipment can make a lot of 
work easier. More money spent to hire more people or train them better can 
make work easier. More money can motivate people to do more work (up to a 
point). Enough money can create cities in the middle of nowhere if you 
really want to.

It's laughable that Bill Gates and cohorts says Microsoft is having a "hard 
time" finding programmers, and so demanding a higher H1B visa quota, while 
not being willing to pay more, or give their programmers much creative 
freedom, or adapt their business model to free and open source software, or 
hire enough people to change their entire culture. If Microsoft wanted to 
pay me and a thousand other programmers US$1 million a year to do free and 
open source software together on robotics and manufacturing and anything 
else we wanted, with a contract that guaranteed whatever we wrote would be 
under an FSF recommended free license, sure I'd probably be willing to go 
work there. :-)

"With more than $20 billion in cash in the most recent quarter, and annual 
free cash flow of $17 billion, there is not much question that Microsoft can 
afford the current quarterly payout of 13 cents a share."

So, they could afford to support that thousand programmers I'd be one of for 
twenty years just from cash in the bank. And it might finally let them 
compete with Google. But will they do that? No, because there mythology is 
that of "cheap labor" conservatives, whatever they say about innovation:
   "Cheap Labor Conservatives Issues Guide"

Plus, how would they explain this to the rest of their employees? They'd all 
want the same deal. :-)

Salaries are some equilibrium between a company having a "hard time" hiring 
because of not much willingness to pay high salaries or make the work 
environment pleasant and a potential employee having a "hard time" finding a 
job that pays well and is in an enjoyable work environment. Some companies 
can not find that equilibrium, and so disappear eventually.

What I'm saying is that we as a society are making choices, even if the 
choice is to throw up our hands and say, that's the way our economic system 
works and we can't do anything about it except starve to death amidst 
potential plenty. Of course we can't pay illegal immigrants tracking poison 
home to give their children cancer more than US$10 an hour, because the work 
is dirty and low-skill, even if our society could afford to pay them US$100K 
a year for 9-5 work with fancy equipment and food prices would barely budge. 
That's just mostly a matter of mythology and culture.

> The elephant in the room is the urbanization of a population that
> wants nothing whatsoever to do with agriculture or food production.
> There is aggressive shrinkage of the labor pool in agricultural
> regions. No one wants to live there, the population that is there is
> rapidly aging, and no amount of money can attract people to live out
> there.

There certainly is a cultural dynamic at work, I'd agree. When we lived in 
Iowa, the governor had a campaign to go travel to places like New York and 
remind people who grew up in Iowa that it was a great place to raise a 
family. :-) And it was in many ways.

But, as you imply, there is a set of dynamics there.

But there are other issues. A young person can't enter conventional farming 
now without getting a million dollars or much more of land and equipment and 
supplies, because of the economic system we have created around farming. So, 
they have to be someone else's farm hand at low wages, while the farmer 
waits to retire and sell their land at an appreciated price for 
"development" or to agribusiness. Plenty of young people even in Iowa would 
want to farm, but there is no realistic hope for them to do it 
conventionally without taking on huge debts and huge risks.

Would you loan the average twenty year old a few million dollars? Maybe we 
should. :-)

>> Again, if we change the nature of farming, so farms are smaller, this is not
>> so much of an issue. Also, most farms have sunny open places, so we can
>> expect solar panels to make a lot of sense there to supply electricity as
>> the costs of such panels continue to drop. Makes me think there must already
>> be a business opportunity here? :-) Considering how road crews set up lights
>> that have solar panels on them to minimize the need to refuel generators?
> Already been done where it makes sense.  Frequently, it doesn't make
> sense. American farmers lead the world in agricultural technological
> innovation -- they have to in order to compete on price -- but they
> are also very sensitive to the economics of their equipment. As solar
> gets cheaper you will see more solar, but there is a large installed
> base of diesel power that is both very reliable and inexpensive.

