Tuesday, November 9, 2010


   Of the seven areas of knowledge of the Leibowitz Society, the first and most important is Agriculture.  Part of the challenge in trying to determine how to organize and store information is prioritizing what should be stored.  However, it goes without saying that if you can't eat, you're not going to be thinking about doing much of anything else.  The problem is that people often tend to overlook food production and the technical details that are involved in large-scale farming (with the intent of feeding a family or a community year in and year out).  Gardening is a valuable skill, but it's only one subset in the larger field of food production, storage and distribution. 

   One interesting statistic about the Great Depression that people throw about is the urban vs. rural population percentage and how much more of the world population was closer to food production sources than they are now.  What are people in the city going to do when there is no longer any food on the store shelves and what food is being brought into the city for trade is expensive and rare?  At the same time, are people in the rural areas going to be able to produce food without access to fertilizer, fuel for tractors, non-hybrid seeds and so on?  One of my favorite cautionary examples from the early Dark Ages is the starvation rate in community in southern France.  The area had once been a "breadbasket" area for the Roman Empire, yet within a generation, the various high-yield farming techniques had been forgotten and most deaths were from starvation. 

   In general,this section covers food production, preservation and preparation.  It also covers some related areas which are based on agriculture, such as soapmaking and leather tanning.  One point to bear in mind is that surplus food is what allows other functions of society, such as medicine, industrial production, and education, to exist.  The intent of the Leibowitz Society with regard to agricultre is to ensure that each member can feed not only themselves but also teach other people how to grow, store and prepare the food they need to survive.  This will ultimately result in stable communities and a chance to rebuild/renew civilization in a stable environment.

   Since this is the first of the seven content areas of the Leibowitz Society's information structure, and there will likely be some discussion about the content, I want to stress a couple of points.  The first is that the Leibowitz Society complies with all relevant laws.  I don't want to see anyone getting into any trouble over good intentions.  The second is that anyone using the information provided through the Society is on their own -- this really is "for informational purposes only."  Last, I expect and welcome discussion on these topics and points.  I have thought that the list of including topics will change based on input from learned readers and will probably change at some point even when it seems to be in its final form.  That said, here is the list of what I consider to be the important topics that need to be covered in the Leibowitz Society information hierarchy:

Plant Life Cycle
Animal Husbandry (broken into the various categories, such as poultry, cattle, rabbits, etc)
Herbs and Spices
Staple Crops
Farming Practices (old and modern)
Field Care and Crop Rotation (old and modern)
Food Preservation (salting, smoking, jerking)
Using Preserved Food
Preventing Food Poisoning
Basic Cooking (particularly "low tech" methods)
Advanced Cooking Techniques
Bread Leavening and Yeast
Beer Brewing (and cider)
Winemaking (and mead)
Distillation of Alcohol (medicinal and consumption)
Animal Byproduct Use (skinning, bones, fats)
Teas and Coffee
Recipes (creating and using)
Measurements in Food Preparation
Herbs and Spices


  1. Found your site through CFN. Lately I'm finding CFN to be too snide and nasty when what we need is thoughtful consideration of the challenges we're up against. We can make fun of the clueless all we want, but in the end, we're all going to have to work together to re-create a society that works, and your site is the first I've encountered that gives me some hope. Thank you!

  2. Lisa,

    Welcome! I appreciate the kind words and I'm glad that the Society is already beginning to serve the intended purpose. While I've never spoken with Bruce Clayton, I think it was very clear that his intent in writing Life After Doomsday (and particularly the section on the Leibowitz Project) was his own reaction to there being plenty of people who were able to articulate the danger of nuclear war and the need to prepare, but that few of them were doing much to consider the long-term issues related to survival and rebuilding. My concern with the viewpoints of the survival/preparedness movement has always been that they took a very short-term view of things (we'll have the nuclear war or economic collapse and things will be okay in a few years). At the same time, the "Doomers" also make valid points about the future of humanity, but tend to overlook that human society is still likely to rebuild and reform after a crash caused by resource depletion, albeit in a different form.

    In either case, we're still faced with a "what now?" after the dust settles, even if that settling takes a few hundred years or so. That said, we're all still clueless as to what's actually going to happen, when and how (even the so-called "gurus"). The best we can hope to do is try to prepare to ride it out and pick up the pieces.

    By the way, what is CFN? I'm not familiar with it.


  3. I just remembered -- CFN = Jim Kunstler's site (how I always think of it). I respect JHK's writing and thinking, but I would note he tends to come at the issue as more of a social critic than anything else.


