Is our future our past?


At ten months, Chock the ox is already earning his keep around the farm. Photo: Steven French Family.

If there’s one thing most post peak oil commentators have given too little consideration to it’s how goods will be moved and how farms will function in our scary and fast approaching future.

Sure there’s the fraternity that talk about bicycles and walking and they’re on the right track, particularly if you’re lucky or wise enough to reside in a city or village.

However a means of energy or transport that doesn’t involve some form of technical reliance such as electric cars, high speed rail, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels or waver power, seems to be strangely missing from the dialogue. Certainly low-tech conveyances such as barges and sailing ships occasionally get a mention, and rightly so. But when the blindingly obvious is mentioned eyes often glaze over.


The one thing that’s almost always overlooked is using animals for transport and farm work.

Pretty much until the early 1900s it was animal power that kept civilization going. Yet today, a little over a half century since many rural people still used animal power, using animals to produce actual horsepower seems unimaginable.

Yet, a snapshot of 1900 could be a view of our future.

Back to the future

I’m lucky enough to live on the island of Tasmania, one of the seven states of Australia.

Much of Tasmania is highly fertile and we have a great climate. Although Tasmania may seem remote, our farmers have always been as keen to modernize in ways akin to our farming cousins in the US. The widespread adoption of tractors for farming happened here around the time of World War II.

But the time that I really want to focus on is the 1930s, when my parents were growing up and most farmers still relied on horses. The maternal side of my family farmed only a couple of miles away. Both families’ lifestyles and farming methods were similar and would have been typical of almost everyone who worked the land in those days. They had:

  • No electricity
  • No telephone
  • No internal combustion engine on the property

My dad’s parents did have a car but my mother’s family never drove. Nan and Grandpa never had a driver’s license even though they farmed another property a fifteen minute bike ride away.

A good living

The point is that they enjoyed a good standard of living, certainly by the standards of the 1930s but also, I suspect, by today’s standards. There was a vibrant social life centered around the little township of Whitemore, with several sporting teams and social functions usually held two or three nights a week. These people were not country yokels by any means. They were articulate and well traveled. Their farms were highly productive. And they used virtually no petroleum.

Yes, they had a little kerosene for their lanterns, and maybe grease and oil were used to lubricate moving parts on the horse-drawn equipment. But their use of petroleum was pretty much nonexistent compared with today.

There was a train-line not too far away and the children rode their bikes to the station to catch a steam-train to high school, a 45 minute trip. Nowadays the local children catch a bus for a one hour trip to their nearest high school. Much of the farm produce was delivered to the railway station by wagon where it was transported to markets.

Their water supply was pumped from the well thanks to a windmill and a hand pump.

Man and beast alone

Paddocks were plowed, worked and sown with horses. At harvest time horses pulled binders which tied the crops into sheaves. The sheaves were later forked onto horse drawn wagons and made into huge stacks not too far from the farmyard. During early winter a wood-fired traction engine (steam-engine) pulled a drum from farm to farm. A drum is a huge threshing machine which took 15 men to operate. It was belt-driven from the traction engine’s flywheel and it threshed the grain from the straw. These drums were still working around Tasmanian into the 1950s. They can still be seen in operation at some of our historic farming field days.

The point that I’m belaboring and repeating is that these farms used almost no petroleum, were highly productive, and farming families and laborers enjoyed a good standard of living.

Could we return to this style of living and farming? The answer is yes, but with some not-insurmountable difficulties.

Ramping up to face the effects of peak oil

First the number of heavy horses required would take decades to breed up. Also there are very few people around with the ability to work heavy horses. It’s a skill that I suspect not everyone has the ability to acquire. An ill trained or poorly driven horse is dangerous and it can take years to learn the skill necessary to work a horse properly.

The answer is oxen (we call them bullocks here in Australia). There’s no shortage of cattle and they are much more placid and easier to train than horses. Also their harness requirements are minimal and they are easy to feed and maintain. The only downside is that oxen are slower than the horse but hey, that’s not so bad, is it?

Up until the mid 1800s all animal power on farms was supplied pretty much by oxen, although the farmer may have had a light horse for riding or to pull a cart. In most American Western movies and TV shows horses are pulling the covered wagons that made up the wagon trains. In actuality, these covered wagons were mainly drawn by oxen. Possibly a slower but certainly a more sensible option, ox could pretty much live off the land they were passing through and didn’t suffer from many off the health issues of the horse.

