solloway -  Archive: Dan Keinan - July 8 2011
Solloway in 2007. Her research is helping prepare for peak oil. Photo by Archive: Dan Keinan
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Eliyahu Hershkowitz
David Schutt holding a plant. He is preparing for the day when oil runs out. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkowitz

The neo-liberal global economic system is on its deathbed, and Israel may soon have to provide for all of its own food and fuel needs, instead of trading for them with other countries, says a senior Israel agronomist. Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura says that the main cause for the collapse of international markets and subsequent retooling of Israeli industry to produce almost all necessities locally will be the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels.

"The idea that everybody's going to produce specialties, and them fly them around all over the world, that's going to be history," Solowey insists. "Raising vegetables and shipping them to places that are up to their eyeballs in water doesn't make any sense. We are selling our water cheaply to the Dutch, who are drowning," she says, referring to the large amounts of water necessary to grow vegetables, which are then exported. "The Dutch have to put up greenhouses, and we have to stop selling them peppers."

"That means that our production has to be geared up to be able to do the things that we can do for ourselves," she says. Solowey's scientific work is intended to prepare Israeli agriculture for this scenario. She researches and develops uses for indigenous perennials that require very little in the way of water; in other words, plants that survive and thrive in Israel's semi-arid environment, without industrial irrigation, chemical fertilizers, or other intense forms of human intervention.

Solowey is part of a small but growing number of Israelis who are preparing for what energy experts call 'peak oil': the point at which global demand for petroleum permanently outstrips global supply. While most modern citizens assume that scientists will soon discover or develop other alternative sources of energy to replace the planet's rapidly-depleting supply of fossil fuels, 'peakers' are firmly convinced that it's highly unlikely they'll do so in time.

Many peakers also believe that the end of the oil era will trigger significant declines, not only in global trade, but in technological levels of operation across whole societies. "What's going to happen is a general unwinding of the progress of man during the industrial revolution," says David Schutt, another Anglo-Israeli who edited Solowey's most recent book, 'Growing Bread on Trees', and is also concerned with preparing for the post-peak oil era. "We're not going to go back to the way life was in 1869, before oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania, and Baku, Azerbaijan in that same year. Were not going to go back to that time, because none of us know how to live that way anymore!"

David, 54, says he has spent decades of his life learning how to produce many of the products that he believes will be far less easily attainable in the economy to come, like steel. "What if you don't have a forge? What if you didn't look ahead and you didn't get some books on how to make a forge, or how to make charcoals so that you can fire your forge? Or how to make tools? Or how to test the metal to see what the hardness is?" he says. "What if you didn't do that? Then you wouldn't know how to do it." Schutt says that he has all the skills and tools necessary to build a forge.

Schutt is preparing for peak oil with the help of his wife Lorrie and son Michael, who also lives with his family on Moshav Shokeda, in the northern Negev. He says he believes that running cars and tractors on fossil fuels will soon become unaffordable for the average Israeli, so he plans to acquire donkeys to pull weight. "Here's the problem: there aren't a lot of donkeys laying around. You can't just go down to the donkey store and say, 'Hey, I'd like to have a couple of donkeys,'" says Schutt. "There aren't any donkey stores! So what are you going to do? If you're thinking ahead, you think, 'Well, I better get some donkeys.'"

Schutt and Solowey meet on occasion to share agricultural knowledge and bounce ideas off of each other. Schutt says that he made aliyah in part because he believes that Israelis stand a greater chance of surviving and thriving under peak oil, but he doesn't have high hopes that the government will prepare the population and reconfigure the national economy for 'energy descent', the global decline in fossil fuel consumption. Solowey, on the other hand, having immigrated to Israel decades earlier, says she remembers how Israelis banded together to persevere during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and believes that they can do so again.

Solowey says that a high percentage of Israelis still cultivate the generalized skill set that will be of great use in the near-to-middle future. "You don't know how many people I meet from outside, from my former stomping grounds in California, who don't know who to cook, who can't make a loaf of bread. Who can't cook a pot of beans, who think cooking is something you do when you shove something from the freezer into the microwave. I don't know what's going to happen to them," she says.

"But I know my sons that I brought up on kibbutz can make bread, and they can cook for themselves, and they can fix buttons, and change tires, and drive a tractor, and ride a horse, and on and on and on. And prune a tree. And plant a garden," says Solowey. "And there are a lot of young people who know how to do this." She says she believes that it will be difficult, but that Israel will pull through the peak oil crisis. "Yeah, I think we have a basis for a society that can not only feed itself, but clothe itself, and everything else, as well.

Schutt struggles with his desire to warn others of the formidable challenges that he sees approaching on the event horizon. "Many times, when I try to talk to people about this, they will say to me, 'Oh, but Dave, they'll come up with a solution', this mysterious 'they'," says Schutt. "I have really really bad news for people who think that," he adds. "There's no solution, if the problem is, 'How do we maintain a financial system, a life that requires constant growth?'"

"There is no solution. There's no way to solve it. Stop looking, calm yourself, relax, take it easy. This isn't bad news, it's just the news," says Schutt. "Now, that's not bad. Anything you make out of oil you can make out of plant materials. It may be a whole lot easier to make things out of pre-processed oil, but the chemicals, the molecules, came from plants, and we can grow the plants," he says. "Anything you need, any of the pharmaceuticals, things like that, we can make in other ways."