By guest contributor George Mobus and Tony Noerpel
George Mobus is an Associate Professor of Computing and Software Systems at the University of Washington, Tacoma. His research interests include biophysical economics, systems science, evolutionary, cognitive neuro-psychology, real-time, on-line, life-time learning algorithms, and autonomous agents in dynamic, nonstationary environments. His blog is http://questioneverything.typepad.com/ .
“Gentleman, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over.” – Herbert Hoover, responding to a delegation requesting a public works program to help speed the recovery, June 1930.
Put People to Work Doing Something Worthwhile
While the politicians wring their hands and cry about how awful the jobs situation is, and as they contemplate a possible stimulus package, real solutions will evade them if they are not able to understand the present or anticipate the future. They are as lost as the neoclassical economists are in believing this economic ‘situation’ is temporary and that we will eventually get back to growth and prosperity.
There is at least one physically feasible solution and it has been done before. From 1933 to 1942 the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC)  provided jobs for younger workers conserving natural resources (e.g. our national parks) in the US. The program was part of a general jobs creation program proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression to provide a stimulus to the economy and, so to speak, kill two birds with one stone. There was a great deal of resource management work that needed to be done, things like building access roads in national parks, and there were millions of unemployed young men who, without meaningful work, would have likely run amuck. It was, in fact, a brilliant idea. Coupling work that needed doing with labor that needed work. The same thing applies today. The problem is that the powers that be don’t grasp the nature of the work that needs to be done.
Over the next twenty years the US and the world will need to transition from an industrial agriculture model to one based on permaculture  and more organic, labor intensive approaches to growing food. Oil is going to decline, meaning that diesel fuels to run tractors and combines will become increasingly costly. And natural gas, meaning fertilizers, will also go into decline. The era of agribusiness is coming to a close sooner than anybody might have imagined. And we are not prepared for what follows.
The work that should be started soon will be labor intensive. We need, literally, millions of men and women reconditioning and building soils capable of sustaining permaculture  and local production/delivery of food. The Green Revolution has done a great deal to degrade our natural soils through the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides as well as irrigation . Soon, without these petroleum-derived inputs, it is likely that food yields will drop significantly. Some land areas currently under cultivation might even fail completely. As far as oil-based transportation is concerned, the world is going to grow very large once again, and very round, once long-distance hauling is no longer cost effective. Foods will have to be grown and consumed locally and the best alternative to industrial agriculture that might hope to produce sufficient calories and nutrients to keep huge numbers from starving is permaculture . That is where the jobs can be. And the sooner we get started developing our skills and knowledge of how to do this, the better off we will all be. Adapting to permaculture is how Cuba survived its “Special Period”, when they lost support from the Soviet Union in 1991 .
A Modern CCC for Soils Remediation
Make no bones about it. We are talking hard work, physical labor, just as was the case in 1933. In all likelihood, the initial bulk of work will go to young men and women who are physically capable of doing it. Nevertheless, the benefits and even rewards to society as a whole will be substantial.
The main task is to remediate the condition of our prime soils in regions that will be least affected by climate change. There are several regional models of what to expect in the next fifty to one hundred years (even in worst case scenarios) that suggest that there are potential areas of the US and Canada that might still be viable high yield areas even as the climate changes . In addition to remediation of soils there is the need to ensure the availability of water as needed. This may involve building new canals from regions of increased rainfall to regions that will have less, but are still viable for growing crops in other respects.
Agribusiness has relied so heavily on the elements of the so-called Green Revolution, fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides along with massive and complex delivery vehicles, all made from or run on fossil fuels. At the same time, the very use of these elements has depleted the natural capacities of regional soils. In some cases it has killed off soil microbes that are essential for natural ecosystems to survive and thrive . And that is the way we will need to understand our food production, as a natural, though assisted, ecosystem (the whole point of permaculture). Now that the soils have been so badly damaged it will take years of careful management to rebuild the natural capacities of these soils. And it won’t be done with tractors so much as with compost, shovels, and horse-drawn wagons and plows.
What we need is a modern version of the CCC dedicated to restoring key soil regions to natural productivity. The key is in the kinds of things that organic farmers have been practicing for years. It takes a lot of work and time to recreate organic productive soils from the sterile dust that passes for farmland under the current set of Green Revolution practices. We know how to do this, but it requires a tremendous amount of labor to accomplish.
Unlike the CCC, this new organization should not be limited to just young men. Young women would be every bit as qualified for most of the jobs. And as with any major labor force undertaking this one would also require management. There are quite a few highly qualified out-of-work (older) managers among the long-term unemployed. The management structure need not be complex. The same basic operations would be performed in distributed fashion all over the country. Setting up a basic operations management school to provide these people with the particulars of their new responsibilities would be pretty straight forward. The curriculum need not be complex since it is just adding on specific soil management operations management to supplement the management skills they already possess.