  4. Permaculture principles will help immensely. The most direct way to understand permaculture is the following:
    Permaculture= earth care + people care + fair share

  5. Tom,

    I'm somewhat familiar with permaculture, as well as the pros and cons of it. What has always interested me in it is the potential for reducing the labor load on a small community, the potential for food production in the absence of readily fossil fuels, etc.

    I appreciate your suggestion on including it as a topic under Agriculture and would ask if you would be willing to put together a primer on permaculture. I haven't decided how long the topic entries for each part of the "Codex" should be, but I'm thinking around 10-20 pages, especially on a complex topic.

    I'm also wondering, while we're on the topic, if it would make sense to include the topic of organic gardening/farming or if the same principles could be folded into permaculture and some of the other topics listed above. (after all, I tend to think that large amounts of artificial fertilizer aren't going to be available!)


  6. Response to LIsa from Kona Reta, If you had not read CFN, would you have found this website? JHK has taught me so much with his THE LONG EMERGENCY, then his two fiction novels, especially WORLD MADE BY HAND, that I am preparing for a furture world made by hand, thanks to his work. I listen to his podcasts every Friday night and get much comfort from his very astute observations and learned and gathered intelligence. This mornings CFN is 'right on'. Have you read his books and listened to his podcasts? I do not appreciate your putting James Howard Kunstler down and I think this rash critic of him is unwarranted.
    Now it is out there for all to see. Do you really have the right to sit in judgement?

    To John, CFN can be found at www.kunslter.com
    To Leibowitz Society: Thank you so very much for putting this blog spot together.

  7. Reta,

    As I mentioned earlier, I think the issue that people have with JHK is that he has always positioned himself as a social critic first and foremost. This is a position which doesn't lend itself to being reserved about what one really thinks. In truth, the mistakes that have been made in the Western world in the last 115 or so years -- the wasted energy and squandered life -- are shocking and sobering. We're just getting to watch the latest round of it as the economic (and eventual social) collapse works itself out.

    If anything, the best criticism of him was one that would apply to a lot of people -- he tended to make date-specific predictions in a world which defines any attempt to scientifically categorize it, such as stating that the stock market would crash to 4000 (although, it did crash significantly). Even he recanted the practice of trying to make predictions some years ago. The simple truth is, we're trending downward over a long period of time and the fact is that we have up and down bumps, which are too-often latched onto by people as evidence that the overall commentary is wrong.

    As a clarification, the Leibowitz Society is an amalgamation of discussions and insight I've had from people over the years. I think the time is ripe for something like it and decided to get the ball rolling not too along ago. As interest grows, I'll probably a) move the content to a dedicated website and b) open up the posting process to people who are interested in contributing to the discussion with their own writings, once people express interest in doing so (which is why I post under the name "Leibowitz Society" and not "John", but sign my comments this way -- the idea is bigger than one person).


  8. In the post-petroleum, resource depleted future, we will need to produce food in farming systems that are designed to be highly productive almost without external inputs. Your list consists mostly of how-to-do-it manuals, but in the future, conventional methods of how to grow rabbits, say, or corn will be counterproductive. I suggest that your list needs to include content area devoted to agricultural meta-knowledge: How to design whole farming systems that are modeled on natural ecosystems, which are our best models of near zero-input production. It would provide systems thinking tools that capacitate us to design farms that produce rabbits or corn or whatever we need to grow, but with very low external inputs.

    It is true that such thinking is often implicit in the most sustainable pre-industrial models of agriculture, some of which persist today on the periphery of the industrial world. It is also implicit in permaculture, and to some extent in the best of agriculture resulting from the organic farming movement, in which I have participated as a farmer/educator for 25 years. But a formal scientific discipline and its knowledge repository would be much more effective. Fortunately the last century has seen the rise of such a discipline, systems ecology and its relevant offshoot for our purposes, agroecology. Grounded in an understanding of how natural ecosystems work, agroecology as its best is a set of thinking tools that will be essential in a world where we must achieve high productivity without the crutch of fossil fuels and other depleted resources.