The diesel power is only "inexpensive" because farmers are not paying the 
true cost of oil. That's what this thread started with, that there are 
systemic risks that are not priced in.

Not everything here is true (there is at least one miscalculation), but it 
points to some good studies:
   "The True Cost of Oil"

Also, if you think US agriculture is the best, well, have you looked at 
Europe, especially the Netherlands and their greenhouse technology?

Again, when you say "lead the world", in what way? There are many types of 
technology with many different cost/benefit tradeoffs depending on your 
values and purposes and risk tolerance and economic assumptions.

>> There are lots of types of "farms". Maybe you might want to study this a
>> bit.
> As you may have surmised, I am more than a little familiar with
> agriculture at numerous scales and in several climates.

Great. Conventional agriculture, it seems? You might want to look more at 
organic agriculture.

     "Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of 
soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, 
biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of 
inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, 
innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair 
relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.."
     —International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements[4]

That does not seem to be what you are talking about?

This is good book on the soil science of organic agriculture, by the way:
"Towards Holistic Agriculture: A Scientific Approach" by R.W. Widdowson

>> Your argument about scale only is true within certain assumptions --
>> including assumptions about market access, labor availability, choice of
>> equipment, cost of land, and so on. Those assumptions may all change if
>> other aspects of our society change.
> Nope, the economics are almost purely energy-based.  You can tweak the
> other parameters madly to optimize for certain assumptions and
> conditions, but at the end of the day the calculus all comes back to
> energy.

And what I am talking about is, in part, reducing energy use, which would 
change the economics. A key aspect of organic agriculture is reduced energy 
use. But, as above, there are many other aspects.

>>> Note also that the scale of the farm required is dependent on the
>>> local ecology and climate.  In some very rich areas you have a
>>> reasonable farm on a mere tens of acres, but in other areas the
>>> revenue per acre is so low that you need thousands of acres just to
>>> cover basic overhead.
>> Then maybe we should not be farming such places? :-) Especially if most
>> agricultural land is not needed given how it is used mostly to grow grain to
>> feed to grass-adapted ruminants and make everyone unhappy and sick? :-(
> American agriculture has adapted to virtually every ecological zone of
> the country and found ways to make all of those regions economically
> productive. The reason low-yield regions are productive is that there
> are methods of farming those regions such that the energy and capital
> requirements per acre scale according to the yield.

"Economically productive" by passing the negative externalities to whom? 
What about the salmon who can't spawn anymore because their rivers have been 
run almost dry, diverted to grow lettuce in the desert? What about the 
Native Americans who can no longer practice ancient customs catching those 
salmon? What about all the US Americans who pay high taxes to defend oil 
supply lines so that lettuce can be trucked across the country, so a head of 
lettuce ends up (guessing) costing US$1 on their credit card but US$3 on 
their tax form?

Example of the kind of controversy I'm talking about:
The goal of the Colorado River Compact was simple: equitable water 
allocation amongst the seven participating states: California, Nevada, Utah, 
Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and New Mexico. In the years since the compact 
was put into effect there has been considerable debate over whether this 
goal was achieved. This debate has been exacerbated by lawsuits between the 
participating states, media attention, and intensified citizen and lobbyist 
pressures on government agencies and officials. In recent years, this 
controversy has become even more prevalent with record population growth and 
drought alert in participating lower basin states.

>> You sound extremely confident about that. What if the robots are cheap? What
>> if they are solar powered? What if the first thing they do is smooth out the
>> fields? What if one reason farm land is so rugged is that farm tractor tires
>> chew it up? What if robots companion-plant crops in squares instead of rows?
>> Robots allow looking at agricultural problems in entirely new ways, just
>> like they have changed how laws are mowed (every day instead of every week).
>> It almost seems to me like the roboticists making lawnmowers have reinvented
>> sheep. :-)
> You mistakenly assume that all of this has not been tried and studied
> in great detail.  Where it makes sense, it *is* being used.  American
> agriculture is technologically pretty far ahead of where you think it
> is. One of the reasons Americans can aggressively compete on price
> against third-world labor in things like the rice market is due to a
> high degree of computerization and clever automation. Robotics are
> rapidly becoming a part of farms *where it makes sense*, and have been
> for some time but the implementation might look different than what
> you are imagining because there are real-world issues you are
> ignoring.

