John Howe is a vegetarian who “walks the walk” concerning sustainability and simple living on his farm in Maine. He is the author of The End of Fossil Energy. His book is excellent and deserves more attention, especially from vegetarians. For further information and/or to obtain the complete nine-chapter manuscript, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. My questions are in bold, with his responses following.
Can you tell us a bit about your book The End of Fossil Energy, what prompted it, and what is it about? This is now the fourth edition, and each edition seems to be a bit different.
The manuscript format is a last-chance effort to enlist downstream, grassroots, human energy in hopes of making a difference in the short time (if any) we have left to get to sustainability. Most of my work is not unique. I’m just a messenger reflecting and subsuming a huge library and the efforts of contemporary NGOs, most with strong, but incomplete, messages.
The fourth edition is an attempt to bring everything up to date including my new per-capita oil analysis. Also I’ve attempted to add my views on politics, economics, and leadership, all in the context of a highly complex, high-energy civilization on the verge of self-destruction. The fourth edition is my final attempt.
You also say that you have transitioned from “home-grown meat” to a nearly 100% vegan diet. What prompted this transition?
One of the things we explored on our Maine farm was raising our own “beefers” and chickens. But we abhorred killing and eating our “pets” who had names.
Also, a close engineer friend got prostate cancer and introduced us to the Kushi macrobiotic (Japanese-based) diet. We felt healthier and healthier so gradually stopped eating meat and dairy products. More recently, as influenced by The China Study (T. Colin Campbell) and Food over Medicine (Pamela Popper), we’ve stopped eating even a little fish or poultry. All animal products are now distasteful. You must also understand that I am a very serious, nationally-ranked, age-class foot racer. I am quantitatively aware of my health at all times. Diet, including adequate protein to fend-off age-related muscle deterioration are very important. The only non-vegan products we still use might be a little butter or salad dressing.
Why isn’t vegetarianism getting more “traction” in the energy descent community? I understand that Richard Heinberg is vegetarian, but never talks about it publicly. James Kunstler was vegan, but apparently gave up on it about a year ago.
I don’t know why vegetarianism is not more popular. It’s a personal thing and I don’t like to argue about it. We just enjoy feeling satiated and extremely healthy and never sick . . . all with about half our food grown on our farm. I’m especially interested in winter wheat and should be planting about 1/4 acre as this is being typed. This entire process, including threshing/winnowing, is done by solar-power and my own home-built machines. If people want to eat meat, or Paleo, or whatever, that’s their business. The health of Americans is a disaster encouraged by big agri-business and the health-care industry.
In chapter 2, you discuss your 1980 move to rural Maine to a 175 acre farm. What prompted this?
The farm is operated by solar-powered tractors. I have built and use three of them. Our personal move to Maine was specifically to break from the business world at a time (in the 1980s) when the threat of a nuclear holocaust seemed imminent. I was requested to transfer to Austria (right next to the iron curtain) by the company I worked for (AMF Head Ski Division). Instead, we moved to Maine to explore a simpler, less-hectic, self-sufficient life. We knew of the Nearings (Scott and Helen). As a matter of fact, I’ve lectured at their homestead and my wife and I spent the night in Helen’s bedroom.
You mentioned that your farm is operated with solar-powered tractors. Do you think that in the coming energy descent, solar-powered tractors are a better alternative than, say, mules, horses, or oxen?
Solar-powered traction is a better alternative than bio fuels or animal power. Animals for food or power must also be fed and nurtured. See a journal discussion of these topics on http://solarcarandtractor.com. A solar-electric future would be possible, only if we start immediately, reduce population, and carefully conserve (ration) liquid fossil fuels to support the solar powered future including non-energetic critical resources and BATTERY RECYCLING!
How much arable cropland do you think we should allocate to each person? You state that about 1/4 of an acre should feed one person; I take it this is on a vegan diet? Do we also need to allocate land for wood energy or things like that?
Each person needs about 1/4 acre of arable cropland to source 500 pounds (2000 kilocalories or 8,000 BTU per day) DRY weight of fuel-energy per year. This is just simple math and biology. Any thing less is idealized with no safety factor for crop, pest, or weather problems. ALSO, this 1/4 acre must be nearby for human labor and transportation. The nutrients, including human waste, MUST be returned to the same land, otherwise it’s not sustainable!
Who owns the land? Who provides the seeds? How is the land prepared and cultivated? And how do we do all this, someday, without fossil fuels? Wood energy for heat introduces a whole new set of problems—access, power for harvest processing, and shipping. We heat with wood so we know all the details, intimately. And, like food, the nutrients must be returned to their source. Otherwise, it’s game over, like Easter Island!
The political angle
In chapter 8, you quote Plato as saying that “Until philosophers are kings . . . cities will never have rest from their evils”. Are there any philosopher kings out there on the horizon?
I’m trying to get my complete story to the politicians, but it can only come from the ground up, especially with no funding. Hence (again) my humble “last hurrah” effort. I can only do so much. Besides, who would listen to me?
In chapter 1, you criticize the “Transition” movement and the move towards localization, saying that it’s not practical. In an ideal sustainable society, do you foresee that a strong national government can and should continue to exist?
Because of the complexity of our society, only a national area and leadership (and careful nurturing of remaining fossil fuels) will suffice along with voluntary population reduction.
How could a future sustainable society end the use of coal, the grazing of cows, and other activities which are lucrative for the individual, but destructive to the planet, both in terms of resource depletion and climate change? Tax it, prohibit it, or what?
Unfortunately, the end game will play out as individual survival, and profit at the expense of others takes precedence. Gas rationing would be an excellent start but unless masses of people hear and believe the WHOLE story including the taboo subject of population, we’re definitely doomed. Hence my humble effort to “say it like it is.”
Is oil depletion or climate change a bigger threat?
Oil depletion is a MUCH larger reality (not threat). In some parts of the country, climate change is favorable. In 34 years of farming in Maine, I see no difference in seasonal warming. The first and last frosts always average to about the same time.
In an ideal, sustainable society, what would education be like?
Preparation for local food supplies and exposing and exploring reality (including population reduction) for a post-carbon world.
Thanks for listening. It’s absolutely up to people like you to project these thoughts to a growing grass-roots audience. Lots of luck in an obese, unhealthy society mesmerized by TV, advertising, their cars and always (so far) available food. Your questions are excellent. Each deserves much more of an answer.