These are the jobs that need to be done now in order to assure some kind of food security for the greatest number of people as possible in the not-so-distant future. This is possible. It is feasible from a physical point of view. We still have the physical resources (organic wastes that could be turned into compost and used to remediate soils) needed to get the process rolling. We even have enough fossil fuels left to transport said resources if we put a priority on it.
Financing This Modern CCC
One of the greatest hurdles to any kind of jobs creation program right now is that financing it will simply drive the government into deeper debt unless we make necessary cuts in non-productive military spending. While there are strong political voices that object to investment in the future of America on grounds of fiscal responsibility, very few object to pork-barrel defense spending.
Investing in soil remediation and permaculture infrastructure, on the other hand will pay off in an energy constrained world. What we do now to improve the natural carrying capacity of soils and regions is going to have a great benefit in the future.
Pull the troops out of our foreign involvements, bring them back home and stop spending on the war on terrorism (always a ludicrous notion). The military men and women have learned discipline which will be needed to focus on the work at hand. Hire them as part of this jobs program. Otherwise, what are the alternatives? Continue throwing money down the war black hole and waste good lives? Or bring them home, redirect the money to fund this organization, but discharge the troops so they too would then be jobless?
One way or another, they will need to be integrated into this effort. Our food supply is the most important element of real homeland security.
As another, even more valuable benefit to young workers in such a program, we could provide a free education in the technical and principled basis of permaculture. Our future society will depend on permaculture for not just sustenance but for intellectual guidance in how to live in the natural world. Humans have long believed that they had risen above the natural world, had in fact come to dominate it in some sort of spiritualistic transcendency. But now those who can get past this hubris can see that we are as much a part of the natural order as any other creature in the Ecos. We need to learn to live within our boundaries in such a way that the majority of humans, in the future, can live to seek their self-actualization. That is something we did evolve to pursue. But we can only do so within the natural limitations of our biophysical world.
Schools of permaculture (systems science applied to real life!) could be set up near all of the local sites of soil remediation work. As part of their remuneration for working the soil, these workers would be able to attend evening classes in formal education structures dedicated to helping them understand the importance of the work that they are doing and preparing them for being leaders in the new world of permaculture-managed food supply. Instead of learning how to manage a for-profit business, they would be learning how to manage food production in cooperation with the natural world. They would learn ecology as well as basic biology and nutrition sciences. And they would learn it in the context of managing resources for human well being. In that not-so-distant future that will be the most important knowledge of all. The permaculture curriculum exists and several schools are already in operation .
What a proposal of this magnitude requires is presidential leadership, such as that provided by FDR in the Great Depression. One very good reason it will need to be national in scope and concurrently ramped up around the country is that it won’t work to have pockets of permaculture communities, as is currently happening with the grass roots approach now being taken, surrounded by greater urban communities of hungry people. It could get dicey for the permaculture communities. We’re either all in this together or there won’t really be a future. Such a leader would have to fight off entrenched corporate interests, their lobbyists. This will be nearly impossible after the Supreme Court’s Scotus decision .
Where Does That Leave Us?
Reform and restoration of democracy, if it is to happen in the United States will have to be initiated at the local level. In 2000, Loudoun County had 200,000 acres of farm land. Just ten years later we only have 120,000 acres. We need to preserve what remains of our agricultural heritage. Currently, organic local farmers have a hard to competing with factory farms. This situation will obtain for sometime while the cost of fossil fuels remains low. Price signals prized by neo-classical economists are never sent on time. In order to transition from fossil fuels to alternatives, significant investment in infrastructure and resources, such as soils and fresh water supply, will need to be made while fossil fuels are still relatively inexpensive. The County could put unemployed and underemployed people to work while at the same time subsidizing our local farm operations with labor.
Another problem Loudoun County may face is the fall in home prices predicted by the Case-Shiller housing index . We expect home prices to continue to fall another 20 to 40 percent in the most likely scenario. But if we do not eliminate some of our structural economic problems such as our wasteful military spending then housing prices could fall even further. Many of our ten-acre Mcmansion homes will be underwater and foreclosed. This is prime agricultural land. The County could purchase these properties for pennies on the dollar and sell them to newly educated permaculturalists.
 David Montgomery, Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations, University of California Press, 2007.
 For more information about permaculture see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture . Permaculture is quite knowledge intensive following the principles of systems science.
 See: http://members.optusnet.com.au/~cohousing/cuba/hab9606/hab9606.htm, and http://www.permaculture.com.au/central/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=44:cuba-australia-permaculture-exchange&catid=1:latest&Itemid=65.