Frog in the Pot

Lately I’ve been talking a lot here about how rising oil prices are worrying me, and what we’re doing at the farm in response. Today I want to back up a little bit and tell you about how I have become aware of this, and why I’m worried.

For the past few months, something has been bothering me. I’ve been feeling like a frog in a pot on the stove. As the temperature is increased a little bit at a time, he does not notice the water getting hot until he is, well, done. “Hmm, it’s getting warmer—kinda cozy. But, wait. How come bubbles are starting to rise? I’m getting outta here!”

If I were a frog I would have jumped out of the pot and landed on the floor, and I would be heading for the door by now.

What’s been bothering me is something that has become known as “Peak Oil.” It’s when the demand for oil exceeds the ability to flow enough to meet demand. And we all know that when demand exceeds supply, prices go up.

When we started planning to diversify our business five years ago, oil prices were $30 per barrel. Now, five years later, oil is more than $80 per barrel. On CNBC this morning, the business channel, they were wondering if oil will go over $84 per barrel and set another record. I heard someone on the program say that $4 per gallon gas is in our not too distant future.

Since we started our diversified agriculture five years ago, conventional wisdom has been that nothing unusual is happening. But we have noticed that the phrase “fuel adjustment” has been added to our language.

In our business, we have noticed that fertilizer, chemicals, packaging and transportation is more expensive than before. But the news says that inflation is under control and everything is all right and the stock market is at near record levels. So if everything is all right, how come fertilizer costs so much more now? And how come plastic clamshells and plastic bags cost so much? How come supplies of all types cost so much?

Lately I’ve realized that petroleum products are involved in almost every facet of our lives, though we don’t always realize it. So when prices rise, it’s easy for us to miss that it is due to a rise in petroleum prices. It’s like the frog, sitting in a pot on the stove, who doesn’t realize that the temperature is going up.

I knew that agricultural costs were steadily rising, but what raised alarm bells for me was when I complained to a lawyer friend that the rise in oil prices was affecting us in many ways. He said, “Oh yeah, and the mom-&-pop plate lunch places are suffering because the plastic containers and utensils are rising in price and they cannot easily pass the costs on.”

Right then, I realized that rising oil prices were affecting many people in many businesses. So I started reading a lot of articles about oil supply and demand. That was my wake-up call. I decided right then to “jump out of the pot of warming water.”

Frankly, there are a lot of alarmist websites about “Peak Oil,” which sell books and videos about “the end of the world as we know it,” and about how to protect oneself. Looking at some of those websites, one could easily dismiss Peak Oil as a made-up problem being touted by those who are trying to make a buck by scaring people.

But that wouldn’t be correct. “Peak Oil” is not at all merely some sort of alarmist nonsense. It is nothing more than oil prices rising higher and higher. The question is: “How will we adapt?”

A highly credible site on the subject, if you’d like to read more, is that of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). ASPO is a “Non-profit, Non-partisan Research and Public Education Initiative to Address America’s Peak Oil Energy Challenge.”

Its board of directors is impressive, as is its advisory board, “a volunteer group of recognized experts in energy, science, geology and business,” consisting of petroleum geologists, physicists, retired government analysts and more. Here is the association’s mission statement.

Where am I going with all this? I think oil prices will continue rising steadily, and as a result, things will start to change in ways we have not yet considered. But we will adapt by car pooling, using clotheslines to dry our clothes, catching drinking water, etc.

I am mostly concerned, as prices rise, about our most basic need—the ability to feed ourselves. Before industrial agriculture we relied on the sun to provide one hundred percent of the energy to grow our food; directly for the greens, and indirectly for the animals that ate the greens. Industrial agriculture relied on cheap oil, as low as $3 per barrel, to fuel its growth. As oil prices rise, more and more of our income will go to buy food.

However, I don’t believe in the doomsday scenarios like on those alarmist sites. I believe we can absolutely influence the course of events to come.

We are lucky here, because we know that the ancient Hawaiians were able to sustain a population that was nearly the size of today’s population. We know it can be done. That knowledge, along with modern technology, should allow us to produce enough food for this entire island if we put our minds to it, and contribute to the needs of the state, as well.

We also need to engage youngsters—our next generation—at the earliest levels. We should frame the issue and pose the question to elementary school kids: “How can you help us feed Hawai‘i?” I can see them jumping on their computers and proudly pointing out different methods that people in other parts of the world use to grow food.

This is one of my missions now—to make people aware that we need to address this issue, and to show how it can be done; how all farmers, large and small, working together can make Hawai‘i self-sufficient in food once more.

We can do this!