Citations, please. :-)

>> You use the word "efficient".
> Yes, not wasting scarce resources unnecessarily.  Are you really
> arguing that we should wantonly waste finite natural resources?  The
> goal of farming is to produce food.

As above, there are other ways to look at this by the organic agriculture 
holistic ethos of looking at the whole system.

Or, from another perspective:
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least 
threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to 
enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a 
common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming 
existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To 
organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, 
stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of 
criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, 
an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the 
most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for 
leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete 
misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that 
work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and 
cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of 
leisure. ...
    While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is 
mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is "The Middle Way" and 
therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well-being. It is not wealth 
that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the 
enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of 
Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence. From an 
economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the 
utter rationality of its pattern—amazingly small means leading to 
extraordinarily satisfactory results.

As I said with my long list of possible "efficiencies", which efficiencies 
are you emphasizing? Why are you not emphasizing the others? If you optimize 
across multiple types of efficiencies, how do you weigh them?

Anyway, a focus on the purely material ends ("food") is questionable in 
multiple ethical systems, especially given how much time so many people will 
be living with the consequences of the means.

If you would like a "mathematically-oriented" example of this, :-) consider 
the system used by "Places Rated Almanac" where there are various specific 
"facts" like the general climate of a place, the numbers of hospitals, the 
relative cost of housing, the availability of various types of recreation 
and so on, but in order to do a customized recommendation you need to decide 
how important each of those factors is to you. You can try a version of it 
online here (seemed pretty slow, so I gave up on it; I used the software 
many years ago on PC):
   "How PlacesRated.com Works"

So, sure, efficient use of "finite natural resources" is important in 
agriculture (ignoring that we can have effectively endless fertilizer by 
grinding up rocks, and endless energy from the wind and the sun. :-) But how 
important is that relative to people having good salaries? Producing a lot 
of food is important, but how important relative to the reliability of 
production if the weather is unpredictable? The profit to the individual 
farmer is important, but how important relative to letting new farmers join 
the profession? And how do those all interact?

So, it is a multidimensional optimization, with large amounts of uncertainty 
and arguments over how to quantify things (human happiness?) as well as how 
to weigh things. Good luck getting the results to come out identical for any 
two people. You probably know all about this already, but:
I'm just saying, think about applying it more to basic issues in our 
society. :-) If it even can be applied. :-)

"Designing for Environment: A Multi-objective Optimization Framework Under 
Designing for environment requires consideration of several indices of 
environmental impact, including ozone depletion and global warming 
potentials, human and aquatic toxicity, and photochemical, oxidation, and 
acid rain potentials. Current methodologies like the generalized waste 
reduction algorithm (WAR) provide a first step towards evaluating these 
impacts. However, to address the issues of accuracy and the relative weights 
of these impact indices, one must wrestle with the problem of uncertainties. 
Environmental impacts must also be weighed and balanced against other 
concerns, such as cost and long term sustainability. These multiple, often 
conflicting, goals pose a challenging and complex optimization problem, 
requiring multi-objective optimization under uncertainty. The proposal 
addresses the problem of quantifying and analyzing the various objectives 
involved in process design for environments. Towards this goal proposed is a 
novel multi-objective optimization framework under uncertainty. This 
framework is based on new and efficient algorithms for multi-objective 
optimization and for uncertainty analysis. The multi-objective optimization 
algorithm will provide a set of non-dominant designs where a further 
improvement for one objective will be at the expense of another. This 
approach will find a set of potentially optimal designs where trade-offs can 
be explicitly identified, unlike cost-benefit analysis, which deals with 
multiple objectives by identifying a single fundamental objective and then 
converting all the other objectives into this single currency. Our proposed 
approach is particularly valuable in a multi-objective situation where there 
are a large number of desirable and important objectives which are not 
easily translated into dollars (e.g., human health and life, environmental 
impacts, and plant flexibility). In this project we will develop a novel and 
efficient multi-objective optimization framework under uncertainty based on 
the algorithms described above to solve problems where objectives are 
difficulty to quantify, when there is a lack of data or inaccurate data.

