Our Greatest Flaw: A Response to Richard Manning’s ‘The Oil We Eat’

After reading Richard Manning’s article “‘The Oil We Eat’ Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq”, what struck me most was Manning’s claim that the green revolution is the worst thing to happen to the planet. I will argue that the green revolution itself is not the worst, as it stems from a much deeper and more pervasive flaw: humanity’s tendency to defy nature. Especially in the United States, we build in deserts and pipe water from distance reservoirs to grow green lawns where lush grasses are not meant to grow. We create fertility in dry, nutrient-poor soil through the generous application of fertilizers, erect cities in floodplains, construct dams, drain entire lakes, divert streams, and create entirely new water bodies. The human race has long prided itself in its ability to bend nature to its will. This, I believe, is its greatest mistake.

It is time to stop testing the limits of our ability to defy nature. We know we can do it. We’ve already proven our ingenuity. The question is not whether or not we can, but whether or not we should. As unappealing as it may initially seem, it is time to work with nature instead of against it. After all, we are guests on this planet, and as guests we are obligated to maintain the health of the environment. But even if you don’t buy in to the inherent value of the natural world, there are cold, hard facts that point to the necessity for us in the United States to cut back. Manning writes that the return on investment for oil in 2004 was only 10 barrels of oil for every barrel invested, whereas it was 100 barrels for every barrel invested in the 1940’s. He also references Dave Pimental, a well-known energy expert, who says that the world would run out of oil in about seven years if the world population were to adopt the diet of the United States today. If what Manning and Pimental say are true, it is fragrantly clear that United States agriculture cannot continue on its current path, nor should our agricultural system be replicated elsewhere in the world.

Fortunately, finding our way back to nature doesn’t have to be difficult. We put much more effort into our agricultural system than is necessary. What surprises me the most is the amount of calories of fossil fuel energy we put into each calorie of food we produce. For example, Manning argues that it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of processed food energy produced, thirty-five calories of fossil fuel energy to make a calorie of grain-fed beef, and sixty-eight calories of fossil fuel energy to make one calorie of grain-fed pork. By producing crops and raising livestock naturally, we would save effort, energy, money, water, and chemicals, as well as prevent environmental damage and public safety hazards caused by nutrient and chemical runoff and contamination. The biggest hurdle is our political system, which subsidizes the current agricultural system and promotes its expansion. However, taking action at the individual level can act as a crucial first step toward changing things on a greater scale. By making simple changes such as eating less processed food, eating in season, buying local, gardening at home, and choosing grass-fed meat, we can eat healthier foods for much less effort and environmental cost.

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