    An example of agroecological design to feed a county population in the energy descent is the series of six papers, Visioning County Agriculture, posted at my website, http://karlnorth.com/

    Karl North - Northland Sheep Dairy, Freetown, New York USA http://karlnorth.com/
    "Pueblo que canta no morira" - Cuban saying
    "They only call it class warfare when we fight back" - Anon.
    "My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet-plane. His son will ride a camel." —Saudi saying

  9. John,

    You mentioned you are familiar with the "cons" of Permaculture. I've been studying Permaculture for a couple of years now and have yet to find any disadvantages. In an energy constrained future, I cannot think of a better design system that scales from one household to a city of 300,000 (the biggest size any individual city needs to be).
    For probably the best primer available for Permaculture, just link to http://holmgren.com.au/DLFiles/PDFs/Essence_of_PC_eBook.pdf

    David Holmgren is one of the two guys who originated all the Permaculture theory and practical application here in Australia in the 1970s. Bill Mollison is the other guy, who has been more prominent through the 80s until the late 90s. David, by virtue of being much younger than Bill, has definitely taken the mantle in the 21st century and is actively applying Permaculture principles to paint future scenarios.
    He has a Permaculture suburban retrofit system that will be of immense value to people in the US, Australia, South Africa - anywhere that the suburban living arrangement has become the dominant built form.

    My family has embraced Permaculture as our design methodology for our own future. We've sold our suburban McMansion and bought 50 acres in the high rainfall growing hinterland in the high country surrounding the capital city of Adelaide in South Australia. We're implementing integrated vegetable, fruit, nut, grain and wood production with livestock to assist management. We've got a good aquaculture area, chickens will do a lot of the vege garden prep work, geese will maintain orchard hygiene and eventually Clydesdale horses will provide power.

    It's hard work physically, but very satisfying. As to your question about organic growing being a subset of Permaculture, yes that is the case. The "Organic" label refers to a method of producing food using natural inputs and non GM seed stock. It is concerned with the "what". The "Permaculture" label stands for Permanent Agriculture, or these days, Permanent Culture, and is a design and operation system for living, including Organic production of all foods. It is concerned with the "how", "why" "what" "where" and "when". Love the site! Much more positive than Kunstler, but that's ok too. I love Jim's no holds barred commentary.

  10. Karl and Nathan,

    I greatly appreciate the input on permaculture. Based on what you guys and Tom have said, I'm planning on revising the Agriculture content area and including permaculture in these categories.

    While some of the criticisms of permaculture seem to be spurious (the notion that introducing foreign species is going to cause problems -- there are already plenty of invasive foreign species in the United States now due to short-sighted attempts to do things like control erosion by introducing Chinese honeysuckle), one valid criticism I've seen is that the productivity of a permaculture system may not be as high as a piece of land could potentially offer, due to more emphasis on S-type strategists than R-type strategists. Assuming a fast enough crash, with lots of mouths to feed, this could be a serious issue. With a slow, receding crash, probably less of one. You mention that permaculture is "hard work," but I'm somewhat familiar with pre-industrial farming practices and don't imagine that any pre/post-industrial agriculture qualifies as easy. :)

    I'd be curious to hear your insights on how fast a permaculture system could be ramped up. I would also like you guys to moderate a permaculture sub-forum on the Leibowitz Society website and forum once it opens, if you don't mind.

    Unfortunately, I grew up around hippies and "back to the landers" before permaculture become a defined and popular method of food production (having a Kubota tractor was something of a holy grail for the homestead/organic farm). At some point, I should go visit some permaculture "farms" and see what I've been missing.

    Finally, I appreciate the positive comments about the blog and the knowledge that people are finding it to be a source of hope.


  11. What I will say here about the issue of invasives may seem picky, but it is not because it points up a fundamental flaw in how we think about any intervention into the complex, systemic world in which we live.

    The flaw running through the whole discourse about invasives is the tendency to see them too simplistically, and, in particular, in a short time frame. In the longer, holistic view, all species are historically invasives, including humans. As my current bumper sticker says in protest against the wall at the US/Mexican border, "We are all resident aliens". In fact, any innovation or other intervention in a complex system (like a Kubota tractor) is initially an invasive.

    While it is true that, driven by temporary fossil energy, accelerated change has accelerated the spread of species into new environments, to approach the issue holistically we need to ask, What is it about the invasive that is counterproductive? Often it is not a quality inherent in the "invasive", but how fast the system is forced to adapt. If the ecosystem (or its management team) has time to adapt, to develop counterbalancing forces, a new entry may not destabilize it, and may contribute positive functions in the sense of moving the whole toward our management goals.

    For example. Rats are usually seen as an unmitigated evil invasive that, at their worst brought the plagues that decimated the urban societies of medieval Europe. But the rat population on my farm is kept under control by farm dogs and barn cats. The dogs and cats provide other positive services on the farm, and the rats support the dog and cat population by adding essential animal protein to their diets. So, are the rats really "invasives"?