It's a tough problem. And it may just have to be worked out by people 
talking rather than cranking the numbers (because different people have 
different preferences), but no doubt the general numbers could help. As 
Places Rated Almanac shows, there often are clusters of options that may 
come out on top. Two decades ago, Pittsburgh did well generally, as did 
areas around New Jersey. Of course, that may not matter to someone who has 
all their family on the west coast or prefers a dryer climate or has other 
priorities. So, lots of factors to weigh. A simple example would be, a 
married couple tries to use Places Rated Almanac to pick a great city to 
move to, but one has family on the East coast, and one has family on the 
West Coast, and one likes rural areas, and one likes city areas. :-) Also, 
places rated focuses on cities, not rural towns, so it may be very 
incomplete, just like an optimization process may be incomplete if another 
option is always, invest more in R&D to get less tradeoffs. :-)

Example, back to the original point of this thread, related to whether or 
not can use electricity easily in remote places:
Nearly eight years and a reported $250 million in venture-capital investment 
later, Sridhar has a working product that’s been in field trials for the 
past two years and is about to go on the global market, at a price he says 
will be competitive with existing energy options. As for results: in an 
ongoing trial at the University of Tennessee, a five-kilowatt Bloom box (the 
size of a large coffee table and capable of powering a 5,000-square-foot 
house) has proved twice as efficient as a traditional gas-burning system and 
produced 60 percent fewer emissions.
   Since the boxes are “fuel agnostic,” customers can run them on existing 
propane, natural gas, or ethanol sources. But they’ll also run on plant 
waste, or almost anything else containing hydrogen and carbon. And the 
eventual “killer app”? Processing wind- or solar-generated electricity with 
water to create storable oxygen and hydrogen, then reversing the process to 
generate electricity at night or in low-wind or cloudy conditions.
   That alone gives the technology impressive potential.
   “If you have clean, affordable energy, you can get clean air and clean 
water whenever you want,” Sridhar says. “You can make recycling affordable. 
You can turn latent local resources into marketable ones.”
   But the truly disruptive aspect of Bloom’s fuel cells isn’t their clean, 
quiet, affordable efficiency. It’s their ability to operate independent of a 
power grid. That’s critical for developing countries, which lack 
infrastructure. It could also allow Bloom to revolutionize energy-generation 
in industrialized nations.
   “I want to open up access to energy the way that PCs and the Web opened 
up access to information,” Sridhar says. “So people can live where they 
want, and still be connected, without someone telling them when they can do 
their laundry.” A distributed energy system would also be far less 
susceptible to attack or natural disaster.

So, while many people are busy saying stuff like that can't be done, here is 
one guy (with lots of help) doing it. :-) Or appears to if you can believe 
the hype.

As with all things VC, this might be complete hype. We'll see. But sooner or 
later, someone will succeed at this in a very cost-effective reliable way. 
And there are already many such systems at higher costs and less generality.

"Fuel cells are now available as an alternative source for renewable energy. 
  Unlike traditional power generators, they don't require gasoline to 
generate power. They also provide an alternative to solar generators because 
they do not depend on any external power gathering equipment. These units 
are compact, durable, and built to power a wide range of applications. "

That site looks so bad as to feel scammy. :-) But there is a lot going on:

And in any case, a Stirling engine can burn most anything:
"In contrast to internal combustion engines, Stirling engines have the 
potential to use renewable heat sources more easily, to be quieter, and to 
be more reliable with lower maintenance. They are preferred for applications 
that value these unique advantages, particularly if the cost per unit energy 
generated ($/kWh) is more important than the capital cost per unit power 
($/kW). On this basis, Stirling engines are cost competitive up to about 100 

So, there we have again to weigh different issues that may be hard to 
compare. How important is quiet to someone living in a rural area?

