During a discussion on Atomic Insights, I encountered a man whose recipes for a sustainable future need greater distribution. John Tjostem is an advocate of technologies that enable disruptive abundance and a more rewarding life for a growing portion of the world’s population.
After growing up on South Dakota farm in the 1930s and 1940s, where he began operating equipment and doing a man’s job almost as soon as he could reach the pedals and levers, Tjostem went to college at North Dakota State. He earned a Master of Science in microbiology and a PhD in botany with a focus on plant physiology. He taught at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa from 1962-2000 and has now “retired” to his family farm.
In the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, he published a two part article in Agora titled A Recipe for a Sustainable Future, Part I and A Recipe for a Sustainable Future, Part II. Part I focuses on modern agriculture including the use of computerized spreaders that use precise GPS positioning systems and the use of biotechnology including genetically modified organisms (GMO). Part II describes nuclear energy as a clean, abundant energy source that can replace fossil fuels.
These thoughtful articles describe ways to use human ingenuity and sound science to provide abundant living for a growing portion of the world’s population, even in the face of a rapidly depleting supply of readily available hydrocarbons.
In part I, Tjostem takes aim at the “back to the land” agricultural system prescription offered people like Amory Lovins, Paul R. Erlich, Dennis L. Meadows, George Mobus, Jeremy Rifkin and Walter Youngquist.
Tjostem’s agricultural hero is Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution icon and a man whose statue in the US Capitol building was just unveiled yesterday on what would have been his 100th birthday. The technology that Borlaung introduced is what enabled the world to avoid the mass starvation event that Erlich predicted.
The soft energy and neo-Malthusian proponents, such as Lovins, Rifkin, Meadows, George Mobus, and Greenpeace spokesperson, Jim Riccio, advocate lowering our energy input before fossil fuels run out. They favor moving the world population back onto the land with reliance on local food production. They reject modern agriculture which employs chemical weed control, commercial fertilizer, and genetically modified crops. Apparently, they do not share my trust in human ingenuity and science. Unfortunately, some environmental organizations and even universities buy into the soft energy anti-technology message and actively promote a gospel which limits energy options to renewable resources and energy conservation.
A bountiful food supply for the world that our grandchildren will inherit will require all the wonders that modern agriculture can produce. I see a return to low tech agriculture as a recipe for mass starvation. Also, I believe that bringing hordes of urbanites into rural areas would create an environmental disaster for our land resource. The worst conservation practices in the world are to be found wherever societies exist on low energy inputs. The “back to the land plan” such as Youngquist sketches would not promote zero population growth because agrarian societies benefit from child labor—a demand for larger families.
Modern American agriculture is the most sustainable and the most environmentally friendly form of agriculture on the planet. My assertion, which draws plenty of flak from the sustainable agriculture and organic farming folks, is backed up here with facts and examples.
In part II, Tjostem shares his first hand experience of spending his first 13 and a half years on a farm where there was no electricity. He provides specific examples on the life-changing nature of the arrival of that amazing 19th century invention in the form of a power line enabled by the Depression Era Rural Electrification Act.
The biggest technological change in my lifetime was the implementation of the Rural Electrification Act (REA). I can still recall the night in November 1948 when the dark landscape was lighted for the first time by dozens of yard lights. Nearly every yard light was turned on that clear autumn night.
Within a couple of years the flush toilet replaced the outhouse and I had my first bath in a real bathtub. It had been my winter chore to keep the copper boiler on the top of the cook stove filled with snow.
Electricity took a lot of drudgery out of my mother’s life. Hot water on tap from the electric water heater was a wonderful change. Washday included ironing. Mother always dreaded lighting the white gas iron and the electric iron was among her favorite improvements to come with electricity.
A lot of salt went out of our diets when the refrigerator came to our house. Heavily salted cod in a white sauce that did not require refrigeration came in the small wooden boxes with mitered corners.The salted creamed cod served over toast also became a rare item on our menu after electrification came to our home. We are still using that 1948 G. E. refrigerator in the basement of our cabin where it expands our refrigerator space when the whole family is at the lake.
Though the soft energy advocates understand the value of electricity, they erroneously believe it is possible to convert a larger portion of the world’s transportation to electricity and to still achieve essentially no growth in electricity production over the next forty years. They also ignore the importance of matching demand and production on a minute by minute basis. Tjostem has a different point of view.
We need to accept the present use of coal for world-wide industrial development, but at the same time we should for the sake of our environment and our collective health, increase our national investment in research and development to replace coal with advanced generation nuclear power.The people who want to maintain the deception that there is something bad about developing clean, safe, incredibly abundant, and emission free nuclear power to share with as many of the world’s people as possible, need to be challenged. If clean, cheap energy is available developing nations can manufacture goods for bettering their standard of living and also their environment. Developing countries gain wealth by selling goods to the rest of the world. The only clean energy source that is abundant and cheap is nuclear fission. It is not a sin to embrace nuclear fission power or to have a growing economy.
Tjostem goes on to describe numerous nuclear energy advances that are in various stages of development and deployment and offer the potential of fully replacing fossil fuels with a technology that has greater, not reduced capacity.
I highly recommend both articles as a thought-provoking antidote to the pessimistic prescriptions that have been advocated by the soft energy and neo-Malthusians for the past forty years.
It is easy to side with a man who has lived, learned and worked and who can base his thoughts and prescriptions on experience combined with intensive study over people like Lovins, Erlich, and Rifkin, who apparently lived most of their lives in academic/NGO/think tank bubbles.