Could oxen save the day? Quite possibly. Cuban President Raul Castro recently called for ox to be used as beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.

Ramping up food production – conserving energy – a cash strapped economy – falling oil supply? Sounds familiar? How long before a leader of the western world pleads for a solution to the same problems? Or have they already but are looking in the wrong direction?

–Steven French for Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Thanks for sharing. It is hard to find people who have direct experience with non-petroleum living anymore.

    There is another step which may be our future, though, and that is human power. The concept that everything is here to serve us is reflected in another article on T.Voice today (“The PerCapitas”). When we ask what our future is going to be, we need to ask what we are going to be giving to it. Humans have a unique mental capacity to solve problems, but the problems we mostly work on are ones we create ourselves, rather than working to contribute to helping the natural world adapt to random changes. Successful, long-lived human cultures have been the ones that worked with the natural world and became an integral part of maintaining it, rather than harvesting it (“The opposite of consumption is not frugality, it is generosity”..Raj Patel).
    Chock contributes to the farm, but what is the farm contributing to the land? I assume you are thinking of this already. Does the farm’s existence make the land more diverse than it would be without it? Does it inspire people to think more about the lands future than their comfort?
    These are the types of questions your writing will be bringing to other farms, including mine.
    Thank you.

  2. says

    Thanks for that Steven – I found it a good insight to the problems we sortly will face. A random correspondent of mine says that here in Hungary here is already a big shift back to using horses for small scale agriculture.

  3. says

    Great sentiments Steve, but unfortunately the world is growing at a fast pace. The human need is that of want, and that the more that we have, the more that we want. There is always a price. Life has changed forever. Sadly, we can never go back.No longer do we live in a cocoon. The only thing that we do know is that life on earth will self destruct. The only question is when?

  4. says

    This is a very helpful article that targets an important facet of possible survival in a post-climate-apocalyptic world. Traditional methods of farming will be essential, but so will hosts of other skills. We will need farmers, weavers, coopers, wheel and cart-wrights, and plenty of other talents that have largely gone unlearned outside of mechanized operations. We will also have to be organized for mutual defense. Tasmania may be an ideal location, but much of the modern world will be doomed to mutual destruction through war and famine. It’s not an appealing future to contemplate, but the prepared and skilled will certainly have the best chances.

  5. says

    Great article Steve, very thought provoking, Congratulations.

    The 7 Deadly Sins, Pride/Envy/Anger/Sloth/Greed/Gluttony and Lust are all being played out on the world stage and we are all practising some of it daily.
    That is what we have to come to terms with.

    I think people need to remain positive, forget the doom and gloom and work toward a better future for their families and people around them as you demonstrate.

    I wish I were in your boots mate!,


  6. Gail from Tasmania says

    How lucky am I – having had the privilege to share the reality that is the French family life. Fruits, meats, vegetables – all on site. Relaxing, sitting under an oak tree with fresh air from the Western Tiers wafting the aromas of fresh mown grass and lunch to come! Sounds of chickens and sheep – and plays with a very friendly sheep dog who is more than happy to be distracted from his working world. There is a combination of simplicity and responsibility – we all belong and we all make a difference. Hopefully one as positive as our oxen – no greed, no demands – just an honest days work that contributes – to us and the greater good!

  7. Sunny says

    Lovely story, Steven. Maybe someday we can add this label to our food along with organic and locally farmed: “sustainably farmed with oxen.”

  8. says

    We will go kicking and screaming down the path to the new Middle Ages as fossil fuels desert us. With the decline of available energy, those of most of us who have sat at the top of the energy pyramid will become the new peasants. With the popular view of the Middle Ages as a brutal and dirty time filled with famine and disease and at the mercy of armed overlords. We cringe at the thought.

    With great sadness, we must recognize the direct connection between present day population levels and the use of fossil fuels in food production, medical procedures, medicines and hygiene. With the fall in fossil fuel availability there will be a reduction in population. Population soared with the industrial revolution and the development of industrial, fossil fuel based agriculture. It cannot be sustained.
    From: The New Middle Ages

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