And a regular ICE can be adapted to run hydrogen

Or even "wood gas":

There is a picture on that page of a tractor adapted to run on wood.

 From there:
Wood gasifiers can power either spark ignition engines where 100% of the 
normal petrol can be replaced with little change to the carburation, or in a 
diesel engine by simply feeding the gas into the air inlet when the diesel 
governor automatically cuts back the diesel to fuel to between 15% - 40%. In 
the latter case the diesel fuel is still needed to ignite the gas. Wood can 
be used to power cars with ordinary internal combustion engines if a wood 
gasifier is attached. This was quite popular during World War II in several 
European and Asian countries because the war prevented easy and 
cost-effective access to oil. In more recent times, wood gas has been 
suggested as a clean and efficient method to heat and cook in developing 
countries, or even to produce electricity when combined with a gas turbine 
or internal combustion engine. Compared to the WWII technology, gasifiers 
have become less dependent on constant attention due to the use of 
sophisticated electronic control systems, but it remains difficult to get 
clean gas from them. Purification of the gas and feeding it into the natural 
gas pipelines is one variant to link it to existing refueling 
infrastructure. Liquification by the Fischer-Tropsch process is another 
   Efficiency rate of the gasifier system is relatively high. The 
gasification stage converts about 75% of fuel energy content into a 
combustible gas that can be used as fuel for internal combustion engines. 
Based on long term practical experiments and over 100 000 km driven with 
wood gas powered car, the energy consumption has been 1.54 times more 
compared to the energy demand of the same car on petrol (not including the 
energy needed to extract, transport and refine the oil from which petrol is 
derived). This means that 1000 kg of wood combustible matter has been found 
to substitute 365 litres of petrol during real transportation in similar 
driving conditions and with the same otherwise unmodified vehicle [2]. This 
can be considered to be a good result, because no other refining of the fuel 
is required. This study also considers all possible losses of the wood gas 
system like preheating of the system and carrying of the extra weight of the 
gas generating system.

Also, people can produce their own diesel. That was one of the aspirations 
of Rudolf Diesel, to make an engine that people could produce their own fuel 
for locally, rather than gasoline that was harder to make.
"The diesel engine has the benefit of running more fuel-efficiently than 
gasoline engines. Diesel was interested in using coal dust [5] or vegetable 
oil as fuel, and his engine, in fact, was run on peanut oil.[6] Although 
these fuels were not immediately popular, during 2008 rises in fuel prices 
coupled with concerns about oil reserves have led to more widespread use of 
vegetable oil and biodiesel. The primary source of fuel remains what became 
known as diesel fuel, an oil byproduct derived from refinement of petroleum."

Though best known for his invention of the pressure-ignited heat engine that 
bears his name, Rudolf Diesel was also a well-respected thermal engineer and 
a social theorist. Diesel's inventions have three points in common: they 
relate to heat transfer by natural physical processes or laws; they involve 
markedly creative mechanical design; and they were initially motivated by 
the inventor's concept of sociological needs. Rudolf Diesel originally 
conceived the diesel engine to enable independent craftsmen and artisans to 
compete with industry.[8]

So, there we have an inventor deciding to weigh some perceived social value 
or idealized society more than pure immediate profit.

Anyway, so with all those options, the scaremongering about Peak Oil as 
regards agriculture is bunk. Here is my "worst case" scenario: farmers will 
just go out in the barn, weld on some ugly looking wood gasifier to their 
tractors, and about 1% of the farmers will die when the jury rigged thing 
explodes in the rush to switch over, and the rest will go on farming and pay 
their respects to their unfortunate neighbor's family and maybe help out for 
a time with the plowing over there. Maybe they might produce half as much 
because they need to power the tractor. But, that just means the meat in the 
stores is all grassfed, which you and Ryan have said is better for us, if we 
eat meat at all.

