We must prepare for a different future
By Frank Nixon

Much is now being said and written about the development of vegetable oil for fuel in engines.

One man in England found a way to refine the cooking oil that is discarded from fish and chip restaurants. Then a neighbour was looking for an old one-cylinder diesel engine in which he planned to burn used oil. Another young man was overheard describing how he uses old cooking oil to run his truck. Evidently there is considerable interest on this subject on the Internet.

Our technology in the past 200 years has been developed with the use of a cheap energy source. Now that fossil oil is beginning to run out, there is all this interest to keep our machines running on something else. There is still plenty of coal that will also be resorted to when the price of fuel gets high enough. It is all a matter of economics.

It is commendable that people are working on new ways to prevent old cooking oil from being wasted. However, when the price of energy rises, it may be realized the more efficient conversion of vegetable fuel to work energy, won't be by growing oil grains. It will be grass and hay.

And in the Orient it was, and still is, rice.

Here is a quote from Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King, D. Sc. He was a noted agriculturalist who traveled to China, Korea, Manchuria and Japan in 1909 to observe the agricultural practices there:

"When we reached Shanghai we saw the pile driver being worked from above. Fourteen Chinese men stood upon a raised staging, each with a separate cord passing direct from hand to the weight below. A concerted, half musical chant, modulated to relieve monotony, kept all hands together. What did the operation of this machine cost? Thirteen cents, gold, per man per day, which covered fuel and lubricant, both automatically served. Two additional men managed the piles, two directed the hammer, eighteen manned the outfit. Two dollars and thirty-four cents per day covered fuel, superintendence and repairs. There was almost no capital invested in machinery. Men were plenty and to spare. Rice was the fuel, cooked without salt, boiled stiff, reinforced with a bit of pork or fish, appetized with salted cabbage or turnip and perhaps two or three of forty and more other vegetable relishes. And are these men strong and happy? They certainly are strong. They are steadily increasing their million, and as one stood and watched them at their work their faces were often wreathed in smiles and wore what seemed a look of satisfaction and contentment. ..With these conditions the engine-driven pile driver could not compete."

Dr. King's book has many black and white photographs of the activities of those Oriental peoples from years ago. He shows some water pumps being used in irrigating the rice paddies. These pumps were made out of wood and were operated by foot power. In another part of his book, photos show these exact same pumps in another province in China. These pumps, powered by wind sails of a different and simple, less technical method than European windmills, were pumping seawater onto saltpans.

I know there may be readers saying that things won't get that bad, that our technology will solve all our problems.

However, on page 31 of the December 1998 issue of the National Geographic magazine is a full-page color photograph of two Vietnamese women pedaling the exactly designed identical pump, pumping seawater onto a Vietnam saltpan. It would seem that after 90 years, a craftsman, who must have apprenticed to some master craftsman who had received the passed-down, tried and true design for centuries, has turned out the same wooden pump: the spindle, the wooden foot pedals and wooden cog-wheel on which an intricate chain is turning. This chain is also made with delicate, but strong, wooden links connected with wooden pins and mounting wooden paddles that are drawn up a carefully fitted wooden box for several feet. At the bottom end, not shown, submerged, must be another idler cogwheel to enable the chain to return. All this wood must have been carefully selected to stand up to being wet all the time and not wear out too soon.

Here is technology that has stood the test of time. It has not been influenced by the fossil fuel age. Consequently, it will still be viable when fossil fuels no longer exist.

Who knows how the future will unfold? Some of us may have a fairly good idea by now. There seems to be a strong likelihood of a 1984, "Big Brother is watching you" kind of future at hand. We see the signs all the time.

Our environment is threatened, our resources, depleted. The population is growing to such an extent that, if we don't do something about it, nature will do it for us. Take notice of how nature works: if there is too many of a specie, disease or starvation decimates it.

As our fossil fuels deplete, the future could unfold in the following manner if other factors don't make it worse.

Here in the Kootenay district of B.C., most food is brought in from somewhere else, to the detriment of the local farmers. As the price of fuel goes up, the cost of hauling goes up. The price of food will get too expensive. The local farmer may be able to get his worth, if he still exists. But the cost of fuel will be too high to run his machinery - that's if his beat-up old junk will still run. How can he grow oil-bearing plants to run his tractor if there is no refinery to process it? It takes more land to grow enough oil to run his machine than it takes to feed a workhorse. Machines are simply not as energy efficient.

It doesn't end there. The logging in this district will cease because it will cost too much to haul the lumber out, let alone log it. A whole lot of people will have no choice but to leave, as there will be no jobs. Also, at the lumber's destination, consumers will have to change the way they build. Adobe, straw bales, or cob may become the materials of construction.

There is no telling how rapidly this will all take place. If it is sudden, it will be a catastrophe. If it is slow enough, people willing to live a simpler life may adapt and survive.

Having a horse means land taken up for hay and pasture. Where there is not enough land, then people must do the work and carry on with fewer animals altogether.

Without cheap energy there will be less technology. The ancient tried-and-true methods still exist. Can we relearn them soon enough? How far back will we need to go? Can we start a fire without a lighter? How about without a match? How about without flint and steel? What is the best material to make tinder? These are all questions to which those who survive will need to know the answers.

Today's schools might need to add a new course teaching "Surviving with Old Technology". But can we wait for those students to grow up with the knowledge to survive? Most likely we should busy ourselves today, for the need may well be tomorrow.

Except for a three-year hitch in the Navy, Frank Nixon lives and works on his family's century farm near Winlaw, B.C. While developing his expertise in building and farming, he is also perfecting sustainable farming with little or no dependence on modern technology.