By the way, we used to get our grassfed beef here a few years back:
Lasater Grasslands Beef is great tasting because our cattle are finished on 
grass; they spend their entire lives grazing in open pastures and are never 
confined in feedlots or fed grain. They are not given growth hormones or 
low-level antibiotics and are not treated with pesticides.
   We have been ranching for more than a century, looking at our 
surroundings holistically instead of in parts. One of the most valuable 
lessons we’ve learned is that everything in Nature has a purpose... the ant, 
prairie dog, the coyote, the porcupine... This lesson governs every aspect 
of our business. We refuse to compromise when it comes to Nature–in a very 
real sense, she is our most valued business partner and the source of our 
business philosophy.
   Call us smart or call us crazy–we always look for a way to do the job 
naturally with the resources that nature gave us.

But we're more and more vegetarian these days, although we do sometimes get 
Applegate farms hotdogs, and we eat some fish. And an occasional meal out 
like at Panera bread or Subway when I order roast beef sandwich and feel a 
little guilty about it. :-( Nobody's perfect, especially since perfection is 
relative to expectations. :-) By the standards of how I was raised, meat at 
every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I'm doing much better, maybe once 
or twice a week or so, on average (some weeks more, many weeks less. :-) I 
remember the first week I went without eating meat in my twenties. It was 
amazing to still be walking around not having eaten any meat for a whole 
week, kinda like it felt the first time I used SCUBA gear and was actually 
still breathing underwater. Such an odd idea.

Anyway, during WWII supposedly the general health in England went up from an 
improved diet with all the restrictions. Example comment:
In Britain, the diet upon which millions of the poorer people depended 
before WWII was very inadequate. At the time of the General Strike, for 
example, the working class often had to live on a basic selection of bread, 
lard, potatoes and tea. Once WWII started, however, such national policies 
as the giving over of land for use as so-called 'victory gardens' and 
allotments, plus a more equitable distribution of what food there was thanks 
to the policy of 'rationing', meant that a lot of people were eating 
significantly better, and quite a few people were no longer eating too much.
My own shy suggestion is that 'if everyone ate the way they did during 
WWII', a significant number of people - those who currently subsist on 
crisps, coke, fries and burgers etc - would become healthier. But an equally 
significant number of other people with more sensible diets probably wouldn't.

Sometimes it takes something like a disaster to shock people out of a 
"pleasure trap":
"The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force That Undermines Health & 

But ideally, it can be done in other ways.

I have little doubt that if a Peak Oil storm really hits, we'll all pull 
together and be better of for it -- except for the few farmers whose wood 
gasifiers explode, and the rest of the community for that loss. :-(

So, if we convert slowly away from oil now, then maybe we will avoid those 
sort of last minute everything-in-a-rush accidents.

But, as I see it, we'll be converting soon anyway, especially as more and 
more people understand the true cost of oil, and as more and more people 
envision societal alternatives, and as more and more people make alternative 
energy systems like Nanosolar or maybe Bloom Power (was Ion America before, 
apparently). Maybe Dean Kamen's Stirling engine will be the big success?
This Stirling engineW - developed by Dean KamenW - uses any heat source to 
produce electricity. It is about the size of a washing machine and produces 
1 kW. Iqbal Quadir, the founder of Grameen PhoneW, conducted a six-month 
field trial, ending in September 2005. "This is a reliable machine," he 
says. Kamen’s goal is to produce machines that cost $1,000 to $2,000 each. 
Under the Grameen model, they would be owned by entrepreneurs (funded by 
microcredit from the Grameen BankW). Quadir sees this as a better model than 
a single large power plant, in that it creates many entrepreneurs. Kamen 
thinks the waste heat of this device could be used to operate his other 
invention, the Slingshot water purifier.

We have endless technical options, even if some of them might require 
changing our lifestyle (but maybe not all of them). Our deepest problems are 
social and mythological at this point, IMHO.

--Paul Fernhout

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